A peep into life in Africa, through the eyes of an African Reformed Baptist pastor.

Water, water, water, everywhere. What else do you expect? I am a Baptist, and I live in the land of the mighty Victoria Falls!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

World Reformed Fellowship Africa Region Conference

“I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (Romans 11:4, ESV).

When I first got the invitation to give the key-note address at the World Reformed Fellowship Africa Region Conference, I had not even heard of its existence. I vaguely recall being asked to speak at something like that a few years ago but while waiting for confirmation, nothing came of it. However, this time something did come of it and so that is where I spent most of my time on Tuesday and Wednesday last week.

If you are asking what on earth the World Reformed Fellowship (WRF) is, then let me share with you what I have just learnt. The WRF, as its name suggests, is a fairly new but growing worldwide fellowship of individuals, local churches, denominations and Christian organizations who espouse any one of the historic Reformed Confessions (e.g. the Westminster Confession of Faith, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, etc). Its aim is spelt out in its theme, “That the strengths of some might become the strengths of all in the service of Jesus Christ.” In other words, it seeks to use the advantages of some Reformed brethren in one part of the world to help the disadvantages of others in another part of the world, so that together they may accomplish the great task of world evangelization. Its present worldwide membership largely comprises Presbyterian denominations and theological institutions, but a few Baptists are also already on its register.

The conference I was preaching at was the first Africa Region Conference and was held outside Johannesburg in South Africa. The country was in a political flux as their state president, Thabo Mbeki, had just been forced to resign by his political party. On the day the conference started, fourteen cabinet ministers also resigned. So, although we were hidden away at a very nice conference centre in a beautiful valley, many ears were tuned to the outside world – just in case the country went up in flames. Thankfully, it did not – at least not up to the day of my departure!

The conference was attended by about forty representatives from South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Nigeria – and, I guess, Zambia. My first surprise at the conference was the number of “black” South African theologians who profess the Reformed Faith (e.g. Prof Christopher Rabali, pictured on the left). I have been visiting South Africa many times every year since 1990 and this was the first time I was meeting them.

I preached the key-note address on the topic, “Being a Bible-Centred Christian Community in Africa”. Giving me a topic like that was like throwing a fish into a river or chasing a monkey up a tree. What more urgent topic can one speak on in Africa today? Mine ended up being the only full-fledged sermon; while the rest were more of academic papers and, as you would expect, they were of different standards. I was greatly edified by most of these presentations (I could not agree with the position taken by the Nigerian professor of theology, Dr Adamo, who spoke on African Traditional Religions, and I missed the last day’s presentations as I had to rush back to Zambia).

Let me comment on the presentations made by the two “black” South African professors of theology (Prof Christopher Rabali and Prof Derrick Mashau, the latter is pictured on the right), because most of us are still asking where the Reformed brethren are among “black” South Africans. Dr Rabali’s presentation was on religious pluralism while Dr Mashau’s was on spiritual discernment. The messages were well thought-out, thoroughly Reformed in approach, and well applied to the African situation. The two men exhibited a high level of humility, especially during discussion time, and they went to the Scriptures as their final authority. They were insisting on the unique place of the local church especially in theological training, on the cessation of the Charismata, etc. (Of course, during the question and answer session, it was clear that not everyone at the conference was of a similar mind!) So, you will not be too surprised to hear that I bought every title that I found on their book table. Where have these men been all along? I guess they have been hidden away in the lecture halls of Potchefstroom University (now, North West University). If that is the case, I wonder why none of them participated in the writing of The Africa Bible Commentary?

I, therefore, returned to Zambia with the message from God that surprised good old Elijah, “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (Romans 11:4, ESV). The picture is certainly brighter than we think. The Reformed Faith is growing in Africa. Praise the Lord!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sierra Leone

“For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more” (Luke 12:48, NKJV).

When I stepped off the plane at Lungi International Airport in Freetown, Sierra Leone, for my first preaching trip to this country, I did not know what to expect. All I knew was that this was my first visit to West Africa and I wanted to be a blessing to the people of God here. It was not long before I realized that I had entered one of the poorest countries in the world. The airport itself told the story. A newspaper article that came out that same day in Sierra Leone (Standard Times of Tuesday, September 9, 2008, Environmental Forum by Ishmael Dumbuya) gave me the following shocking statistics: The UN has identified Sierra Leone among the fifty Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the world. Sierra Leone is also ranked as the world’s lowest on the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI). In other words, when one puts together the nation’s literacy (30%), primary school enrolment, access to safe drinking water (34%), life expectancy (38 years), maternal deaths, malnutrition, child mortality (182/1000) levels, etc, Sierra Leone ranks the lowest in the world. Nearly four-fifth (80%) of the population survives on less than $1 (K3,500) per day, i.e. less than K100,000 per month. “With respect to mortality, Sierra Leone has a crude death rate of about 20 percent per thousand which is about the highest in Africa” (sic). This is despite the fact that the country is rich in mineral resources, including diamonds! The picture below shows a typical scene on the road from Freetown to Bo.

I was quick to dig up some history so that I could preach more relevantly to the church and the people of Sierra Leone. Here is a thumbnail sketch: Although Sierra Leone was inhabited from time immemorial, it is famous for its association with the infamous slave trade. Because of its position on the map of Africa, it was a point at which many slaves were shipped to Europe and America, and later it became the place where returning slaves were freed (hence “Freetown”, the name given to its capital city in 1787). It still has many associations with this past, e.g. there is an entire suburb in Freetown called Wilberforce! Sierra Leone became a British colony at the end of the 19th century and gained its independence from Britain in 1961. Like most African countries, it spiralled downwards from bad to worse after independence. Due to corruption and misrule things reached rock bottom in 1991 when a civil war broke out which lasted about ten years. (The greed that fuelled the civil war is captured in movies like Blood Diamond. No doubt, a piece of history like this must be fodder for the movie-making industry in Hollywood!) This resulted in about 50,000 people being killed and hundreds of thousands of people being displaced. The GDP fell from $277 in 1990 to $142 in 2000 (thankfully, since the end of the war it has slowly been going up and is now above $200). The photo below shows the commercial centre of Freetown, a city of one million people. In the middle of the photo is the famous "Cotton Tree" where slaves used to be released to enjoy their new-found freedom. It is over 200 years old!
This is the country to which I came to bring God’s Word. I found the people very warm and friendly. It was clear that they were not as conscious of their deprivation as I was. Sierra Leone is 60% Muslim, 30% Christian and 10% Traditional African religions. Despite this huge Muslim population, freedom of religion is guaranteed to all – a very rare phenomenon where Islam is with such a large majority. I preached at two conferences. The first was a three-day Evangelical Ministers’ Gathering in Freetown. It was hosted jointly by United For Ministry (Mike and Vi Webb) and Truth Mission (Christopher Jonah), who together run the Grace & Truth Bible Institute. There were about eighty church leaders in attendance and I preached on the themes “Biblical Christianity Today” and “Spiritual Gifts Today”. The second was a one day Church Leaders’ Seminar in Bo, the second largest city in Sierra Leone, some 240 km inland. I preached on the theme “Biblical Christianity Today” to a group of about forty church leaders. In both places, the Q&A sessions betrayed an overdose of Charismatic influence and teaching. Most of the church leaders were very eager to learn and asked very sincere questions as they noticed what they had taken for granted to be violations of the Word of God.

On Sunday, I preached at the Grace Community Church (Pastor, Samuel Tarawally) - see photo of congregation above. This is a church that started less than a year ago to provide a place where consecutive expository preaching can be heard – a very rare phenomenon in the whole of Sierra Leone! I am pictured below with the leaders of the church (L-R: Mike, Christopher, Samuel and “yours truly”). These men were also the other preachers at the Freetown EMG. They are also the lecturers at the GTBI. These men swim against the tide and I commend them to you for your prayers. Ministry on the Lord’s Day ended with a live one hour phone-in radio broadcast on BBN radio on the subject of biblical Christianity. I was interviewed together with Mike and Christopher. I appreciated the opportunity this gave me to share the Reformed Faith on the airwaves. Pray for the men who attended the just-ended conferences that they will work towards implementing in their churches some of the basic truths they learnt at these two meetings. It will not be easy!
As I write all this, I am still in Sierra Leone. I am appreciating once again just how much God has done for us in Zambia. The Reformed Faith we take for granted among our churches is “a dog’s horn” (to use a Zambian proverb that means “virtually non-existent”) in most of Africa. God’s message ringing in my heart is the one quoted above: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more” (Luke 12:48, NKJV). Shall we see all this and look the other way as Reformed Baptists in Zambia? No, we must share what God has blessed us with across our borders! The challenge is for us to send church-planting missionaries to other parts of the African continent, and Sierra Leone should be very high up on our priority list.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Ordinations and Conferences

Jesus said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:18-20, ESV)

The last one week has been full of kingdom-extending activities.

The Sunday following the Zambia Reformed Baptist conferences, i.e. Sunday 31 August, we had the ordination/induction of two missionaries at Kabwata Baptist Church (see picture below). Percy Chisenga and Oswald Sichula were set apart to plant new churches in Zomba (Malawi) and in St Bonaventure (south of Lusaka), respectively. Percy is a seasoned missionary and was used of the Lord to plant a Reformed Baptist church in Zambia’s extreme eastern town, Chipata, in the 1980s and 1990s. He has already been church-planting in Malawi for over a year under the invitation of the Maxson family from the USA, and so this “setting apart” was meant to enable him have ongoing support and also bring him into a biblical accountability structure under a sending church. Zomba is a university town and so Percy is targeting the Chancellor College students for much of his outreach work. Through this effort we look forward to seeing the establishment of the first Reformed Baptist church in Malawi. Oswald just completed his seven months internship program at Kabwata Baptist Church, having once briefly pastored a Baptist church in the northern suburbs of Lusaka. He is now set to commence a new work in an area where many of Lusaka’s wealthy people live and an area marked out for a major new housing project. Lusaka has a population of about 1 million people. The starting of the church in St Bonaventure brings the total number of Reformed Baptist churches in this city to ten!
Then there was the Sola 5 conference in Cape Town, South Africa, from Friday 5 to Sunday 7 September. (Cape Town is, arguably, the most beautiful city in the world!) Sola 5 is an association of God-centred evangelical churches in southern Africa. It grew out of a desire by churches in the region to work together to support the work of God-centred, rather than man-centred, missions. It is only four years old and encompasses churches in most of the southern African countries. This association of churches certainly deserves a place in the hearts and prayers of those who long for true biblical spirituality in the churches of Africa. Their primary aim is to pool their resources together in the extension of the kingdom of God in the sub-region and beyond. In fact, during this conference they had reports from different countries in the region, and also from Romania and India. Kabwata Baptist Church had the highest number of delegates to this conference (apart from the host church, of course). There were about ten countries represented at this conference, mostly from southern African. A new steering committee was voted into office (see picture below). The theme was the five solas of the Reformation. Since I had to return to Lusaka before Sunday, I only heard the first two messages and preached on the third. I am told that Ronald Kalifungwa, pastor of Lusaka Baptist Church, closed the conference on a powerful note on Sunday evening, with Soli Deo Gloria!

Last weekend, we had three elders ordained into the Kabwata Baptist Church eldership – Charles Bota, John Kumwenda and Eric Sinyangwe (see picture below). This brings the total number of elders in the church to six. Having just suffered the loss of one of the elders, Dr Simon Mphuka, through death, the church was full of praise to God for this addition. Simon’s widow, Lillian, told the new elders that she would send an e-mail to her late husband in heaven to let him know that in death he has multiplied himself into three elders! Ever since a multiple eldership came into being at Kabwata Baptist Church, this is the highest number of elders that have been ordained at once. With a membership now around three hundred and fifty, and all the ministries and mission stations that are under this church, many important issues were falling through the cracks. We are thankful to God for the three extra under-shepherds that the Lord has provided us. May this result in even greater exploits for God’s glory!

Finally, tonight I leave for Sierra Leone in West Africa to preach at the third Evangelical Minister’s gathering. Pray for me that the Lord will use me in a way that is beyond what I am able to ask or even imagine. Part of my journey in Sierra Leone is by helicopter. It will be the first time for me to travel in this way. I will let you know how the journey goes when, the Lord willing, I return to Zambia.