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15-member Utah church benefits from Kenyan’s encouragement

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The town is set in perhaps some of the most majestic country on earth, marked by fortresses of stone and high, reddish mesas that appear sculpted by the finger of God. But like the shadows cast by the area’s rocky arches and towering crags, a darkness is present amid the natural beauty surrounding this southeastern Utah town.

Moab, Utah. Population 8,000. To this remote corner of creation a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary student from Kenya went during his spring break in March to encourage a small outpost of the faithful against the power of the prince of darkness.

Mwaura Sampson Wanyoike, a master of arts in church and community ministry student, was one of 84 students who took part in the seminary’s spring evangelism practicum, an annual program that sends students all over the country to conduct revival services in small churches that otherwise might not be able to have them. Wanyoike went to Moab, a place he described as “the uttermost ends of the earth.”

The windswept rock formations and brown desert soil were a far cry from the Kenyan shores of the Indian Ocean where Wanyoike calls home. But wherever he is bringing a message of revival is exactly where he feels the Lord wants him to be. That was not always the case.

After earning a master of divinity from Southwestern in Fort Worth, Texas, Wanyoike returned to Kenya to teach at Kenya Baptist Theological College for 10 years. When he returned to Texas in 1997, he said he was on the “verge of burning out.”

In Kenya, he was teaching and pastoring a church. The 10 years, he said, felt like 20.

“I was really beginning to lose my focus on where I was supposed to serve,” he said. Back in Texas, he entered a clinical pastoral education program in Temple. Serving at the hospital there and relating to patients and his peers were a challenge, Wanyoike said, but the hospital was also where his personal revival began as he discovered he had been evasive not only in relationships with others, but also in his relationship with God.

“I needed to learn how to get close to God,” he said.

That need fed a desire to learn more about holiness, renewal and revival.

“Revival will be a practice for me for the rest of my life,” he said.

Wanyoike’s East African background is one reason he ended up in Moab. Dale Clayton, pastor of Angel Rock Fellowship, one of two Southern Baptist churches in Moab, said when he heard two Kenyan students were available, he requested that one come to Utah.

“The church thought it would be interesting to have someone from overseas,” he said.

Moab’s economy relies primarily on tourism. It has a Mormon presence, but unlike many communities in Utah, Mormonism is not dominant, noted Clayton, who said New Age and satanic influences as well as spiritual apathy are also present.

Church member Pearle Watson estimated that roughly 30 percent of the town’s population is Mormon, and another 30 percent follow New Age beliefs. Evidence of satanic practices is most apparent around Halloween when small animals like cats have been skinned alive and sacrificed.

“[Evidence of satanic rituals] is common knowledge around here,” she said, adding that pentagrams have been found in caves near town.

Despite the spiritual challenges surrounding the small church, its 15 members have a vision to reach the unsaved of Moab.

“We have a vision to reach people who have never been to church before,” Watson said. “There are so many people out there who don’t know Christ.”

Angel Rock began in 1995 when some members from the First Southern Baptist Church of Moab, the other Baptist church, felt God calling them to start a mission in the southern part of town. Since then Angel Rock has been nomadic, moving five times, once taking up residence in a former Mormon church building. It now rents a building it shares with the Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission. The small corridor to the room where the congregation meets is lined with posters of movies made in the area, including “The Greatest Story Ever Told” with John Wayne and Charlton Heston.

Across from the church parking lot, a New Age shop displays a statue of the Hindu god Shiva, symbolic of the spiritual division of the town and the darkness with which Christians have to contend.

The revival services did not concentrate on numbers. Instead, the emphasis was on something vital in a town like Moab: encouraging the faithful.

In addition to an emphasis on spiritual renewal within the church membership, the revival also aimed at strengthening the church to embark on establishing a mission church in Thompson, a town of less than 100 about an hour’s drive north of Moab. Though the process will take time, Angel Rock wants to begin by starting a regular Bible study in the town.

During the week, Wanyoike drew from John 4, Luke 15, Genesis 35 and Isaiah 6 in giving a picture of how Christians “need to be changed and bury our spiritual garbage.”

The Samaritan woman at the well, Wanyoike noted in his sermon on John 4, came to the well when she did not expect anyone else to show up, but Christ was there.

“We see the nature of God,” said Wanyoike. “Christ was condemned over and over again for associating with sinners. He came for sinners. No matter how ugly you think yourself, Jesus will have time for you.”

And when the woman realized that Christ was the Messiah, she went back to the village and told the residents about him, not caring what their reactions might have been, Wanyoike said.

The passage demonstrated how Jesus led the woman to recognize her need for living water that only Christ can give. “We need to have this thirst,” Wanyoike told the church.

Between services, Wanyoike spoke with the mayor and invited people to the services. Though in human terms there was not much success, the way men see success and the way God sees it are different, Wanyoike noted in his sermon on Genesis 35.

In human eyes, he said, Jacob was a complete failure, having had to flee first from the wrath of his brother Esau and then from his uncle Laban. But God came to Jacob and told him to return to Bethel where Jacob had seen a vision of the Lord and had built an altar to him.

When he returned and got rid of his idols, he was given a new name — Israel. “It is the same thing God does to us. We get a whole new way of life,” said Wanyoike, reminding the congregation that the blood of Christ cleanses lives of sin. “Build yourself an altar in your heart. You need to build yourself a Bethel.”

As the church set out from the services to fulfill the vision of reaching the lost in Moab and beginning a mission church in Thompson, Wanyoike took away needed experience and a commitment to continue the work of evangelism. When revival comes to one’s heart, he said, “it has to overflow. You cannot have a revival and just keep it to yourself.”

    About the Author

  • Cory J. Hailey