No, I didn’t stop blogging. I’ve just been through an exceptionally rough time and when I did get a chance to relax, blogging was fairly low down on my priority list. But now that I’ve reached most of the deadlines that were stretched out before me, I should be able to do a few things that I neglected over the past 6 – 8 weeks, including blogging.
One topic that has been on my mind quite a lot lately, is the influence of prayer on mission. A lot has been written about prayer and I hardly consider myself as an expert on the topic. In fact, I’m usually the first one to admit that I have no idea how prayer works. That’s not the same as to doubt whether prayer works. It’s just that I have no special formula that I can use to guarantee that things will happen in the way we want them to if you keep to certain rules. I do also know the truth of what Søren Kierkegaard once wrote: “A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realised that prayer is listening.”
What I do realize, the longer that I’m involved with mission, is the essential role of prayer in this work. Just looking at our own ministry in Swaziland, Shiselweni Reformed Home-Based Care, and the way in which God has provided in our needs after people prayed about something, has made me realize that, statistically, it would be virtually impossible to say that it was purely by chance that things had happened, sometimes within an hour after praying about a matter. It could happen once. It could happen twice. But when you have ten, twenty and more stories to tell of how people prayed about a certain matter and an answer came, then you have to admit that something supernatural is happening.
We have a large number of prayer supporters all over the world. Not nearly enough though! But those who are praying for us, form an essential partnership in our ministry. Some pray daily. Some pray on a specific day in the week for Swaziland. But without prayer support, we, who are working on the inside, know that our attempts to do what we do will never rise above mere humanitarian assistance.
We can do lots of good things for God, but to rise up to a higher level, every mission ministry needs consistent prayer support. Perhaps Acts 1:8 could be our guide for prayer for mission: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the ends of the earth. If every Christian could start praying consistently for four mission ministries – one close by, one a bit further away, one even more further away and one really far away – who knows what we might see happening in the world.
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.
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?
It seems you either love Angus Buchan, from Mighty Men Conference-fame, or you hate him. For those who don’t know whom I’m speaking about: Angus Buchan is a farmer living in the Kwazulu-Natal midlands in South Africa who started an evangelism ministry some years ago. About six or seven years ago I attended one of his services in the town where I live. I went absolutely open-minded, but left, deeply anguished by some things I saw that evening. (If you are interested in what happened, you can drop me a comment with your email address. I don’t think I should discuss it on this open forum.)
Nevertheless, I think it was in 2007 that he organised the first South African Mighty Men Conference, attended by several thousand men. Last year he pitched, what is supposed to be the largest tent in the world, on his farm and accommodated 60,000 men. As from today thousands of cars are driving to his farm again for the 2009 conference where Angus Buchan hopes to have 200,000 men attend! By the way, the book and the movie, Faith Like Potatoes, is a biography about his life.
In spite of my negative experience at his service a few years ago, I had the feeling last year that he might just be God’s man for South Africa at this time. I don’t necessarily have to agree with everything he does to believe that God can use him effectively. After the conference, which a number of people I know attended, I noticed distinct changes in the lives of many of them – changes for the better. One person, who was an absolute racist and did his utmost to break down the work we’re doing in Swaziland, came to repentance and has since contributed substantial amounts towards our work amongst people with HIV and AIDS in Swaziland. Others, who had been Christians, but living more like non-Christians, came back and a year later their lives are still fully devoted to God. Obviously, a large number also came back and returned to their old lives. I’m grateful, however, for the change in many people’s lives.
But I do have a few concerns. One of the things I suspected, is the restricted audience he has. This was confirmed yesterday when I watched a home-made DVD made by someone who had attended last year. I don’t have percentages to prove my point, but the majority by far of the people who attended, were White males. In follow-up conferences held during the rest of the year at sport stadiums, attracting tens of thousands of people, the majority of people attending were also White. I suspect (and I would like to hear the opinion of others on this point) that many White people see in Angus something comparable to an Old Testament prophet, called by God to give hope to the people of South Africa in times where many are uneasy about the future. What worries me – and I know, once again, that I have no proof to substantiate what I’m saying, merely a “gut feeling” – is that White people may have the hope that God is going to put South Africa back into the hands of the White people, or at least, in the hands of Christians, and I fear that this may be false hope.
The other concern I have is the reverence that people have for him. It is almost as if some people take his words to have even greater authority than the Bible. Or at least, his interpretation of the Bible is believed rather than the interpretation of people who are also serious about finding the true meaning of the Bible but who differ from him. For many people, the words of Angus Buchan has the highest authority. I’m sure that this isn’t what he wants, but I would be afraid if I myself ended up in such a position. I’m not sure whether I would really be able to handle this new-found glory in the right way. After last year’s conference I told many of my friends that we need to pray, if this man is really someone sent by God for these times in South Africa, that God would grant him the ability to remain humble.
As for myself: I have respect for Angus Buchan. I’m not a disciple of him, nor do I hate him. At this stage I prefer to follow the instruction in Acts 5:39 : “…if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
I can still remember the day, when my oldest son was in Grade 11 and he came into my office and told me that he feels that God is calling him into full-time ministry. I had two reactions. My verbal reaction was to tell him that I’m happy for his decision, but that he still had a year and a half to finish school and that I wanted him to pray and ask God for absolute confirmation that he was doing the right thing. My unspoken reaction was that God must surely have spoken to him, because I couldn’t think that he would willingly choose the same direction that I had gone. I’m the first one to acknowledge that a mission’s ministry is not easy – especially for the family of the missionary. And this was all that my son had ever experienced.
The following year we were visiting my in-laws and while we were there he announced that he was now 100% sure that God was indeed calling him into full-time ministry. The year after he started the tough course necessary to get the required academic qualifications (a six-year course). Before he left for university I tried to think of something which I could say to him as a word of encouragement. And I told him not to make the same mistake I did. When I started my university training, I had mainly one vision in my mind, which was to finish the course so that I could begin my “real” ministry. Fortunately, I had an active student life, involved in many things and was extremely active in our church’s student ministry. But in spite of this, I was still focussed on the end result. And I told him to use his years at university to learn as much as possible, to use every opportunity that came his way to pick up experience, to attend discussions, to meet people from whom he could learn and to see his years at university not only as a means to reach the end result of going into full-time ministry, but to consider the things happening at university as an end in itself. I don’t know whether this made any difference, but I do know that, what I had wished for, came true for him. Much of his experiences was shared on his blog: My Contemplations
After starting work in a congregation in Pretoria during his fifth year as part-time youth pastor, he spent his final year (which is a practical year which needs to be done in one of a number of approved congregations) in the same congregation, working with two excellent colleagues. And then, at the beginning of this year, the church council decided to call him to become a fully ordained minister at their church. Not only that: The church council decided to call three “candidate-ministers” to their congregation: One focussing on youth (my son), one focussing on children at a children’s home and another focussing on women (the last two both being female). And last night these three were ordained as ministers.
It was a proud moment for us as parents. I know we always say that you don’t need to be in full-time ministry in order to do something for the Lord. But we can’t deny that it is wonderful when God does indeed call someone personally into full-time ministry. And when it is your own son or daughter – then it is a great feeling, both proud and humbling at the same time.
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.
Probably one of the most traumatic experiences a missionary can face, is to be informed that his or her support is going to be terminated. It is my guess that this will be happening again as the impact of the global financial crisis starts having greater effect on the income of missionary organisations and churches. Over the past week or so, I’ve received three messages from missionaries or mission support organisations, all mentioning that dark days may be lying ahead. Things like a global financial crisis or a depression are more or less out of the control of the church. I was reading a post today of someone who described how their church had kept on sharing their funds in spite of severely hard times that they went through. People who make faith decisions like this need to be honoured. It is also understandable that individuals who had supported missionaries in the past, may now be faced with the harsh reality that they need to decide whether they will continue with their support or not.
I do not know of a single missions organisation that do not need financial support. Long distances that need to be travelled, the harsh circumstances under which most missionaries are working amongst people who more often than not are themselves barely surviving, the lack of proper schooling, sicknesses and many other issues have the result that finances are needed to support those who are working as missionaries. When it comes to the point of support, I can think of a few things which need to be kept in mind if the work has to continue over an extended period of time.
First of all I think that it is not wise for one individual or one organisation to fund a missions project on their own. Supporters lose interest. Financial circumstances change. A variety of things may occur which makes it impossible for the individual or the organisation to continue with their support. What happens if the supporter dies unexpectedly? What happens if the supporter’s source of income falls away? If a potential supporter is convinced that a missions project is from God, then they need to discuss it with other partners and get them to invest financially in the project in order to establish some form of sustainable support.
Secondly, new projects need to be considered prayerfully and not emotionally. Now, this works both ways. I’ve seen many a project being started due to the convincing arguments given by a missionary. But if such a project is from God and the supporters are truly living in a relationship with God, then God himself can convince the supporters to fund the project. Gather people together to hear whether the new project is really from God. But the argument also has another side to it. I’ve seen many a missions project stopped because the supporters or supporting organisation used equally emotional arguments why the project could not be started. Sometimes a new project has to be started as a leap of faith. As long as we are convinced that it is what God wants us to do, we need not fear to take the next step.
Thirdly, supporters need to realise that they are working with people’s security when they make decisions about support. I once attended a meeting in advisory capacity where the future support of missionaries working in Asia was discussed. The congregation was not going through a particularly tough time, but they did need to do some renovations to their own property. They then suggested that the missionary’s support be cut by 50%. I had trouble to control myself, asking the meeting where they wanted the missionary and his family to cut on their own budget. Their rent was fixed. Water and electricity was fixed. School fees for the children were fixed. The only place where they could cut, was on their monthly groceries. By cutting their subsidy, this family was effectively being told to eat less if they wanted to remain in Asia. The sad news is that the cut was approved. The good news is that individuals then started supporting the family with even more than the reduction in the subsidy.
Financial support for missions is an extremely sensitive issue. I am aware that some missionaries misuse funds. But on the whole, most of them are stretching the funds to cover much more than would ever be possible on the home front. Whether you want to start supporting a missionary or whether you are starting to feel the pinch and considering to withdraw your support, don’t do it without seriously praying about this and discussing options with Christian friends you trust.