Last week (Made in Zambia: Meet Conrad Mbewe) we whet our appetite for exotic spiritual nourishment with an introduction to the so-called “Spurgeon of Africa,” pastor Conrad Mbewe. I was privileged to secure a front row (spit zone) seat this week as the zesty Zambian preached up a storm for the African Pastor’s Conference, hosted by Hillcrest Baptist Church in Durban, South Africa.
Over a sumptuous steakhouse feast I questioned him til his kudu-loin fillet got cold. Here are few bites of his meaty answers for you to chew on.
I have included questions from my interview with him as well as a side serving of a query posed by a conference attendee in the public Q&A, which elicited an impassioned impromptu offering I particularly enjoyed.
Though I took copious notes, Mbewe’s answers here are largely paraphrased, but peppered with occasional quotes. Serving suggestion: try to have Mbewe’s words read to you aloud by a baritone with a stentorian Zambian accent. Bon appetite.
1) What information would be helpful for Evangelicals in the West to know about the state of the African church?
First, it is important for people to resist thinking of Africa as a monolithic entity. There are four very different cultures in Africa: the Arab North, the French and Portugese influenced countries in Central Africa, and the White English influence of Southern Africa.
The Christians in the Muslim countries are in a “do or die” mode, trying to survive and flourish under intense persecution. These believers should not be expected to be participants in hair-splitting theological discussions. Evangelicalism in this area should be seen as anyone committed to follow Christ amidst persecution. We should not be too stuck on parsing their allegiance to this or that theological school of thought.
The Christians in the economically and educationally challenged areas of Central Africa are in a state of what I call “blessed ignorance.” I find that in general their hearts are with Christ and they are faithful followers of His, but they lack the theological refinement necessary to get all their ducks in a row. The people have “low expectations of their leaders’ educational qualifications to preach.” It is in these areas where rampant health-wealth-prosperity preaching and extreme charismatic practices are most common and leave the church in a state of immaturity.
I attribute this to a lack of understanding that comes from their immersion in “cultural superstitions.” It is here where “syncretism of African religions is a major problem in the church.” For example, the “health and wealth movement found ready soil for its teachings in the witch-doctors’ promises.” There isn’t a “deliberate engagement of the mind” when they go to church. “An example of this is the prevalent deliverance ministries in Africa” that have to do with breaking spells that witch-doctors cast on people. Christians should not fight occultism with more occultism, but this is what is happening in some churches.
It is also due to a “theological lethargy” in which the people are content with hearing teaching that is “next to nothing” in biblical content. The solution here is to “somehow break through the concrete wall of ignorance” by supplying educated and solid preachers to their regions through missionaries willing to go there and make a difference.
The Evangelical church in the regions where theological education is available, such in English speaking Southern Africa, is in better shape, but there is still a lot of” unbiblical practice and shallow theology. This is a mystery to me, why educated people who use their brains in their professions are content to leave their brains at home when they go to church.” There are many people who are “content with the anti-intellectual emotionalism” that is common in many churches in Southern Africa.
“These people should know better, they should expect more from their preachers, but they don’t! They are happy to dance around in church and hear platitudes from the pulpit, and then feel as though they worshipped God.” They “disengage their brains when they worship. I don’t know why.” I am “shocked that they are content with next to nothing on a Sunday.” These people need to take their spiritual lives more seriously than they do, engage their brains in worship, and then they must “challenge their workplaces” in the week with the gospel, on the level their colleagues are asking about.
Emotionalism is not going to work when you are witnessing to an educated professional, and nor should it. Christianity is a religion of the mind. The church in Southern Africa must “take theological ownership” of Africa and export solid doctrine through missionary endeavors to other parts of Africa.
2) What would you want to tell the Evangelical church in America and the UK about how best to be involved in God’s Kingdom work in Africa?
The church in the West needs to “learn to listen to the Evangelical voices on the African continent. They are few, but they are God-given.” What I mean is that in general organizations that send missionary support to Africa have their own people on the continent who interpret the challenges and needs and then report back to USA or UK of what they think is necessary. The church in the West trusts its own people—who are naturally removed by their culture—rather than trusting the indigenous believers’ assessment of their own need.
This is not the fault of the Western church. African churches have created this distrust in the credibility of their ability to assess their own needs. “African churches have responded to the question, What help can we provide you with?, by hearing, What can the West pour into my cup? [At this point Mbewe smiled and picked up his can of lemonade and poured it into a glass, which I thought was pretty cool.] They should rather be thinking, How can the church in the West partner with what we are doing for the gospel here?” For example, when an American church offers help to an African church, the church says, “We are building a bigger building for ourselves, so you an help by giving us money or missions teams to help us build our building.” Instead of doing this, the church in Africa should say, We will use our own resources to build our buildings, but we can partner with you and your resources to extend the outreach we are having for the gospel in Africa.
So, because the church in Africa has not been using Western resources well, the West has taken to not asking them what they need. They simply ask other Westerners what the church in Africa needs. The solution is for the West to identify the few by clear voices of Africans who know what Africa really needs. Again, “these are few, but God-given.”
Another major issue is that I believe the West cannot “formulate and transplant” a model that works in Africa. The model of ministry here needs to be formulated here.
[Mbewe gave some examples to clarify that, but asked that I not include them in the interview, as he did not want to offend partners of his who have done this. Here is an example I made up to help you understand what he meant: Americans view giving a gift to a government official to get a favorable outcome as a bribe, but in African culture it is highly insulting to come empty0handed before a person of authority. The gift is a necessary part of the honor-shame culture, and shows that you are coming humbly. To ask for permission to build and not give a gift is like saying, “I’m going to build this and if you stop me there will be war.” Bringing a gift shows “You are in charge of me and my building, so letting me build here is not a sign of your weakness, but a sign of your generosity.”]
3) What advice can you give pastors who want to pursue a ministry beyond their local church, e.g. writing and/or conferences?
Different pastors will handle this differently. In my case I have very good elders who have a mindset of wanting to influence the kingdom of God in Africa and the world, not just in Lusaka. So when they realized that I was getting invitations to preach elsewhere in the world, they gave me permission to be out of the pulpit 13 Sundays a year, and they hired an assistant to help me arrange my travel.
As they saw my writing ministry increasing, they hired a literary assistant to help me. If your elders have foresight and want your ministry to have a wide influence in the kingdom of God, then that is gift from God that you should use.
If your elders get upset that you are away from your pulpit or spending time on writing, then you will have difficulty in balancing the local ministry and the wider ministry. You will need to sacrifice personal time to use those gifts God ha given you.
4) [Conference Q&A] What do you make of the charismatic gifts of healing and tongues?
“Rather than spoil this conference with a debate on a contentious issue, let me just say that I believe that when God gives a gift, it is real. There should not be any room for debate or quarreling about whether or not it exists. If you have the gift of healing, then go to Hillcrest Hospital and empty the beds. That way no one will quarrel with you. If you have the gift of tongues, then use it, just make it about Christ and not yourself. Use it for the common good or don’t use it at all. I take the gift of tongues to be what we see in the Bible, the ability to speak a language that you have not learned, as in Acts 2. If you can speak a language for the common good, do so. But if you can’t then just keep quiet rather than make a big deal about yourself and your so-called abilities.”
[A follow-up question was posed in Zulu by a South African Zulu pastor, and had to be interpreted for Mbewe who doesn’t speak Zulu. The interpretation was done by someone who was bilingual. The irony was not lost on Mbewe or the audience.]