A cloud of orange dirt followed our SUV as we bounced down a rugged clay trail to enter a primitive village outside of Cotonou, Benin. We passed by straw-roofed homes as goats, chickens, and small children loitered along the roadside. Coastal residents stood by curiously watching our small team make our way to a village church. They sold trinkets, small snacks, and used clothes. Their eyes betrayed a deeply-felt tragedy. They had never lived free from the crushing weight of generational poverty. Their scarcity is one that many Americans will only see in a momentary swipe on a smartphone. But poverty isn’t the demon that haunts you as the sun sets on this region of West Africa. A darker presence poses a warning to visitors who enter its domain. “This place,” our host later informed us, “is the birthplace of Voodoo.”
In the ancient city of Porto Nuovo, we toured a sacred garden. A place where the long shadows of ancestorial human sacrifice continue to plague the land. As we approached the “judgment tree,” we heard how spiritual leaders oppressed many with the powers of their incantations. Today, four hundred years later, not much has changed. Although Voodoo powers regularly attract spiritually gullible tourists, the vultures of paganism circle over almost every community in West Africa.
During the second part of our mission, we visited the city of Lomè, Togo. As we walked to the Atlantic coast from our residence, I noticed an oddly placed bowl in the center of an intersection. From it extended a raw chicken foot covered with feathers, grains, and fruits. “What is that?” I asked our host, Pastor Blessing. She told me that it was “a fetish.” A ceremonial means of appeasing demon spirit. Though foreign to my perspective, this practice was a regular part of life for many in the area. Against the backdrop of this culture submerged in occultic practices, I discovered the burning light of many faithful followers of Jesus.
Week 1: Cotonou, Benin
Our primary mission focused on training over twenty pastors who desired to launch a Nation-to-Nation Christian University in their community. Pastors Joseph and Joy Nwobodo served as our hosts in executing this task. They graciously coordinated our weekend seminar and visits to several churches. They shared with us the struggles that they had recently faced. They told us of how the local government often threatens their church. They recalled how their church’s worship equipment was confiscated and how they were falsely accused of offenses against the authorities. In another instance, Pastor Joseph was arrested and thrown in jail. They recounted numerous injustices done to them by corrupt police officers and officials who sought bribes. Yet, they told us of their experiences from a heart of joy. They spoke of God’s delivering power and how they were pleased with God’s work in their nation.
We also met with Bishop Josuè Ahounou. He generously extended the use of his facility for our training. On the same weekend of our event, we discovered that his church coordinated a three-day prayer event. Devout members interceded on the floor above our meeting as we spent hours teaching and ministering to our group of energized pastors. They came to the Nation-to-Nation seminar from the countries of Senegal, Cotè d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Ghana, Mali, Togo, Cameroon, Niger, and various parts of Benin. As prayer teams petitioned heaven throughout the weekend, I could feel the momentum of intercession. I could sense the presence of God pushing against the forces of spiritual wickedness around us.
Week 2: Lomè, Togo
A week into our visit, we traveled to the city of Lomè and were honored to meet another pioneering couple. They gave us a small snapshot into their journey of faith. Pastor Blessing, the wife of Bishop Paul Nya, told us of her story one evening following our meal. Launching out of a Bible school, she felt called to the nation of Togo. Unmarried and with little ministry experience, she followed God’s voice. Pushing through her doubts, she took a one-way flight into Togo. She arrived at Lomè airport with a mere twenty dollars in her hand, a word from God. The Lord told her an English-speaking man would meet her at the terminal, and that’s all she had. As she exited the airport, she quickly discovered that all her luggage was lost. Desperately she searched for a familiar face and found none. Then a Togolese- Nigerian man found her and asked her who she was. “I am an evangelist,” she said. She didn’t’ speak a word of French, the national language. Miraculously, the older gentleman fluently spoke English. He took her to the local Assemblies of God missions house. When the pastor of the base came out to meet her, He asked for her qualifications. All she could present was the word she had from God and the twenty dollars in her pocket. Dismissing her completely, he offered to rent her a room. She only had enough for three nights if she didn’t buy a meal. The mystery man from the airport then took her to his sister’s home. She was able to stay with them until she found a room to rent. When an apartment became available, it was a barren shed. “Due to the holes in the roof,” she said with a smile, “I had a room with a sky view.” It also came with the inconvenience of “pit toilet” behind the house. This meant there was a hole dug in the backyard of the property for bathroom use. Her twenty dollars would provide her three months of rent in that dilapidated shelter. Yet, she was thankful. “The sacrifice,” as Blessing recalls, was “the suffering I had to go through to bring the gospel here.” “During rainy nights,” she said, “I rolled up my mat to keep it from soaking up water and slept standing in the corner of the room.” She prayed in funds as she ministered to the various women she met. Slowly, her work grew. Then, she began to ask God for a bigger place to house her developing Bible study. The Lord heard and provided for her a fully paid, four-room apartment. Her emerging Bible study filled her entire residence quickly, and the ministry took root in Togo. She was joined later by her fiancée (soon to be husband), Paul Nya. Paul’s own story is very similar. He shares about the great sacrifices and joys that he and his wife endured in his book, The Journey of Promise. Today, Paul and Blessing are on the frontlines of the harvest. They have sent out over eight hundred pastors from their Bible school and planted numerous churches throughout West Africa. They began in Togo as civil war raged in the nation and since then have become a community-shifting voice to the people of Lomè.
As I consider the stories we heard from local pastors, these last two weeks have brought into focus a vital element of the Christian faith. The beauty of personal sacrifice appears to be a fundamental choice in each of their lives. This practice, I feel, has been readily neglected by the Western Church. Each one told us about the unique moments when they made sacrifices to bring the gospel into their community. The reward for their sufferings did not come quickly. They endured hardships for years before witnessing a sustaining result.
When we talk of sacrifice, our first-world perspective often views it through the warm lens of momentary inconveniences. Sacrifice is often mistaken for the disciplines of rising early to pray or returning one’s tithe to the Lord. Others have misunderstood sacrifice as a surrendering of sinful behavior. Could it be that neglecting true sacrifice and haphazardly holding to basic disciplines betrays an underlying reason for the church’s powerlessness? Prayer, tithing, and resisting sins are not sacrifices to give; they are commandments to obey. As defined in the scriptures, sacrifice is an offering of something to God, which is of great value to the giver. In the Old Testament, Hannah devoted her son Samuel to the work of the priesthood. (1 Samuel 1:21-28) Abraham willingly laid down the life of his son, Isaac. (Genesis 22:1-19) Solomon sacrificed 142,000 of the best cattle and sheep to usher in God’s presence into the newly built temple in Jerusalem. (2 Chronicles 7:5) I don’t intend to minimize the struggles that the disciplines of the faith propose. Still, in contrast to the sacrifices I heard of this week, I venture to say there is another realm of self-denial that I am not accustomed to experiencing.
Could the luxuries that you and I enjoy, because of God’s blessings, be the very things that blind us to the sacrifices needed to advance God’s kingdom? I’m not an advocate of poverty or suffering for the sake of pain, but somehow the urgency of reaching the lost has become a low priority. A false belief that the salvation of nations will somehow “happen in God’s time” is a worthless excuse that affords a lazy theology. So many have lethargically insulated themselves from the world’s needs as they are “waiting on God to move.” In contrast, the text of scripture tells us that God has done all the moving He will do in the work of offering His salvation to a lost world. I think left He left the moving part of evangelism to us in His command, saying, “go and make disciples…” (Matthew 28:19-20)
I was struck with a few reality check moments throughout these last two weeks that I’d like to share. This past Saturday (Aug. 7th), a little after 12 PM, we found ourselves in a village called Golo-Adjago. Our arrival was significantly delayed due to some miscommunication. The church, located in a remote region, anticipated our arrival at 7 AM. Our five-hour delay, however, had a completely unexpected reception. No one complained. The church was packed full in attendance. The believers worshipped for a full five hours as they waited. Might I add that this church had no A/C, no comfortable chairs, and no coffee bar? Upon our arrival, we discovered exuberant shouts of joy and praise as many boldly worshipped with all their might. In contrast, if a guest speaker were delayed a couple of hours to a church event in the US, it would be miraculous if anyone could be found worshipping and waiting.
In this same village, after our three-hour service, we met with the local pastors. They told of how “market days” initially prevented believers from attending church on specific Sundays. The pastors resolved to teach the priority of seeking God’s presence over the monetary benefit of doing business on the scheduled market days. As they shared their strategy, I thought of the kickback I’d get if I asked believers to seek God’s presence on Sundays above football, personal vacations, golf tournaments, or one of the numerous other indulgences many feel entitled to pursue on Sundays. I’d venture to say that if time in God’s presence held the priority that many give to their employer, revival would break out across America. Too often, we cloak our commitment to our livelihood behind the veil of financial responsibility while abandoning the greater commandment we have to God’s face. Jesus assures us that our concerns for food and clothing should fall secondary to our primary purpose of seeking His kingdom. (Matthew 6:33)
My point is simply this, our appetite for God’s presence is easily filled with those things that compete for our time, energy, and amusement. In our fast-paced, evolving culture of communication and information, the idols we tend to bow down to are deceptively shaped as convenience and recreation. I’ve listened to many messages that evade this principle of sacrificial living from leaders in the church. “If it causes you stress and fails to give you peace,” a preacher once told me, “then it’s not of God… because God’s direction will always bring you peace.” Sadly, this kind of advice equates peace with comfort. In the end, running from the uncomfortable practice of sacrifice will bring you neither peace nor comfort. Another adage of our modern, existential faith is, “Follow your heart, and you’ll find God desires for you.” This Disneyland ideology, regardless of how it is phrased, essentially places your feelings on the throne of your life. Following your feelings will always lead you down a path of self-worship. This pathway will not lead you into the Kingdom life. As Jesus noted, that road to life is “narrow and difficult” and journeyed by only a few. (Matthew 7:13-14).
What does a sacrifice look like today? It looks like laying down the idolized “me time” on the altar of intercessory prayer for the lost. This is when a disciple is serious about evangelism. Sacrifice happens when the funds you’ve reserved for a better vehicle, a sleek new iPhone, or a better deer lease are joyfully invested into pioneers on the mission field. Sacrifice looks like exchanging the time of family binge-watching of your favorite sitcom for an evening of teaching your children to hear God’s voice as you read His Word. By laying down the joys we desire on the altar of sacrifice, we may find God’s response to be one of greater power and strength to aid us in the work of His Kingdom.
In a recent conversation with a good friend, I was asked, “what keeps you going in the ministry.” I thought for a moment and remembered a vital principle that the Holy Spirit taught me as a young youth pastor. I responded by saying, “if I continue to place a sacrifice on the altar, He continues to provide the fire to keep me burning.” It’s easy to sing about revival fires, to dance around, and chant prayers about God’s fire falling. But I have found that the fire, or the power of God, is made available when I bring a worthy sacrifice for Him to use.
In a few hours, I’ll board a flight back to the USA. As I leave West Africa, I can say I have been deeply moved by the incredible leaders I have met. Their perpetual sacrifices are powerfully advancing God’s kingdom. In witnessing their lives, I am driven to seek a life of laying down more to see my community saved. I know that as I provide a sacrifice, God will provide His fire.