By Ken Yates
For nine days in August, I had the opportunity to conduct a pastors’ conference in Kenya. On the weekends, I was able to speak in three different churches. On one Saturday, I led a Bible study in which various smaller studies came together to discuss the parables of Christ.
As you might expect, all these activities were learning experiences. When you speak in a new place, in a different culture, and with people in different spiritual conditions, you never know how things will turn out. At the pastors’ conference, those in attendance were in positions of authority in their churches. They had strong traditional beliefs. It is safe to say that pretty much all of them were opposed to a message of grace. These pastors were convinced that eternal salvation could only be obtained with much effort and by continuing in that effort until death. Since I was teaching that eternal salvation was completely free through faith in Christ alone and could not be lost, I was challenging their long-held beliefs. Adopting what I was saying would also be risky on their part. To do so may cost them their positions in their churches.
The Bible study was a completely different group. They were people who had been exposed to grace teaching. They were laymen, and they understood that eternal salvation was by God’s grace through faith. They had broken free from the bondage of trying to earn eternal life. They wanted more teaching and wanted to examine what the Lord had to say about following Him after they knew they had eternal life.
Speaking at new churches involves addressing an unknown audience. Where were they in their spiritual lives? Maybe some had heard and believed in the message of grace. Based upon my experience in Kenya, however, it was almost a certainty that most had not. This was confirmed by my conversations with a Free Grace couple who are from that country. The view of the gospel reflected in the beliefs of the pastors at the conference was almost universally held by those in the pews.
What lessons were learned in these various situations? Certainly, I could look at each group and conclude there were lessons unique to each one. If the Lord gives me another opportunity to take another trip, it is likely that I would do some things differently and some things the same in each case.
But there was one overarching lesson I learned in dealing with the pastors, new believers wanting to study the Bible more in depth, and the laymen in the pew: many of us need to be much more grateful than we are.
It is safe to say that I was most frustrated with those at the pastors’ conference, at least at first. To observe how legalistic they were and to know that they taught their people such things could easily make a person angry. They made it clear that if a person did not tithe, the person was not saved. Anyone who committed suicide would go to hell. Many taught those in the pew that if they had high blood pressure or diabetes, it was because they had opened themselves up to demon possession. They constantly instilled fear in their people about the prospect of going to hell if they didn’t follow a long, arbitrary list of things they needed to do or avoid.
My first reaction was to scream, “What is wrong with you?!” After much reflection, however, my attitude changed dramatically. At the end of the week, many in attendance professed that they had been teaching horrible theology and now understood the gospel of grace.
Looking at the group, I found it impossible not to feel gratitude toward God. These leaders were bound by a religious tradition that had enslaved them. They knew no other option. Yes, they had the Scriptures and could have searched them out and seen that they were wrong. But how many of us have had wonderful Bible teachers who helped us when we struggled with legalism and the constant fear of going to hell? They did not have such benefits in their lives. Most of us did not grow up in a culture that supported such things at every turn. I am so grateful to the Free Grace community for all the help they have given me through the years. I know almost all the readers can say the same.
It was even easier to feel gratitude when I considered the new believers who traveled to the Bible study. Almost everyone who travels any distance in Kenya does so by public transportation. This usually involves taking a seat on a very crowded bus. To get to the study, some traveled for hours. The study lasted for four hours. Then they would reverse the trip and travel for hours to get back home. For some, then, hearing teachings on the parables of the Lord involved an eight-to-ten-hour commitment.
We met in a church in the countryside. It had no heat or air conditioning. There was no running water. The floor was a dirt one. The church had no windows. There were openings near the roof, where the metal walls did not reach all the way to the top. That is where most of the light came from. As I recall, there was a single light bulb in the front of the church. The people used outhouses that were located about 30 yards from the building. As you might guess, the seats were not the comfortable padded pews we are used to in the United States. They consisted of plastic chairs, like the ones we buy at Walmart.
It was hard to relate to what these people were doing. They had been exposed to the Free Grace message before I arrived. They knew it was different from what they were hearing in the churches in their country. But these people did not have the vast number of resources we have to learn from great Free Grace teachers from the past and present through their books or online. They had never attended a GES conference. They made a commitment to come hear me, not knowing anything about me, other than that they had heard I would tell them more about grace. You really have to be impressed with their attitude.
Would I have made that commitment? Would you? It is impossible to tell, because none of us have ever found ourselves in their situation. My wife assures me I am a spoiled baby, so maybe I wouldn’t have. I admit, I like my comfort. I like the hot coffee and donuts provided to those who attend church. I like the comfortable seating I am used to, and the thought of riding a cramped bus seated next to a bunch of strangers for a couple of hours each way to attend a Bible study is not appealing at all. I really like flushing toilets as well.
I am really going to ask the Lord to make me much more grateful for all the comforts He has given me.
LAYMEN IN THE PEW
All three of the churches in which I spoke would be unacceptable by American standards. I can’t imagine anyone attending any of them because of their primitive nature. Two were basically the same as the building in which I conducted the Bible study. The third, however, made the other two almost look like cathedrals.
It was in the slums of the capital city. A river of open sewage ran in front of the door. The building was a little bigger than a large lawnmower shed. It had no windows at all, even at the top. Most of the light came from the open door in which we entered. There was a communal bathroom in an adjacent shed, but it was not usable.
Based upon the pastors I had met in the conference earlier that week, I knew what kind of teaching they had been exposed to their whole lives. They lived in abject poverty. Each week they returned, hoping to earn their way to heaven somehow. If they could just work hard enough and expel the demons that were prevalent in their lives, maybe they would have a better existence in the world to come.
The pastor of this small church had attended the conference and asked me to teach on grace, even though he had not taught such doctrine to his congregation in the past. I spoke for roughly an hour and then sat down. The people understood English, but we also had a translator who spoke Swahili, since they were more comfortable with that language. It was hard to judge how they received the message.
After the sermon, the pastor got up and spoke in Swahili to the congregation. He then turned to me and asked if I would preach another sermon on this topic. The people wanted to hear more and would stay.
That was weird. I had not prepared another message. But more to the point, I am pretty sure I had never been asked to give a second sermon in a church after preaching for an hour. In my culture, we would be wondering what the line would be like at our favorite restaurants if we didn’t start moving that way. I am also confident that if I tried to speak for a second hour, somebody would pull me aside and point out that it would not be a good idea.
Why did this small group of 30 or 40 people ask me to speak again? Maybe they had nothing else to do. They were not going back home to watch the NFL on TV. They couldn’t afford to go out to a restaurant. Maybe I was the only entertainment they had.
But I like to think it was something else. I am pretty sure it was, at least for some of them. They were new to the message of grace. The Spirit of God was using the Scriptures to drive home a message that would set them free. They could have assurance of eternal life. That is why they would sit for another hour in that stuffy shed and listen to what a stranger from America was telling them.
Once again, it was impossible for me to relate to their situation. But I hope that I am a little less inclined to complain about things that inconvenience me and be much more grateful for what I have.
It is impossible, of course, to know how each pastor, Bible study attendee, and church member responded to what he heard. But there is certainly a lesson here for all of us.
Paul told the church at Thessalonica that they were to give thanks in everything (1 Thess 5:18). I cannot think of a group of people who should be more thankful than Free Grace folks in our country. We have heard the truth of grace. Sound Biblical teaching is at our fingertips. We can access it with all the comforts that most people in history could not even imagine. Most people in the world today cannot either. May we realize this is the case and be the most grateful people on earth.
Ken Yates is a retired Army chaplain (Lt. Col). He has many theological degrees, including a Ph.D. from D.T.S. in New Testament. He leads the GES international ministry, is the cohost of the daily podcast, and assists Bob in all aspects of the GES ministry. He and his wife, Pam, live in Columbia, SC.