Jerome (not his real name), had been a sorcerer for decades. Like many Sierra Leoneans, he revered the spirits his ancestors followed and practiced rituals passed down through the generations.
But last summer something changed. Jerome, at more than 60 years old, became a Christian.
The Christian Reformed Church of Sierra Leone (CRCSL) has many new believers like Jerome. In the past decade, the fledgling denomination has grown from 36 churches and 500 believers to more than 60 churches with as many as 5,500 people attending worship services. Almost every Sunday someone is baptized.
This explosive growth is highly unusual in a predominantly Muslim society.
“Nationals describe the CRCSL as the fastest growing church, if not in Sierra Leone at least in the northern province,” said Rev. Istanifus Bahago. A missionary from the CRC of Nigeria (CRCN), Bahago is serving in Sierra Leone through a partnership between Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM) and the CRCN.
CRWM has worked in Sierra Leone since the 1980s, remaining even during the country’s brutal civil war. Afterward, it linked with international partners to renew church planting efforts in the region.
Rev. John Phiri, a Zambian pastor, led the CRCSL through its initial growth spurt. Since then, CRWM has partnered with the CRCN to send two Nigerian missionaries, Rev. Bahago and Rev. Ezekiel Sudu, to help strengthen Sierra Leonean church leaders for outreach.
“The workers in the CRC of Sierra Leone are few, but they are committed,” says Bahago. “Because of that, God is prospering the work. Almost weekly we receive calls to come and start churches in new areas.”
Growth does not come without challenges. Most of the believers are from Muslim backgrounds and are learning about salvation through grace for the first time. It takes time and some mistakes for them to realize how faith in Christ offers a new view of work, family life, marriage, and other areas of life.
Low literacy levels mean that many people are unable to explore the Bible on their own. Even some church leaders are unable to read. This makes it difficult for new believers to receive the spiritual nourishment they need.
Material poverty is also a challenge. It’s tempting, Bahago notes, for people “to see the church as a development agent that will provide food, shelter, and everything for free.” CRWM and its partners have to constantly evaluate whether their activities create dependency or encourage self-sustainability.
And yet, the CRC of Sierra Leone is growing stronger every day. More and more leaders are learning and applying biblical principles as a result of leadership training events. Women are growing in their faith and getting involved in the church through an effective women’s ministry program. Boys are learning what it means to follow Christ by participating in a Boys’ Brigade (similar to Cadets).
As they grow in faith, people are embracing new opportunities for sharing their faith.
Edison Kamara, an evangelist, is one of the CRCSL’s promising leaders. Last fall he spent four months in Nigeria receiving training on evangelism and discipleship. When he returned, he led an evangelism training event in which he challenged everyone to go home and share the gospel with a nonbelieving neighbor or friend.
One participant brought a friend to church the following Sunday. As the friend listened to the sermon, he became convinced that Jesus had come for him. He decided to follow Jesus.
Sometimes, Bahago notes, people are reluctant to tell their friends or neighbors about Jesus, thinking that they will not accept what they hear. Once people step outside their comfort zone, however, they’re often encouraged and surprised by the results.
As believers mature in their faith, the denomination becomes more rooted too. Last year, the church celebrated a significant milestone—its first synod. Churches that once worked on their own are now collaborating with larger-scale initiatives to share the gospel in Sierra Leone.
Other denominations have noticed the CRCSL’s good work. Over the past year, the council of churches in Sierra Leone has asked the CRCSL to oversee two community projects— a justice program and a program to help vulnerable children return to school. These initiatives offer additional opportunities for reaching out.
No one knew how the church in Sierra Leone would survive during the country’s civil war, but the tremendous growth since the war testifies powerfully to God’s hand at work.
“When Muslim-background believers confess, ‘You are the Christ,’ Jesus’ promise to Peter, ‘I will build my Church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it,’ remains as true as ever,” says Ron Geerlings, CRWM’s West Africa Regional Leader.
“To see this reality unfolding before us . . . is to witness a work of God’s Spirit that will last forever. For missionaries and a mission organization, on this side of eternity, that is as good as it gets.”