From hardship to harvest: A modern-day Book of Acts in Africa
After persevering for nearly two years through many difficulties, this Southern Seminary alumnus and current Ph.D. student has led a great awakening resulting in thousands of Christ followers and scores of churches in a spiritually dry region of Africa.
Six months after he and his family arrived to their new home in an African* village, Timothy* knelt beside the bed of his ailing daughter not knowing if she would survive. His family had battled constant illness acclimating to the mission field, and with scarce medical help, a combination of malaria and typhoid fever threatened his 9-year-old daughter’s life.
Sitting in a Louisville coffee shop nearly a decade later, Timothy recalls the tempting voice accusing him this would not have happened had he kept his family safe in America. Weeping at his daughter’s bedside, Timothy had resolved to God, “Even if you take away my daughter, I will still serve you.”
An Australian doctor in town during that time was able to provide adequate medical care for Timothy’s daughter to recover, but not before the missionary counted the cost of missions in his moment of crisis.
A third-generation missionary, Timothy was baptized by his grandfather on the mission field when he was 11. A year later, Timothy encountered a faithful Christian who was released from prison because he was converting cellmates and guards. Frank* lived with Timothy’s family for a short time and discipled Timothy, teaching him how to pray not just for basic needs but for opportunities to share the gospel with others.
His grandfather, whose counsel to seek discipleship had led him to Frank, also encouraged Timothy to grow in his faith through reading Scripture. It was then that he first read Jeremiah 1:5 and began experiencing the missionary call for himself.
“For some reason, like no other passage of Scripture that I read up to that point, that ‘prophet to the nations’ phrase leapt off the page at me,” Timothy said in an interview with Southern Seminary Magazine. “And I immediately said, ‘Father, I don’t know what it means to be a prophet to the nations, but I want to serve you in that capacity.’”
Timothy would pursue that calling, but not before seeking formal theological education. He married his wife in 1994 after they met at a Florida college, and moved to Louisville to study at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Timothy decided to earn a Master of Divinity in the School of Theology where he could focus more on biblical studies and church history to complement his experience growing up on the mission field.
While studying at Southern, Timothy helped launch one of the fastest-growing churches in the United States before graduating with his M.Div. in 2001. Timothy remained on staff at the church for three years before embarking on a vision trip to North Africa, where he sensed a burden for full-time missions work. He and his wife were appointed by the International Mission Board and moved into their village a decade ago.
For nearly two years, Timothy and his family experienced the hardships of mission work without much gospel fruit. At the time, experts suggested that the best way to make converts was to have them read the Bible in their own language for six months to a year before professing faith in Christ. But that came into conflict with the reality that only 20 percent of the people in their area were literate.
During a training session with the area missions group, a harmony of two Gospel texts helped Timothy envision a discipleship model in step with the working of the Holy Spirit. The lesson for the training focused on Luke 10:2, in which Jesus tells his disciples that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”
Timothy and his wife had been studying the Gospel of John in their private devotion and noticed a striking similarity with Jesus’ lesson to his disciples after his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well: “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.” In John’s account, the Samaritan woman places her faith in Jesus and immediately shares the good news with others, who profess faith because of her testimony.
“That really struck us,” Timothy said. “Both my wife and I just stopped as we were in the middle of that and just said, ‘Father, we trust you, that what you’re saying here is true for the people that you’ve sent us to — that the harvest is plentiful and that it’s not years and years down the road, but that the harvest is ripe now. Nevertheless, our faith is very weak. Please strengthen our faith.’”
On Feb. 8, 2008, Timothy and his wife invited five people into their home for afternoon tea. In previous interactions, Timothy would tell a Bible story and discuss it with the group, which consisted of unbelievers. This time, however, he presented the gospel from creation to Christ and concluded with a call to covenant relationship with Jesus.
When all five of his friends made a profession of faith, Timothy asked them if they would be willing to share the gospel with another person. An elderly woman in the group, Sarah*, sought out 12 people that week, four of whom made professions of faith. Timothy says witnessing the Holy Spirit working in the lives of these young believers transformed his understanding of discipleship.
“The Holy Spirit in that woman, as she had just entered into faith, was the same Holy Spirit that wrote the Scriptures, who raised Christ from the dead, and that power was within her and was guiding her desire to proclaim,” Timothy said. “And here I was, in my lack of faith in the power of God in her, limiting what I thought she was capable of contributing to the kingdom of God.”
“The sanctifying empowerment of the Holy Spirit in every believer is an unstoppable force; it’s more powerful than anything else. We can expect that when we ask people to do something directly from the Word of God, that God himself will empower them to accomplish everything he has set out for them to do.”
Timothy continued discipling those five converts, enabling them to pass on to their converts the spiritual and biblical truths they were learning from Timothy. Within six months, 10 groups of 25 to 40 Christians were meeting through the gospel witness of those five people.
The spark of revival did not come without difficulties. Timothy says Sarah was forced to move when her landlady raised the rent 7 times what it was, angered over the house church she was hosting in her apartment. She saw her relocation not as persecution, however, but as a new field of harvest for her gospel witness. Another convert, Adam*, was brought up on false charges on account of his faith, but Timothy says the case was thrown out after Adam shared the gospel before the entire court and converted the judge.
Seven years later, Timothy’s missionary movement has transformed entire villages. His discipleship method of mobilizing and strengthening new converts to share the gospel with others has resulted in such a large number of professions that he estimates to be in the tens of thousands.
In Timothy’s terminology, a generation is the group of converts through one person’s ministry. A first-generation convert is anyone Timothy has specifically led to a profession of faith, and a second-generation convert is one who came to faith through the testimony of Timothy’s disciples. At a recent gathering of church leaders in his area, Timothy encountered a pastor who came to faith in the 14th generation of new believers. Under him were three generations of Christians, more than 200 of whom he converted and discipled personally.
“It certainly is a work of God,” said Grant Lovejoy, the director of orality strategies at IMB, who has spent time in Africa with Timothy. “It’s a movement that’s deeply committed to following Scripture and being accountable to one another to grow in the grace of the Lord.”
Lovejoy, an expert on storytelling in oral cultures, says one of the key methods Timothy has used in his ministry is discipling people who cannot read or write to memorize the Bible. By understanding his culture, Timothy developed indigenous memory devices for presenting the gospel from creation to Christ and reciting Bible stories. He and his colleagues have also produced audio recordings of large portions of Scripture so that church leaders can memorize biblical passages.
“They recognized that the Scriptures do not require a person to be able to read fluently in order to be a leader. The biblical requirements for leadership have to do with character, godliness, and the ability to understand and defend the faith,” Lovejoy said.
“This particular movement has powerfully demonstrated how it is possible, in a society where many people cannot read and write, that you can have a strong, vibrant, multiplying, Scripture-saturated body of believers who are really having a transforming impact on the lives of people. Just the obedience of these people to the Word and the extent to which they’ve gone to be biblically grounded is very encouraging.”
Luke* is a former IMB journeyman who served alongside Timothy from 2008 to 2011 before graduating from Southern in 2014. If the astronomical number of conversions is difficult for a reader to comprehend, it is just as challenging for someone who has witnessed the awakening from the start.
“It’s not like we’re going out and showing [an evangelistic] film and having people raise their hands — it’s not that,” Luke said, distancing the movement from so-called easy believism. “But it’s still hard to believe even though I’ve seen it with my own eyes just because it’s the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to the Book of Acts happening in real life.”
Added Luke, “At some dam in Africa there’s all of a sudden thousands of workers there that have believed because one person has sparked a movement that empowered each person to immediately become a witness and a church planter.”
Timothy says his children, who range from ages 6 to 17, have also played significant roles in his missionary work. His daughter, who suffered through illness early on in his ministry, has demonstrated a burden for the lost to come to know Christ, often praying for Timothy’s evangelistic opportunities when he travels. Timothy says what his children have had to sacrifice growing up in Africa is nothing compared to the spiritual gifts they have been able to develop on the mission field. All his children have made professions of faith, often through the testimonies of their older siblings, and are active themselves in making disciples.
“By being willing and being in a context where I could invite my children to participate in the work of the ministry, they all had a very early opportunity to understand what their spiritual gifts were and to exercise their spiritual gifts for the sake of the kingdom of God,” Timothy said. “Why wouldn’t I want that?”
Ultimately, the key for understanding the movement, Timothy insists, is believing the Holy Spirit can work in the lives of these people just as the Bible promises. While Timothy’s ministry has likely resulted in tens of thousands of conversions, he says the call to minister in hard places is an invitation from God for his people to know him better.
“When we step into a willingness to go to the most difficult place we can imagine, we step into a place of total reliance upon God, so that we’re stripped of our identity, we’re stripped of everything — all those things that, in many senses, are encumbrances in our relationship with our heavenly Father,” Timothy said. “Imagine all of the delight that we can experience in our relationship with Christ as we pour our lives out for him who has given everything for us. There’s just a joy and a delight even in the midst of struggle.”
*Names and location withheld for security purposes.
S. Craig Sanders is the managing editor of Southern Seminary Magazine and a Master of Divinity student. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine.