Most people, myself included, see the world and small changes that might be made to better it. And we look on the surface at the issues that are nearest at hand. A true visionary, though, is someone who sees foundational problems and is able to envision and pursue profound solutions, regardless of their scale or the challenges they pose. Nigeria’s Byang Kato was a true Christian visionary.
In 1936, Byang was born to a tribal priest near Kwoi in central Nigeria. Shortly after his birth he was dedicated to the Juju priesthood and when six of their next seven babies died, friends assured Byang’s parents that the devil was protecting Byang from competition in his designated life assignment as future tribal priest. Byang’s religious future seemed fixed but revival would come to his region and by the 1940’s, 50 percent of Jaba’s 100,000 people had become Christians.
He heard the gospel in his first month of school at age twelve when his teacher explained the message of Noah and the ark and he realized he needed to enter Jesus’ ‘boat of salvation’ the way that Noah and his family had done. Unfortunately, persecution resulted as his father was disappointed by his son’s new faith and the implications for his career as a Juju priest.
In 1953 revival came to Kwoi, where Byang lived, and after attending a week of intense preaching he shared the following:
The Holy Spirit convicted us of our selfishness … nearly a thousand men and women wept for their sins. Husbands and wives were confessing how they’d sinned against each other … With my heart breaking within me, and tears streaming down my face, I went forward to confess my sins before the Lord and His people. As a symbol of my sincerity, I took off my shirt and laid it alongside the other gifts. Oblivious to everyone, I knelt in prayer.
“It’s not your shirt I want,” Jesus said to me.
“What do you mean?”
“I want your life, son.”
“Lord, I give You my life. I don’t know what You want me to be, but I dedicate myself to You. Do whatever You want with me.”
Do you think that God is pleased to answer a prayer like that? Although only sixteen at the time, this marked a pivotal change in the direction of Byang’s life. He immediately began to help other neighbourhood children who couldn’t afford to attend school and many learned to write due to his efforts. He entered Bible school at age 19, and later taught at a Bible Training School near his home town. He went on to get a bachelor of divinity degree from London Bible College and then master’s and doctoral degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary, becoming the first evangelical African to earn a Th.D.
His theological contributions in Africa were profound. While many were denying the supernatural nature of God’s works in the Bible in theological liberalism, or diluting Christianity with harmful cultural customs and beliefs from traditional African religions, Byang urged people back to the Scriptures and to the African theologians who had provided leadership for the Christian church in its first centuries. Early Christian was almost entirely dependent on Christian leaders from North Africa including Origen, Athanasius, Tertullian and Augustine. He was convinced that a study of the Scriptures and insight from Africa’s early Christian writers and theologians would provide help in guiding Africans more than the more recent reactions of more recent Western or African cultures.
After a dizzying list of ministry appointments, he took on the continent-wide post of General Secretary of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa and Madagascar and laid out a vision to “find a cure for [the African church’s] theological anemia” calling it a dreadful disease. He longed to see African Christian scholars writing and publishing African theology, African seminaries and Bible colleges training African pastors, an African theological journal and an accrediting agency to set standards of good theological education. It was a bold statement of the African church’s most pressing needs and he gave himself passionately to their resolution. Tragically, two and a half years later, at age 39, on a family vacation near Mobassa, Kenya, Byang Kato mysteriously drowned in what many believe was an attack from his opponents.
His vision however and the efforts he began to fulfill it, inspired the dreams of many and within several decades of his death the bold vision he worked for had become a reality.
May God give us his passion, his insight and his vision for our church, our city and the world!
In awe of Him,