Sunday, January 25, 2009

January conferences in South Africa worth praying for

“Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith” (2 Thessalonians 3:1-2).

Having given something of a bird’s-eye-view of South Africa in my last-but-one blog entry, I think I am in a better position now to say something about two conferences in that country that are worthy of your prayer support. There are others that are also worth mentioning (e.g. the Shepherds’ conferences and the Skogheim conferences). However, I bring these two to your attention because of my first-hand experience in preaching there and also because they have just taken place in the month of January. In other words, their grass is still wet with dew!

I have just spent about two weeks in South Africa preaching at the Grace Ministers’ conferences. Although there is an organizing team behind these conferences, the one man who stands out within that team is Martin Holdt (with wife, Elsabe, in photo), pastor of Constantia Park Baptist Church. This year was the 18th year for these conferences to be held, and he has been involved in organizing them from the very beginning. In the more recent years, Martin has been assisted with the Cape Town conference by Roland Eskinazi, pastor of Goodwood Baptist Church (see conference photo below). These conferences, whose fees are far below the cost of hosting them, are made possible every year by very generous donations from the HASS group of companies, owned by a Christian family in Pretoria. I know the couple personally and have often used their outstanding example to challenge Christians in Zambia about investing in God’s kingdom.

The Grace Ministers’ Conferences comprise three conferences held back-to-back, two at Valley Lodge in the beautiful Magaliesburg area near Johannesburg and one at the Protea Hotel in the Stellenbosch area near Cape Town. These hotels are surrounded by scenery that is just indescribably captivating, serene and delightful. I was one of two preachers and a speaker at this year’s conferences. The other preacher was Stuart Olyott, who needs no introduction (his excellent books speak for him). The speaker was Pieter Pelser, a South African architect who has spent the last sixty years studying and championing the cause of creationism especially in his own denomination, the Dutch Reformed Church.

Stuart Olyott preached three times in each conference on “Preaching the gospel today—Lessons from Sermons in Acts”. He used the sermons of Peter on the day of Pentecost, Stephen just before his martyrdom, and Paul in Pisidian Antioch as examples. Stuart, as always, was up to scratch in terms of order, simplicity and edification in his sermons. Pieter Pelser gave two addresses in each conference on the falsehood of the theory of evolution as compared to the truthfulness of creationism. It was evident as he spoke that he was no academic theorist but had come out of the trenches with blood on his hands. Listening to these two men (especially during the Q&A sessions) made me realize that I was sandwiched between two towering giants, each one a master in his own world.

I was asked to preach on the subject of the challenge of African culture to the church today. I handled the challenges under three sub-headings—the challenge to the church’s work of evangelism and missions; the challenge to the church’s life of fellowship, worship and discipline; and the challenge to the church’s task of being salt and light in the world. I readily admit that it was a very sensitive subject, knowing South Africa’s recent Apartheid history. However, I was pleasantly surprised how both “white” and “black” brethren welcomed the messages. I would be a fool to think that they all agreed with everything I said, but at each conference I was asked to put the material that I presented into book form for wider circulation—for which I felt deeply grateful.

After the conferences, Martin Holdt wrote in his Out of Africa newsletter, “The three conferences that were concluded this week with the final one in Cape Town have been enormously encouraging. Our two main speakers Conrad Mbewe and Stuart Olyott excelled themselves. The Lord was with them and the response of all who attended was indeed most heartening. It was the eighteenth conference of this kind and when one notes the extent to which flagging zeal in the ministry has been replaced by determination to persevere, we are determined to keep the conferences going for as long as we possible can. Because of the financial constraints we have to sponsor partially or fully a number of men who were eager to come. We are grateful for the sponsorships that enabled us to do this.”

While the Grace Ministers’ Conferences were taking place in four-star hotels in lush surroundings, there were other conferences taking place under the name “African Pastors’ Conferences”. A marathan of about six conferences are held back-to-back in South Africa in January (with others being held later in the year in Botswana and Zimbabwe). Since my participation in them last year in January, I have been asked to be part of the organizing team. These conferences in many ways are “the other hand” of the Grace Ministers’ Conferences. The organizers of both conferences are concerned about helping pastors in South Africa to be renewed in their spiritual vigour within a context of exemplary Bible expositions. Whereas in most cases the Grace Ministers’ Conferences are attended by the “haves”, the African Pastors’ Conferences are attended by the “have-nots”, comparatively speaking. Thus, whereas the former are held in four-star hotels with lush surroundings, the latter are held within not-so-attractive venues with very basic boarding facilities. However, the lack of outward attractiveness must not deceive you into thinking that nothing of importance is happening there. In the light of South Africa’s recent history, the African Pastors’ Conferences are very strategic. They are reaching the pastors of “the sleeping giant”, i.e. the “black” churches that need to rise to the challenge of reaching the rest of Africa.

Whereas a number of us Zambian pastors have been involved in preaching at the African Pastors’ Conferences (e.g. Ronald Kalifungwa, Choolwe Mwetwa—who is still preaching there even as I write this blog, Isaac Makashinyi, and myself), the one person who is most strategic to these conferences is, without a doubt, Raymond Zulu. Please, please, please, pray for Raymond whenever you are prompted to pray for these conferences. Raymond is presently pastor of High Wycombe Evangelical Baptist Church, in England. He grew up in South Africa and did his theological studies there. He even worked briefly with Newcastle Baptist Church before he answered a call to pastor the church in the UK. Although Raymond is in England, he has not forgotten about his homeland and, consequently, has committed the first month of the year to return to South Africa and be a part of these conferences. Because he hails from there, he knows the language and customs of the black people of South Africa and their pastors. Hence, in these conferences he ministers at a level that none of us are able to—not even those of us who come from as near as Zambia. When I preached there last year, I admired the way Raymond talked with the men attending the conferences in informal small groups and in one-on-one discussions in their own language. When he would come to share with me in our sleeping quarters about the issues that he was engaging the men in, I knew that, under God, Raymond was the man of the moment. Please, please pray for him!

An obvious bonus one gets from attending both the Grace Ministers’ Conferences and the African Pastors’ Conferences are the book-tables with high quality and biblically sound Christian books. The book tables at the Grace Ministers’ Conferences contained the choicest of books from Augustine Bookroom (run by Martin Holdt’s wife, Elsabe), while the book tables at the African Pastors’ Conferences contained books largely supplied by Evangelical Press at greatly discounted prices (see photo below from 2008 conferences). Creation Ministries also supplied books combating evolution at the Grace Ministers’ Conferences. So, apart from the rich ministry of God’s Word, which pastors who attend these conferences get, they also go away with a rich supply of good books to see them through the year ahead. We should never underestimate the impact of literature upon the lives of pastors and, through them, upon the lives of God’s people in the pews.

The Bible passage at the start of this blog entry says, “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you…” Those of you who have felt the power of the Reformed Faith through an excellent expository preaching ministry and through the ministry of books will do well to pray for these two conferences that the Word of God that was carried from there this month may go into the pulpits of the men that attended these conferences. Pray that the fruit may go beyond the immediate churches represented by these men, but that it will grow and flourish in South Africa until it awakens “the sleeping giant” and spills over into the other nations of this vast, vast continent. And may God truly answer your prayers and mine. Amen!

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