Years ago, almost every USA airport posted warnings about travel to Nigeria. In those days, I confess that Nigeria appeared nowhere on my “hope-to-visit” list. But God knew differently. Now, having taken sixteen journeys there since 2001, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation (roughly 20% of the entire continent), has become my second home.
My most recent trip (November 28-December 4) took me to the Student Mission Conference of the Nigeria Fellowship of Evangelical Students (NIFES) at their camp, “Place of Promise.” This was my fourth NIFES Mission Conference, and I have returned home inspired again by my Nigerian brothers and sisters. I had the privilege of delivering a plenary address, leading a workshop, and interacting with a host of leaders and students, but mostly it was a chance to observe and learn.
The conference, “Witness 2016,” carried the theme “Give us the nations” (built around the phrase from Caleb “give me this mountain”, overlapped with Psalm 2:8: “ask of me and I will give the nations to you, the very ends of the earth as your possession.”). The speakers, workshops, and Bible studies were molded together in an effort to help students expand their vision for the world, for pioneer church-planting, and for sending people out to the unreached.
Here are the things I observed that challenged me most:
ZEAL FOR THE LORD. These young Nigerians exuded expressiveness in worship. They repeatedly responded to the call to offer their whole selves to God. They prayed loudly, sang vigorously, and confessed emotionally. The spirit of repentance and the cry for forgiveness resonated as speakers called the students to prepare for revival.
In several meetings, I thought of David’s dance before the Lord – a delightful worship characterized by reckless, selfless abandon – unlike my typical worship experience, which is often subdued, self-conscious and pre-occupied with maintaining control.
In these Nigerian brothers and sisters, I saw Christians literally living out the Psalmist’s words that “zeal for thy house has consumed me.” Prayer in unison earnestly sought after God’s direction. They listened in worship with a sense of anticipation (see below). They celebrated with a wild joy that made me think of C.S. Lewis’ description of Aslan as a “good lion, but not a tame lion.” Their worship was not tame.
The skeptic in me occasionally asked, “Is it just emotion?” or “Does the emotion expressed in worship gets translated into daily living?” The Nigerian leaders I met are acutely aware of and concerned about this possibility. As a result, there were exhortations to pursue practical holiness and daily Christian obedience. I’ll let them deal with the problems of excessive zeal; I wish we had more of this problem in the USA church!
EXPECTATION. When the Nigerians pray, they really expect God to speak. When they pray for an unreached people group, they expect some will be called out to go. And these folks really expect that God will work miracles.
Veteran Nigerian missionaries shared stories of how God worked, did miracles and spoke to people in dreams. Testimonies included stories of signs and wonders, healings and visions, and power encounters against Muslim or animist spiritual forces. Here I found no debate about whether Mark 16:9ff appeared in the earliest manuscripts or if the miracles of the first century were “for today.”
These people live in hardship situations and environments of blatant spiritual warfare. They don’t have our post-modern luxury of relegating biblical miracles to Bible times. If the Bible records stories about miracles happening then, they believe it can happen NOW. I found my own lack-of-expectation rebuked.
RUGGED FAITH. We who live in Western comfort might find the conditions where the 3,000 to 4,000+ students met, worshipped and slept for five days intolerable: crowded conditions, cold bucket-and-cup showers, dust and heat. But I never heard a student complain and no one left the conference. In all of my experiences in Nigeria, I am consistently amazed at the patient endurance of these brothers and sisters in the face of inconvenience.
I listened and learned from these brothers and sisters something of the raw commitment and faith that must have accompanied those first missionaries to Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, more than a few times, as I listened to testimonies and heard the people pray, I sensed I was living in a chapter of the book of Acts from the 1st century.
Here again I saw expression of something a Nigerian host told me several years ago: “Brother Paul, here in Nigeria we need to have rugged faith. We need to trust God for everything. We need to trust God for petrol to drive our cars. We pray that the electrical power will work. We pray that we will not be robbed on the highway. And when people are sick, we cannot depend on medicine and doctors and clinics like you do. We go to God and cry out people to be healed.”
CROSS-CULTURAL MISSIONS. Scottish church historian Andrew Walls often states his belief that the church in Africa will lead the mission endeavor in the world in this millennium. If he is correct, Nigeria will be at the front of the parade.
These Nigerian students expressed a deep hunger to affect Kingdom-of-God change in their own country – knowing full well the challenges of Boko Haram and other expressions of religious extremism, especially in the unevangelized areas of the Muslim “Sharia-Law” states in the north. They also expressed a deep desire to take the gospel to the unreached places – even in the face of persecution (over 200 students came to my workshop on Global Persecution). InterVarsity President Tom Lin delivered a plenary address on Global Trends and these students seemed to take down every word as they questioned where they fit within these trends. Another speaker challenged them to go to China as graduate students – completely funded by the Chinese government. A Nigerian who served in Poland and another who served in Afghanistan called these students to follow in their footsteps.
I know that the Nigerian church has multiple challenges that I have not featured here. However, these Nigerian brothers and sisters were a deep stimulation and exhortation to my own worship, zeal, and commitment to cross-cultural missions. I pray that I will have a rugged faith in facing the future challenges of pioneer missions.