Rev Dennis Pethers, Founder/international pioneer, The Rooftop, grew up in a family that never went to Church. So, he had no opportunity to listen to the gospel.
He soon became an atheist. But the tide turned when he encountered the book, Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. God opened his eyes. He became born again and has since committed his entire life to preach the gospel to the lost. In this interview with Church Times, Pethers who is based in East London shares his experience in faith.
Kindly let us into your background and how you came to know Jesus?
As a young person, I did not know anything about Church. I thought the church was for religious people. I did not believe in God either. Many don’t believe in God in Europe. I was a pretty convinced atheist. I thought religion was for people who could not handle life.
I remember at 19. a book by CS Lewis, Mere Christianity was brought by my boss to the office where I was working. I read the book on my way to work for 8 months. I used to turn the front cover over. I did not want people to think I was religious. That was the book God used to transform my life. I realized that it takes faith to believe there isn’t God. I realized that atheism and the evolution of science has a lot of questions. If they say the world was created by a big bang, my question is who makes the big bang, bang?
I also realized that if this world was a mistake, then it was a beautiful mistake. I read about Jesus in the book and slowly, I saw that God literally came on earth to die for us. I began to think that God loved me and would die for me. One morning I decided to do something with God. I did not know how to pray. I just felt like doing something. I said to God, here is my life do what you want to do with it. At that moment I felt something happened inside of me. And that moment I felt like letting the whole world know what I have experienced.
It’s amazing you were born in a churchless family in Europe that was a major exporter of the gospel. Is it that Europe has lost the gospel?
What happened over the last 100 years in Europe is that each generation has become less Christian than the previous generation. It has kept falling from 94 percent to 4 percent. Many people in Britain don’t even know they don’t know Jesus.
What led to that?
This happened because the church did not see what was going on. The church carried on being church and expected people to come to Church. In most of our schools, they teach evolution as if it is fact. People think the Bible is being replaced with a better understanding. People are growing in a world where they don’t think from a Christian perspective. This is unfortunate for this generation.
How easy was it for you to live as an atheist?
It was not difficult going to church. But it was odd. After my conversion, I took a Bible and read about Jesus and read about his person. I saw him bringing good news to people. He was always among the people. When I went to church, they were doing religious activities that did not look like what Jesus did. When I met Jesus, I was filled with passion for a God who really loved the world. But I saw people who did not feel that passion in the Church.
What was it like when you gave your life to Christ in your family?
None of my family were Christians. My step father was angry with me for bringing religion to the house. It was difficult but God was with me. Eventually, they all became Christians. I believe Jesus has the power to change lives. I believe the church needs to remember what the passion of God is like.
When I became a Christian, I never thought Jesus lived in the building because I met Jesus on the train. So, I always thought the church was out among the people. Going to church was interesting because people went to meet Jesus in the building but I know the presence of God is everywhere and active everywhere. God is on mission and he is asking us to join him on the mission.
When I was in church and people pray that God should send people to church, I believe that is a wrong prayer. I think it should be God send us out to the people. It is the passion for people and the need to reach them where they are, that led to the establishment of The Rooftop years ago.
So. for how long have you been a Christian and how has been the experience?
I have been a Christian for 40 years now. I have had the privileged of traveling to many continents of the world. I see that young people are growing up in a world that is different from the world of their grandparents. Young people can now get on the internet and do all sorts of things. I met a young man in Kenya and he told me that the young people don’t just believe in God but that they have many questions they would like answered before they can commit their lives to God. Unfortunately, the church is not answering their questions. That is happening around the world now. People would rather spend their time on the phone than go to church. We are having a huge challenge on our hands.
When Martin Luther wrote the 95 theses that challenged the church of his time, it made an impact because of the printing technology. Today, the rate of communication has increased greatly. Today, for the church to reach the world we have to be equipping Christians on how to take their faith to the world. We are losing the luxury of just being the Church God wants us to be. The church is a place people are equipped to go out. Unfortunately, many people are not being trained to make disciples.
People who come to listen to us are already in the church. We should be going out to reach people. Jesus is already on mission everywhere. The church has to wake up to this reality. We should make everywhere our mission field. Jesus is asking the church to join him where he is.
You talked about young people asking questions. What are those critical questions from your experience?
We live in a time of so many religious views. The question they ask is why Jesus, why not other religions? Another question is, in this new world, everybody wants to be inclusive and they ask why should we live life in a certain way? Unfortunately, the answer we give is, that is the way it is. But they want to know why it is so. We need to be able to answer them logically. They go to a place and they are only listeners not asking questions, it could be frustrating for them. We should be able to answer them in proper conversation and debate on why this is so. And they need to see these answers lived in us.
Tell us about the Rooftop?
It started in 2010. I was in a hotel room during a programme and was asking God why many Christians are not passionate about sharing their faith. I then felt he led me to Acts 10 where Peter went to the rooftop to pray. That was when the gospel was to reach the outside world. For the gospel to reach the world, it was important for the leader of the church to go through a transformation that changed him.
In the vision he had on the rooftop he saw where God showed him unclean animals. God wanted him to realise that the gospel is for sinners. He went to the house of the Gentile Cornelius and he saw that the holy spirit fell on them. As I read that story, I felt the church need to go to the rooftop. The church has become a place like the Jewish church before Peter got transformed. The mission of Jesus was to change what was lost. We need to take the gospel to the lost. The Rooftop begins with an encounter and then a reaching out.
What is your advice to the Church in Nigeria?
I think unless something drastic is done, the same thing that happened to Europe will happen to Nigeria because each generation will become less connected with God. For the church in Nigeria, this is the time to do what must be done. We no longer have the luxury of just doing church. Nigeria will follow the path of Europe if it continues what it does now.
What are the wrong things we do as a Church in Nigeria?
I don’t want to say they are wrong. I don’t want to make a judgment of the church. But I think the key to it is that the days of the church being the centre of society are changing. It must discover mission. We put our focus on what happens in the church but it needs to be outside the church. Our focus should not be on the gathering.
You were an atheist before you came to know Jesus. How do you reach atheists with the gospel?
It is difficult to preach to somebody who does not believe in God. We have to learn to have conversations with people rather than to preach at them. There are seven different words used to describe when the gospel is preached. It is only one that has to do with a monologue. The others are conversational. Preaching does not have to be a monologue. One of the most helpful ways to reach atheists is to converse with them.
Atheists, for instance, will tell me they don’t believe in God and I would ask them, what is this God like that they don’t believe in? And they will often describe this nasty awful looking God. And I will say to them I don’t believe in that God either. And they will say to me, what is that God you believe and I will share with them my perspective.
It is wrong to tell people what they have to believe. We have to have to dialogue with people. It is wrong to tell people what they have to believe. We have to have to dialogue with people. Many people don’t believe in God not because it is intellectually incompatible with their understanding but more because of their emotional experience. They don’t believe in God because of their past experience. They don’t like God, something happened in their lives that makes them not to believe in God.
40 years as a believer. What were those experiences and trying times of your life?
Living life as a Christian is evidently challenging. Life happens. I have lost people and have challenges with our children. I think what has helped me is the realisation that God never promised to take our problems away but to be with us in our problems. Sometimes he uses our problem to build character so that we may become better. Challenges make us grow. I know life in Africa is not easy and in Europe, it is not easy either in another way. Things go wrong in life and we must realise that God is with us when things happen. When I face hard challenges, what I come to realise is that God is with me in these challenges.
I like to say to my brothers who are pastors that sometimes being a pastor puts us in a tight situation. People expect that we are superhumans and that is not true. There is this over expectation of the pastor to be above the challenges of normal people. One of the greatest challenges for pastors is that they often feel isolated. They could not cope on their own. They need other people but they don’t want to ask for help. The pastor needs to be supported and loved just like any other person.
What people grapple with in Africa is the need for them to have the basics of life. But in Europe, these things are taken for granted. How do you reconcile these two extreme experiences vis-à-vis your position that God did not promise to take our challenges?
We so often judge God from the wealth perspective. I think that in Africa the greatest challenge is that of deprivation. I was told in Sierra Leone during a programme that people don’t have food to eat on some days. When they pray give us this day our daily bread, that is what they need literally. And people in Africa then think the solution to the problem is to become wealthy.
But that is not true. There are many problems in Europe that are greater than the challenge that you have with hunger. People have problems with drugs and addiction. I have travelled all over the place. I have found that the happiest people are people that have far fewer things. They have learned that God has to provide for them on a daily experience. When you live in a big house and have everything, you are likely to leave God out. The gospel should not be offering prosperity but it should be offering a relationship with Jesus.