John Wengatz was an American missionary to Angola, arriving there with his wife in 1910 to start their work.
At their first "official" outreach service to a tribe that had never heard the Gospel before, John Wengatz and his wife Susan saw something truly amazing: during this open air service, the people were reacting powerfully, weeping, crying, and prostrating themselves on the ground .... all calling upon Jesus to forgive their sins. However, Wengatz was not used to such emotional reactions and in his naivete encouraged them to avoid such open expressions of emotion. The result? It killed the service. The locals all sat calmly, paying close attention to the speaker, and didn't move a muscle when the altar call was made. They no longer felt the freedom to reach out to the Lord.
Wengatz's main priority in everything that he did was to help people find the Lord, and this broke his heart. He recognized his mistake immediately, and told the people to ignore what he had said previously. He told them to express themselves as they saw fit ... and suddenly the altars were full of men, women, and children seeking the Lord.
Wengatz, however, still had some lessons to learn, and one of them involved public prayer. When opportunities for prayer were given during the service, everyone would pray out loud at the same time. In his eyes, this was just confusion and noise. Wengatz believed that in prayer meetings, and in prayers during the service, everyone should pray one at a time. People should take turns with their prayers, he explained to his converts. They were carefully instructed to pray one at a time, to avoid "confusion."
When he asked some of them to pray during the services, they knew that everyone would be listening to them -- and that's where some problems crept in. They began to pray in a way to impress their audience, instead of praying to be heard by the Lord. Even if they weren't praying to impress, they seemed extremely concerned that someone else would criticize how they prayed. The prayers were dry and without emotion. By his own account, Wengatz ended up with some of the longest, deadest prayers in the history of the church! He began to notice drops in attendance, and that concerned him greatly.
Again, realizing his mistake, Wengatz told the people to ignore his previous instructions. What he had termed noise and confusion was really no such thing. He allowed them to pray the way the Lord led them, and soon the Lord was free to move in the services again and attendance picked up.
Later on, Wengatz and his wife had secured funding to erect a large cloth tent to hold their meetings in. The seating was dry grass sprinkled on the ground, and their altars were made by driving forked sticks into the ground and laying long branches across them. The only furniture present were two camp stools, and there was no pulpit. The tent itself was made of heavy duty canvas, and was quite striking in appearance.
He and his wife were quite proud of this tent, and he felt that a certain level of decorum should be practiced in this fine tent. Apparently, he still had not learned his lesson about controlling the services. He informed his converts that they should behave with dignity and respect in their newly erected church, and discouraged expressions of emotion and feeling.
The result? He had one of the deadest services he had ever seen. Wengatz recognized his mistake, told his converts to exercise their freedom in worshipping the Lord, and soon things were back to normal -- with full altars and individuals being deeply converted.
Wengatz never made that mistake again. When he tried to force his converts to react like he did, it apparently grieved the Holy Spirit. He learned to allow people to exercise the freedom in worship that the Lord had given them, and recognized that different people and different cultures are going to react differently to a touch from the Lord. In short, he surrendered to the Lord his preconceived ideas of what a church service should look like and let the Lord have control.
Wengatz, J.C., Miracles in Black, Schmul Publishing Company, 1987.
Sara McCaslin is an engineer, a computer scientist, and a freelance writer.