It’s not that Africa needs a different kind of Christianity. But common challenges for ministry in much of Africa simply don’t arise in books published in the West. That’s why Conrad Mbewe wrote God’s Design for the Church: A Guide for African Pastors and Ministry Leaders, published by TGC and 9Marks with Crossway. The need for such a resource is tremendous: while about 9 million Christians lived in Africa at the beginning of the 20th century, that number reached 380 million by the year 2000. And it’s still growing.
Conrad Mbewe has served as pastor of Kabwata Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia, since 1987. He’s a senior lecturer at African Christian University, founding Council member of TGC Africa, and past keynote speaker for The Gospel Coalition National Conference. In this book you’ll get biblical and theological guidance that transcends time, continent, and culture. You’ll see much appreciation for the strengths of African churches. And you’ll also get Conrad’s clear-eyed analysis of common weaknesses. For example, here are his comments on African preaching:
The popular sermons today are motivational speeches. They are based on worldly principles that promise people earthly benefits if they say the right words or do the right things. These draw the crowds, but the people are not interested in growth in holiness. They want entertainment and earthly treasures. There is also a very high turnover of congregants. Many become disillusioned because the principles they are being taught are not working for them and so they leave quietly. Many more come in and take their place, hoping that the magic formulas will work for them.
I don’t think you’d write something much different about the United States.
Conrad joins me on Gospelbound to discuss witchcraft, tribalism, the relationship between evangelism and mercy ministry, among other topics.
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Collin Hansen: It’s not that Africa needs a different kind of Christianity, but many common challenges for ministry in Africa simply don’t arise in books published in the West. That’s why Conrad Mbewe wrote God’s Design for the Church: A Guide for African Pastors and Ministry Leaders, published by The Gospel Coalition and 9Marks with Crossway. The need for such a resource is tremendous. While about 9 million Christians lived in Africa at the beginning of the 20th century, that number reached 380 million by the year 2000, and it’s still growing 20 years later. Conrad Mbewe has served as Pastor of Kabwata Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia, since 1987. He’s a senior lecturer at African Christian University, founding Council member of TGC Africa, and past keynote speaker for The Gospel Coalition National Conference. In this book, you’ll get biblical and theological guidance that transcends time, continent and culture. You’ll see much appreciation for the strengths of African churches, and you’ll also get Conrad’s clear-eyed analysis of their weaknesses. For example, here are his comments on African preaching. “The popular sermons today are motivational speeches.
Collin Hansen: They’re based on worldly principles that promise people earthly benefits if they say the right words or do the right things. These draw the crowds, but the people are not interested in growth and holiness. They want entertainment and earthly treasures. There is also a very high turnover of congregants. Many become disillusioned because the principles they are being taught are not working for them, and so they leave quietly. Many more come in and take their place hoping that the magic formulas will work for them.” I don’t actually think you’d write something much different about the United States today. Well, Conrad joins me on Gospelbound to discuss witchcraft, tribalism, the relationship between evangelism and mercy ministry among other topics. Thank you for joining me, Conrad.
Conrad Mbewe: Thank you. Thanks for having me on your podcast.
Collin Hansen: What’s unique about ministry leadership in Africa that led you to write this book?
Conrad Mbewe: Well, essentially it was the fact that I’ve been part of this leadership on African soil for a good 30-plus years and have observed that whereas we’re getting the numbers into the churches, we’re not really producing the quality of life that Jesus would have had in mind when he said that the church is to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In other words, the very things that are visible and obvious on the outside, that’s exactly what we’re seeing within the context of the church. Something must be wrong, so I really thought that one way to do this is to take a few steps backwards and simply ask the question, “According to the Bible, how should the church be?” And then work through a number of questions that help us. Because the Bible is not silent about the church.
Conrad Mbewe: And once the church truly becomes what God’s Word says it ought to be, then it will have a great impact not only on the continent, but beyond. Especially because, as you might know, within the context of Africa, there’s a great potential that the next mighty army of missionaries might indeed come from here. It will be good that there’s a salting and lighting effect in the church at this time.
Collin Hansen: I mentioned preaching in the introduction and the prosperity gospel. What would you say are the other major issues hindering the church in Africa from being what God designed it to be and being that mighty global missionary army?
Conrad Mbewe: Well, there are quite a number. I mean, first of all, I can quickly point out the fact that when we speak about the prosperity gospel, we’re talking about something that’s slightly different from what an American person might think of. This is not just about making you rich financially or having a healthy body. I mean, basically it’s what the witch doctors promise in the context of Africa that’s now being reproduced in the context of the church. So it’s how you can get a marriage, how you can have children, how you can get a job. Literally anything and everything the preacher is supposed to be able to make available to you.
Collin Hansen: That’s a helpful distinction when it comes to how the prosperity gospel is different. Are there other problems that come to mind that you had in mind when you wrote the book?
Conrad Mbewe: Yes. There’s also the chief mentality. In other words, the church leader is somebody you don’t question. So if he’s done something wrong, he’s beginning to multiply wives, he’s abandoned his first wife for somebody else, he’s the chief. You’re simply supposed to look the other way while this is happening. He can get rid of anybody in the church that is questioning what is going on. I mean, things like that clearly are not biblical because ultimately, there is only one chief and that’s the chief Shepherd himself, the Lord Jesus Christ. And then you also have one of the … Some aspect that’s positive in terms of our culture but ends up being negative in the church is what we call the ubuntu culture, which makes our interpersonal relationships very important. But in the process, it makes church discipline almost impossible because of the fact then that people don’t want to break camp with those that are stubbornly continuing in sin.
Conrad Mbewe: Because … To borrow a common phrase in African soil, “it won’t look nice.” So there’s a lot of that which if we get to the Bible we begin to see that, for instance, you don’t compromise on holiness, you don’t compromise on truth. The moment you compromise on those two, you’re really losing the the impact of the church in the world. So those are some of the other reasons why I thought we needed to deal with, especially with the issue of leadership in the church.
Collin Hansen: I learned a lot about the role of the church in African society from your book, and here’s an example, “The church in Africa is respected by the community and the state because it often provides for the basic needs of society. In my own country of Zambia, the church provides 60 percent of the health facilities in the entire nation. The church also runs the best schools in the country in terms of both the physical structures and the holistic development of the students.” Likewise in the West, schools and hospitals grew out of the church, but then ultimately secularized and then universalized. It’s been widely reported … And we’ve talked about on this Gospelbound podcast before, that these institutions have then ultimately contributed to the West’s overall secularization. Given that history, Conrad, might the African church resist giving up these responsibilities to the state or to anybody else?
Conrad Mbewe: Well, first of all, the advantage that we have at the moment is that the state does not have the muscle to handle these institutions. Once upon a time, they tried. I remember in the late 1970s going into the 1980s, the government basically took over. There was a widespread nationalization, not only of business houses, but also of education and health facilities. It was a form of socialism that was taking place. And the quality really nosedived. So that by the beginning of the 1990s, the state basically handed them all back to particularly the churches and especially with respect to education and health facilities. Of course, the business houses were re-privatized. So it’s going to be a little difficult for the state to think in terms of taking over. However, my concern is if the church does not truly remain rooted … In fact, I should be saying, get rooted in Scripture and in the gospel, we may still outwardly own these situations, but then we may find that we’ve actually lost the heart of the Christian faith in driving the engine of these institutions forward.
Conrad Mbewe: So we’ll end up with, yes, good schools outwardly academically, but producing individuals whose spiritual lives really are anti-Christian. We may also still maintain good health facilities. And in that sense, people feel good to belong to a denominations, but really there’ll be bringing in corruption into the life of the church. Rather than that while they were unwell, they were receiving the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in the corridors of those institutions.
Collin Hansen: It’s a perennial debate in the West, the relationship between evangelism and mercy ministry. You’ve begun to touch on that, in that answer. But go a little bit further. How would you counsel African pastors, indeed, and pastors around the world, to be able to balance or to find that biblical relationship between evangelism and mercy ministry?
Conrad Mbewe: Yes. That’s something that I’ve been touching on in another area where I’m currently thinking things through. I mean, first of all, it’s clear that what Jesus has called us to do is in the Great Commission. It is to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe everything that he has commanded us to do. So there’s no doubt that that should be the heartbeat of everything that we do. However, we are not dealing with individuals who are disembodied spirits. They are in real bodies, in a real world. And often their outward circumstances scream so loudly that they’re not able to hear what we’re saying, it is in that sense that we must not overlook the immediate context of suffering. If we are able to pull our resources together and then help, it only makes sense that love touches these many lives in a practical way. Or as I heard John Piper say at a conference about two years ago, “Christians are concerned about all human suffering, especially eternal suffering.” So we don’t overlook the immediate temporal suffering that individuals might have.
Conrad Mbewe: So whether it is to do with seeking to have mercy towards brothers and sisters in Christ who are in a needy area, that’s one way. But it’s also another for us to then say beyond that, “There is our outreach work, we are seeing individuals who are in the midst of suffering, let’s also seek to do something about that.” Just a quick illustration. I remember reaching out in a economically deprived area as a church, within the context of the capital, Lusaka, at one time. And one of our members came back to the bus that we were using and she was crying and she had no shoes. I thought maybe she had been abused. And when I inquired what the problem was, she said while reaching out to this woman who was selling opaque beer … In fact, illegal beer that was brewed in one of the rooms in her house, this lady said to her, “Just look at yourself. I can see why you believe the message that you’re sharing with me. You’re obviously someone who’s well to do.
Conrad Mbewe: Now, you answer me this question. If I stop selling this, how will I look after these little children that are sitting next to me?” And then she said, “Look at your shoes, they’re even more polished. It shows that you are well-off.” So the lady said, “I just took off my shoes, left them with her since I couldn’t say anything. And that’s how I’ve come away.” So obviously, we must do something practical. And then the main burden we have is to reach people for Christ with the gospel.
Collin Hansen: Earlier this year, we published an article at The Gospel Coalition about a Western-educated pastor who we had assumed had been killed by Muslims in Nigeria. A very common occurrence there, unfortunately. But it actually turned out that Christians from a different tribe had killed him and his wife in a tribal land dispute. You talk about tribalism in the book. Do African pastors tend to work around these tribal dynamics as a given or confront them in the open?
Conrad Mbewe: Yes. Again, that’s one of the reasons why I wrote this book. I realized that there were dynamics that a booklet in America cannot address, cannot even think about addressing. And yet it’s fairly real to us, because sometimes you’d find that in one street, there would be like four churches and they are all using different languages. And in each of those churches, it’s one tribe that is dominant, and it’s the tribe that comes from the area where that language is spoken. Or better still, where that tribe comes from. So even though they’ve come into the city, which is cosmopolitan and therefore has many languages, they still come in almost through a pipe and simply plant their own tribal denominational church there. And again, it’s something that needs to be broken through because, really the Christian gospel transcends these tribal ethnic differences, variations, which are for all intents and purposes, superficial. So it ought to come through in the actual life of the church.
Conrad Mbewe: Now, one can understand when that particular denomination is right in the heart of a tribal area, one will understand that it will largely be around that tribe and with the tribal language. But it’s to recognize that we are now in a cosmopolitan place, the language in this church should be the one that I will find the moment I step out of this building. The way people are communicating, that’s what should be here. The leaders of this church should not be one tribe. It should be, again, the people that are represented outside these doors. So yes, again, it’s something that as we emphasize the gospel and its richness, we should see these barriers breaking down because Christ should be all and in all.
Collin Hansen: Conrad, given the decline of the church in the West compared to its growth in Africa, is there anything the West can still offer the church in Africa?
Conrad Mbewe: Yes. Yes. There’s quite a lot. I think, first of all, what has happened over time is that until about the 1960s going into the 1970s, Africans were largely just educated at the most basic level. There were very, very few Africans that were educated up to the level of masters, and doctorate, and so on. And I’m not just thinking in terms of the paper in the hand, but what those levels of education represent. So we still have a situation on our hands where as someone … In fact, it’s become quite a common phrase that the church in Africa is a mile wide and an inch deep. There’s need to increase that depth. There’s need for us as Africans to be the ones who can handle the Word of God with the confidence, for instance, of someone who’s wrestled with original languages. That we ourselves are then writing actual commentaries that not only open up Scripture, but also apply to our situation. So the kind of training that can bring that about is what I personally think the West really needs to invest in Africa.
Conrad Mbewe: And at this stage, because we have got so many untrained pastors … I mean, many of them simply have the book of John and the book of Romans as their Bible, and they’re using it out in the villages. There’s so much that we need to do, which we can get the help from the Western church. But one of the aspects, which in a sense the West has already helped us to do but needs to continue helping us to do as one generation passes the baton on to the other, is simply the fact that culture is a blind spot. As long as nobody from the outside comes in to ask questions, you just assume that this is life. So maintaining the cross-pollination with the Western church helps us to … in each generation to ask the question, “Why are we doing what we’re doing? And is this really helping us?” One obvious example I think about is that a lot of Africans just assume that worship is about dancing and clapping. The emphasis on content, richness of words is still amiss.
Conrad Mbewe: And if we don’t have people from outside our culture walking in and saying, “But shouldn’t you think a little bit more about this?” The point is we’ll still continue with this frothy rhythmic dancing thinking that’s really what worship ought to be. I could go on, but I would still say the cross-pollination is necessary.
Collin Hansen: Well, I think that’s one of the major benefits that I had reading your book, and a major benefit that I would recommend to others listening to this podcast who might not think a book called God’s Design for the Church: A Guide for African Pastors and Ministry Leaders would be for them in the West. But it’s precisely that cross-pollination effect that when you see biblical teaching, you see the gospel being proclaimed and then the implications lived out in a different context, it does reflect on your own of what’s truly biblical and what’s merely cultural. What needs to be reformed, and then ultimately, what are things that are relatively neutral across cultures. So I found that to be very helpful in the context of reading the book and then preparing for this interview, and even just having this conversation right now. I mean, I think it’s increasingly evident what Africa has to offer to the West, and I think that’s going to continue to increase. But I am glad to know that there are still some things that we can from the West offer to the African church.
Collin Hansen: And speaking of that cross-pollination, you’ve been a part of TGC Africa from the beginning. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that work and what you guys have in store? If people have not checked out the website for TGC Africa, I would strongly encourage you to do so. It’s a really remarkable effort.
Conrad Mbewe: I’ve been part of TGC Africa from the beginning, as you rightly said. And one of the reasons why we needed to do this was, first of all, we saw that a lot of young Africans are connected to the internet world, especially through smartphones and they literally downloading and drinking in a lot that is being put online out there in the Western world. Africa is largely comprised of that age group. I hear figures like over 50 percent being below the age of 25. I mean, to me, that’s a huge, huge figure. So it was clear that what we now needed to do was to put in African content … Or let me use the phrase, African relevant content. In other words, it’s not so much that we want to Africanize Christianity, but rather we want the young people … In fact, generally speaking the people of Africa to see the relevance of the Bible to African situations. So we thought, “Let’s also give African pastors a voice and an opportunity to speak beyond their local churches, beyond the national boundaries, right across the continent of Africa.”
Conrad Mbewe: We had information to the fact that you had as many as 900,000 links from people within the African continent going on to TGC websites. So we thought that if we could harness something of that and do just that, we would achieve something. Which is in fact, what has already begun to be seen. So we’re definitely grateful for the opportunity of providing conservative evangelicalism, a platform, a voice that is continent-wide. And the like to encourage anybody to then link in and see what is there.
Collin Hansen: I get a chance to read every day content and not to mention video and podcasts from TGC on Australia to Canada, to Brazil, to Latin America, where we have the largest Spanish-language Christian website. But certainly if not the most, but one of the most impressive efforts I’ve seen has been from Africa. And when you consider, of course, just how massive the continent is, and then how much flux it’s in because of that demographic description you just gave us, you can see the need, you can see the opportunities. So it’s been our privilege to be able to support that, not by any means to control it. We don’t select any of that content here in the United States, that’s all done by African leaders and by African contributors. They’re all … All international coalitions are independent. But it’s our privilege to be able to watch and to learn ourselves, and to in some small way, continue to support that effort.
Collin Hansen: My guest on Gospelbound has been Conrad Mbewe, author of God’s Design for the Church: A Guide for African Pastors and Ministry Leaders, a new book from The Gospel Coalition and 9Marks with Crossway. Conrad, thank you so much for joining me on Gospelbound.
Conrad Mbewe: Thank you. Thank you very much. I really appreciate, Collin. Thanks for having me.