Evangelism and Church Growth in a Culture of Persecution

I was sent to Angola by the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) upon the request of the Evangelical Alliance of Angola to help start a student movement. I served there from 1984 until 1995. At first, my family thought I had gone crazy; I had a happy and blessed ministry with students in Brazil—why on earth should I go to “that country”? But I felt convinced the Lord was calling me. After my first return home, I shared with my family what God was doing in Angola. They soon began supporting my ministry.


Restrictions on religious freedom may have caused
fears; however, people felt a great need for God’s
love, for security, and for hope.

The entire time I was in Angola, the country was at war. Although it was a Marxist country and imposed restrictions on religious freedom, from 1991 onward there was a growing freedom for churches. However, persecution, to some extent, was always present. Indeed, it was not always fierce; however, there was always pressure on the churches. The government demanded that churches should register, which would give their leaders the right to travel abroad, and to receive help and visits from abroad. But it was not easy to become registered, and even after registration, restrictions continued. Below are five examples of what happened:

  1. Some police officers came to a small church in the country and shouted at the people, “Tomorrow, at seven o’clock, you are to come back and destroy your church. We will be there to control you, and you will suffer if you will not obey!” A number of the church members came and destroyed their church building. The leaders went to the police to make a complaint and ask for help and the right to rebuild. The police mocked them, saying, “Your own people have destroyed your church. How can you prove that we ordered them to do so?”

  2. I visited some Christian Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Europe with the general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance. For years, the church in Angola did not receive any help from abroad. I encouraged them to make contacts, believing more help would come. And help was promised. When the first container with very necessary goods came to the port, the director of religious affairs came to our office shouting that we did not have the right to receive this help; instead, he said, it should be handed over to him and distributed by the social affairs people. Although this came as a shock, we fasted and prayed. The general secretary studied some laws and went to seek guidance from the Roman Catholic Caritas Agency. The director’s attitude changed completely: “Obviously you can receive these goods; however, you could give some of it to us, as you know we need it.”
  3. During my first months in Angola I started a small prayer meeting with four students in my home. The general secretary said that I could use the church, but that I did not have the right to do such activities in my home. There were “popular vigilantes” everywhere who would notice what we were doing, tell the police, and get us in trouble.
  4. The most difficult experience was with student work. We started very low-key by holding our meetings in church buildings, but we were soon found out and were told that what we were doing was unacceptable. In one university town the faithful members of the group were called twice, individually, by the director of the university, who told them, “You have to choose: either you continue your studies and give up your faith or, if you prefer to keep going to church, you will lose all rights to study and not receive any proof of the studies you have done so far.” They all told him they wanted to serve their country, but could not deny their Lord. The third time the pressure was during a large public meeting in which they were called to stand up, one by one, and declare their choice. Because they still kept faithful to Christ, the police came to their houses during the night and took them away to serve in the army. But they were not treated like other soldiers; instead, they were branded as people who had betrayed their country. They were sent to dangerous places. After two years, the accusations were removed and they were allowed to come back and finish their studies.
  5. It was also common to have a spy at our meetings. Typically, I felt immediately who this person was (special insight God gives us in such contexts). I had to pray not to resent his or her presence, but to see him or her as any other sinner in need of God’s grace. Little by little, I learned to overcome my fears; however, I kept praying for wisdom in how I presented my teaching.

Evangelism and Church Growth in Such Contexts
Restrictions on religious freedom may have caused fears; however, people felt a great need for God’s love, for security, and for hope. So during my time in Angola, the churches were usually full. People responded well to the gospel, and many were converted. Most pastors had very little training, but they loved the Lord and kept preaching. Most sermons were very simple, but the truth of the gospel came through and people came to Christ.


Although there was no way to do public evangelism
in Angola, friendship evangelism was
always possible.

There was no freedom to build new churches during this time. So how did the existing churches cope with the growing number of believers? Some held four services and three Sunday schools (for children and adults) every Sunday. One church, which met in the room of a house, removed all the inner walls to increase the size of the church. Another church had a pile of bricks outside and a loudspeaker; a significant number of people would sit on bricks (in the sun) for hours, taking part in the service. There would often be spies in church services, so the leaders had to be wise to speak the truth in politically inoffensive ways.

One time, I was called by a leader from the women’s department of the official Marxist party. She wanted to meet me, and I expected the worst. What she really wanted was for me to share my faith, to read the Bible and explain it, and to pray with her. So I did. She called me a second time to do the same thing; this time she brought another friend from the party along with her.

Although there was no way to do public evangelism, friendship evangelism was always possible. We would visit people in their homes, and before we would leave, we would ask for permission to read a text from the Bible and to pray. Most people would accept. Funeral meetings were good places to do this. Because so many people died during this time—which led to great pain—people would be very open to receive a visit. We would offer them comfort and pray for them.

I also evangelized in hospitals, visiting the many casualties from the war—people hurting inside and outside, often very lonely and in great need of comfort and love. Some were Marxist, and during the first visits they were very resistant. However, friendship removed barriers and opened up opportunities to share the gospel. I would never criticize Marxism; instead, I would present the love of God.

When the restrictions in the country lessened, poorer people started to build their own churches, often very simple buildings. They gathered with great joy and courage, often without any covering from the sunshine. Greater freedom also encouraged the churches to work together in evangelistic projects and to organize conferences for teaching and encouragement of all church leaders.

The Growth of Evangelical Churches
Although there were fewer restrictions in the 1990s, the war continued. Peace only came in 2002. However, there was tremendous church growth in Angola during this time. In 1975, 384,000 people (eight percent of the population) were evangelical Christians. Compare that to 2000, when there were over 2.1 million (16.4% of the population) evangelical Christians.1

Not all the growth was healthy; many new churches were organized, some by local prophets with very little knowledge of the Bible, with some forms of syncretism. However, even those churches were frequently open to learning more about the Bible; several, in fact, became more evangelical.

In 1995, there was a worldwide evangelistic effort by Billy Graham, whose messages were sent by satellite all over the world. Although it took a lot of work to receive permission to use public places in Angola, it was granted. In Luanda, we were allowed to use the Karl Marx cinema, which was crowded every evening. I prayed for and invited my neighbors; all of them went to at least to one of the meetings.

After the end of the war in 2002, evangelical churches grew even more rapidly, and there was a growing number of new denominations. Several denominations were formed by leaders who were unwilling to adapt to existing denominations and who wanted to be their own bosses. The divisions created during forty years of war also had an influence in this divisiveness. Many foreign missions had worked with only specific people, so there was little interaction and fellowship with other evangelicals. Other foreign missionaries who had come to the country more recently had been planting their own brand of Christianity.

Following my time in Angola, I returned to Brazil to work at a school of missions. I have been sharing from my vision and experience, telling students and members of Brazilian churches that there are no impossible situations for the gospel. When things seem hard, often people’s hearts are very open. However, one needs wisdom to know how to present the message of the gospel and how to disciple converts. Lack of wisdom by missionaries in these areas can cause great suffering among the local people.

Currently in Brazil, we are practicing evangelism in our micro-region, where there is only a small percentage of evangelicals and many resistant traditional religious groups. We are also seeking to reach the nearly fifteen thousand students at the local university.

Please pray with us for the ongoing work in Angola, in Brazil, and in many other places where believers are reaching out in ministry to this important population of university students.

Endnote

1. Johnstone, Patrick and Jason Mandryk. 2001. Operation World. Waynesboro, Georgia, USA: Paternoster.


Antonia Leonora van der Meer, a Brazilian, served as a missionary with the Evangelical Alliance in Angola to organize a student movement. She is now a teacher and principal of the Evangelical Missions Center in Viçosa, Brazil.