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?
Once again! And while this blog is up and running, this topic will appear again and again. If you care to see my previous posts about the same topic, click on this link: http://missionissues.wordpress.com/?s=short-term
I’ve just said goodbye to a great team of students from the Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida, USA. As I’m writing this, they’re on their way to Miami to be reunited with their families. When I work with a team like this, I always have to ask myself the question whether it is worthwhile. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into an outreach like this. The people making the trip are investing huge amounts of money and when they leave, they want to know that they have made a difference.
Two things sparked this topic today. In July I’m expecting another team from the USA and we are working hard (meaning myself and those who will be coming) on making this a meaningful visit to Swaziland. Wendi Hammond, the one with whom I’m communicating about this trip posted something about her view on short-term outreaches which you can read here. But then I also read an article in Christianity Today about the same topic, which is really worth reading. The title is Global is the New Local.
There’s a number of arguments against short-term outreaches. Wendi touched on one of them in her blog, which is: Why go to a far-off country if there is so much need right where you are? And this is indeed a very valid argument. A few things can be said about this. It’s never one or the other. Michelle Guzman wrote in a comment on Wendi’s post why she feels that she is called to come to Swaziland. Absolutely worth reading! Do what God wants you to do, whether it’s close or far. The downside of this argument (and the most people using this argument, in my experience, fall into this category) is that people are actually saying: If you get involved in another place, you make me feel guilty. Somebody has to take care of the local needs and if you’re not here to do it, then who will? So rather remain behind, take care of the local needs and I can go on with my life. Or something to that effect. If someone goes on a mission trip to avoid getting involved locally, then that is wrong. But the reality is that many people return from a mission trip abroad and get more involved in the local community, because often people undergo a heart change while on a mission trip.
The other argument is that the money could rather have been sent to the country where the outreach would have taken place. This sounds logical. Unfortunately it won’t happen. We need to see and feel and smell and taste the needs of people, before we will really get involved with this. And, in any case, for too long have we seen people writing out cheques while relaxing in front of their TVs, believing that they have then fulfilled their mission obligation. Obviously not everybody can go on a short-term outreach. But those who do, need to go back to their own communities and become advocates for the cause to which they were exposed, wherever that may be.
I have seen the positive effects of short-term outreaches. To be honest, I’ve also seen the negative effects (fortunately, not recently). When done in the right way, with the right attitude, with a teachable spirit, focused on building relationships rather than just solving problems, short-term outreaches can possibly become the greatest learning school that any Christian can be exposed to.
I’ve just returned home after attending a WENSA (World Evangelisation Network of South Africa) mission conference over the last three days. (I’m still hoping that the name of this network will change so that it says Southern Africa instead of only South Africa. Eight people from our church in Swaziland attended the conference.)
On the first day, Pieter Tarantal (and if you’re not from South Africa, don’t try and pronounce that!) kicked off by speaking about The God of New Things. He shared some amazing statistics with the group. I did not try and verify each number, as I believe what he said is fairly close to the reality. According to him:
- 114 people are coming to Christ every second
- 44,000 new churches are established each year
- In India, 15,000 people are baptised daily
- There are 20,000 new converts every day
- In 1900 there were 8 million believers
- In 1990 there were 275 million believers
- 396 million in 2000
- 450 million in 2005
- Today there are close to 500 million believers
The largest church in the West is found in the Ukraine and the leader of this church comes from Nigeria
I can’t remember where I read it, but apparently the nation with the greatest growth in Christianity at the moment is China.
Listening to these statistics and seeing what is happening to the church in the West (where most churches are becoming smaller at an alarming rate), I asked myself the question where missionaries will be coming from in the future?
And the answer, it seems to me, is that a new wave of missionaries are going to be sent into the world, not from Europe and the USA as in the past, but from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
And as I listened to this, I was wondering if we perhaps are seeing something of 1 Corinthians 1:21 coming true: “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” Might it be that the West has become so self-sufficient and so sure of themselves, that they have come to the point where many feel that they do not need God anymore? And is this perhaps the reason why the Gospel is spreading at such a rate through those countries that we had traditionally regarded as our missionary objects?
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.
In 2006 a masters student, Adriaan van Klinken, from Amersfoort in the Netherlands spent some time with us in our home as well as with our AIDS ministry in Swaziland. His supervisor at the University of Utrecht and I know each other and when he started working on his MA-thesis with the title “Theologising Life, Even in the Face of Death – A Study on the Reflections of three African Women Theologians, namely B. Haddad, I.A. Phiri and F.L. Moyo, on HIV/AIDS and Gender and its Relationship”, she recommended that he visit us. And so a friendship developed and we still have regular contact through e-mail. What further developed was a relationship between his congregation and my congregation.
Some time ago he told me about a very interesting project done from time to time between different congregations, especially across cultural borders. The idea is that the two congregations come to an agreement on doing some form of Bible Study and then sharing their results with each other, to try and understand the differences in approach to certain parts of Scripture, due to the difference in culture. The request was whether we would consider doing something like this with them. The idea sounded interesting to me and when I asked the people at our church whether they would be interested in doing this, they immediately agreed.
Today the pastor of the congregation in Amersfoort sent me an e-mail to explain in greater depth what they have in mind. In fact, I then found out that there is a website devoted to this topic: http://www.bible4all.org Shortly, how it works is that the two congregations agree on a certain Bible story (rather than dogma) which is read and discussed in both groups. The group leader tries to determine how the group members understand the story in their lives by asking certain key questions, such as:
1. About the story and one’s own life experiences
• What thoughts, memories, and experiences from your own life does the text evoke?
2. About understanding the text
• Does the story contain aspects (positive/negative) you can relate to? If so, which ones?
• What is the story about?
• What does the story tell you?
3. Identifying with the text
• Which person in the story do you identify with?
At the end of the session(s) a report is compiled by someone who had been appointed to take notes during the discussion and this report is then sent to the other congregation. At a following session the congregations will then discuss the other group’s report in an attempt to understand how they see the passage. They will then write down their reactions, positive, negative, questions to try and get a better understanding, etc and send it back to the other congregation who will then discuss the reactions, write down their response and send it back again for further discussion.
I’m extremely excited to be part of this process. I’m used to Bible Study where one will sit down with commentaries, dictionaries, Bible translations ranging from Greek and Hebrew to the most modern English translations, all in an attempt to determine the true meaning of Scripture. This seems to be different. The idea is not, as I understand it, to spend so much time on the exegesis of the passage (although I would think that this will still play some role) but rather to look at the understanding of the group of the passage.
It is obviously always difficult for groups from different cultures to understand each other, but perhaps, by listening to each other through the Word of God, this may just lead to greater understanding of each other’s background, fears, joy and expectations.
I’m looking forward to this and I’ll keep you posted on how things work out.
I’ve just finished reading Alan Hirsch’s book: The Forgotten Ways. It’s a great book and highly recommended, but be warned: It’s not easy to read. I do most of my reading when I go to bed and I really struggled to work through this book, But it is worthwhile reading it.
In short, Alan wants the church to rediscover it’s true purpose, what he calls mDNA, or the Missional DNA of the church. At the core of the church of Jesus Christ is the desire to reach out to the world. Churches which are not doing this, are acting contrary to how God has wired the church.
I have obviously done a lot of reading on this topic, therefore I can’t say that I had many “aha!” experiences while reading the book. He does however emphasise many things and says it in a way, which, as I read it, I just wished that I could share this with everybody I know.
On page 235 he says something which I have suspected for some time but which he is convinced is the truth. Gordon Cosby, the leader of Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., noted somewhere that in over sixty years of ministry, he has never seen that groups which are formed around a non-missional purpose (prayer, worship, Bible Study, etc) ever ending up becoming missional. It was only those groups which intended from the start to be missional (and usually embraced things like prayer, worship and Bible Study) that ended up doing it.
This corresponds with my own experience. It is impossible to calculate how many people have contacted me over the years with a request to get involved in our work in Swaziland. Usually the conversation goes something like this: “Hi, we are a cell group / Bible Study group / prayer group from xyz congregation and we have heard about your work in Swaziland. We feel that it is important for us to reach out to others and we would like to visit you to find out how we can assist you.”
Being a fairly positive person, I always invite them to come, but at the back of my mind I know that there is a more than 90% chance that nothing will come from the visit. The reason is simple. To be part of a cell group or Bible Study group asks a small investment of your time: 1 – 2 hours per week. And let’s be honest – these meetings are fun. Coffee and cookies are served. There’s a lot of time for interaction. And after worship and prayer you feel revived and ready to tackle the rest of the week.
Involvement in mission asks much more than that. On most Sundays I leave home at 8 in the morning and return home somewhere between 2 and 3 in the afternoon. And that’s just for a church service. Anything happening during the week involves a lot of driving – two hours at the very least – entering places which may make you feel uncomfortable, seeing things that are not nice to see, walking in the scorching sun. After their visit these groups have a lot to say about their experience and always promise to come back again, but more often than not we never hear from them again. They will return to their cell group / Bible Study group / prayer group and will probably never return to Swaziland.
If I have to say why this happens, then it boils down to a lack of vision. A group that is formed without a missional vision, will never be able to become missional. They will merely follow their vision and if it is not a missional vision, they will not become missional.
Is there a solution for the hundreds of thousands of cell and other groups meeting all over the world with the main intention to feed themselves (pun intended)? The only solution I can imagine is that the leader of the group make the decision to change the vision. That should not be to difficult as most of these groups do not have an official “vision”. They just follow the leader. But if the leader could convince them to determine their vision (which can be as simple as to answer the question: Why are we meeting every week?) and then convince them that the true purpose of the church lies in its calling to become a light for the world (or whatever other missional metaphor he or she wishes to use), it is possible that, over time, a group like this could really become missional, using their normal weekly meetings to build themselves up so that they could do more outside the church.
But that’s my optimistic side speaking. If I have to be realistic, I doubt whether any significant number of church groups will ever become missional.
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!