In Bill Issa’s December update, he shared the news of a monumental event in the life of Reconciliation Baptist Church in Kampala, Uganda: “We thank the Lord Jesus Christ for bringing us this far as a church! On November 26, our church was constituted with the required number of members who met the biblical qualifications of church membership. The first leadership team (two elders and three deacons) was set apart by the laying on of hands.”
For some readers, such an event may require some explanation. In some missions movements today, if a group is gathering regularly for Bible study, it is claimed that a “church” has been planted. As you will see in this article, the Reformed Baptists in Africa with whom HeartCry partners are much more careful about saying that a biblical church has been started.
For the past three years, Grace Baptist Church in Kisumu, Kenya, has functioned as Bill Issa’s “sending church.” The elders and members of Grace Baptist have provided support, oversight, and accountability for Reconciliation Baptist until they had adequate membership and leadership to be set apart as an autonomous church body. We asked HeartCry missionary Sam Oluoch, pastor of Grace Baptist, to explain the process of moving from a “church plant” to an autonomous church body, along with the history of their work with Bill Issa.
From Infancy to Autonomy
In the missions policy of Grace Baptist Church – Kisumu (GBC), we have followed the pattern of the Antioch church in Acts 13. For one to be sent out as a missionary/church planter, he must be an elder or fit to qualify as an elder either from amongst our own membership or as a servant of God providentially brought to us. It is with this in mind that all our missionaries have to be vetted and approved by the church elders and presented to the church for approval.
Once approved by the church, it is the task of GBC members to support the missionary. We therefore must find a way of providing for the missionary from amongst ourselves. If financial support is not possible (usually this is a challenge), it is the duty of the church leaders to find willing partners who can stand with us financially to support our missionary as we give oversight and accountability.
We expect the missionary to engage in his work wholeheartedly, evangelizing and pastoring the group the Lord raises for him. As this goes on, we believe that some will be saved and that the number gathering should rise from year to year. This may happen quickly, or it may take quite a long time, depending on how God blesses His work. Normally, we look to see ten or more converts before we start thinking of constituting a church.
Before then, the church-plant work does not have its own elders and deacons, and much of these services are provided by the sending church. At the point of constituting, we know that mature men have been raised to be counted as elders and deacons, and there is therefore leadership in place to take the baton from the sending church leadership. As for Bill Issa, he has started on solid ground: Brother David is ready to serve as a co-elder, and three men are already qualified as deacons. This is a rare gift!
In a case like this, once leadership is in place, our role as the sending church is greatly reduced; we expect Reconciliation Baptist Church (RBC) to start running their own affairs independent of us. For the first year (2018), we will continue visiting them, but just to fellowship and give counsel when necessary.
History with Bill
In August 2013, I was in Lusaka, Zambia, to attend the annual family conference at Kabwata Baptist Church (KBC). Bill Issa had been directed to this same conference by a friend in the USA, hoping he would receive greater exposure to reformed teaching. Although we had never met, we shared a room in Lusaka at the church guest house. This was intentionally arranged by the conference organizers so that Bill could bombard me with Bible questions with which he was struggling. We gelled very well throughout the conference period and afterwards.
When Bill went back to Uganda, he requested oversight from the elders of KBC as he worked to start a church in Kampala. Kabwata’s elders felt it was better if oversight came from the neighboring country of Kenya rather than faraway Zambia, so they directed him to us. Though we did not know Bill well, we accepted the risk and offered to work with him very closely. Bill became a member of our church and, after one year, was commissioned in 2014 to be our missionary to Kampala. He labored well with us and HeartCry, our financial partner in this work. The Lord blessed his work, and the church was constituted in November 2017. They are now free to run their own affairs, and we stand ready to help if needed.
A Careful Constitution Process
There were several steps involved in the actual constitution process.
In August 2017, Pastor Paul Odera (another Kenyan HeartCry missionary) and Deacon Osborn visited Kampala to teach on the characteristics of a biblical church, the qualifications of church membership, the ordinances of the church (Lord’s table and baptism), and the fellowship and financial support of the church. Bill also helped with these teachings.
In September 2017, my co-elder Ken and I were scheduled to visit RBC and teach on the subject of elders and deacons—the need for them, the importance of a plurality, and their qualification and duties. Then the plan was to interview those who had applied for church membership. This visit did not take place according to schedule, due to the volatile political situation in Kenya. Instead, this was covered the day before constituting.
On Saturday, November 25, 2017, we held the teachings on elders and deacons from morning to evening, also reviewing the teaching from August. Then, with Bill, we interviewed those who had applied for membership. The twelve qualifying members voted to recognize David as elder, and for Bill to transition from being GBC-Kisumu’s missionary-pastor to RBC’s pastor. Then they also confirmed the three deacons.
On Sunday, November 26, 2017, we held a special morning service with over thirty guests. The church was officially constituted as the twelve qualifying members covenanted together. Pastor Bill and elder David were set apart, prayed for, and given a charge. I then preached from Colossians 1:28-29, exhorting the leaders and the church to uphold Christ and Christ alone. This was followed by a sumptuous meal and the cutting of a celebratory cake. Wow! What a blessed day it was!