Prosperity gospel a problem in Africa, Chitwood says

    April 9, 2019

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    Paul Chitwood, president of the International Mission Board, guest teaches a class at the Uganda Baptist Seminary in Jinja, Uganda. Chitwood affirmed that IMB "is not wavering in our commitment to theological education." IMB photo/Matt JonesEditor's note: This is the second report from IMB President Paul Chitwood's first extended overseas trip since taking on his new role. Look for an additional story to come later this week.

    JINJA, UGANDA – There's a deacon in Uganda who will gladly pray for church members who pay a few shillings; another preacher says God will bless them with a car or house if they are willing to give him some money. Another preaches John the Baptist was born of a virgin birth.

    These are a few examples International Mission Board missionaries in Uganda and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa have shared on why theological training is so critical.

    "The prosperity gospel is alive and well in sub-Saharan Africa as is Islam and African traditional religions, animism," said IMB President Paul Chitwood, who took a couple days to visit the Ugandan Baptist Seminary (UBS) during his whirlwind tour of Uganda with his wife Michelle and 12-year-old daughter Cai. Last week's trip was Chitwood's first extended visit overseas since taking on his new role as IMB president.

    With Uganda's population of more than 40 million reportedly positioned to double in size by 2050, biblically faithful education and discipleship there and in other African countries is needed more than ever. And Chitwood said IMB missionaries in Jinja and others working with UBS are helping provide that training.

    "To see Ugandan Christ followers being equipped to challenge those false teachings … helped me know that we're on the right path here [with theological education]," Chitwood said. And "our missionaries are approaching this in a way that is effectively turning the people away from the lies of false religion to the truth of the gospel," he said.

    Following his two-day stop in Jinja, Chitwood affirmed that IMB "is not wavering in our commitment to theological education."

    Students worship during chapel at Ugandan Baptist Seminary. In the 30 years since it was formed, the seminary has seen more than 1,000 church leaders come through the school and graduate. IMB photo/Matt JonesAnd he wanted the seminary's principal, Anthony Shelton, and other missionaries in Jinja "to know that [IMB is] behind him and his team and fully committed to their work." Shelton and his wife Misti have two teenage daughters, Karis and Sophia.

    Shelton said a few years ago he was wondering if the seminary would be around to provide theological training. In 2015, the east Africa region was hit hard, losing about 65 percent of its field personnel who accepted a voluntary retirement incentive as the IMB looked to recover from a massive financial shortfall.

    Beginning that year with five missionary teams, the Sheltons went from being the youngest missionary couple on their team to the only ones for a time. The seminary also lost significant financial contributions since many of its donors were connected to the missionaries who left.

    "It was devastating," he said. "… It left a big gap." But he added, "God sent people. God was very gracious to us. … We've had people come in and out but filled in those gaps. And God continues to provide."

    "God provided staff and faculty but also the financial means to continue running the school," Shelton added. "God's grace is thick and active."

    UBS was founded in 1988. The seminary now has three local full-time faculty, 13 adjunct teachers, and 246 students and church leaders from eight different countries.

    In the 30 years since UBS was formed, the seminary has seen more than 1,000 church leaders come through the school and graduate. But Shelton said it isn't enough to keep up with the dramatic population growth.

    "We have to do more," he said. When locals are asked if they are a Christian, Shelton noted, "You'll get all sorts of answers because there's so much confusion with that question."

    Chitwood, who guest taught a class at the seminary and spoke during a packed chapel service, told students sending more missionaries from the U.S. will not turn the problem around. What's needed is "brothers and sisters in Christ around the world are doing their work and working together," he said. "And so we count it a high privilege to partner with you and to be a part of this seminary."

    He added, "We are hand-in-hand and arm-in-arm with you and thanking God for what He is doing through you and for the privilege that we have in partnering and investing in that ministry."

    Jonathan, 28, from Kampala, is a third-year student at the seminary and one of those partners. "I love the Word," said the student who turned his life over to Christ in 2016. "I love teaching the Word and that is how I got the passion for coming [to] this seminary."

    Journeyman missionary Nathan Godby, who teaches English at UBS, hopes more Ugandans like Jonathan will develop that same passion and seek out solid theological training.

    The answer, he said, begins with Africans reaching and training Africans.

    "Here in Uganda there is a lot of just bad teaching and assumptions and so I saw the seminary as a great way to engage in missions and be part of mission … ," he said. "These [students] who we're teaching Bible, English and all of this, they already know five, six, seven languages, they know the culture they're already in. They're prepared for Africa."

    And, he said, the seminary will help prepare them for addressing issues such as false teaching on prosperity.

    "It's not rare to find a preacher, if you want to call him a preacher, who charges for prayers," said Godby, who added that too many pastors go into the ministry for the wrong reasons of financial prosperity.

    Being a pastor in countries like Uganda is often seen as "the best job around here," he said. With many Ugandans unable to find good jobs, "sometimes the best job is to be the pastor and to take advantage of people."

    This issue is among the reasons Uganda is reportedly looking at passing laws that force pastors to receive theological training. In 2018, Rwanda reportedly saw thousands of churches close after the country passed legislation requiring pastors to receive training.

    Ugandan Baptist Seminary students pray before the start of class. IMB photo/Matt JonesGodby said he sees Uganda eventually passing similar legislation. This can be a good thing, he said, to bring more accountability and training to pastors who are not theologically sound. But he acknowledged it also can create religious freedom issues because it allows the government to regulate churches.

    Daren Davis, IMB leader over work in the sub-Saharan Africa, hopes theological training through local, U.S. and other countries’ missionary efforts will help curb prosperity gospel issues and other false teachings.

    "We've had 23 new long-term units appointed to sub-Saharan Africa since 2016 and six of them have been appointed to do theological training like this," Davis said. "So that's a significant percentage throughout sub-Saharan Africa."

    Missionaries are also starting an African Baptist Theological Educators Network which focuses on more partnership, he said.

    "It's a network of theologians that are teaching at schools, they may be convention leaders throughout Africa and also some of our partnering institutions in the states will come," Davis said. "…It's an opportunity to cast vision toward Africans being theologians and actually writing theological documents and journals that come from an African perspective, that address African issues."

    "It's really a mutual partnership," he said. "… We believe in partnerships with Baptist conventions across sub-Saharan Africa to help them do their part," he said.

    Ultimately, Davis said, working with believers around the globe who send missionaries is a big part of reaching the world for Christ. Davis mentioned his visit with Chinese believers one day last week in Kampala.

    Those missionaries – including believers in Uganda and sub-Saharan Africa – want to learn more from us, Davis said, "but the thing I wanted them to understand is … we have things we can learn from you."

    For more information about or to partner with the Uganda Baptist Seminary, go to www.ugandabaptistseminary.org.

    Written by Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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