First FIEL Conference

August 2000 – Vol.16 – No.3

Dear Friends:

The high point for me in over ten years of ministry here took place last May, at the first annual “Conferência Fiel” meeting for pastors and church workers held in Nampula.

The conference takes its name from a Brazilian publishing house established by veteran missionary Richard Denham, together with his wife Pearl. After serving several years as a missionary to Brazil, Richard became acquainted with the literature still cherished today from the fathers of the Reformation. He was profoundly influenced by their devotedness to Christ, their commitment to holy living, their lofty view of the majesty and glory of God, and the doctrines they re-discovered from scripture, doctrines which gave rise to the courageous lives they led and the mighty renewal God wrought within His church through their labor and sacrifice.

As a result of Richard’s ministry, several Brazilian pastors were similarly affected. Richard became burdened to see these books translated into Portuguese and widely disseminated through all Brazil. In time God raised up Brazilian translators who shared our brother’s vision, and they began translating and publishing under the name “Editora Fiel”. Today they have translated over 130 titles, all of them books of exceptional quality. In the last two years they have produced a magazine specifically oriented to pastors, excellent in content and attractiveness, that is distributed not only throughout Brazil but also in Mozambique and Portugal. They also organize annual pastors’conferences that have drawn hundreds of Brazilian pastors. Many have written stirring testimonies of how their ministries and their personal lives were transformed by the knowledge imparted through these books and conferences.

The conferences and periodicals are free to pastors, expenses being covered by donors who esteem the literature being disseminated. The books must be purchased, but in recent years God granted Richard the faith and boldness to begin offering even the books free of charge to pastors who enroll in a special book distribution program. Knowing I appreciated Editora Fiel’s books and had sought to distribute them in Nampula, Richard asked me to head up the distribution program for Mozambique. It was hard to pass up that opportunity, but I recommended a brother in Maputo, Karl Peterson, who could serve both Editora Fiel and the Mozambican pastors far more faithfully than I could.

And Karl has done that, making the Editora Fiel project the most satisfying of his various ministries to Mozambican pastors. Paradoxically, the highest concentration of pastors participating in the book distribution program come from the Nampula area, while Karl lives over 1000 miles away in the capital. Several months ago I was discouraged with the frequent disappointments in our local church. Many of our folk are uneducated and their spiritual growth is hindered by inability to read the Bible and reluctance to part with traditions that are contrary to scripture. I suggested to Karl that we sponsor a conference here in Nampula for the pastors registered in his book program and volunteered to handle the logistics for the meeting since I lived in the area. I hoped it would be a means of contributing to men who were on a faster track spiritually than many of the people I deal with in our local church. For his part, Karl was already hoping to meet personally with the men he only knew by correspondence. We anticipated having a small meeting for 10 or 15 pastors, but hoped it might lead to bigger things in the future. Enthusiastically we set to work on the preparations.

From the first, God’s hand in the conference was often apparent. How encouraging it is when you sense something you are doing is not merely a project dreamed up on your own. In retrospect, the first indication this might be more than we envisioned came when Martin Holdt accepted our invitation to address the men on the program. Martin is a gifted pastor and international preacher who is regularly invited to speak at church conferences throughout the English speaking world. I knew him through our family’s association with his church in Johannesburg. He had often expressed an interest to visit Nampula so I had the boldness to ask him to come now, when he could also speak to the handful of pastors we hoped to assemble for the conference. We were delighted when he accepted our invitation.

Next, when we informed “Editora Fiel” in Brazil of what we were doing, they voted to fly the founder and director, Richard Denham, to the meeting as well. His participation turned out to be a great animating force. The obvious affection he had for Portuguese speaking pastors and his delight in furnishing fine books for their use greatly motivated the men at the conference. When Karl and I heard of their desire to send Richard, we had some second thoughts. I felt his visit might be somewhat wasted at such an early stage. We expected minimal participation from the pastors and a lot of blunders on our part as we learned how to host a conference under Mozambique’s difficult conditions. However, the Lord led us to promote the plan, and it proved to be the right decision. Besides the force of his own presence, Richard brought four thousand dollars worth (retail value) of books, study Bibles, and reference works which were sold at the conference for one tenth their listed price. You can imagine the excitement that produced in Nampula where no one has ever seen a Christian book store, where even Bibles and hymnals are hard to come by! Four thousand dollars’ worth of books divided amongst ten to fifteen men would be quite a windfall.

Only there weren’t ten to fifteen men. As it turned out, the quality of Editora Fiel’s publications had impressed some of the more educated and influential pastors in the program even more than we realized. Scholarship does not run deep yet in the Mozambican church. That is constantly improving as the national education system finds its legs and as Bible schools gear up and organizations like Editora Fiel provide opportunities like their book program. But despite the current limitations, at least a few men were reading the materials, some of them voraciously, and were grateful for what they were discovering. When we told them an Editora Fiel conference would be hosted in the area, they enthusiastically recruited all their associates.

And so to our amazement, and some dread on my part, 137 pastors and church workers from various parts of the country mailed in registration forms to attend the conference. Not all of them followed through with their plans, but when the first meeting took place 85 men were in attendance from 24 different denominations! That they appreciated the conference was borne out by the fact that all of them continued straight through all of the 19 sessions during the next two and a half days. We registered no drop-outs! One of our requests before the Almighty was that He would send only those leaders who would benefit from the meetings, and apparently that is what happened.

The purpose of the conference was threefold: 1) to encourage and spiritually refresh pastors as they face the task of ministering to a desperately needy church out of their own spiritually meager resources, 2) to introduce them to the rich legacy left to us by the fathers of the Reformation, and 3) to promote the doctrines of grace amongst Mozambican believers. I was a bit surprised when Martin selected themes majoring almost exclusively on the first objective, but as a pastor of pastors, his heart was for the men to advance in their personal walk with God, in holiness, in prayer, and in their warfare against the evil one. Here again God was leading, and the men responded warmly as he discharged his burden in seven stirring messages.

God’s blessing was again manifested in the translation of the messages. Tyler Hopkins, our other Grace Missions’ missionary, leads a pastor’s seminary in South Africa. He has a promising Mozambican student named Baptista Boa now in his third year at the school. Baptista is praying about a place to minister when he completes his coursework and Tyler has encouraged him to come to Nampula. To promote this, he gave him time off to attend the conference. I had not met Baptista before, but it was soon apparent that he loved the Lord and had been well taught at the seminary. The translator we brought in from Maputo had great difficulty translating for the first session, though he came highly recommended. We knew we had to make some changes. Thankfully, Baptista was available and translated well throughout the rest of the conference. He had not been on our list of potential translators since none of us had met him before, but he turned out to be the most capable of all. We were grateful God sent him and averted a disaster that would have ruined the whole conference!

My part in the conference was setting up the meeting hall, the meals, and the lodging. I had an urgent trip to South Africa to squeeze in before the meetings and because of arriving home four days behind schedule, the conference preparations were in great jeopardy. I had only six days to do what I expected would take ten days. We built a large kitchen at the meeting site with bamboo walls and frame and a huge tarp for the roof. Electric lights were strung from the nearby meeting hall. For only fifty dollars we had a most satisfactory kitchen. The inside of the hall we decorated with curtains and banners purchased in South Africa. Then we set out to find food for all the men. Advice from local pastors, missionaries, and cooks who had hosted conferences before got us past most of the obstacles.

The hand of God was often evident in the mundane preparations for eating and lodging. While in South Africa I had purchased all the stainless steel table settings I could find, enough to serve 86 men. When I left Nampula for South Africa we had 20 men registered for the meeting. That was in keeping with what we expected. As I prepared to return to Nampula a month later, Karl told me there were 54 men registered. That was still fine. But by the time I got home, to my great dismay Karl announced there were now 137 men registered! It seemed impossible to accommodate so many. In the end, “only” 85 made it, just one less than the 86 table settings God had provided! Surely no one would call that coincidence.

When the men arrived for the meetings, 18 needed lodging. I had reserved rooms for 20, a wild guess at the time arrangements were made. Again, God’s ability to lead even as we walk in darkness was apparent. When I learned there were potentially 137 participants, I wondered how we would find chairs and tables in Nampula for so many. But when we showed up to decorate the meeting hall two days before the conference, we discovered a wealthy family had just hosted a wedding party there. They had brought in chairs and tables for 100 people as well as many potted plants, just what I needed! We asked them to let us rent their chairs, tables and plants for the three days of our conference and they accepted! What a provision from the Lord, to find everything already at hand when we were so pressed for time!

The meals were good and on time, thanks to a hard-working kitchen staff. Our two cooks slaved over wood fires day and night till their eyes were so burned from smoke that they could not keep them open. They had agreed to fix 600 meals for five dollars; ten dollars if the meals were good; and 15 dollars if they were good and on time. Of course I expected to pay them more if they truly did a good job, but that is how one starts bargaining here. With so much at stake, the men made sure the food was ready on time, probably a first for Africa. They even indulged me by following such rules as washing their hands and disinfecting raw food with bleach, things that probably seem as superstitious to them as sprinkling with fairy dust would be to us. In the end, I paid them $90 for their diligence and hard work. They were kings wages, as it represented a month’s salary for three days’ work.

Unexpectedly, the kitchen required my constant attention throughout the conference. One of Satan’s thunderbolts was to take both the Land Rover and Toyota out of commission just days before the meeting when there was so much work to be done. Thankfully we still had the big Bedford truck, but I was the only one on our work crew who had a license to drive a truck. That meant it was I who had to be at the farmer’s market at 5:00 each morning to purchase the fresh vegetables and fruits. Throughout the day it was I who brought all the meat in live on the hoof (no refrigeration available for so much food – the animals were slaughtered, butchered, cooked, and eaten right on the site). Contrary to plan, it was I who before each meal fetched the bread fresh from the bakery and brought in the appetizers and desserts prepared by Julie and a neighbor lady in their respective homes. The kitchen work went on without let up until 11:00 each evening when I was finally able to shut off the lights after the last pots and pans and knives and forks were washed, counted, and secured.

The 600 meals cost almost $1000, plus we purchased two thousand dollars’ worth of flatware, kettles, trays, mugs, etc. in order to serve all the food. I am grateful we have those supplies as now we can host more conferences and one day they will be needed for the hospital.

I had three personal ambitions for the conference. One was to enjoy seven messages from Pastor Holdt, a real treat on the mission field where average speakers are what we have on hand. The second ambition was the opportunity of preaching to 85 pastors and church leaders on the topic of my choice. The third was to disseminate a small primer on theology I have prepared in Portuguese that follows closely the 1689 Baptist confession. You have already heard how the first hope was dashed when the kitchen work required my constant involvement. Then, because of time pressure beginning a month earlier when we left for South Africa to buy material for the conference and send two containers of building supplies to Nampula, I had no opportunity to prepare my talk or assemble the primer. What a disappointment that was, to be shut out on all three of my personal aspirations.

However, after midnight before the last day of the conference I printed up the mock-up for the primer and sent it to the photocopiers the next morning. To my surprise, they not only copied the book, but colated and bound all the pages as well without my asking. That made the remaining work much easier, and in the end I was able to distribute the booklet as the last event of the conference Friday night. The pastors, who had already given a warm response to my message earlier in the day, received the primers with enthusiasm. Since then I have been heartened by visits from several men saying the primer was so helpful they wanted copies for their fellow pastors. How gracious of God to salvage that project after all hope for it had been abandoned!

I was similarly disappointed to have to speak on so important an occasion without writing out the message in advance or rehearsing the presentation. Though I wanted to prepare carefully, kitchen duties rendered that impossible. It was not until an hour before the message that I could put an outline together. Yet the unction of the Holy Spirit made up for all the deficiencies and the message was better than my most carefully prepared sermons.

My topic was true salvation, the means and the manifestations. I emphasized personal experiential knowledge of God as true salvation (John 17:3), with faith alone as the means (Ephesians 2:8-9), and the necessity of a transformed life in order to have any assurance of the genuineness of our salvation or that of any one else (I John 3:10). A common mistake here is to accept religious ritual and submission to the church’s moral code as the essence of Christianity when that is only the husk. “That I may know Him,” was Paul’s aspiration and we also must settle for nothing less as the goal for ourselves and those to whom we minister.

Another common mistake here is to preach the proof of salvation, good works, as if it were the means to it. The corollary that almost always accompanies this error is to let the means of salvation, faith, stand as evidence that one must be saved. That is, a superficial profession of faith with nothing else backing it up is accepted as proof that someone is “one of us”, often with disastrous results in marriage and in church leadership. It was easy to illustrate the confusion that comes into the church and our personal lives when we aren’t clear on these fundamental issues, as types and examples abound both here and in the western church.

The final point was the supreme importance of preaching Christ, not works or church rules or even religious activity, in order to produce the faith that alone leads to genuine conversion.

Each point in the message was an area of confusion in the churches I am familiar with. The opportunity to strike those nails hard on the head at a conference attended by so many church workers was one of the great motivating factors for me in the whole undertaking.

In the end, the men seemed pleased and encouraged by the conference. Pastor Holdt’s messages were stirring and well directed to the spiritual needs of the pastors. Richard Denham and his books and talks animated the men. The practical details I was responsible for passed without a hitch, far from what I expected for our first attempt. Baptista’s participation was an invaluable and unexpected asset. Karl’s organization and leadership was excellent. The pastors responded with enthusiasm. We thank God for His blessings on the conference and anticipate more men in the next one. We pray that these conferences and the book distribution program will grow to national proportions, significantly strengthening the pastors and local churches.

After ten years of struggling nearly alone in our church work, it was satisfying to be part of a team and to see things happening that one man alone could never accomplish

Which reminds us of those who labor with us from home. As always in our letters, we must end by thanking you for your help. The fact that many people remember us before the Almighty has been especially evident during this time.

By His grace:

Charles and Julie Woodrow