Dr. Francis Bola Akin-John, President Church Growth International Ministries in this interview with Church Times shares the vision of his ministry’s efforts to help pastors cure burn out in ministry through a project tagged Book of Life project. Below are excerpts:
What informed the vision of the Book of Life Project?
I listened to a lot of messages in the last few years and came to the painful conclusion that most of our messages are beside the point. What many pastors are preaching is not the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus asked us to preach. We are preaching several other corrupt versions of the true gospel in the Bible. That is why we are having low rate of genuine conversion in the country despite the fact that the churches are increasing astronomically. So I felt there is a need to do something about it. That is what informed the Book of life project. I also found out that many of those who preach the gospel have not gone through preaching training. If pulpit preachers go to good Bible colleges they will be exposed to the ABC of preaching. Unfortunately more than 80 percent of preachers in Nigeria have not been to good Bible schools.
You talked about cultural gospel. Can you give examples of such gospel?
It is the gospel that allows you to be a Christian and still worship smaller gods and attend to mundane things. It is the gospel that encourages the use of mantle, oil and water and all sorts alongside the message of Christ. It is the corrupted version of the gospel that brings in cultural elements to please the people. It is cultural in the sense that it is influenced by our culture. When we go to herbalists in the African culture they want us to bring something. We take something to them or they give us something after consultation. We have replicated that in the church today. We call it point of contact but in the real sense it is cultural gospel. Any gospel where the preacher ask you to bring something for God to hear you is tending towards cultural gospel.
What you are required to do as a believer is to believe in the finished work of Christ. We are supposed to believe that Jesus had died for us and he is able to meet us at the point of our needs. The gospel is about believing God and having complete faith in Jesus. On the contrary many pastors tend towards elements. You go to a preacher and he asks you to bring water oil or handkerchief. Any preacher who encourages use of oil, mantle and material elements as a routine is preaching cultural gospel.
But we call the use of these things point of contact. And it is very common?
Yes. That is the real fundamental issue. People go to the Bible and pick the example of Paul where aprons were taken out of his body to heal the sick. What Paul did was not the norm. It was just a one-off thing. It was not supposed to be an everyday thing. But now we have made that a tradition and a culture. We ask people to bring handkerchief on a regular basis. And the people are used to it. If you are not asking people to bring stuffs they are not happy. They love it so. I have gone to churches where people bring weird things like garden egg and all sorts, some bring vegetable to church as elements. It’s like the babalawo asking you to bring certain items that will aid your prayers. It was not like that before. But that was not the gospel we received from the beginning.
The gospel message is believe in the Lord Jesus and thou shall be saved. Apart from preaching the pure gospel of salvation we must also ensure solid teaching of the word. People need to understand the gospel in simple language and understand how to live above sin. We must be able to communicate the Bible in a way that it will be relevant. It’s quite sad that many pastors don’t teach they only preach. Preaching is shallow. It is motivational and it does not really get to the heart of the people. But teaching builds you and equips you to do things by yourself. In the last two decades many of our preachers would rather go for public speaking training. In public speaking you are exposed to speaking skills. You are taught not to mention the name of Jesus so you don’t offend the people you are talking to in the public. If you are to mention Jesus you will describe him as the greatest man that ever lived. In public speaking you don’t make an altar call. You are trained to express your opinion and not make affirmative statement. But a genuine preacher of the gospel must be authoritative and down-to-earth.
But do you think many churches will still have the kind of crowd they have if pastors preach the kind of gospel that does not appeal to their cultural yearnings?
They will still get the crowd if that is what they want even by preaching quality gospel. The word of God is enough to draw people to God. There are pastors who preach the undiluted message, who don’t lean to culture and don’t ask the people to bring material things for their prayers to be answered and yet get crowd. If you preach the gospel in its pure form you are putting God to task to promote His own work. But when you do public speaking you only tell people what they want to hear and not what they should hear. We see crowds in our gatherings but many of them are not in Christ. That is why we are doing the Book of life project.
What are the details of the project?
It’s a book project with about 200 messages format that the preacher can make use of. We discover that it is one thing to want to preach it is another thing to know how to prepare Bible truth. A preacher should not go dry. What we have done with the book of life project is to create building blocks for the messages preachers want to preach or desire to preach as they are being led by God.
But how does the Holy Ghost come in this arrangement if a preacher has to use a Bible teaching format?
We are not trying to replace the work of the Holy Spirit. You cannot substitute the power of the Holy Ghost in a preaching engagement. The preacher ought to understand that he has to pray and wait on God to receive what to preach. But the point we are making is that there is no how what we receive from the Holy Spirit will not be from the Bible. It would still be the Bible. What we have only done is to make the resources for preaching the gospel available and accessible. If God inspires a preacher to preach on the impact of prayer for instance the outline will give scriptures on the subject and also give a systemic outline of the message on the impact of prayers. That does not mean we are replacing the work of the Holy Spirit. The truth is that a spirit filled person will have to wait on God to receive unction on what he wants to preach. It takes away the extemporaneous way of teaching but allows the preacher to be guided in his presentation. The format is not a cut and dry thing. The pastor who uses it is expected to add to it and build on it. It is like the 40.000-message series of John Wesley. A lot of people have been blessed through those sermons because of the truth of the scripture in them. There are people who preach from Genesis to revelation and yet you can’t retell their message because they are not well presented. That is what we are guiding against with the Book of life project.
The other concern is that if you use such format how do you know what is suitable for one audience as against another?
That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says my word is spirit and life. They are meant to bring light to the people listening. The onus lies on the preacher to study and allow the Holy Spirit to guide him on what to preach. For instance I keep message outlines of all my messages and there are times the Holy Spirit would ask me to repeat a particular message. But such message will come in another dimension. The fact that you are preaching the same message does not mean you will repeat verbatim what you had preached before. It only means you are using the same guide. But the Holy Spirit can turn it round to make the message fresh. There are preachers who use their personal stories to preach and end up confusing their listeners the more because they are not well presented and sometimes they have no biblical basis. This should not be.
The book of life project is meant for teachers who really want to teach the Bible. There is nothing as powerful as teaching the Bible under the influence of the Holy Spirit. The Lord is the one converts souls. The pulpit is a big problem today because our preachers are not preaching the truth of the Bible. Most of what we are teaching today will not help Christianity in the next 30 years if Jesus tarries. Our pulpits are not helping the church to grow in the positive direction. We preach many other things without addressing faith in God. We don’t address living for God. We do not address character issues. That is why I am convinced that if we don’t repent and go back to the real gospel we are going to make a shipwreck of the Christian faith.
But how did we get here in the first place?
In the 70s till the early 90s we had great preachers who preached the undiluted gospel. But the pollution started when we wanted to be like the Americans and when we were trying to be like the world. The corruption of the gospel can be traced to our desire to be politically correct. We also long for physical results. We have heard preachers say only fools doubt proofs. But we know that we can have seeming good result which has no foundation in God. People do crooked things to get result. The real result which the Bible attests to is the transformation of life.
But people give testimonies about these elements you talked about and called cultural gospel. So why do you think it should be discarded?
It is working because God is a merciful God. It works because somehow the people put their faith in Jesus aside the elements. It is working because they are manifestations of gifts and not necessarily the presence of God. Sometimes the gift works yet the giver of the gift is not there. After Samson had backslidden he still performed great feats. Even Moses still experienced miracles while living in disobedience to God. I know a preacher who sleeps around but has the gift of interpretation of tongues. There are a lot of preachers who started with God well and are still manifesting the gifts. So that it works does not make it of God.
So what are your expectations with this Book of Life Project?
I am hoping to host about 300 pastors for a one-day seminar in September. Whoever registers and attends will get a free book. There will be teaching and preaching sessions. We will be giving out a book compilation of messages running to about 200 to make it easy for pastors to access resources for their messages. We hope that at the end of the day we will be able to raise preachers who will not suffer burn out. I believe the pastor must have a reservoir of Bible revelations. They should not be at the mercy of guest speakers, We have seen pastors who hold programmes and invite guest speakers to take the whole sessions, And this happens because of burn out and inability to know what to preach. Many invite guest speakers to their churches because they have run out of message. But this should not be. Our hope is that we will be able to stir up the minds of pastors to seek the face of God, study and present the gospel in a convincing and practical ways that will lead to genuine conversions.