We live in a very small town, but today it is almost impossible to move around in the business area. Everybody seems to be doing their last-minute Christmas shopping. Those planning to spend Christmas with their relatives, are stocking up on food to ensure that there will be enough to eat. People are coming out of liquor stores after they’ve ensured that there will be enough to drink over the weekend. Those with money have bought the latest gadgets to be handed out as Christmas gifts. The main road leading from Johannesburg to the North Coast (with some of the best fishing areas in South Africa) passes straight through our town and huge 4 x 4 vehicles towing even larger fishing boats or trailers are moving non-stop through the town. Many of the trailers have an off-road quad-bike latched onto it – quite often two or even three so that there will be no need for people to take turns in riding the quad-bikes over the sand dunes.
How did we move from the story in the Bible of a mother and father who had to stay over in a stable, from a mother who gave birth to a Son who later declared that He did not even have a pillow to sleep on, to where we are today? I’m certain that we’re missing the real message of Christmas.
And I can’t help wondering what the millions of people living in extreme poverty will be doing on Christmas this year. In Swaziland I know that the majority of the people have nothing extra to give to their children for Christmas. No presents. Nothing special to prepare for dinner. Those relatives coming home, although welcome, will more often than not stretch the budget even further. Tomorrow, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, at least 6500 families will be gathered around the deathbed of a relative who had died of AIDS of which at least 4500 will be found in sub-Sahara Africa.
The purpose of this post is not to attack those with money. But I do have a feeling, as I observe what is going on around me, that Christ will not be found in the stores and in the exotic vacation venues on this Christmas day. If I had to search for Him tomorrow, I would rather start my search in a humble hut or in a mud house, where there are no flickering lights or a special Christmas dinner, but where He is being honored as the King of kings and the Prince of peace – the way in which He was honored just after He was born.
On the day before World AIDS day, it is appropriate to blog about something related to this topic. UNAIDS recently published their latest epidemiology report on the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. You can download the full report here.
While, for most of the readers of this blog, this report contains statistics, for every person personally involved in the fight against the AIDS pandemic, these numbers and percentages represent people. There are some positive things included in the report. It is clear that ART (anti-retroviral therapy) is helping many people to live longer. According to the report the number of new infections are coming down slightly. But in a country like Swaziland with a population of less than 1 million and with the highest infection rate in the world (according to the report Swaziland had an estimated adult HIV prevalence of 26% in 2007, but antenatal surveillance found an increase in HIV prevalence, from 39.2% in 2006 to 42% in 2008, among female clinic attendees), I wonder if it isn’t a matter of “too little too late.”
In a newspaper in South Africa it was reported that the Dutch Reformed Church (N G Kerk) which is also the church that sent me as missionary to Swaziland in 1985, might be rethinking it’s attitude towards cohabitation as an alternative for marriage. The irony was that the immediate following report told of the alarming increase in HIV infections amongst the white, the rich and students in South Africa (three groups that form a large part of the membership of the Dutch Reformed Church.) In the report it says that the South African Blood Transfusion Service had to reject 25% of blood donated by students at a specific university, due to it being HIV-positive.
One of the reasons, I believe, why Swaziland has such a high rate of HIV infections, is because marriage has to be postponed. Swaziland has a lobola system, where a man who wants to get married, has to discuss a form of bride’s price which needs to be paid before they can get married. One of our church members was involved in such a discussion over the weekend and eventually it was determined that the young man had to give his future father-in-law fourteen head of cattle! Keep in mind that this man and the girl are deeply in love. They are emotionally and physically ready to get married. But they can’t, not unless the man can find a way to pay at least part of the lobola. It is no wonder that very few Swazi girls (or men, for that matter) enter into marriage as virgins.
In 2005 I was in the Netherlands at a meeting of the Reformed Ecumenical Council and was chairperson of a committee that had to write a document on the church’s response to HIV and AIDS. I am extremely proud of the product that we presented to the meeting. (You are welcome to download a copy of this document with the title Towards a Theology of Hope in a Time of HIV/AIDS.) As we worked on the document, thinking and rethinking through every sentence, I was challenged by a young woman from the Netherlands. She asked me whether I wanted the document to be accepted by the Reformed churches all over the world, or only in Swaziland? I had felt for a more conservative approach, but was eventually convinced that this would lead to the document never being acceptable in churches in Europe, where sex before marriage and homosexuality are issues which are totally acceptable in most churches. (Once we had agreed on our approach and reformulated one or two sentences, I came under strong attack, especially from churches in Nigeria, when I had to defend the document.)
But I then wanted to know from some of the people in the Netherlands, why cohabitation was so acceptable to them. The answer I got from some church members, was that people had to wait until they were older before they could get married. Typically, they would wait until they were around thirty before they got married, regardless of when they started dating. And when I asked why they waited so long, the answer was that they had to collect money first before they could get married.
And this is where the link with the lobola system in Swaziland comes in. In South Africa people also tend to get married at an older age. The arguments I hear is that they have to buy a house and furnish the house before they can get married. In other words, the problem in Swaziland and the problem in South Africa (and Europe) boils down to the same thing: a materialistic approach towards life. And this is where I feel that the church is failing it’s young members. Instead of giving the go-ahead for cohabitation, shouldn’t the church rather address the problems that are causing young people to opt for cohabitation instead of getting married? Shouldn’t the church rather speak out against the ridiculous extravagance of wedding ceremonies? (I recently heard of someone we know planning to get married, who’s invitation cards costs more than my son’s entire wedding had cost!) Shouldn’t the church say to young couples that it’s fine to rent a cheap apartment with only the most basic things to survive (which they need in any case, even if they live together). Shouldn’t the church say to young people that it’s really not necessary to buy a five carat diamond ring in order to get engaged?
I remember a story which was once told to me of a town high up in a mountain with an extremely dangerous road leading up to the town which frequently led to accidents and severe injuries. As the authorities debated a solution for the problem, they eventually decided to build a new hospital in the town in order to treat the victims of the accidents.
Is this perhaps what the church is doing?
Two weeks ago the director of an organisation known as Sceptic South Africa stirred up a hornets’ nest when he revealed his intention to go to court to force schools in South Africa to stop propagating religion during class time in schools. Those interested in his arguments, can read it here: Public schools flout national laws on religious instruction.
He has in the meantime apparently decided not to go to court. While one can never be 100% sure about the outcome of a court case, I doubt whether he would have been able to win this one. South Africa has an extremely liberal constitution, probably one of the most liberal in the world. But this is a blessing in disguise, because the constitution guarantees that nobody will be discriminated against for whatever reason, including religion. Furthermore, the school act allows the school’s governing body to determine the ethos of the school as well as the predominant religion of the school, with the clear understanding that there will be no discrimination in whatever form against people who do not follow this religion.
Formerly, in the pre-1994 years, all government schools were Christian. One could not be appointed as a teacher within the Education Department if one was not (at least on paper) a Christian. During my school years, we had Bible periods which were mostly a waste of time. These periods were mostly used to do homework. With the exception of my last year at school when we had a wonderful teacher for our Bible period, I learned absolutely nothing in these periods and it did not help me to grow closer to God in any way.
The school where my youngest two children attend and where my wife is also teaching, start and end each day with prayer. Nobody is forced to partake in these activities. People with strong objections are allowed to be out of the classroom during these times. What the director of Sceptic South Africa intended, was to stop any form of practising religion within school hours, which would make any prayer during school time illegal.
I don’t get overly stressed about things like this. History has shown time and again that any attempts such as this to stop the influence of Christianity, leads to the strengthening of the church. It was Tertullian who said: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” After all missionaries were forced to leave Mocambique during the Frelimo period, the church, instead of dying, became stronger. But I also realise that, should this case go to court, then I do not have the ability to make any change to the final decision. I can pray for the outcome, but that is more or less as far as it will go. Even lobbying for a certain cause, is not supposed to have any influence on the outcome of a court decision.
However, I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past two weeks. With all due respect, I think anyone thinking that they will stop the influence of Christianity by forbidding religion in schools, still has a lot to learn. Most probably, should this case go to court and even more so if they should win the case, there will be a huge rise in people professing their faith (good), but there will also be a rise in extreme Christian fundamentalism (not so good) and both of these are going to be totally counter-productive towards the purpose of the sceptics who, it seems to me, want to eradicate all forms of religion as unscientific and therefore untrue.
But, speaking from my experience as missionary, I believe that the sceptics are also missing another extremely important point, which is the influence of African churches in Southern Africa. As the White population seems to be focussing increasingly on physical science and less on God, the opposite seems to be happening amongst Black people. Last week I was at a school in Swaziland around the time that they closed for the day. All the children gathered outside the building (they don’t have the luxury of an assembly hall) where a few closing remarks were made by the principal before the day was ended with a prayer. Because most Black churches are poor and cannot afford full-time pastors, they often make use of dedicated Christians in other occupations (tentmakers) to lead their congregations. We have at least four school teachers in our church (which is a very small church) who are tentmakers. I cannot for one moment think that these people will stop Scripture reading and prayer at their schools, even if they should be forbidden by law to do so.
I hope this doesn’t lead to a court case, as the only people who will win in the process, are the lawyers. But if it should reach that point, it will be interesting to see how the people of South Africa are going to react.
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?
I’ve just finished reading Ed Stetzer & Mike Dodson’s book: Comeback Churches. The sub-title is: How 300 churches turned around and yours can too. This book reminded me somewhat of Jim Collins’ book: From Good to Great, although the method they used in doing their research is totally different. The two authors made use of questionnaires which was sent to churches. The criteria which was used to determine whether a church is a comeback church are:
- The church experienced five years of plateau and/or decline since 1995 (worship attendance grew less than 10% in a five-year period)
- That decline or plateau was followed by a significant growth over the past two to five years which included:
2.1 A membership to baptism (conversion) ratio of 35:1 or lower each year and
2.2 At least a 10 percent increase in attendance each year
I am fully aware that one cannot necessarily determine a church’s spiritual status by looking at attendance. Our own church attendance in Swaziland is fairly low, for various reasons, mainly because we are “competing” against traditional churches where cultural traditions tend to take a higher priority than Biblical truths. But this research was done in the USA where increasingly, as in most first world countries, church members tend to leave the church. Comeback churches are those churches that are doing something to win people back into the church (and obviously to Christ), not by harvesting from other churches but by reaching people who are not traditionally church members (any more).
A few encouraging things I read in this book is that comeback churches are not restricted to churches with a certain type of worship, nor are they restricted to a certain type of pastor or pastors of a certain age. God can use any type of pastor and any type of church to reach people and the church can start growing.
The three factors that were dominant in the more than 300 churches that effectively turned around, were:
- Renewed belief in Jesus Christ and the mission of the church
- Renewed attitude for servanthood
- More strategic prayer effort
The two other factors that followed in line were:
- Setting goals
- Valuing Relationships and Reconciliation
Going into more detail, the authors said that comeback churches were characterised by:
- Growing deeply in love with Jesus
- Growing deeply in love with the community
- Growing deeply in love with the lost
- Comeback leaders turned their churches outward
- Comeback churches led people to care more about their communities than their own preferences
Looking at churches today, the focus seems to fall increasingly on larger buildings, more “wow” things, bigger and better bands, better video material, better sound systems. And although all of these things can play a role in the bigger picture, it does seem to me that we need to return to basics if we want the church to have an influence in the world.
- Love Jesus
- Love the community
- Love the lost
Compare this with the attitude that we often find amongst Christians:
- Love Jesus
- Tolerate the community
- Condemn the lost
This is a book that any church leader can benefit from, if they are serious in leading their churches to become the type of church that God intended it to be.
I’ve been “audio-reading” Leonard Sweet’s book, So Beautiful: Divine Design for Life and the Church over the weekend and today, as I had to spend many hours driving. Before sharing some thoughts on the book: If you’re not aware of it yet, you should take note that www.christianaudio.com has a free audio book each month and for April it is this book by Leonard Sweet. Make a point to check the Free Downloads each month if you like books and want to save some money.
As I was listening to the book, I thought of the story we used to share in South Africa in the pre-1994 (Apartheid) years. It went something like this: How do Americans, the Germans and the South African Police catch an alligator?
The Americans: One hundred people, armed with rifles, all driving in pickup trucks move down to Florida for a weekend, wade into the swamps and with a lot of shouting, drag an alligator out of the water.
The Germans: Get a group of biologists to study the habits of the alligator, determine where the best place would be catch it and send a two-man team to do the job.
The South African Police: Catch a lizard and hit it until it admits that it is an alligator!
Leonard Sweet uses the well-known medical abbreviation MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to explain what he believes the church should look like. For him, MRI stands for:
I found myself in agreement with most of the things he writes, except that I came to the point that I felt that he was, at times, hitting the Bible until it fits into one of these characteristics of the church. And I just felt at times that he was overdoing it in an attempt to make his point. Leonard Sweet is an excellent writer and has the ability to use the English language in a remarkable way, constantly playing with words to get his point across. Now, I’m not sure whether it was because I was listening to the book instead of reading it, but after a few hours it became an effort to keep on listening to the word-play. And here I had the same impression, that he likes playing with words and formulates his sentences specifically to enable him to do so, but in the end this makes it very difficult to follow his arguments, because the sentences are formulated to accommodate the word-play rather than to strengthen his arguments. He also constantly uses quotes from a wide variety of authors to prove his point. Some of these are excellent. But at times I had the feeling (and my wife, who had been in the car with me over the weekend felt the same) that he had read a good quotation and then adapted his own text to be able to use the quotation.
Those who can still remember the 1984 movie, Amadeus, will remember that Salieri was once asked what he had against Mozart’s music, to which he answered: “Too many notes!” And this is almost the feeling I had while listening to this audio book: It was just becoming too much towards the end. Too much word-play (although remarkable taken one at a time), too many quotes, too much saying the same thing over and over again in different words and eventually losing the thread on what the argument was that he was trying to defend.
I think the voice of the reader contributes to the fatigue I experienced while listening to the book. For one thing, I felt he was reading too fast. The book fits on six CDs (six MP3s which have to be downloaded) but it was impossible for me to listen to more than two CDs at a time, after which I just had to listen to something else.
Would I recommend the book? Certainly. Leonard Sweet is a highly respected author and he undoubtedly challenges the church to re-think its purpose in the world.
Would I recommend the audio book? This depends. I find that I have so little time to read nowadays and so many books which I want to read and also I spend so many hours unproductively driving my car, that I would recommend that anyone in the same position download the MP3s and listen to them. But if your circumstances are different, with more time on hand to read, then I would probably recommend that you rather read the book yourself.