Saved in a Bar: The Story of an Accidental Church Planter

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KISORO, Uganda — George Mbonye was serving rounds of beer in a tin-shack bar when a traveling evangelist entered the bar and began preaching. Mbonye and seven other men were saved that day. 

The evangelist left them with instructions to start attending a local church. But when the men began searching, they couldn’t find any church in the area that preached the good news they had heard in the bar.

Not knowing what else to do, they began meeting together every night in the bar. They studied the Bible, striving to know more about Jesus, and how to follow Him. While they were studying, they preached, sharing what they learned.

“People would come to look for beer, and they would hear the Word of God,” Mbonye says.

Those in the community didn’t know what to think. Soon, church-goers began talking about them.  

“How could the church be in the bar?” they asked. Mbonye and his friends were persecuted and threatened by their neighbors.

Eventually, the eight men worked together to buy the bar, turning it into a church they called Kabuhungiro, which means “the LORD is our refuge.”

Now, almost 30 years later, Mbonye leads a new believers’ class in a small classroom on a Saturday morning. His Bible is open in one hand; he grips a blue Nokia cell phone in the other. The phone is relentless — a pastor seeking advice, newlyweds requesting counsel, a widow struggling to feed her children.

Eventually, he switches it off, focusing on the small group of men and women sitting at the children’s desks, listening attentively.

Laughing quietly in the back of the room, his wife estimates the phone rings an average of 40 times a day — a testimony to Mbonye’s faithful ministry in the area.

Mbonye serves as the overseer of a network of 18 churches. In addition to these thriving congregations, the network supports eight elementary schools and facilitates five Compassion International centers.

What has made the church network so successful?

Mbonye attributes the success to a simple formula: the Bible and the Holy Spirit.

Because no one taught them how to form a church, Mbonye and his friends simply did what they found in the Bible. They worshiped together, prayed together, ate together and worked together. They told others about the good news. And they cared for those in the community as they had needs.

Mbonye explains that when members of the church go out for evangelism, they visit people in their homes. Whenever they find someone sick or without food, they pray for them, then report back to the church. Without exception, the church helps.

Even those who have little will share what they have — a cup of beans or some flour.

“When we do that, the people see the love and concern. They said, ‘Who is doing that?’ We tell them it’s not us — it’s Jesus Christ. We don’t tell them to come to the church, but they come to find us in the church,” Mbonye explains.

“That’s the way we see people coming to know Jesus Christ.”

There came a point in Mbonye’s ministry when he realized that as much as he had gained from personal studies of the Scripture, he could still benefit from more formal training. His congregation encouraged him to attend school again, and paid his fees at Uganda Baptist Seminary (UBS).

During his time at UBS, Mbonye learned about the distance program offered through Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. After he completed his bachelor’s degree at UBS, he enrolled in Southeastern to complete his master’s degree. Mbonye says his education from Southeastern has given him the Biblical knowledge and confidence to defend his faith against heresy.

“At Southeastern, you get the truth of the Word so that you don’t doubt … what you are doing,” Mbonye says. “It gives you confidence and knowledge to sort out wrong teaching from true teaching.”

Mbonye has taken that knowledge back to Uganda, where he serves as an adjunct professor at UBS. He also started a Bible school in Kisoro to teach local church leaders.  
“I had to come back … to empower other leaders, because every leader or pastor is not able to go UBS,” Mbonye says. “I have to bring the school to their local setting and in their context and in their local language so that they are able to spread the Gospel.”

Mbonye is “gifted as a teacher,” says UBS professor and IMB missionary Anthony Shelton, who considers Mbonye a close friend and ministry partner. “His passion is training and education.”

“It’s extraordinary what God is doing here,” says Shelton. “And I think the bigger it gets, the more people are involved to help, I think it’ll just keep growing.”

JoAnn Bradberry is photographer and writer for IMB.

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