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South Africa – Cast Your Net on the Other Side

If you were in my company, I would fire all of you. Each year, you come back here and report the same poor results using the same methods.
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In July 2005, at the Hebron Haven Bible School in South Africa, a wise and experienced brother issued a challenge for change. A few of us had gathered together to share updates on preaching efforts across the country. The efforts and results, which were much the same as the previous year, could be summarized as sparse. As the meeting drew to a close, the brother spoke for the first time, “If you were in my company, I would fire all of you. Each year, you come back here and report the same poor results using the same methods.” After overcoming the shock of his stark assessment, we collectively committed to take up his challenge to change.

At the time, South Africa was experiencing a period of significant transformation, underpinned by a spirit of optimism and new beginnings. Having emerged from a history of segregation under Apartheid over the previous decades, the country was buoyed by a spirit of nationalism and optimism as it prepared to host the world’s largest sporting event, the FIFA Soccer World Cup in 2010. The time was ripe for change and progress both in the country and our spiritual community.

Facing Decline

Like in most other countries, preaching efforts in South Africa before 2005 took the form of lectures and seminars presented in existing ecclesial halls, special campaigns at hired venues and correspondence courses sent to students throughout the country. There was little coordination of effort, primarily short-term 12-month planning, and most preaching was concentrated in the wealthier suburbs near established ecclesial halls.

Little emphasis was placed on developing long-term relationships with target communities, and welfare was typically limited to members of our own community. Consequently, we scarcely reflected the South African population’s diversity, or the transformation experienced throughout the country. To exacerbate the situation, our community was in decline, as many families chose to emigrate to Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. 

A Campaign is Born

Over the next five years, this context and the challenge to change led to transformation extending beyond our methods of preaching and impacting our community at its core. The 2010 Campaign was born. Ten years later, its vision, strategy and philosophy continue to ignite our community in South Africa.

The 2010 Campaign resulted from a unique gathering of many who encouraged long-term planning and out-of-the-box thinking. A strong base of members from various ecclesias in South Africa agreed to support the long-term outreach plan with clear goals, strategies and principles. For all of those present at the time, the ideas and goals posited were way bigger than anything we had ever sought to achieve before. This project required a new level of faith as we faced the prospect of stepping out of our comfort zones into new and untested waters.

Touch and Teach

One of the foundational principles of the 2010 Campaign was the “Cast your net on the other side” philosophy (John 21:6). The first principle of this philosophy was Touch and Teach. In a country where poverty and inequality are amongst the highest in the world, we could no longer manifest the message of our teaching without touching. The more we could integrate these elements of practice and theory, the more we would emulate the method of our Lord in the gospels. In a country characterized by a history of racial mistrust, we soon found that developing a relationship through “touching communities” (direct involvement in real, tangible works) helped turn stony soil into fertile land.

The Good News of the Kingdom of God

Two other themes that emerged early in the 2010 Campaign have remained cornerstones of preaching in South Africa. The Enablers for Laborers principle challenged us to diversify our preaching methods. Jesus tells us the real constraint in the harvest is not the field of opportunity but rather the lack of workers (Luke 10:2). By creating a diverse range of activities supporting the overall Touch and Teach preaching campaign, the 2010 Campaign enabled laborers, from teachers to caregivers, from builders to healthcare workers, from musicians to sports enthusiasts.

All these roles were combined through coordinated 2010 activities and united under a single preaching theme. We unified our diverse platforms and programs under Jesus’ original preaching tagline: the Good News (gospel) of the Kingdom of God (Matt 4:23). From signs at centers (appropriately called Good News Centers) to T-shirts worn by volunteers and decals on motor vehicles, the same message consistently displayed under this divine banner.

The blessings and abundance that followed our stepping out of the boat in 2005 were beyond anything we could have hoped or imagined. The LORD sent laborers, and the field turned white for harvest. After five years, the 2010 Campaign ended, but the results left us without any doubt the work must continue. Ignite 2020, an even more ambitious campaign followed, and this year, we celebrate the conclusion of that program. Over this period, we implemented many innovative platforms and programs. Not all have been effective, but some have endured and remain the central thrust of preaching activities today.

Meeting People Where They Are

Bible Education Centers (BECs) have proven to be a powerful and consistent platform for teaching the Good News in the streets and byways. Today, we operate five BECs located in city centers and urban townships. Not only do the BECs allow us to locate teaching closer to these communities, but they have also provided open and convenient access to Bible teaching.

We no longer require the people to come to our suburban ecclesial halls at times convenient for us. The BECs allow us to meet people where they are. A typical BEC stocks a limited number of Bibles in different versions and languages. The BECs also act as a depot to receive and return lessons from Bible courses and a place to attend live Bible and adult education classes. All BECs host bi-annual graduation celebrations for those who have completed Bible study courses at nearby ecclesial halls to help bridge the gap between Bible education, worship and fellowship. Many current leaders in the Ignite 2020 campaign first learned the Good News at one of the BECs.

Connecting with Communities

Another key platform has been establishing multi-purpose centers in marginalized communities. These Good News Centers help establish a deep, relevant and consistent relationship with the local community. Over the years, we learned to truly touch people by understanding their needs. Consequently, each Good News Center offers different services and activities tailored to the local community’s needs. These include:

  • Preschool for children aged two to five
  • After-school homework and support classes
  • Feeding schemes
  • Artisanal training
  • Gogos Teas (Gatherings for older women)
  • Sports programs

At the heart of every Good News Center is an ecclesia that offers spiritual growth and fellowship. Currently, eight centers are active in communities across the three most populous provinces in South Africa. The Lamontville Good News Center, surrounded by an extremely impoverished informal settlement, was opened on December 7, 2007.

Over the past dozen years, it has proved a flagship example of how to build trust and relationships over time. Not only does the center offer a respected preschool and youth development program, but it is also the home to a BEC and thriving ecclesia. Over the years, the center, like many others, has become a key responder to personal and community emergencies. In the darkest days, a hand outstretched is a lifeline for today and a beacon of hope for the future. When such a light shines, it illuminates the path to a future Kingdom where sorrow and sighing will be removed.

Help from Afar

Over the years, the support of local and international volunteers, with their diverse skills, has contributed hugely to the success and growth of the campaign. A partnership with the Prepare-2-Preach (P2P) program, first started in Australia, has resulted in hundreds of young people experiencing and supporting the many platforms and programs. In 2008, the 2010 Campaign project hosted the Amanzi International Youth Conference, followed by a P2P preaching project, the first of many since hosted at centers across the country. A gathering of over 250 young people from 10 different countries provided a stream of volunteers who returned over the following years. From teachers to musicians, some returned for a few months while others for a few years. Changing lives is life-changing!

the Lord had only started his work

Celebrating 2010

In 2010, South Africa hosted the world at the FIFA Soccer World Cup. At the time, our ambitious 2010 Campaign hosted an international Bible conference. This Bible conference represented the first fruits of the campaign that began five years earlier, evident not just in the number but also in the diversity of the attendees.

At this celebration, it became clear the Lord had only started his work in this field. A five-year journey into the unknown now became the foundation to move forward with even greater passion and faith. As brush fires raged on the mountains around the conference venue, a new 10-year campaign was born. Ignite 2020 continued the many platforms and programs established in the 2010 Campaign, emphasizing igniting new light stands throughout the country.

Igniting God’s Name in the Earth

Ignite 2020 called for a focus on sustainability and the development of local talent to lead and operate the platforms and programs. New ecclesias in urban townships, mostly based at the Good News Centers, provided fertile ground to develop new spiritual leaders who could also actively manage and run the programs. This development led to further nuanced programs such as Breakfast Clubs and the Learn to Earn program.

The Breakfast Club provides children with a nutritious breakfast at the center on their way to school. Combined with a short prayer and spiritual lesson, young ones receive natural and spiritual food to extract the best from the day. The Learn to Earn program encourages community members to participate in “learning” activities, which range from attending classes to actively helping the community in cleaning or feeding programs through a reward voucher system. 

We have learned to act in faith and not fear.

The vouchers allow the participants to buy items from a thrift shop at the center. In this way, providing for the community’s needs is intertwined with a commitment to learning and growth.

We have learned to act in faith and not fear. To be willing to cast our net on the other side. To be willing to try new things. They don’t always work, but we learn and grow even then.

One of the great lessons of the preaching experiment in South Africa is that we are laborers for the harvest. Any preaching campaign should ultimately have the harvest as its focus. At the outset, our primary focus was, as with many preaching campaigns, about bringing new converts to Christ. But, to borrow from the parable of the Sower, that is just the beginning of a potential harvest. Many seeds will spring up and never produce a harvest. We all grow together through the seasons of life.

Creating spaces and opportunities for sowing the seed and growing together has become our focus over the past ten years. We learned how integrated the natural and the spiritual become during this growth process. We have come to understand we don’t touch and teach, but rather, we touch to teach and teach to touch! In practical terms, this means our faith manifests the values we share, the hope we aspire to and our complete reliance on the Lord.

Through this integration, we move from being missionaries trying to produce a harvest to missionaries becoming a part of that harvest. “But God gave the increase.” (1 Cor 3:6).

Lessons Abound

As the Ignite 2020 campaign draws to a close, blessings abound with a fertile opportunity to innovate and grow. We are constantly amazed at how the project has grown. By the numbers, the Ignite 2020 campaign operates eight Good News Centers and five Bible Education Centers while supporting many associated programs. All of this is made possible by over 30 local full-time volunteers, many part-time volunteers and a steady stream of international volunteers. We have also been incredibly blessed by open-handed donors, especially from the USA. Many of these donors have opened their hands with funding and their hearts and time in coming to South Africa to share in the impact personally.

We have learned we are called to commit to fruitfulness. If we believe our God is abundant, then He will return a good measure pressed down, shaken together and overflowing (Luke 6:38). We have learned to act in faith and not fear. To be willing to cast our net on the other side. To be willing to try new things. We have learned that if we plan for the long term, in humility, knowing the Lord can and will change our plans, we can think and dream bigger. We give ourselves the time and space to tap into the unlimited power of our Lord. We have also learned that we will always leave a place for God in all our planning and organization. We constantly seek His direction and look for signs and guidance from the Lord of the harvest. The past 15 years have passed as if in a moment. We have much we would still love to do. If the Lord remains away, a new campaign will replace Ignite 2020. It will carry on the current platforms and programs while reinvigorating us towards innovations and goals.

Looking Forward

As we look forward to an uncertain future, no doubt deeply impacted by the coronavirus crisis, we are sure of a few things. The need for help today and hope tomorrow in our communities will be greater than ever before. The opportunity to provide for such needs has never been better placed. As the world and South Africa pass into this new era, the foundations laid over the past 15 years hold significant potential for eternal impact. May we not retract in fear. May we not grow weary. May we soar on the wings of the eagles that have gone before. May we join Isaiah’s timeless refrain, “Here am I. Send me.” (Isa. 6:8).

Matthew Blewett,
Westville Ecclesia, South Africa

(Reprint of June, 2020 article)

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Like in most other countries, preaching efforts in South Africa before 2005 took the form of lectures and seminars presented in existing ecclesial halls, special campaigns at hired venues and correspondence courses sent to students throughout the country.
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