Podcast: God’s Work in the African Church (Conrad Mbewe)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

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What You Should Know about the Church in Africa

In this episode, Conrad Mbewe discusses what American Christians should know about the church in Africa. He dispels common misconceptions related to African Christianity; summarizes the big issues facing local congregations, including unbiblical superstitions, widespread poverty, and a lack of theological education; and he highlights what American believers can learn from our African brothers and sisters in Christ.

God's Design for the Church

Conrad Mbewe

As the church in Africa continues its growth, there is a pressing need for resources on what the church is, and how it should function. Using 30 years of pastoral service in Lusaka, Zambia, Conrad Mbewe applies biblical principles to help bring depth and maturity to African church leaders.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

02:14 - Zambia and Kabwata Baptist Church

Matt Tully
Conrad, thank you so much for joining me today for The Crossway Podcast.

Conrad Mbewe
Thank you, Matt. Looking forward to it.

Matt Tully
You currently serve as a pastor in Lusaka, Zambia, and my guess is that many, or most, of our listeners don’t know a lot about Zambia. Could you just tell us a little bit about your country and city that you live and minister in?

Conrad Mbewe
Zambia is a land-locked country, so we don’t have any access to the sea or ocean. It’s somewhere between the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn—right in the middle there—surrounded by about eight countries. It’s got a population of about 15 million people. We have many small tribes and languages, and we’ve got about 70 dialects that make up our entire nation. English is our major language of communication. We were once colonized by the British, and so it was decided after independence to keep the English language. As you already said, I live and minister in Lusaka. It’s the capital city, and it’s got a tenth of the population for the whole country—roughly 1.5 million people. We have people from all over the country in our city. Our population, in terms of age, we are given to understand by those that study demographics that the population is largely young people below the age of 25. So, that’s the kind of age group that we are largely ministering to. That’s what I’ll say about Zambia. It’s democratic—we’ve been changing governments every five years or so for the last 50+ years.

Matt Tully
Tell us a little bit about your church. I know you’ve been a pastor of the same church for a few decades now. Paint a picture of what your church is like.

Conrad Mbewe
Kabwata Baptist Church represents the environment in which we are—largely young people. We have a membership of about 450. The church was planted in 1981, became autonomous five years later in 1986, then a year later (1987) I was called to be pastor. So, I’ve been around for about 33 years. At that time it was roughly 30–40 members and we didn’t own any property, so a lot has been happening since then. Right now we are very involved in church planting work, not only in Zambia but across Africa. We’ve planted slightly over 30 churches, and so it’s been a great joy seeing that multiplication factor happening.

Matt Tully
What’s that been like? Have you been raising up men to be church planters within your congregation, or are you partnering with other churches across the continent to plant those churches?

Conrad Mbewe
It’s been a bit of both. We’ve had individuals that have grown through the ranks in our own church. What has also happened is that we run an internship program where individuals with a sense of call to the ministry in their various churches come and spend a whole year with us. What tends to happen is that some of them would have already been at a Bible college where their doctrinal position underwent a complete transformation, so they cannot go back to the churches they came from and they don’t quite know what to do, so they come and spend a year with us. Usually, among those individuals, we tend to connect with one or two, and then we send them out to go and plant churches. Usually, those that come from their own countries are the ones we send back to their own African countries, and then we help them with support for them to plant churches there.

Matt Tully
You mentioned this Bible college—is that the same thing as the African Christian University that you helped to found?

Conrad Mbewe
Yes and no. The internship program is at our own local church. We have the capacity to handle six individuals as a maximum at any one time. We’ve also been running for many years now a part time college that we’ve been calling under different names. Right now it’s called the Lusaka Ministerial College. And then more recently, we have begun an actual university—the African Christian University. Voddie Baucham has also come over and is heading the school of divinity. We do have other schools as well for other culture, for business, and for education. So it’s a wider university than just theological studies.

08:26 - The Importance of Education and Ministry Training

Matt Tully
It sounds like whether it’s in that university context or Bible college context or an internship context at your church, training up of pastors, church leaders, and lay Christians is an important part of your ministry and strategy as a church leader. Unpack that for us a little bit, especially speaking to a primarily American audience where we’re used to there being colleges and universities—it’s maybe an assumed reality. Why is that such an important priority for you?

Conrad Mbewe
We are definitely a good 100–200 years behind what has happened in the West because until quite recently, churches were only involved in primary, and at the most, secondary education. Yes, we were, as churches, doing a lot, and therefore the government tended to appreciate partnership with the church because our schools were definitely the better schools in terms of infrastructure and the holistic education that was being provided for individuals. However, there was a disconnect with the aspect of career development and a disconnect with respect to the training of those that would be pastors and leaders of churches. That has kept our churches very, very weak in terms of wrestling with the current issues in our society. So there’s been a movement towards having tertiary education not simply at a basic diploma level, but going into degree-level education. There’s been a push in that direction in the very recent past. You won’t believe this, but for instance, in the whole of Zambia you could not go into a seminary and get a master’s level (and upwards) education until perhaps the last five years. So, it’s a very new aspect. We’re behind, and we need to do our best in order to strengthen the Christian church and enable indigenous Christian leaders to be able to help the church answer the demand of the Great Commission, for us to truly be salt and light in our world.

Matt Tully
It’s so interesting hearing you talk about the growth in higher-level education and ministry training. Sometimes, in our context, you can hear the idea of Well, seminaries and colleges can often lead to this over-intellectualized spirituality, or an over-emphasis on theology to the detriment of practically living in obedience and loving others. What would you say to that suspicion that can sometimes be in a Western context of higher education?

Conrad Mbewe
I do want to agree with those that have expressed fear, and perhaps not just fear, but they have seen it happening and they are running away from it. I’ve gone as far as one goes with education—I have a PhD—and therefore, I’ve been exposed to what’s happening in the context of higher education, and even theological training. I had a young man visiting me recently and he was concerned about the fact that very few theological colleges that he’s seen here in Zambia are deliberately dealing with what he called “contextual theology.” When I challenged him about it, it was fairly clear that he was busy with some philosophy, some learning, that he’s picked up in a theological college context that’s completely divorced from what is happening in the churches. I challenged him and said, I’ve been a pastor for so many years. Could you tell me what it is that you are concerned about that’s not happening in the churches? He was at sea in terms of trying to bring something out. He came to visit me with a lot of energy and gusto about the need to address this matter, and in the end I told him quite frankly that the problem is that a lot of this university education is divorced from the local church. It’s divorced from the reality that pastors are dealing with. As a result, you are making mountains out of little anthills when, if we could have this connection made between the church and tertiary education—tertiary theological education—we’re going to avoid the kind of disaster that, for instance, this young man himself is in. So, in that sense, I agree with those that are expressing this concern, and the reason, as I’ve already hinted, is that disconnect between the church and tertiary theological training.

14:53 - Specifics of the African Church

Matt Tully
Most of our podcast listeners are based in the US, and sometimes for us—if we haven’t traveled much or had a lot of exposure to Christians living in other parts of the world—it can be easy to fall into one of two camps: On the on hand, we maybe assume that Christians living in Zambia are so different from us that there’s very little commonality there and we have such a different kind of experience. On the other hand, some people might be prone to downplay the significance of some legitimate differences that might exist. Can you help us navigate that? Maybe start with similarities. You’ve spent a lot of time in the US and in interacting with American churches, believers, and church leaders; what are some of the things that would make us more similar than we might realize?

Conrad Mbewe
First of all, we have the same God; we have the same fallen nature; we have the same salvation in Jesus Christ; for those of us who are Christians, we are indwelt by the same Spirit. That’s a lot of commonality. In other words, I can therefore cross the ocean, preach in a church in New York, Washington, Florida—whatever it might be—and as long as I go to the Bible faithfully and expound it, I’m basically speaking to an American audience exactly the same way that I would speak to a Zambian audience. So, in that sense, we wrestle with the same indwelling sin; the same Satan—the devil—enticing us away from the living God. Interpersonal clashes, at that level, will be quite the same. So, that’s what is in common, and therefore, missionaries can cross the ocean, arrive today, and tomorrow be preaching in our context and there will be a lot that will connect with us. Where we need to do a lot more listening—where I need to do a lot more listening when I’m crossing over to America, even before I get there—and where Americans need to do a lot more listening is, first of all, in terms of application of biblical truth. At that level, the noises that we are hearing are vastly different. For instance, you’ve just gone through elections and the major issue that was screaming at all of you in the US had to do with elections, your former president, the incoming president, Republicans, Democrats, and so on. That was the noise that’s been there, and the implications of all that, with respect to racial issues, sexuality issues, abortion, pro-life, and so on—that’s the kind of noise that tends to be around the American context. Here, there’s a little bit of that, but that’s not the major noise that we are hearing. For instance, in my context I’m dealing with a lot of young people who are coming into the Christian faith for the first time, and to them the promised land is America—that’s the promised land. Everything there is wonderful and big and if we can only get out there we will have our lives lived in Abundance—capital A. To try to just get them around to appreciate that life in abundance is when you are walking with God—it doesn’t matter where you are when you are walking with God. Then, there are issues of poverty at a very basic level. Just this afternoon I had a lady coming to see me. Her husband was a member of our church who died in 1997, and she was basically saying, I have nowhere to go in terms of educating my children. Zero. In the US, there will be that check that comes from the state. In Zambia, there’s nothing like that. So, we have to deal with issues of poverty and deal with issues of the absence of institutions like schools, medical facilities, and so on in a lot of places. It’s things like that where we then say, Okay, we need to address these things. The positives, for instance, of the extended family system, and then the negatives of the extended family system. Those, again, are realities that our people have to resolve. So, it’s more at the level of application, at that level of detail just under the skin that often those that cross the Atlantic to come and minister here need to do a lot of listening so that they get to appreciate the undercurrents. Once they really come to grips with the undercurrents, they will be in a better position to minister.

Matt Tully
I want to return to some of those undercurrents and African-specific issues that do affect application, but just going back briefly: you mentioned large numbers of young people becoming Christians for the first time, maybe the first person in their family to come to faith. What is the religious background that many of these young people are coming from?

Conrad Mbewe
Most Zambians would actually claim to be Christian. At least 80%, maybe even 85%. But it’s largely Roman Catholicism. Half of those who profess Christianity in Zambia would be from a Roman Catholic background. Then, a lot of them beyond that would be individuals who are coming from a church that’s completely liberal. It would have had it’s roots in the Protestant Reformation, but now it’s simply a church which teaches good morals. So, they would have come to repentance and faith outside that context, and then that’s when they would have appreciated what the Bible actually has to say in terms of doctrine and practice centered around the person and work of Christ. Because they’re coming from a background where they were religious, nominal Christians, they just assumed that it was Christianity. And yet, right under the facade was everything that’s worldly, including traditional religious beliefs, all mixed up in a form of syncretism. So when they become Christians, there is a lot of baggage they need to offload. It takes a bit of time because they’re sort of hitting against the wall constantly as you are preaching, and they’re realizing that things need to get off their backs, and the biblical worldview begins to form, and that way they can now go forward on their own because they can now see what isn’t fitting into the world that the Bible says they ought to have. So that’s the situation.

Matt Tully
What are some of those syncretistic religious beliefs or practices or traditions that you’re often fighting and have to disentangle from biblical Christianity?

Conrad Mbewe
I could throw in a few right away. One of them is simply what I call the “chief mentality,” which has to do with a failure to recognize that leadership is meant to be servanthood; it’s meant to serve others. Chiefs have an aura around them that makes them completely untouchable, that makes them individuals who whatever they say is carried out, individuals who, in the process, can get away with a lot that is wrong. That is something that is so much part of the air that pastors easily take on that kind of atmosphere as well. So, these individuals that are coming from that kind of background and then they come into the church where, for instance, I carry my backpack. That’s a crisis already within them because how on earth can such a person who is supposed to be so high carry, not just his backpack, but his Bible?

Matt Tully
Have you had to be intentional about stamping that down, even in relation to you? Have you found that if you don’t intentionally discourage it, people would start to treat you differently because of this mentality?

Conrad Mbewe
Yes. I’ve been in my church for over thirty years, so the atmosphere there is completely different. It’s often a visitor who comes and sees me stand up at the end of the service and throw my backpack onto my back and start walking out, and they just can’t process that. Where they’re coming from, it’s not just out of question, that’s like throwing mud at a king, and they just don’t do that. But it’s when I also preach at conferences and other churches, that’s where it really happens a lot because I arrive there and am coming out of my car, and already people want to take my Bible out of my hands. When I’ve sat down and I’m ready to go and preach, again, other people are coming and wanting to get my Bible to take it up to the podium because the pastor is not supposed to do that. So yes, it’s fairly common around Zambia and around the continent.

27:27 - Challenges of the African Church

Matt Tully
Obviously, Africa is a huge continent filled with millions of Christians, and as you said there are over 70 different dialects even within your own country. There is so much variety and diversity, but are there any other common challenges facing the church in Africa today? You mentioned widespread poverty and a lack of theological education; are there any other things that stick out to you as issues that you would want Western believers who aren’t as familiar with the African context to be aware of, things that we could be praying for?

Conrad Mbewe
One of the most obvious issues is the basic understanding of the role of the church in society and in the world. It's not a jack of all trades, but rather it’s one that brings the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ; it’s one that disciples believers; and then the believers go as salt and light in the world. As basic as that might sound to you, that sounds extremely foreign to the average African ear. The church has helped with education and medical situations, but those are meant to be secondary tools to the work of the gospel. They have taken on a life of their own, but more than that, the church ends up being used for monitoring elections, for instance. The church ends up being the vehicle through which finances are turned in, especially for the so-called man of God who becomes stinking rich. The church ends up being more of the equivalent of the witchdoctor’s den. People go to a witchdoctor to have bad luck removed from their lives. For example, if they were not able to have children, the witchdoctor sort of plays with a few bones on the ground and they believe this enables them to have children, to have a job, for their business to go forward, and so on. That’s now the in-thing with the man of God in the church through “deliverance sessions”—they’ve become the main thing. Again, for people to come to realize that that’s foreign to the actual Bible they are holding in their hand. What took place from Acts 2 itself was that the believers gave themselves to the apostle’s teaching. In other words, the church was primarily an educational institution. People went to hear what God had to say to them about salvation, sanctification, and the fruit of that. So, you say there is such a variety on African soil, but what stands out as something that American Christians need to hear and know, I think that is what I would say, and that is what I am most zealous about. Yes, there’s poverty and lots of other things, but if we can just get the church to be doing what God wants it to do, the fruit of that is going to correct so much else in the rest of the continent of Africa.

31:44 - Common Misconceptions about the African Church

Matt Tully
What would you say is one of the most common misunderstandings that you’ve encountered among American Christians when it comes to Christianity in Africa and how the church is doing?

Conrad Mbewe
Perhaps two things. One is the fact that the non-Christians in Africa are generally very open to the gospel, that they are sort of falling over each other to embrace the gospel message. That’s very far from the truth. Yes, the Christian faith is galloping forward, but it’s galloping forward through a lot of hard work. Africans, generally, don’t want to cause offense, so they have the attitude if someone is saying, Jesus Christ is offering this, will you receive him?, they’re not likely to say no, even if in their hearts they mean no. They will say yes just so that they don’t cause offense. Therefore, if you offer them the sinner’s prayer, they will repeat it after you. But as soon as you are gone, it’s all gone. That’s the thing that the people in the West often mistake when they cross over and they do evangelistic work. That’s number one. The second is that Africa can nicely—or maybe neatly—be divided into three categories: there is the Islamic north, and then south of the Sahara there is the urban areas, and then you have the rural areas. What tends to happen in most people in the West is that they are fixated on one of those categories. For some of them, all they are seeing in Africa are Muslims destroying Christian churches and burning them down and killing Christians, and therefore, they need to stop Islam from what it is doing. What they don’t realize is that that’s almost exclusively right at the top—somewhere in the Sahara desert and going upwards. In the south, yes, Muslims are there, but they are such a small minority that they are behaving themselves. So they’re fixated on that. Others are fixated on rural Africa—the need for clean water, the need for basic structure, and so on. So, it’s all about providing finances to help forestall starvation, helping refugees, and things like that. It’s there, but it’s, again, just one section of Africa, and it’s important to diversify as well. And then you have the third category, which is the kind of atmosphere I minister in where you have middle and upper class, young professionals who are going upwards, individuals who can cross over to England, Australia, or America in order to get a job and basically just fit in. That’s, again, another part of Africa. Sometimes in Africa, you can have all these three being neighbors to each other within the same wider city. So, just realizing that there is that kind of three-fold diversity would indeed help our Western friends to appreciate a little more of Africa and its needs, because it means that the needs in each of these three will be quite different.

Matt Tully
It’s so interesting how, depending on what we’ve seen and what we’ve been exposed to personally, especially if we haven’t done a lot of our own research or had direct experience, our view of things can be so one-sided or limited. It makes me think of even a broader category that I think can be at play when it comes to how we view the Christian faith and what it means to be a Christian and to follow God. We all, as fallen humans, have blind spots when it comes to our faith and what it means to be a church and to love our neighbors, and that’s where it can be very helpful to have Christians from different contexts with different perspectives to speak in and help us to see our blind spots. I wonder if you could serve us (American Christians) in that way this morning. What are some of the blind spots that you have noticed when it comes to gospel-loving, Bible-believing Christians in America, and maybe in the West, generally?

Conrad Mbewe
I get asked that question quite a lot when I visit the US, the UK—I think primarily those two areas. I’m often reluctant to answer, primarily because there are pastors there as well who are serving faithfully and have got a global view, which I’ve also had the opportunity to have. If I was to speak on this, one thing would be that for a lot of people—for instance, in the US—their world begins and ends with the United States of America. Outside that is simply people in need. All the news they ever listen to is in America. And that’s quite shocking, but it’s true. What I would therefore say is brothers and sisters in the US need to, apart from listening to and watching media channels that are particularly American, that they should deliberately subscribe to those that are outside, those that are global. Listen to podcasts, for instance, that are also outside their immediate context. What that does is it enriches their lives because the earth is the Lord’s—the whole of it. Therefore, even their prayers would be more balanced and more relevant, if I could put it that way, to the wider cause of God across the planet. Closely related to that is the view that somehow the American politicians sort of determine the future of America, when really it’s the church through the gospel that will determine the future of that great country. I think that blind spot is very difficult to deal with because I think anybody who tries to speak into it immediately loses the audience—immediately—and gets some level of backlash.

Matt Tully
Has that been the case for you? Have you experienced that?

Conrad Mbewe
Not quite because, as I’ve said, I’ve been quite reluctant. Every so often people say to me, So Conrad, what’s your comment about this? And my answer, as usual, is, Sorry, you’ve got enough pastors there to handle it. I’m not getting into the fight because I’ll just get beaten. I don’t think I will correct anything, one way or the other. There’s too much noise taking place among brethren for things that are really happening out there which the gospel itself would correct if only we can put the gospel and the church in the place where it ought to be as salt and light in the world. So, that’s the little that I would say about that. But otherwise, as I said at the very beginning, I have a lot of friends who are good, godly, well-proven pastors in the US who are doing a commendable job with a global view, and I’m almost certain that what I’ve said they themselves would say.

Matt Tully
When it comes to cultivating that global view of Christianity around the world—you mentioned listening to podcasts, subscribing to news sources that are based in other parts of the world—what do you think about short-term trips, whether that’s a mission trip or maybe just a trip to visit another church or other Christians in a different part of the world? I know there are lots of different opinions about the value of short-term trips and what role they should or shouldn’t play, but just briefly: Do you think there’s value there? Is that something you would encourage Western Christians to do if they’re able to do something like that?

Conrad Mbewe
Yes. I definitely am in the category that would say yes to that. I know why a number of church leaders are wary of this: because it becomes a kind of religious holiday that people go into to simply get exposed and enjoy something of the world out there. But at the same time, let’s not throw the baby out together with the dirty bath water. A lot of individuals have had their missions focus sharpened to the point of laser target because they’ve gone out there and they’ve visited and they’ve seen what the television screen could not show them. They’ve seen that here is the place worth living and dying for Christ, and they’ve gone back home determined that they must now come over as long-term missionaries. So, yes, there’s a lot that ends up simply being, as I said, some kind of holiday; but there’s a lot also to be grateful for through short-term missions. It’s a matter of managing it well and bringing in the fruit.

43:54 - Praying for the African Church

Matt Tully
As you think about your own church community right now—both the lay people there, fellow pastors and elders who are there ministering alongside you—what would you say are one or two specific things that our listeners could be praying for your church, and maybe even the church more broadly in Africa this week? Give us one or two concrete things that we can be praying for.

Conrad Mbewe
One of them they’ll easily identify with is COVID-19. It’s wreaking havoc on the continent. The first wave did not do as much damage in terms of the loss of lives. This second wave is reaping quite a number of lives. We are prone to HIV, AIDS, ebola virus, and so on, so we can ill afford to have this level of attack on the continent. The implication of churches closing because of the effect of this and so on—I just pray that the Lord preserves us, that the Lord also uses the COVID-19 and its attendant fear in people’s hearts to draw them to the living God. That’s an immediate one. The second is the training of pastors. It’s difficult to overemphasize that—the training of pastors. There are different levels. You have your university level, you have the small seminars that are taking place at grassroots levels; but it’s a dire need that we have on the continent because churches are starting literally everywhere. The people running those churches, some of them don’t even have a full Bible, let alone training. If we don’t train them and provide books and so on to them, wildfires are obviously going to come forth. So, the training of pastors would definitely be a second one that I would put there. And then thirdly, the young generation that are coming through who are mostly first generation believers, just praying that the Lord will among them arrest a generation that will be in love with the gospel of God and the God of the gospel, and wanting to spend and be spent for him. If I can go to the grave leaving behind such a generation that has imbibed who God is and his blessed gospel, I would be glad to say, Yes, life was worth the living. Just pray that the Lord would raise up such an army.


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