No one can be quite sure which books Paul wanted when he was in prison, but from his cell he requested not only clothing to keep his body warm but also food for his mind (2 Timothy 4:13). Centuries later, in similar circumstances, William Tyndale asked for clothing and, above all, his Hebrew Bible, grammar and vocabulary.
‘Bring the books!’ was their heart-cry. Today there is an identical crie-de-cour from Christians in developing countries. It is much easier to arouse compassion for the physically hungry and homeless than for the spiritually hungry and ill equipped. The consequences of this spiritual neglect are serious.
Thirty years ago, Dr Byang Kato (Nigeria) wrote: ‘Biblical Christianity in Africa is being threatened by syncretism, universalism, and Christo-paganism. The spiritual battle for Africa during this decade will be fought, therefore, largely on theological grounds. But the church is generally unprepared for the challenge because of its theological and biblical ignorance’.
Although the picture has improved, thousands of African church workers still recognise their deficiencies in training and pastoral resources. During many visits to Africa, I spent time with pastors and others who were insatiably hungry to know God’s truth, and felt keenly their need for training in ministry. Their response to seminars for their encouragement and help was overwhelming.
My retirement from AIM International has drawn me into close co-operation with Robin and Margaret Bird. For many years their commitment to Christian books has been sustained with vision, spiritual perceptiveness, and zeal. They have worked in consultation with others, including Gordon and Liz Oram, who send out reformed books to overseas pastors. The main focus of their work has been Africa, but recently needs in the Far East have also been considered.
Robin and Margaret select, purchase, and despatch sets of books for Bible students, pastors and other Christian workers. Books are chosen for exegetical accuracy, doctrinal soundness, expositional character and relevant application.
The writings of Lloyd Jones, Berkhof, Ryle, Sinclair Ferguson, Peter Jeffrey and others are included. Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress are among the best received.
In recognition of the appalling poverty of many who receive them, these book-sets are sold for much less than their face value. In some cases, no charge at all is made. Such an arrangement is only possible through the generosity of the publishers and the support of Christians who see the need for this ministry.
Such books help provide an antidote to the trash ‘Christian’ literature pouring into Africa and other continents. Attractively printed and priced, this literature has an immediate appeal to those who lack the discernment to see the dangers lurking within the covers.
Only when you have met pastors who do not own a single Bible commentary, can you understand their joy and gratitude when they receive even a small supply of study helps.
Theological institutes are grateful to receive book-sets that augment the teaching given to their students. The Birds were much encouraged by a letter from the principal of a Bible school in Kenya: ‘Thank you for the information on your books. I now have several first-year students … interested in ordering books … but at this point we are – thinking of giving them as gifts to the students as they graduate’.
How essential it is for a student taking up his first pastoral charge to have adequate tools for the job. This, however, is the case for only a minority of men in Africa. Add to this the absence of role-models for the preaching of the Word, and the great demands on an African pastor’s time and energy, and we in UK may well feel ashamed at our plenty and their lack.
Christian Books for Africa is hoping to extend its ministry beyond English and French book-sets, and is investigating possibilities in the Portuguese language.
Theological writing by indigenous authors is desirable. The work of Robin and Margaret Bird could encourage the emergence of African writers who will build upon what they have discovered in their guided study of the Word.
Imagine visiting a humble African home in Sudan, where a young pastor is attempting to serve the Lord in planting and nurturing Christian churches. Islamic oppression is unremitting and intimidating. His small, sparsely furnished home is nothing like your own.
As you puff your way up five flights of stairs to his flat, you are about to discover his proudest possessions. Taking you to the window ledge he shows you a set of theological books. Their titles are more familiar to you than anything else in the room. Even where missionaries cannot go, books can!