A Discussion with the CBM About Africa
Poverty has played a big part in generating interest. Two of the poorest countries, Mozambique and Malawi, account for over half our brothers and sisters in Africa. There remains a noticeable inverse relationship between riches and faith.
This article is from an interview with Bre. Mark Basten (CBM Chair), Paul Boyd (CBM General Secretary) and John Mathias (CBM East Africa Secretary). We are deeply grateful for their insights into the inspiring spread of the Truth in Africa.
What were the critical factors in Africa that led to substantial growth in Christianity? What attracts people in these countries to Christadelphians?
Africa is a continent with great needs. With a hand-to-mouth existence, the average person knows they are not in control of their life and understands their reliance on God. They see God as the answer to problems and the provider of a better future. Thinking about God and talking freely about Him comes naturally to many in Africa, and they are keen to listen to Bible teaching.
The culture of talking about beliefs to family and friends means that our brothers and sisters speak about their faith to others. The more believers that do that, the more the gospel is likely to spread. This attitude fosters rapid expansion in countries with large numbers of brothers and sisters.
Poverty has played a big part in generating interest. Two of the poorest countries, Mozambique and Malawi, account for over half our brothers and sisters in Africa. There remains a noticeable inverse relationship between riches and faith. The more wealth a country has, the less interested people are in God. “Has not God chosen the poor of the world?” (Jas 2:5).
Because of wars and internal unrest, the gospel has spread. Displaced refugees have passed the gospel message on to people in other places or learned about it from brothers and sisters where they have ended up.
This phenomenon is like the first century, when “Those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (Acts 8:4). God works through man’s weaknesses. Our African brothers and sisters embrace Christadelphian teaching because it makes sense to them. The fact there is only one God and not a Trinity is logical.
The need for adult baptism is a straightforward message, and they are eager to be baptized properly. When they realize the blessings of the Kingdom are the answer to the world’s problems, they often break into spontaneous applause! When they listen to the Bible, they accept the teaching for what it is—the Word of God.
Because of this, “fields are white” in Africa! The spread of gospel truth is constrained only by our ability to preach. The role CBM takes is to encourage preaching, whether we are near or far. We can best do this by nurturing the innate abilities of the brothers and sisters in Africa to share their faith with those around them. Through their faithful witness, the true gospel message can only reach those who do not speak English or who cannot read in their own language. In this way, the gospel can go to “every nation, tribe, people and language.” (Rev 7:9).
What factors drove this growth?
Since just before and during the colonial era (late 1800s1950), missionary activities have provided a Christian bias in Sub-Saharan Africa. Today Catholic and Protestant/ Evangelical teachings are most influential. However, there is no country where a single religion predominates. Neither Western nor Communist philosophies have any significant influence. In Sub-Saharan Africa, freedom of religion is just that.
Christadelphians have been teaching in Sub-Saharan Africa since the 1950s, when some were posted there for work. Preaching started informally by face-to-face discussions with work colleagues, plus ad hoc preaching opportunities. They also used local media, offering a mail-in contact. This method generated a great deal of interest. Much of the early teaching began by correspondence course.
Bro. Stanley Owen, in his book Into All the World, comments:
Many Sub-Saharan countries had large correspondence teams, with tutors from the UK, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. This method was only practical to reach those with a good grasp of the English language. Visits initially concentrated on calling on correspondence course contacts and holding preaching events.
Currently, visits tend to focus on pastoral care, where we facilitate elders’ and sisters’ workshops, Bible schools, youth camps, etc. Presently, correspondence teaching has declined but local teaching has increased. Radio broadcasts have proven to be an excellent medium to preach the gospel. Sometimes, local radio stations even contact the Christadelphians for their perspective on various issues.
In established countries, most preaching today is carried out by brothers and sisters in the language of the area. For instance, the gospel was preached by brothers and sisters from Malawi in Mozambique, as both countries have a common language, Chichewa.
Most converts come from Christian backgrounds, although significant numbers also come from Islam and tribal religions. This varies from country to country, depending on how open-minded their culture is. The African tendency is to talk to family, friends and those they meet regardless of their faith or philosophy.
Describe the extent of Bible knowledge in these countries?
In some countries Bible knowledge is high. In many other countries, there are individuals who have Bible knowledge on a par with those in “developed” countries. The first brother in Uganda, now fallen asleep, knew what was in every chapter of the Bible and often quoted flawlessly. His knowledge was an immense help to him when he became almost blind.
Countries like Nigeria have many deeply knowledgeable brothers and sisters. It would, however, be unreasonable to expect most believers to have this level of Scriptural knowledge. Many have not finished secondary education, and many cannot read. The typical brother is a subsistence farmer who has never learned how to teach others.
Baptized education teachers are a great asset to our community and must be encouraged to use their talent to benefit the ecclesia. Our brothers and sisters in Africa have an uncomplicated faith. Basic living efforts take up most of their time. Brothers and sisters must work all the hours of daylight merely to exist. Rising before dawn to work in the fields and collect water precludes any reading before the day begins.
A hard life often generates a strong faith.
They must rise early, because in Africa, it is too hot to work manually in the fields after 9 AM. (With an absence of machinery, most work is manual). Some may find time to read during the heat of the day, but others need to rest. Then after dark, cooking over charcoal for the family, is a lengthy process. There is usually no light to read by. A hard life often generates a strong faith.
When we asked a widowed sister about the difficulties in her life and what she did when she had no food, she responded that she goes to the next village to preach! When we asked another widow, who could not read, why she needed a Bible, she replied she would get someone to read it to her.
Many Africans have a unique way of approaching basic teaching. For example, one brother, when talking about being buried with Christ in baptism, asked his audience “Would you only bury the head on its own at a funeral?” He got a resounding “NO!” He then said, “So you see why it’s no good just having our heads sprinkled with water. We need to be fully immersed.”
They have lovely ways of expressing fundamental teachings. The role of the CBM is to facilitate the development of the faith of our brothers and sisters through whatever means we can. We are trainers to help lead God’s people to maturity. We have much work to do in this area and are actively trying to plug these “gaps.”
Many presentations and written material in English, together with a growing library of translated material are available at www.cbmmedia.org and www.bibleeastafrica.com. Because most of our brothers and sisters in Africa do not have smartphones or access to the Internet, this is only a small help but it is possible for those who do to share material.
More recently, we have produced videos in several languages. For example, in Sierra Leone about sixty videos were translated and recorded in the Krio language. This new initiative provides portable rechargeable video and audio equipment so that material on the above websites can be sent from the UK on memory sticks and presented at CBM halls.
This exciting project has proved extremely popular and upbuilding. As a result, we are commencing trials in Tanzania, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Does the CBM have concerns about Africa? What are the major risks?
The major concerns for the work of the CBM are the spiritual threats from both outside and within. The most significant danger from outside is the “march of civilization” which threatens to turn Sub-Saharan Africans into Westerners. The key medium of this is social media (and, to a certain extent, television) which takes the “world” into previously untouched rural areas.
This change is happening because of greater availability of electricity and mobile networks. When most homes have these facilities, Western values and beliefs may prevail and turn people from God and toward money and what it can buy. Technology is a blessing that enables us to preach the truth to the world. But it preaches many things more likely to corrupt than edify.
Electricity and technology are mixed blessings in Africa. We fear our ability to preach in Africa long-term will become limited due to the encroachment of technology. Secondly, there are threats from within. The biggest single danger to our African brothers and sisters is the overuse of welfare.
Often well-meaning brothers and sisters in the West respond to an individual’s request for financial aid. We can argue from Scripture that a charitable response is the right thing to do. As Westerners, we are often embarrassed when we have so much, and our brothers and sisters in Africa have so little. But giving can be damaging. Let’s give a couple of examples.
A brother was lame because of polio and went around with a stick. He was a lovely, smiling brother who was at every meeting. On one trip, a visitor offered to pay for an operation to correct his injured leg. This was an excellent opportunity for someone who spent most of his life as a beggar. He was tempted by the money, inflated the price and attempted to bring the doctor in on his deception. The doctor was a Christian and alerted us. Soon, he severed his contact with the ecclesia, lost his faith, and then, tragically, his life.
In an area in East Africa, we started a project to alleviate our brothers’ and sisters’ poverty. We provided training materials and a cow. There was a very high initial investment in the hope of making a difference in their lives. The ecclesia proliferated, followed by a second ecclesia soon afterward. It is true that the milk helped the children’s health. But the attraction of cows became the only draw for many people to the faith. The selection process for the next cow became contentious and soon the harmony was broken. The ecclesial membership eventually declined, and we have few committed members there today.
In both cases we had created unsustainable situations for the ecclesias by our love. We should not be raising the standard of living of a brother or sister above the culture they live in. Doing this creates jealousy, leading to division and people avoiding meeting.
Helping in this way can also result in temptations. Any single request that is fulfilled will eventually be followed by further requests because there are always needs. This leads to dependency. And finally, when aid is suspended, despondency and spiritual crisis occurs. It is the spiritual crisis which is the real problem.
Another problem arising from too much giving is that it attracts people to the gospel for the wrong reasons. We effectively say, “Become a Christadelphian and we will give you a cow or we will pay for any health problem you have.” Welfare issues have always been a problem, but now social media and smartphones are making the problem worse.
Often brothers and sisters in Africa send multiple requests for help to multiple brothers and sisters in the “developed” world. A situation could well arise where many people respond to one request. This could realize a sum of money far larger than our brothers and sisters have ever experienced– and the temptation then becomes an obstacle.
Every country we work in has a CBM Representative. They know the country and local circumstances well. They also know the individual brothers and sisters in most cases. Therefore, we suggest you contact the Linkman before you respond to requests for help. It is heart-breaking to see the damage caused by well-meaning help.
Sending any donation via the CBM will ensure those in genuine need are assisted before those who are rich enough to own a mobile phone! We can all help our brothers and sisters by keeping them focused on spiritual matters. The media portrays people in the West as having so much material wealth. However, we need to encourage them to be active in their ecclesias and preach to others. We should resist the temptation to help materially. If they ask, it is best to refer them to the Linkman, all of whom can be contacted using the country name before @ cbm.org.uk (e.g., email@example.com). If this does not work, or there is no response, try firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. All details are on the website www.cbm.org.uk. Please pray with us that we will all be guided to help in the right way.
How has movement from rural areas to big cities in many African countries impacted ecclesias and families in the Truth?
Cities provide the same problems as in the West, only more so in Africa, because the rural areas have so little. Cities are havens of worldliness. Experience shows that ecclesias in cities generally struggle more than in rural areas; ecclesial membership is more transient and unstable.
Many go to cities to find jobs. They do not realize city life is expensive, meaning long work hours to pay for essentials and also send help back for their families. These people have little time for ecclesial life. In a city, a brother or sister is unlikely to be close to the meeting location, and the costs of travel make attendance difficult.
We do experience exceptions, however. In Nigeria, for example, brothers and sisters pay to keep a minibus running to collect the dispersed members from around the city. There are more brothers and sisters in rural areas and so, these ecclesias grow bigger and stronger. While in a country like Nigeria, ecclesias are well populated in cities and large towns, it does appear that the rural environment is usually less distracting and better for spiritual growth.
What should every North American brother and sister know about the African experience? What can we do in North America for Africa and what shouldn’t we do?
Besides the numerous African languages, we are also limited by our lack of knowledge of more common languages, especially, Portuguese and French. The number of CBM workers with a knowledge of these languages is low. If anyone wishes to learn one (or both?!) and get involved in the great work of saving lives through the gospel, they will be welcomed with open arms.
There are many other ways you can help the CBM. We have a system called “Project Aid,” where projects are requested by our brothers and sisters in Africa via the Linkman. These projects raise funds for practical support for an ecclesia. You can view the projects available on the Christadelphian Bible Mission at cbm.org.uk.
Recurring or one-time donations can also be made via the website. If you prefer, you may donate to the CBM through the Christadelphian Bible Mission of the Americas (cbma.net), who will transfer the funds to the UK, and give you a tax deductible receipt.
If, having read this article, you have become aware of ways to assist with any of their activities, please feel free to reach out through the cbm.org.uk website.