Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Being in the world without being from the world

I’m busy working through the book of Revelation (again!). Contrary to most people I speak to about this book, I find this to be one of the most comforting books in the Bible. I recently purchased a new commentary on this book and although I don’t agree with everything the author says – one point being that he disagrees with the fairly general viewpoint that the Christians in the time when Revelation was written was confronted with great opposition from the Roman empire and that martyrdom was a reality with which they were confronted – I thoroughly enjoy reading through this book.
In the letter to the church in Pergamum, the author notes a few interesting issues. This church is commended for the way in which they took a stand against the worshipping of the emperor – something which was common in those days. Revelation was probably written in around 95 AD, in the time when Domitianus was emperor of Rome. He commanded that the people refer to him as deus et dominus – our lord and our god. However, although they took such a strong stand against this ungodly practice, within the church itself there were serious problems. Apparently there was a group of Christians (church members) who did not consider it inappropriate to take part in heathen festivities. These festivities were usually characterised by various forms of immorality. In this letter to the church in Pergamum, it is said that Jesus holds it against the congregation that there were people within the congregation who took part in these festivities, with the implication that the church did nothing to change their viewpoint.
This brought to mind two questions: Does the church have anything to say about the personal life of church members and does God have anything to say about the way in which I conduct my personal life – or, to put it in other words, is it possible to be in the world without being from the world? When I was much younger, the church in South Africa that we belonged to, had endless rules and regulations about what members could do and could not do, what was sin and what was not sin. These rules didn’t help much, because people still tended to do whatever they wanted – they just ensured that the church leaders didn’t catch them doing this.
In Swaziland, as I suspect in most non-Western countries, this is still true to a great extent. A former colleague of mine used to be a missionary in Zambia and he shared a story with us of how one of their male church members wanted to get married. His only means of transport was a bicycle and he picked up his future wife at her homestead and travelled with her through the forest (a fairly long distance) until they reached the church where they wanted to get married. Once at the church, the local church members decided that he couldn’t get married before being put under church discipline for some time, because nobody knew what had happened while the two were travelling by bicycle through the forest! The amazing part of this story is that the couple accepted their “punishment” and put off their wedding until the church discipline had run its course.
In most churches in Swaziland there are certain things which are absolutely considered as taboo. Smoking and drinking are non-negotiable. I’ve found the same in the church in Russia. I suspect that it would be true for many countries in Africa. These churches come from a background where people would drink until they fall down. When people accept Christ, they have to follow a totally different lifestyle to distinguish them from those who are not Christians. And this is the reason why things like smoking and drinking are such huge issues for them. In their eyes, people smoking and drinking cannot be Christians. Compare this with Indonesia, where I attended church and then, as soon as the service is over, people start lighting up their cigarettes, even while still in the church building. Granted: their buildings are totally different due to the extreme heat, which is more like an open space covered by a roof, but still…
The problem of breaking totally from your old lifestyle is that it becomes increasingly difficult to have an influence on non-Christians. And this brings me back to the main question: How to be in the world without being from the world? The answer is not easy. Few people are capable of doing this, without eventually making important sacrifices. This is apparently what had happened to some Christians in Pergamum.
What are your feelings about this?

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Monday, September 7, 2009 Posted by | Africa, Alternative Society, Church, Culture, Humour, Indigenous church, Mission, Russia, Swaziland, Theology | 23 Comments

Could the local church be the hope of the world?

Bill Hybels, pastor at Willowcreek, has a saying: The local church is the hope of the world. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Worldwide it seems as if the local church is becoming smaller and playing a less prominent role. Many people – committed Christians – have left the church, either for nothing or for a small group. These are people who have given up hope for the local church (although many still haven’t given up hope for God.)
Frankly, we (that is, our family) are hyper-critical about the local church. We experience extreme arrogance, a lack of leadership, a total lack of commitment towards those outside the church, an unwillingness to change effectively and a whole range of other issues. I’m not referring to a particular church, but rather to a whole range of churches which I see around us. I have a dear friend who is pastor in a very small local church in the town where we live. This man has vision and dreams which you rarely observe in any pastor. But his congregation doesn’t support him. He’s on his way out – going to retire and live somewhere where he won’t need to worry about things like this anymore. And the church he is leaving behind is going to become even smaller than it already is!
Most local churches are fast declining in numbers. This is often blamed on the changing environment in which we live, the post-modern outlook on life, the old-fashioned way of worship which exist in many churches, the judgmental attitude of many Christians, and the list could go on. But I’m still not convinced that these are the real reasons why people leave the church. I’ve seen a number of people in our town who left very modern-style churches to join the Anglicans (old-fashioned with a strict liturgy). I’ve been in a Presbyterian church in Rotterdam which seem to have nothing flashy in terms of worship teams, sound systems and lights, but this church is growing, in spite of most churches in Europe declining in numbers. I believe a lot has to do with people finding that they are making a difference by being part of the church.
When people step into a relationship with Christ for the first time, they need the church to bring change into their own lives, but in my opinion, as they grow in their relationship with God, their needs (should) change, so that they can become a blessing for others. I don’t often have the chance to attend church as spectator. On most Sundays I have two and sometimes three services where I have to preach. But a few weeks ago I attended church with my family and when I left the church I was overwhelmed with the feeling of: If I have to do this every Sunday and this is all that church is about, I’ll die! And this, I believe, is the reason why churches are dying: because people cannot get the impression that it makes any difference whatsoever whether they are part of the local church or not.
Coming back to what bill Hybels said: The local church can only become the hope of the world if it gets involved in the community and the people where it is situated. People need to experience that the church is offering something that they cannot find elsewhere. Probably the church will not be able to compete in terms of financial resources when real disasters strike, such as 9/11, Katrina or with a pandemic such as AIDS. But I am sure that there are hundreds of survivors of 9/11 or families who had survived Katrina who would be able to tell stories, not of what the government had done for them, but of what churches had done for them. When I was in Chicago last year, I stayed over with a family that had just returned from New Orleans where they had helped people to rebuild their houses. I cannot for one moment think that those people, whether they are Christians or not, will see the church as being irrelevant. In Southern Africa, where the AIDS pandemic is at its worst, governments of all countries are giving out billions of dollars to help control the spreading of the disease and to ensure that people are tested and will receive medication. But the real stories of hope come when people tell how the church has reached out to them. There are wonderful stories of how the church brought hope into people’s lives. And it is when I see this happening, that I know that the time of the church is not over yet. The time for ineffective churches may be over, but the world will always need hope. And nobody can bring more hope than the local church which has, itself, experienced hope through God’s love.

Saturday, August 22, 2009 Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Alternative Society, Bill Hybels, Church, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Hope, Indigenous church, Leadership, Mission, Short-term outreaches, Social issues, Support teams, Theology, Vision | 7 Comments

So what are Christians for?

This is a topic that I’ve wanted to blog about for some time now and didn’t, mainly because I’ve felt that I had more important things to say, such as the orphan problem in Swaziland.
Last week I was sitting in a Swaziland mission meeting where someone mentioned that Christians seem to be more focused on things which they oppose than things which they support. I wholeheartedly agree. Then, driving back to my home I was listening to a CD on which Bill Hybels and Dave Workman were both engaged in an interview about the “Outward Focused Life.”
The interviewer asked the two gentleman a question: What do the people on the street think of Christians? Dave Workman (if I remember correctly) responded by telling how he had asked a number of people that question, one being a waitress at a restaurant not far from their church. She responded that, in her opinion, Christians are cheap, very demanding and they don’t tip well. Bill Hybels answered the question by saying, amongst others, that Christians are better known for the things which they are against than the things they are for.
Last night my wife and I attended a cell group in which the same topic came under discussion, this time with the theme: What does it mean to be an obedient Christian?
As a young Christian, I was probably also more focused on the things which I opposed than the things which I felt strongly about to support. But as I grew older and hopefully became more mature both as a human being and also as a Christian, I realized that I would not be influencing many people through the things I oppose. But if I am willing to stand up for a certain issue, I might just be able to get a few others to stand up with me and together we can make a difference.
As I read blogs and other Christian material, I think that Bill Hybels is correct in his analysis. Christians are against evolutionism, against creationism, against liberalism, against fundamentalism and a whole bunch of other -isms (including Calvinism!) But what are we for?
If someone should step up to us and ask: “What do you believe?”, would we be able to give a clear answer (not necessarily a final answer), or have we possibly become so focused on the things that we are against that we no longer know what it is that we stand for?
I know a number of people who will be able to tell me in no uncertain terms what things they oppose. When asked what they believe, they will be able to give me a well-formulated textbook answer. But the question should rather be what people feel so strongly about that they will stand up for it and, by doing so, make a difference in the world.

Monday, June 15, 2009 Posted by | Alternative Society, Bill Hybels, Church, Meetings, Mission, Swaziland, Theology | 12 Comments

Is there a life after Angus Buchun and the MMC?

This post was prompted by a few things that happened over the past few days. I’m part of a mens’ prayer group meeting every Wednesday morning at five (and those who know me, will also know that this is a huge sacrifice for me, to be up at five!) This past Wednesday a number of the men who had attended Angus Buchun’s Mighty Men Conference shared their experiences of this meeting. This morning an article was published in one of South Africa’s newspapers which has as its heading: “On the way to become an atheist because of fellow-Christians.” Those understanding Afrikaans, can read it here: http://jv.news24.com/Beeld/Opinie/Briewe/0,,3-2085-73_2508841,00.html
In this article the author blames Christians for having easy answers for every problem. And he blames the church which has allowed people to think about God in this way, creating, as he puts it, a god for every need of mankind, be it a need for rain or a need for sunshine. He also attacks the “Angus-men” for the nonsense they speak.
In my recent post on The Angus Buchun Phenomenon, I asked the question what it is that is causing so many men, the vast majority whom are White, to attend these conferences. I believe that people are looking for solutions: solutions for South Africa’s political, economic and crime problems and many are also looking for solutions in their personal lives: marriages that are failing, men obsessed with having to prove their masculinity in a all spheres of live, families that are falling apart and hundreds of other reasons. With this I can find no fault and I consider anyone blaming people for attending these conferences in search of answers as being unfair.
Furthermore, all followers of Christ have certain emotional experiences which they refer back to from time to time, experiences which may not be explained in a rational way, but which has special meaning for them. I can think of quite a number of such experiences in my own life: church camps while still at school and later as a student, a mission outreach which I led in 1981, a celebration service at Coral Ridge (Fort Lauderdale) in 1996, a very special experience with God on a bus, traveling between Rotterdam and Utrecht in the Netherlands in 2005. However, considering the hundreds of hits I had on the Angus Buchun post, it made me feel just slightly uncomfortable when I blogged the next day about Fighting the demon of Racism and had less than 4% of the number of hits on this post than on the one the previous day. And I maintain that, if we want God to change South Africa, then we will have to fight against racism. But I’m not sure if people want to hear this. I’m not even convinced that people who had attended the Mighty Men Conference, want to hear this!
Listening to the people sharing their stories on Wednesday and reading the article in the newspaper today, made me think of the episode in the Bible which happened on the Mountain of Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36). Peter, John and James were there when the face of Jesus was changed and His clothes became as white as lightning. Then Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke to Jesus. Now, I can imagine, in spite of what people experienced at the Mighty Men Conference, that this episode was much more spectacular and emotional. No wonder Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters–– one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
And then God spoke audibly to them: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” In other words, God didn’t want them to remain there, but to return to their normal lives and to obey Jesus in their daily lives.
Knowing human beings, I realise that thousands of people who had been to the Mighty Men Conference will, at least emotionally and in their mind, remain on the farm. In two weeks time they will still be speaking about their experience this past weekend. And, unfortunately, next year they will still be speaking about this past weekend. But in their daily lives, very little will have changed. (Now, I do realise that there are thousands whose lives have changed radically after last year’s and this year’s conferences. I’m not speaking about them and I’m truly thankful for the changes in their lives!)
The only answer that we can give to anyone who responds in the way in which the person writing in the newspaper responded, is to tell him: Evaluate the lives of those who had been to the Mighty Men Conference. Are they living differently? Do they radiate more genuine love? Can you sense that issues which they have struggled with before have been overcome? If nothing has changed, then we probably do have the right to ask the question why people attend these conferences.

Thursday, April 30, 2009 Posted by | Alternative Society, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Evangelicals, Meetings, Mission, Sustainability, Theology | 2 Comments

Fighting the demon of Racism

One of South Africa’s coloured church leaders last year spoke, during a church meeting, about the demon of racism which is still alive in South Africa. Although I’m not someone who constantly try and link some kind of demon to every form of sin, such as the demon of alcoholism or the demon of lies, I do think that there is some truth in saying that the fight against racism is something which needs to be won in a spiritual realm.
After my post on the Angus Buchan Phenomenon, I received a lot of reaction. With the exception of one, the comments were really decent, even where people differed from me. Some of the correspondence about this post was done via email and therefore did not appear on my blog. One of my very special e-pals (an “e-pal” is the equivalent of a “pen-pal”, except that we correspond by email rather than by pen and paper), who is a missionary in Ukraine, wrote me a long letter which triggered many things in my mind. In the post I referred to, I asked the question why Angus Buchan is so popular amongst white men. But in my correspondence with my friend in the Ukraine, I asked another question: Why doesn’t God use Angus Buchan more effectively to break down racial barriers?
My friend responded by saying (my own translation from Afrikaans to English): I think that, while big meetings and prominent leaders can create the atmosphere within which believers can live differently, the coming of God’s kingdom which needs to be demonstrated by the church as alternative society, will have to start from “below”. The mass of Christians need to live and do things differently. Then the prominent leaders will merely become catalysts in processes which are much greater than their own abilities. And my heart for mobilisation tells me that now is the time to do it!
On the same day that I received his email, I was attending a small group consisting of white Christians in which I told them that I had been challenged to do something about racism in our community and that I am going to challenge them to take hands with me, to pray with me and to work with me to make a difference.
South Africa had gone through the amazing period of reconciliation after more than forty years of a policy of “Apartheid” and we have experienced great blessings in many ways since 1994. But, to use the words quoted above, the demon of racism is still alive. Or, as I often say: Apartheid is dead. Long live racism! South Africa’s problem is not Apartheid. That was just the name given to an evil policy of government. The problem is racism. And I have traveled fairly widely throughout the world and have seen that it is definitely not only South Africa which is struggling with this.
I will never forget a particular class in Dogmatics which I was attending at university. Our lecturer was the distinguished Professor Johan Heyns, who was assassinated in 1994, presumably because of his strong viewpoint against racism. (His assassin has never been arrested.) On this specific day one of the students asked him what his viewpoint was on racism. Without a word professor Heyns turned towards the blackboard, took up a piece of chalk and wrote: RACISM = SIN! This made a tremendous impact on my life and I could probably say that on that day I vowed that I would fight against racism in my own life.
One of the most popular verses used in South Africa today comes from 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
I am getting convinced that there is probably not a more wicked sin that we in South Africa will need to turn away from, than our sin of racism. Can we really expect God to heal our land while so many Christians still refuse to repent from racism?
I have been involved in processes of healing amongst people of different races and can testify that for White South Africans, there is little that can beat the feeling of liberty once they had come to the point of confessing this as sin and reaching out to people across racial barriers.
For those who had attended the Mighty Men Conference and experienced God’s forgiveness and love during the weekend: Are you willing to take up this challenge to help in bringing healing to our country?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009 Posted by | Africa, Alternative Society, Building relations, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Grace, Hope, Mission, Prayer, Racism, Stigma, Theology | 11 Comments

Is Personal Salvation necessary?

Thomas Smith has a blog called Soulgardeners and has some very interesting topics which he writes about, such as Steps towards solidarity with the poor and Connecting the rich with the poor.
Thomas started a discussion under the title: Asking new questions and many people responded to this. Basically he asks whether, when trying to discover where a person is in his or her relationship with Jesus, instead of asking “have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour?” we shouldn’t rather ask something like have you accepted Jesus as the world’s communal Lord and Saviour?” or “how is your communal relationship with God growing?”
From the comments left on this post and which I advise you to read, it is clear that a distinction is made between personal salvation and something more in line with communal salvation. Some people feel strongly for personal salvation while one especially focusses on our involvement with the community.
David Bosch loved to speak of “Creative Tension” and I wonder whether we couldn’t speak of some creative tension between these two concepts. Part of the distinction between the Old Testament community of faith and the New Testament church, is that those who became part of the NT Church all had come to a point of accepting the salvation through Christ as something personal. This is the story of the book of Acts. Small (and sometimes larger) numbers of people listen to the message of the apostles, believe what they say and thereby come to personal salvation. In the Old Testament people were mostly automatically considered to be part of the faith community, merely by being born as Israelites. (Prophets like Jeremiah, Micah and Amos spoke against this viewpoint, of course.)
Even when asking a question such as: “have you accepted Jesus as the world’s communal Lord and Saviour?” or “how is your communal relationship with God growing?”, we are still concentrating on the individual’s personal viewpoint of God and therefore that person’s personal relationship with God. And that, as far as I can see, is absolutely Biblical. We are not saved because our names appear on a register indicating membership of a faith community. I am saved because something extremely personal happened between God and myself through the atonement of Jesus Christ. How we formulate the question is not as important as to help a person to understand that something personal has to happen between him or her and God.
In Evangelism Explosion, with which I’m fairly involved, two questions are asked:

  • Are you sure that, if you should die today, that you will definitely go to heaven?
  • If you should die today and God should ask you for what reason you should be allowed into heaven, what would you answer Him?

This method has been criticised greatly by modern theologians and I, for one, do not consider the questions as “untouchable”. But once again, as in all the questions above, this is just an attempt to evaluate a person’s personal relationship with God. In a post-modern, Western community, I would probably, when speaking to someone about God, rather use phrases such as: Would you mind sharing with me your personal viewpoint about God? How do you understand the work of Jesus Christ? Has this in any way led to a change in your personal life? etc. (And this, of course, would be part of a much longer conversation which could take place over the course of days, weeks or months.)
The crux of the matter is that, once a person has entered into a personal relationship with Christ, that things need to start to change. That person needs to know that, although I have a personal relationship with God, I cannot keep it personal. I am part of a greater community of believers. And this group of believers exist not for their own well-being only, but exist primarily in order for God’s reign to extend into every part of the world. My personal salvation thereby has a ripple effect on community.
There is no conflict between my personal relationship with Chris and my involvement within the faith community as well as the community at large. At most, there exist a creative tension as I deliberate about my involvement as believer within the community.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009 Posted by | Alternative Society, Church, David Bosch, Evangelism, Evangelism Explosion, Mission, Theology | 7 Comments

An atheist’s viewpoint on God and missionaries

I must have had twenty or thirty emails from friends over the past few weeks, encouraging me to read an article which was published in the Times on 27 December 2008, where an atheist, who had grown up in Malawi, shared his viewpoint on the role of missionaries and Christians in Africa. Matthew Parris writes columns for the Times. If you are one of the few who haven’t read this article yet, here is the link: “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.”
What he writes is truly amazing – not so much because it is strange, but because I think it must be difficult for an atheist to admit this. After 45 years of being out of Malawi (or Nyassaland as it was formerly known), he returned to the country and found that the real positive changes in the country had happened through the intervention of Christians. He writes: “I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”
Actually, this is how it should be. If Christians become a light for the world, then they have no option other than to make a difference in the community. But Matthew doesn’t stop at the aid given by the church. He recognises that faith itself, made a difference, not only to the missionaries, but also to the people. Listen to what he observed, as a child, about the Christians: “The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.” Wow! Isn’t that a great testimony of what God can do in the lives of people who allow Him to become their Lord!
Mr Parris made another observation, which I have long felt myself but which most people would consider politically incorrect to say. Western people seem to have the idea that traditional tribal values in Africa are correct and above critique. (I find this irritating habit in many Hollywood movies where some Chinese guru constantly has all the wisdom available and never makes any mistake, never becomes angry, never does anything wrong!) What Matthew saw was that traditional tribal values has many flaws. Traditional tribal values bind people. It is only when Christ becomes a reality within a community that true liberation can take place. Which, of course, is exactly what is written in John 8:36: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
I have one question to ask Mr Parris: Is the reason perhaps why you have become an atheist, while living in the Western world, because you have seen so little of true Christianity in our world?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009 Posted by | Africa, Alternative Society, Cross-cultural experiences, Culture, Evangelism, Hope, Mission, Theology | 4 Comments

Marketing your Church

A few days ago someone sent me a link to a Youtube video clip with the title: What if Starbucks marketed like a church? I was able to watch it then, but unfortunately it seems to have been removed from Youtube in the meantime. (It’s worthwhile to go to http://eugenecho.wordpress.com/2008/11/12/what-if-starbucks-marketed-like-a-church/ On this blog the video clip still seems to be working and there’s some great comments written about the clip.) It’s really quite funny and although it’s obviously exaggerated, the message comes across. If we want to market the church, we have to get more professional about it.
But then I thought that the title of the clip could also be put the other way round and someone innovative would probably be able to manufacture an equally funny clip: “What if the church marketed like Starbucks?” I’m all for becoming more professional in the church. I’m all for making use of certain business principles in the church. I believe that a vision and mission statement can really help a church to get focussed. But I’m not convinced that churches should be run entirely in the way that a business is run. (By the way – I had a cup of coffee at Starbucks at Cairo airport earlier this year, and not only was the coffee terrible but the atmosphere was even worse with a group of teens shouting and screaming at two in the morning, while I had only one desire – to get some sleep while waiting for a connecting flight. That morning I felt as if I would never set my foot in a Starbucks again!)
Let’s get back to the analogy of Starbucks. What do they want to do? Starbucks’ vision reads as follows: “Establish Starbucks as the premier perveyor of the finest coffee in the world while maintaining our uncompromising principles while we grow.” I can immediately sense a problem if we start marketing the church in this way. In fact, many churches do exactly this: “Establish XYZ Church as the premier perveyor of the gospel.” I read Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church not long after it was first published, and one of the things I remember is his attitude that there are many churches doing wonderful work. At their church they have a certain vision and a certain way of doing things. People who feel that they do not fit in, are free to worship at another church. Saddleback isn’t in competition with other Christian churches. Starbucks, on the other hand, is in strong competition with all other coffee shops and have to ensure that their standard is at such a level that people will prefer to drink their coffee instead of going to their competition. To achieve this aim, they do things in a certain way: Buy the best coffee beans. Install the best coffee machines. Give the staff the necessary training to make and serve the coffee.
The church, even though it needs to be run in a professional way, has an entirely different way of doing things. The church isn’t there to market the gospel or to market Jesus Christ. The church, one could say, is demonstrating what it means to live under the authority of Jesus Christ. The church, contrary to Starbucks, isn’t the place which I visit when I have a “thirst” or a desire for a good sermon. The church is there to change my entire focus on life, to change me (mostly focussed on myself and my own desires) in such a way that in my family life, my business life, my recreational life and wherever I am, I live as a changed person, now focussed on God and His desires, which means that I’m not in the church business because it makes me feel good, but because I know that this is what God wants from me. Contrary to going to Starbucks, I’m not part of the church to have a good feeling about myself, but to willingly go through the process of dying unto myself so that God can live through me. And this is not always an enjoyable process!
As I said: I’m all for churches being run more professionally. But I know of churches which are run extremely professionally but which still fail to get the main message across of a changed life, focussed on God and on the world for which Jesus gave His life.

Thursday, November 13, 2008 Posted by | Alternative Society, Building relations, Church, Humour, Mission, Theology, Vision, Worship | 7 Comments

Becoming a church for and in your community

This past Sunday I was invited to speak at a church on the outskirts of Johannesburg. A few years ago this was an exclusively White community and church membership and attendance clearly indicated the demographic pattern of the community. This was the situation all over South Africa before 1994. But with the new democratically-elected government which came into power in 1994, things started changing. Exclusive White communities in certain areas, especially within the centres of the larger cities like Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban, started being replaced by other ethnic groups. This had a great effect upon churches, as churches which catered exclusively for the needs of White, Afrikaans-speaking people, experienced a sudden and tremendous decrease in church membership and attendance. Churches which had thousands of members and packed buildings during their regular worship services on a Sunday, suddenly struggled to survive. After a time the inevitable happened when the church buildings were sold, sometimes to shop owners needing storage place and even to people of other faiths which then changed the buildings to make it a place of worship for people of their religion.
One particular church in Pretoria has always been a sad example for me of how a church failed to use the new opportunities that had come their way. This particular church followed the route described above. Fortunately, when they decided to close doors, they sold the church building to a another evangelical church group which then opened the doors again and started to cater for the needs of the people who were then occupying the apartments in that area. And as far as I know, the church is doing well. It’s not a White, Afrikaans-speaking church anymore, but then, the community does not exist out of White, Afrikaans-speaking people anymore!
On this past Sunday I spoke at a church which, if the leader had not persevered, would probably also have had to shut doors a number of years ago. Except for the fact that he saw the change in demographics, not as a threat but rather as an opportunity. When I entered the church, I was immediately struck by the multi-cultural atmosphere within the church. People from different ethnic groups mixed in a friendly and comfortable manner. The church leadership also reflects the diverse cultures of the area. They have two worship services – one in Afrikaans and one in English. The second service was, in a sense, even more diverse than the Afrikaans service. Those attending were mostly non-South Africans. They included people from countries such as Zimbabwe, Nigeria and other African countries. But they also come from a diverse religious background, including Roman Catholic and even traditional African religions. Some came in the traditional clothing of their own country. The only common denominators are that they are all interested in the Christian faith and that they all understand English.
When I left the church after speaking at both these worship services, I thought about Eric Bryant’s excellent book, Peppermint-filled piñatas, which I had reviewed here. And I thought about lost opportunities, where churches had been sold to shop owners or to people from other, non-Christian religions, while many people who are still interested in Christianity have nowhere to worship on a Sunday. Which further led me to the topic of this blog: Becoming a church for and in your community!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008 Posted by | Africa, Alternative Society, Building relations, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Culture, Evangelicals, Hope, Indigenous church, Mission, Racism, Theology, Unity, Vision, Worship | 1 Comment

Saved to die or saved to live?

From the nature of our work as home-based caregivers to people living with HIV and AIDS, we have a high number of people that we care for who eventually die. During an interview in preparation for the Courageous Leadership Award, I was asked the question: “Surely these resources, and this money would be better spent on evangelism, wouldn’t it?” My answer was that we were having much greater “success” in evangelism than ever before, mostly because we have greater integrity within the community, due to our involvement with the sick and the dying. Fact is that many people whom we work with and who realise that they are dying, come to the point where they want to make a commitment to the Lord before they die and our caregivers are equipped to help them with this decision.
One of the greatest stories about this concerns a man who had lived a Godless life. When he was virtually on his deathbed, he asked to see his brother (who is a pastor) and on that day the sick man committed his life to the Lord. He lived for a short while after this, but then eventually he drifted into a coma. A few days afterwards, one of our coordinators was standing outside his hut where he was lying, when suddenly she heard the sound of joyful laughter coming from within the hut. She rushed inside, not knowing what to expect, and found that the man had died moments before. We believe that he saw Christ in those moments before he died.
These stories are encouraging. But there is also a concern. Obviously, when people are terminally ill and they have never committed their lives to God, it is good that they do this before they die. But there is also a downside to this, which is that those people are saved to die while I believe that God actually wants to save us to live! The concept of everlasting life is not primarily focussed on life after death. It actually refers to life before death. John 6:47 says: “I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life.” And John 10:10 says: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” All of this has to do with life before death.
I don’t want to see anyone dying without Christ. But neither do I want to see anyone living without Christ. The difference lies in the fact that it seems that some evangelists want to see people converted in order to fill up heaven while I would like to see people coming into a living relationship with Christ so that they can fill the world: a new community driven mainly by their desire to glorify God in whatever they do. Heaven then becomes a bonus and not the main attraction.

Thursday, August 28, 2008 Posted by | AIDS, Alternative Society, Church, Death, Evangelism, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Hope, Mission, Swaziland, Theology | Leave a comment