When an unschooled man believes God can use him

I recently got an email from a friend in Africa.  A couple months ago I did a training in Ghana (Storying in Ghana).  One of the men who came lives in a remote Muslim area.  For the past year he has been trying to start a church, but has not been able to.  He has never been to school and he can’t read.

Sharing stories to a groupMy friend wrote, “Since he returned from the training, he has been sharing the stories he learned.  47 Muslims have been coming regularly to talk about these stories.”

Why is this happening?  What was different from a year ago?  Probably two things that stand out to me.  Our friend saw that God wasn’t limited to just use people who have been educated (Memorizing vs Knowing).  And his village didn’t see his talking about Jesus as a threat or “infidel evangelism”; it was natural, relational, and simple.

It’s finding ways to get people into God’s Word and God’s Word into people with the fewest number of obstacles possible.

Memorizing vs Knowing

One of the questions I know I’ll get each time I’ve done a training anywhere – US and overseas – is “Don’t you feel it’s important for people to know where things are in the Bible?”  Absolutely.  But every situation it is not needed or sometimes even right to whip out a Bible and “get my preach on”.

In Ghana a cool scene occurred.  One guy said something like “I can’t memorize the Bible.  I can’t read and I only know a couple verses.”  We had just done four stories together and he had done an incredible job.  When I told him that the four stories were made up of over sixty verses, he got WIDE EYED and a huge grin and all the brothers around him started cheering him, rubbing his head, and making noise.  It was great.

Storying in Ghana

In Accra, the coastal capital of Ghana, the prosperity gospel is very present.  People name their shops after something about God in the hope they will be abundantly blessed, so there are thousands of places like “Halleluiah Redemptive Praise Hair Salon”, “Christ Fire and Salvation Repair Shop” or “Magnified Creator Our Savior Restaurant”.  My favorite was the “Though Millions Have Come To Heaven There Is Room For One More Motor Repair”. 

Several hours north of Accra I spent my week training people who had a different label.  Illiterate.  That adjective has affected how they view themselves being able to contribute to reaching the unreached people groups around them.  The first region I was in has the highest number of Muslims in the country.  Christians work all day in the fields and try to do ministry among their Muslim neighbors. They have felt under-qualified to do so because they can’t read.  The focus of this trip was to help a West Africa region ministry begin to answer the question “How do we train illiterate missionaries?”      

For two days we sat under a mango tree in this village with a mixed group of twenty literates and illiterates, sharing stories from the gospels.  During the first few hours, you could see those who could not read remain silent as those who could read started analyzing and questioning everything.  I tried very hard to not have us pulled this direction. The illiterates were used to these sorts of trainings and being left behind. 

On the third story, everything changed.  The illiterate men began to see that this method of ministry was something they could do!  The literate men wisely joined in instead of trying to take control.  Using the story content as our context, we talked about evangelism, church planting, personal spiritual growth, prayer, God’s character, the nature of sin, and salvation through Jesus.  At the end of the two days, one of the older men stated what had become obvious to everybody – “We can’t read.  We don’t need more training in methods.  We need you who can read to teach us more stories so we can reach Muslims!” Everybody’s head nodded and voices echoed agreement.

Driving several kidney-busting hours further, I spent two days in a village made up of mud and bamboo houses that doesn’t appear on any map.  The place we trained in is four bamboo posts on top of which lay bamboo leaves for shade.  After we arrived, fifteen men and women began to show up from the orange fields and nearby villages to meet the oburuni (white man) teacher.

At the end of the first day I gave an assignment.  Go share one of the stories we did with somebody, anybody.  Animism and traditional religion dominate this region.  People live in fear of evil spirits being everywhere.  The next day, every single one of the people who couldn’t read gave testimonies of sharing their faith with neighbors and other workers in fields through a story.  (Interestingly, most of the literate men did not share a story that night.) 

The story most shared was about the demon possessed man being healed (Mark 5) and many said their friends had never heard anything before about evil spirits being submissive to anything else.  One man stood up and said his friend demanded to hear more stories of Jesus because he was tired of living in fear.  He made a plea to his literate brothers, “PLEASE, teach me more stories so I can reach my village!”

In both these villages, national ministry leaders were present.  When I debriefed at the end of the trip, the West Africa director of mobilization said, “This changes everything we do.”  We will be talking more to see how throughout Africa training can be done so that the focus of the phrase “illiterate missionary” is on missionary, not illiterate.