Followers of Jesus are apprentices who've embraced a life of learning. We never leave school. Even when we feel we have something to teach, we want to remain teachable all our days. It's actually as we keep learning that we remain sharp as teachers.
That's how it is for us every time we travel. We go to learn as well as to teach, and although it seems like our visits to the different churches and times with numerous church leaders have been helpful to them, God always uses the time to give us fresh eyes on the community we love and lead at home too. Paul spoke of wanting to be with the church in Corinth so that they could be mutually encouraged. I think that's what I'm talking about.
So what have we learned from the churches in South Africa?
Well firstly, their gutsy, uncomplicated approach to following Jesus is inspiring. Their trust in His protection and provision, and sacrifice for others is always a reminder that it's not what you know, but what you do with what you know that counts. It's the reason the church is growing faster in the East than the West today, and as Christ -followers in the West, we simply need to learn live out the basics of our faith in the power of the Spirit without over-complicating things.
Second, and connected to this, South Africans are generally more communal in their faith. They understand the 'one-anothers' of the Christian faith, and generally have resisted individualism and consumerism. I was also deeply encouraged by the growth in cultural diversity I saw in each church we were with too, and especially the quality of emerging black leaders.
Another major shift that I saw in each church we were with was an intentional move from 'community' to 'community on mission' which was heartening. This
has been largely due to the influence of American writers and preachers who have helped the church recover the Gospel as central, and therefore mission as the primary expression of the church.
Much to be encouraged by and to take home and apply.
But what are some of the challenges we see - not in every church, but as a general trend?
The most obvious one; crime and political instability, is a factor of course, but at the risk of sounding unsympathetic I've always felt that South Africa's environment has been a kingdom gift if people can embrace it. It seems to forge a kind of Christianity that is heaven-minded and faith-fuelled. It's kept the church on it's toes and increasingly I see churches taking social and economic responsibility where governement is failing to do so. This is remarkable.
No, I would say a bigger challenge is that there is still a real polarization in most churches around Word or Spirit.You still have churches that have on the one hand focussed on preaching sound doctrine, or on the other hand focussed on demonstrating and enjoying the power of the Spirit. Churches tend either to be swimming in the river or running hard without water. All three churches we were with were aware of this polarization and working hard to find 'radical middle' within the fresh time constraints of multiple services. This is a fresh challenge. I am persuaded that there still remains a call for churches to emerge with a healthy tension between Word, Spirit and Mission.
Second, I've noticed over the last five years that the empahasis on husbands and wives doing ministry as a team seems a little less of a priority. While some wives have enjoyed the grace and space to be at home more, my sense is that in some quarters men have lost some of the benefit of perspective from and partnership with their wives. While I embrace a complimentarian approach to leadership, I believe "it is not good for man to be alone" applies beyond the home, extending into the church too. 'Team' has always been a key value of churches we have been connected with, and frankly, domestic help enables couples to walk that value out more easily than in other countries, so I would encourage churches to guard that value in a spirit of grace.
We love this country, and honestly treasure the friendships we have gained over the years.It's a delight to be able to come back and share in the journeys
of so many of these friends and partners. South Africa, you are still a stunning and unfolding story of God's redeeming power, that has modeling power to transform nations.