joining the dots

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Loud and distorted: The danger of born-again Christianity

N.B. This is the third in a series of blog posts reflecting on, and evaluating, a Ugandan Pentecostal ‘crusade’. (Part 1, Part 2)

I had preached my first ‘open-air-evangelistic-sermon’, there had been a song and I was then asked to lead those who wanted to become ‘born-again’ in a prayer. I did. However, it appears I didn’t say the right words. After one Pastor thanked me for my prayer, another Pastor was called to do the prayer properly!

That got me thinking.

It appears I hadn’t said the magic words. Did that mean if the Pastor hadn’t got up and corrected my mistake people’s eternal destinies were in danger? Eek. Perhaps I need to start contacting a load of people I’ve prayed with in the UK – I might have got the words wrong when I prayed ‘conversion-prayers’ with them?!

This highlights the main issue I have with crusade-evangelism. Jesus told his disciples to make disciples (followers of Jesus); crusade-evangelism is all about getting people to say a prayer.

I’m not against the idea of being ‘born-again’. After all, it’s biblical (John 3:3). And, in Uganda, it’s certainly an idea that works well culturally and people can really identify with it (but more about that in the next blog post). I’m also relatively comfortable that a conversion-prayer can be the defining ‘born-again’ moment.  Although, I believe it’s more about a sincere heart and mind attitude, not about saying exactly the right words! (That said, I’m pleased in the UK much more emphasis is being placed today on journey rather than the moment.)

However, my central concern is that ‘born-again’ Christianity has the danger of being reductionist – it strips Christianity of its richness and depth. And, in the process it can easily miss the point of what being a Christian (i.e. a follower of Jesus) is all about.

The illustration I used in my sermon on Sunday morning went something like this…

Before Hannah and I came to Uganda we had to buy a plane ticket. That plane ticket enabled us to fly to Uganda. However, when we got to Uganda, imagine if we had just spent a year in the airport terminal? That would have been ridiculous. The point of buying the ticket and flying to Uganda was so that we could live in, and experience, Uganda. When someone says a ‘conversion-prayer’ it’s like buying an aeroplane ticket. This enables you to be ‘born-again’ – like an aeroplane flies you through the air; Jesus enables you to become a Christian. However, that’s not the end, that’s just the means to an end! We then shouldn’t just sit down and wait for Heaven. We now lead to live the life that Jesus wants us to live.

Too many Pentecostal crusades in Uganda just enable people to purchase a ticket. That’s it. Hundreds of people become ‘born-again’. But that’s the end of it.

The question that needs to be considered though is, “Why do so many people become ‘born-again’?”

I hope this doesn’t sound too cynical, but I don’t think it has much to do with God! Firstly, there’s a lot of hype, a particularly mood is created, and a lot of pressure is placed on people. (After the first crusade someone told me I could have got more people to come forwards if I had said slightly different words, in a slightly different way – that concerned me!) Secondly, there appears to be the attitude in rural Uganda of, “We might as well give it ago.” We’ve tried X, Y and Z, and those things haven’t really worked, so now let’s try this ‘born-again’ thing.

I knew I needed to snap myself of my cynicism!

So, I began to think of the missions I’ve been involved with in the UK. Missions that are based around the idea of people being on a journey towards God, mission that help people take baby-steps towards ‘conversion’. Missions that then help these new ‘converts’ take more steps as they become, in the words of Bill Hybels, ‘fully-devoted-followers-of-Christ’. Missions that cost A LOT of money! At the end of these mission a handful of people of people are following Christ. If you look at it like this (particularly in terms of investment of money), I suspect the Pentecostal crusades in Uganda might be more successful (and I’m very wary about using the word success!). I’m sure that more than a handful of the hundred or so people that ‘prayed the prayer’ last week were genuine, and more than a handful will become part of the new church in the village of Senda, and more than a handful will become ‘fully-devoted-followers-of-Christ”. And, when it comes to the many more handfuls that will probably drift away, well God knows, and that’s OK.

Perhaps I should be less critical of the Pentecostal approach to evangelism in Uganda? After all, I had to keep reminding myself that it was us in the West that taught Ugandan Christians all about ‘born-again’ Christianity and crusade-evangelism!

Post-script:
As I write this post I’ve just read the news that John Stott has died. He’s the pastor-theologian who helped take evangelical Christianity from obscurity into the mainstream, and in the process provided evangelicals with a holistic theology and a credible voice. I think he’d shared many of my concerns with this crusade. And I know that he’d have been able to write a much more eloquent blog post about it!

In his final book, ‘The Radical Disciple’, he sums up the state of Christianity in the world today as, “Growth without depth.” He goes on to quote one African church leader who explains, “the growth [of the church in Africa] is largely numerical…the church is without a strong biblical or theological foundation of her own.”

It is the issue of discipleship that has occupied me most since being in Uganda. It’s why I agreed to be part of this crusade programme, only if each day I could teach on issues relating to discipleship. Therefore, perhaps this is what God wants me to be doing? Yes, I might be way out of my comfort zone when it comes to ‘crusade-evangelism’, but these crusades are giving me a platform to teach rural churches about the importance of discipleship. (Is it possible that I’m both part of the problem and the solution?)

And, perhaps Ugandan Pentecostals could teach us in the UK a thing or two about evangelism?

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About Phil Green

By day I work for the Evangelical Alliance, by night I lead a small charity called a little bit of HOPE.

One comment on “Loud and distorted: The danger of born-again Christianity

  1. Pingback: Loud and distorted: The day I almost resigned from Christianity (again) « joining the dots

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This entry was posted on 28/07/2011 by in uganda and tagged , , , , , , , .

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