Churches in South Africa: Hoping in the Word, Not the World

Article
12.12.2016

Despite unhelpful Western influences, over-spiritualized leadership, and even a struggling economy, the Lord is establishing his kingdom in South Africa through churches feasting on his Word.

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When most Westerners think of South Africa they think of apartheid. One historian has remarked, “For much of the twentieth century South Africa has been a symbol of racial conflict and oppression.” [1]

I’ve been pastoring Emmanuel Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa since 2010. During that time, the Lord has enabled me to foster relationships with many other pastors in South Africa, which offers a viewpoint for some of what the Lord is doing here. Like gospel-work in any context, there’s cause for both excitement and frustration.

What follows is a picture of the joys and frustrations peculiar to gospel-work here. Specifically, I’ll attempt to draw this picture by outlining three areas: the practice of church membership and discipline, the function of leadership, and the place of the Word.

WESTERN INFLUENCE ON CHURCM MEMBERSHIP

In its urban centers, South Africa feels rather Western and modern. Especially in the big cities, you can observe a strong Western influence, both past and present. On the highways you’ll spot new German sedans. Fashion in the workplace mirrors that of Europe. With this Western influence, South African culture has become increasingly secular. This it evident in the contents of our constitution, hailed by many as the most progressive in the world!

This Western influence is one reason many churches have a weak concept of church membership. Few would practice meaningful membership with a formal process to accept newcomers. Even fewer churches practice church discipline. The philosophy of “belonging before believing” is rather common, even in churches where God’s Word is soundly preached.

Thankfully, there’s growing interest among pastors to look to the Bible to see how to structure the local church. I’ve had several opportunities to address pastors on this subject. Praise God, most often these times have been fruitful.

OVER-SPIRITUALIZED LEADERSHIP

Focusing for moment on Baptist churches in South Africa, let me address the matter of leadership. The notion of a plurality of elders has been missing for decades. Thankfully, today more and more churches have a plurality of elders. Yet in many churches, elders fail to provide clear leadership to the entire church.

In many Baptist churches, a board of deacons will oversee the administration of the church, while elders focus exclusively on the spiritual health of the church. This division appears faithful to the example of Acts 6, but it often means the elders fail to clearly lead the church. Instead, the deaconate functions as an equal authority (albeit with a different focus), and the elders have little or no direction over the work of the deacons. Furthermore, this situation often creates churches with poor administration.

Without a doubt, The Trellis & the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne has provided a much-needed focus on the essence of the Christian ministry. While many churches in America and elsewhere have wrongly over-emphasized church administration, leading to a weak emphasis on the need for preaching the Word and prayer, Baptist churches of South Africa have a different “trellis and vine” problem. Very often, the gospel “vine” is hindered in its growth not because the trellis is given too much attention, but because it’s given little to no attention!

What does this look like practically? In small and less significant ways, the buildings of these churches are often run-down, their bulletins and notice-boards tacky, and their music is often flat and uninspiring. In more significant ways, the church’s giving is unnecessarily low and pastors are poorly paid.

Of course, King Jesus needs neither money nor men (let alone well-maintained facilities) to build his church. His Word is indeed the only instrument of true, divine power for the salvation of sinners. And yet, our Lord has deemed it wise to use his people and their human efforts to steward this Word. Therefore, poor leadership by elders and a neglect of church administration does hinder our faithfulness in stewarding the Word. It seems wise to pray that God would raise up faithful elders to give leadership to the whole church and give due attention to the trellis that helps organize and order gospel growth. 

A GROWING APPETITE FOR THE WORD

Finally, I think it’s fair to say that in South Africa, the vast majority of churches assume knowledge of the gospel. Few churches will offer a clear and faithful proclamation every week, and serious attempts to preach expositionally are still rare.

But praise God that’s not the whole picture! About 500 churches identify with the Baptist Union of South Africa, the historic Baptist denomination. For many decades, faithful men have mourned the Union’s weak stand on the sufficiency and inerrancy of the Bible. Annual attempts to pass motions that would state a firmer and clearer confidence in Scripture have failed.

But this year was different. At the 2016 Baptist Union assembly, an amended statement of faith was discussed, and the vast majority of the delegates were in favor of adopting it. Though much work still lies ahead in the next two years to formally accept the statement, it seems fair to conclude that God’s Word is more valued in many churches across South Africa than in the recent past.

There also appears to be a growing appetite among Christians for biblical truth and expository preaching. Our church belongs to Sola 5, an association of Reformed Baptist churches in Southern Africa (including Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). Sola 5 churches in South Africa are experiencing numerical growth, and are planting new churches focused on the primacy of Scripture and expository teaching.

CONCLUSION

South Africa continues to struggle as a new democracy with its long history of oppression. Many citizens fear the future of our country—and they appear to have good reasons: corruption is widespread in our government, education levels are steadily declining, and unemployment is high.

But Christians read the world differently. Praise God, for we are certain of the eventual triumph of the resurrected Lord. Even this brief review of trends within my country is reminder that the Lord’s kingdom is indeed being established here too.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Roy, Kevin. Zion City RSA: The Story of the Church in South Africa. Cape Town (c/o K. Roy, 6 Willow Way, Pinelands 7405): South African Baptist Historical Society, Assisted by the Dept. of Church History, University of Pretoria, 2000.