Are you strong on vocalizing but weak on meditation? Strong on power and authority but weak on submission and humility?

When Victor Nakah first became a Christian at the age of 17, one of the first things he did was begin to repair his relationship with his siblings.

‘My relationship with my sister in particular was horrible. I was always kicking her and beating her up. It became very clear that if Christianity is what I sought, my relationship with her would have to change.’

When his sister came home from boarding school, she was so astonished by his changed behavior that she cried, ‘What happened to you?’

That was many years ago. Today Victor is the international director for sub-Saharan Africa with Mission to the World, the mission sending agency of the Presbyterian Church of America, and the co-chair of the Lausanne Movement’s Theology Working Group.

On 5 November 2021, Victor was a panelist for the virtual webinar, ‘The Good News in a World of Fake News, Part 2: Being Shaped by the Story’. Moderated by Conrad Mbewe and joined by Ruth Padilla DeBorst, Ajith Fernando, and leaders from Madagascar and Pakistan, these senior leaders spoke about how knowing the gospel should shape and change our lives—and the struggle that often comes in the process. Their words speak for all of us.

Panelists:

Victor Nakah, Co-Chair of the Lausanne Theology Working Group, Zimbabwe
Ruth Padilla DeBorst (Dean of Comunidad de Estudios Teológicos Interdisciplinarios, Costa Rica)
Ajith Fernando (Teaching Director, Youth for Christ, Sri Lanka)

Moderator:

Conrad Mbewe (Pastor of Kabwata Baptist Church, Zambia)


Editor’s Note: Below is an edited excerpt from the webinar.

To what extent are those who profess to be Christian in your part of the world adopting or not adopting a way of life that accords with the gospel?

Victor: The church in Africa is still being described as one mile wide and one inch deep. There’s still too many corners of our lives where the gospel is not real, where the gospel has not touched. A friend said the other day, ‘Let’s talk about the gospel gap. You profess to be Christian and yet you don’t live like a Christian. You talk Christianese and yet your life has very little to show for the gospel you believe in.’ That’s worrisome for us as we look at Africa and the impact of the gospel and the change that’s expected for those who profess Jesus.

Ajith: In our part of the world, the Scriptures are viewed in a different way from a biblical Christian view. The Scriptures are seen as something to be defended, fought for—anyone who opposes it needs to be attacked. They keep the ritual things of Scripture, but don’t necessarily keep all the moral prescriptions in Scripture. For example, lying. People in Sri Lanka say every day ‘I won’t lie’, but then immediately start lying. One of the big challenges we have is developing a new attitude toward Scripture. They need to see Scriptural authority in practice. There’s a great need for people to see Scripture applied in day to day life. The best way to do this is through the discipleship of Scripture saturated conversation. Get scripture in through discussion, Bible study, and chatting in the discipling process.

Victor: My friend Femi Adeleye in one of his books [Preachers of a Different Gospel: A Pilgrim’s Reflections on Contemporary Trends in Christianity] talks about the spiritual state of Africa. It’s not all or nothing. We grow to become more and more like Christ, and yet the reality on the ground as he describes it is like this: ‘The African church is strong on Pentecost but weak on the cross. Strong on celebration but weak on contemplation. Strong on rejoicing but weak on reflection. Strong on vocalizing but weak on meditation. Strong on power and authority but weak on submission and humility. Strong on the exterior forms of spirituality but weak on inner renewal. Strong on the gifts of the spirit but weak on the fruit of the spirit. [. . .] Gullible on prosperity but frugal on integrity. Gullible on possessing but frugal on renouncing. Strong on gratification but weak on self-sacrifice.’ That’s the challenge that we face, when we look at those who profess to be Christians and how we live our lives on a day to day basis.

Conrad: I can only say ouch.

How is the gospel important not only for coming to the Christian faith but for living the Christian life?

Ruth: The gospel has to do with every single dimension of life. It is not something that only addresses individual concerns or the afterlife or my personal piety and relationship to God. It has to do with every corner of my life—with the way I manage my money, the way I relate to my spouse, how I’m a part of society at large. There is no corner of life that is not supposed to be subject to Jesus’ life and lordship.

Victor: The gospel forms the church, feeds the church, nourishes the church, changes the church. The gospel changes us—how we think about ourselves and the world. The gospel demands ethical transformation that can be seen—as Conrad puts it, ‘the gospel that walks on two feet’. Ethical transformation makes a difference in the lives of others. That’s why the motifs of salt and light are so powerful. Both describe the change the gospel brings about. But it also describes the societal impact that is expected of those who have come to know Jesus. I want a gospel that goes to the market. I want a gospel that goes to the circus stadium. I want a gospel that goes to the village and to the office. In other words, I want a gospel that speaks to every sphere of my life. You have to ask the question: how then shall I live?

What kind of lifestyle results from a distortion of the gospel? How does that end up happening?

Ruth: The problem is that we see ourselves embedded into the stories of success, progress, for me, for mine—rather than the story of the gospel, which is of a Lord who gives himself away, who doesn’t come to be served but to serve. The problem is that when we have a distorted gospel, and we believe these other ways of living, then we live according to those parameters, those expectations. And then our witness is not of the true gospel, it is of the fake gospels of a world that is actually countering the values of God’s reign. And so the type of lifestyle is one that will be just like those around us, that will be seeking my own prosperity or it will be just seeking to further my place in society, to go higher and to gain more publicity, invest in building up our image, rather than our coherence with the gospel, our following with Jesus.

How do we allow the gospel to challenge the way we live daily? The only way, as Ajith was putting it, is to be embedded in the gospel, reading Scripture, looking at Jesus constantly, so that we hold up the mirror and we can ask, How are you living? Are you living according to the good news of the gospel, or are you following other supposed gospels?

Some Christian leaders adopt lavish and expensive lifestyles. Why do they do so? Do you think this is consistent with the message of the gospel?

Ajith: As you look at history, many of the great heroes of the faith were not people who lived wealthy lifestyles. The prophets were representative of the poor. Jesus is a person who had no place to lay his head. Paul said we are poor, though we are making many rich. In the history of the church, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Wesley—these are all people who lived very simple lives. I’m not saying you can’t be Christian and be rich. But we have to bear in mind that a lot of the examples we have of Christian heroes are people who had very little in terms of earthly goods in the world. This should sober us.

Ruth: The question is also, ‘Why do these leaders adopt lavish lifestyles?’ I have heard directly from some leader saying, ‘I need to wear a very nice suit. I need to drive a very luxurious car, because it shows that I am being blessed by God. And that is the image I need to portray to the people in my congregation.’ The challenge with that is that this is absolutely inconsistent precisely with what Ajith just mentioned. We follow a Lord who had nowhere to rest his head, who prioritized caring for others above caring for self. So these lavish lifestyles are again more a demonstration of submission to the values of a consumer society where people are valued according to what they own and not to who they are, who they follow. As Christians we have to say no, our dignity is not resting on financially opulence, on lavishness. Our identity rests in our having been adopted into God’s people by God’s grace through Jesus Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. And it’s not these external things that determine our value.

At one time, WWJD became a popular phrase in evangelicalism. Is this the solution to how we can be shaped by the story?

Ajith: I must confess, I work for a youth organization, and I’m very happy when I see young people wearing the bracelets that say WWJD. In the Old Testament, symbols were very important and we can still use them in constructive ways. However, the issue is, ‘What DID Jesus do?’ I think that is the question that we have. Every time I read the gospels I’m challenged with new ideas of who Jesus was and what he did. This should be the quest of the church.

About 20 years ago I did a study on all the times the New Testament asks us to follow the example of Jesus. I found 29 specific references. Of those, 21 had to do with humility, servanthood, or suffering and perseverance. All had the theme of deprivation, of suffering. I think we need to look at Jesus with fresh eyes and say, ‘What do the gospels really tell us about Jesus?’ And then that will give us an answer to the prosperity theology idea. In the teaching and life of Jesus, blessedness, blessing, was something that is independent of worldly wealth and things like that. I would say the great question is, ‘What DID Jesus do?’

Being shaped by the gospel, how do we then relevantly and effectively communicate this good news to the world? Join us on 19 November for the third and final webinar in the series, ‘The Good News in a World of Fake News’. Register now.


Pray with Us

by Ruth Padilla DeBorst

Lord, you know our innermost being. You know the yearnings of our hearts and you know the way we live. We do have things to confess. We come before you with those things acknowledging that living in accordance with your will is something for which we depend on you. We depend on the work of your spirit in our lives, converting us daily into your children so that our life, our lifestyles, our values, our priorities, will reflect those of your reign and your justice. So Lord, forgive us. And we are grateful because in Christ you do make all things new. Renew us, we pray. Lead us into your ways so that the world may know you are the Lord, so that our witness may be one of integrity. May we reflect who you are in your world and be part of your work in your world as your witnesses. We pray through your Son, in confidence of the work of your Spirit, amen.

Sara Kyoungah White is the Communications Editor for the Lausanne Movement. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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