A creative ministry initiative looked more like a stunt. A man living 24/7 on a barge anchored in the middle of a Texas reservoir became the setting to illustrate another country’s critical need for clean water.
Todd Phillips boarded the barge in early October. He said “stunt” is a fair word but added, “You’ll do anything when kids are dying every day.”
Ten years ago, Phillips was serving as pastor to thousands of young adults at a large Washington D.C.-area church when his flock became inspired by the movie Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce’s 40-year effort to end slavery. Phillips responded to their desire to “end something” by first praying and doing some research.
At that time, Liberia was ranked by the CIA and other world-watching organizations as one of the most miserable countries to live in. With its infrastructure decimated by a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003, the coastal, sub-Saharan country has suffered from surface water contamination.
Phillips considered factors that would facilitate mission efforts in Liberia: English is an official language; the political climate is relatively calm; topography allows successful drilling of wells; founded as a Christian state. Yet Phillips further noted that Christianity in Liberia, like the water, has contamination issues.
“Many are culturally Christian but have little understanding of a relationship with God and salvation through Christ,” he said.
Operation World estimates around 40 percent of Liberia’s population is Christian while less than 15 percent is evangelical. Ethno-religion, where faith practice is tied to traditions such as ancestor worship and animism, comprises the largest percentage of Liberians.
Evangelical Liberians face another infectious threat seen in other countries of Africa and the Global South: the prosperity gospel. “It’s a systemic misunderstanding of Christianity,” Phillips says.
The Right Approach
As the founder and executive director of The Last Well, Phillips has overseen a string of fundraising campaigns since 2009. The organization’s goal (with an end-date of December 2020) is “to provide safe drinking water to the entire nation of Liberia and preach the message of Jesus Christ to those we serve.” Their “water and the gospel” efforts have currently led to the completion of more than 6,400 water projects in the West African republic.
The Last Well partners with many other organizations at work in Liberia, including Samaritan’s Purse. Besides hiring local workers for water projects, they invite area pastors and church planters to do the work of evangelism. Phillips says their partners provide the church leaders with biblical resources and training “so that Liberians can carry on when we’re gone.”
That approach agrees with Operation World’s view concerning Liberia: “Christian help ministries are essential in this land of great spiritual hunger, great spiritual needs, but few material resources,” yet, “evangelization and mission must fall to Liberians and other Africans.”
Tim Johnson is executive director of Minnesota Church Ministries Association (MCMA), which conducts leadership training in seven African countries, including Liberia. Finding solid teaching resources that team members can carry into Africa is one focus of their work. Johnson is aware of ministries that combine water efforts with biblically sound outreach and says, “this is a beautiful way to help meet physical and spiritual needs all at once.”
Four years ago, Phillips and his team members counted down the hours before leaving Liberia as it was shutting down under the threat of Ebola. He returned home to heightened media interest due to the outbreak but stayed on mission as he responded to questions. “Ebola is indirectly related to bad water,” he explained. The Last Well’s work in Liberia remained largely unhindered.
MCMA’s training efforts in Liberia are fully back to normal post-Ebola. However, Johnson says other challenges remain: “economic deprivation and limited resources—both compounded by political change and uncertainty about the future and inflation.” Yet these conditions have not limited their ability to move about the country.
In the fall of 2017, Johnson’s team distributed a ministry resource at MCMA’s conference in Nimba County, Liberia. Through The Gospel Coalition (TGC) he had obtained copies of Prosperity? Seeking the True Gospel, a book available for free for church leaders in need of theological support. Johnson says false teachers can thrive in places of economic insecurity, “at least in the short term.”
Book recipients later reported its helpfulness in clearly exposing the deceptive messages and practices of prosperity preachers. One conference attendee from a Baptist church in Ganta, admitted, “I never even had time to read the Bible but want to hear what the prophet says [sic]. I was placing my faith in men instead of God.”
Liberian Church Leaders Agree
A pastor with Community Bible Church (CBC) in Kennesaw, Georgia, travels yearly to Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia. Patrick Pieters and his team members work with a federation of 230 indigenous churches connected to African Christian Fellowship International (ACFI), which holds an annual gathering of church leaders for unified evangelism efforts.
CBC offers teaching and preaching training to conference attendees; team members also assist ACFI on medical trips to remote areas and by contributing to the needs of local orphanages. This church is further helping ACFI to open Liberian Christian College in Monrovia, which will provide Christian training for both business and ministry leadership.
During a breakout session at the 2016 ACFI conference, Pieters asked around 100 Liberian pastors about their churches’ greatest challenge. To his surprise, they all agreed: the prosperity gospel.
Pieters says prosperity preaching effectively steals people from these pastors’ flocks. Like MCMA, his team contacted The Gospel Coalition to obtain copies of the Prosperity? book. They distributed 100 books at the conference in Monrovia the following year.
At the 2018 conference, Pieters’ team spoke with pastors who had used the TGC resource for both preaching and teaching that extends to church plants in a predominantly Muslim county of Liberia. The effect of biblically sound teaching on these leaders should result in healthier congregations.
Front Lines and Faithful Workers
In 15 years of traveling to Africa, Tim Johnson has seen a turn toward sound theology. “This is evidence of the power of the Word of God to straighten people out in their thinking,” he said. He also appreciates “the mobilization of the church of Jesus Christ” in response to Liberia’s threat of disease, and he especially credits Samaritan’s Purse and other agencies “on the front lines.”
Todd Phillips, not exactly on the front lines lately, endured weeks of heat, cold, rain, and some high winds in North Texas that threatened to sink his “Hope Floats” fundraising effort. At one point, the anchor rope broke and the barge nearly crashed into the Interstate 30 bridge. However, the bad weather events served to bring more attention to his cause. By the end of day 27 on the lake, the man who never stops talking about water and the gospel for Liberia was speechless. The Last Well had successfully met its goal to raise $2.3 million in their ongoing quest to end something terrible.