More than 20 years of patient work, coupled with some timely interventions by God, have led to the blossoming of the Christian Reformed Church among the mostly Muslim population of several villages in northern Sierra Leone.
When he talks of the growth, a light comes to the eyes and a smile to the face of Paul Kortenhoven, a Christian Reformed World Missions missionary who worked for many years, through good times and through a bloody civil war, to share the gospel with the people of this West African country.
Kortenhoven no longer lives there but stays in close contact with Rev. John Phiri, the Zambian pastor hired by World Missions to work among the people of Sierra Leone.
As he watches the church grow, Kortenhoven says he is grateful that his approach to ministry was to first immerse himself in the culture, which meant becoming familiar with the customs and even reading the Qur’an, and then responding to the needs and interests of people as they expressed them.
Sometimes that meant helping people fix diesel engines. Kortenhoven and his wife, Mary, reached out with delicacy and diplomacy, aware that if Christianity is forced on someone, it generally doesn’t last.
“We waited 20 years, and all of a sudden there was an opening,” he said. “I think that being there, going through the war, and being in the refugee camps was an example to the people of how Christians live and act.
“We treated everyone the same. We worked with the existing structures and rolled with the punches.”
The Kortenhovens left full-time ministry in Sierra Leone in 2002, and Phiri was recruited and hired by World Missions in 2005.
“John is an amazing gift from God,” Kortenhoven said. “He is completely dedicated. He sleeps in the villages, but only goes there if he is invited. He has many skills and exudes a love for the people.”
Phiri said he and his staff reached five Muslim villages with the gospel last December. In all, they connected with more than 100 people. He is working with the youths of these areas and hopes to be able to add a youth coordinator to his staff. “The future looks promising,” he says, “as the youths embrace the faith.”
Phiri also reported some stunning statistics about the growth of the church in Sierra Leone. In 1980 there were no churches in the area. Now there are 47, with plans for six more.
Church attendance has grown from zero in 1980 to 3,100 in 2008. Baptized membership has grown from none to 500. And the number of local leaders in training for Christian ministry has grown from zero to more than 50.