“I’m sorry,” I said for what must have been the tenth time that day. “I can’t easily translate that.”
My guest glared back at me, eyes aflame with anger. “Why ever not?” he snapped.
“The people here keep goats. They’ve probably never even seen a sheep. And they don’t have shepherds in the sense you mean. They send out their seven-year-olds as herd-boys, so the idea of a child laying down his life for his goats doesn’t really work.”
The Rev. Steven Stevens spat in disgust at my intransigence. I understood his anger. But did he have to show it in such a public way?
“I suppose I can’t talk about wolves or bears either?” he barked, daring me to deny him.
“The local people know about lions – they’re not dissimilar.”
“Bah.” Steven turned and walked back to the truck. He fished out a bottle of mineral water and poured it languorously down his sun-parched throat. I well remembered the same frustrations when I first arrived in this long-neglected corner of Africa. In some ways the culture was similar to that of Bible times. The people were also farmers and traders. But there were as many differences as there were similarities. It had taken me years to learn the language, sleeping in the remote villages, sharing food with the people, earning their respect, and coming to understand their way of life. Steven’s problem was that he wanted to leap past all that in a two-week overseas mission trip.
We nearly came to blows later that day when he wanted to retell some of the stories of Jesus on Lake Galilee ...
“They don’t know what a lake is,” I explained. “The closest thing would be a wide river.”
“Then say it’s like the sea!”
“But this is a land-locked country. They’ve never been anywhere near the ocean.”
Steven scowled menacingly. “These are Spirit-anointed, highly effective messages,” he hissed. “I have preached them all over the world and seen thousands saved. So don’t you go telling me that I can’t use them here.”
At that I gave up. I did my best to translate his words and expressions into the local language but it was obvious from the people’s frowns that the message just wasn’t getting across ...
“I’ve hit on the solution,” he announced. “We’re making the gospel too complicated. A five-year-old child can understand the message of salvation, so let’s pitch things at a simpler level.”
I knew what was coming next. It was the standard cop-out for frustrated evangelists eager to secure quick results.
“Brothers and sisters,” Steven boomed, “I come to you with a message of eternal life.”
I did my best to emulate his cadence and sheer volume but I knew my heart wasn’t in it.
“The Lord Jesus has sent me here,” he continued, “to offer you an opportunity to flee the perils of Hell and be assured of a blessed future in Heaven. All God asks is that you make your decision publicly, that everyone might know that you have chosen to follow Jesus. If you wish to accept the Lord Jesus, please come to the front and I will happily pray for you.”
To Steven’s great delight, every man, woman and child stepped forward. They didn’t really have a clue what he was going on about. Their culture had no understanding of Heaven or Hell – they thought that the spirits of the dead remained among the living. Neither were they entirely sure what it meant to follow Jesus. But they were more than happy to have a white man pray God’s blessings on them ...
The next seven days saw more of the same. I tried to dissuade Steven but he was hooked on the narcotic of mass conversion. Already he was preparing his reports, boasting of entire villages coming to the Lord. In the end it was a great relief to both of us when I waved goodbye at the airport.
Returning to the principal town in the area, I called for my ten evangelists. For nine months I have been working with these young men, schooling them in the Bible, teaching them how to communicate the gospel in their own culture - stressing that repentance and changed lives are just as important as faith. In a few weeks’ time I will send them out in pairs into the surrounding villages. And there, I have no doubt whatsoever, they will reap a genuine and lasting harvest.
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