Preaching the Gospel in Zambia
Lita Cosner chats with Conrad Mbewe
Dr Conrad Mbewe is the pastor of Kabwata Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia, the Principal of Lusaka Ministerial College, and the Chancellor of the African Christian University in Zambia. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Mining Engineering from the University of Zambia, and a Ph.D. in Missions from Pretoria University. He is the editor of Reformation Zambia magazine and has written four internationally-available books—Maintaining Sexual Purity, Foundations for the Flock, Lessons From the Lives of Olive Doke and Paul Kasonga, and Pastoral Preaching. He is married to Felistas, and they have three biological children and three foster children.
LC: Pastor Mbewe, how did you come to know the Lord, and what made you want to become a pastor?
CM: I was brought up in a church-going family, but the church did not emphasize Gospel preaching. When my older sister was converted in 1978, I first witnessed a life transformed by the power of the Gospel. At about the same time, a friend sent me a letter explaining the way of salvation. For the first time, I realized I needed to be saved from sin. I struggled with this, then on the morning of 30 March 1979, I finally knelt down by my bedside and prayed to the Lord Jesus Christ to save me, and was baptized one year after my conversion.
Over the next few months, I began to sense a desire within me to be a preacher, especially when reading my Bible and praying. An older Christian I sought out for counsel advised me to continue my studies in mining engineering and simply wait upon the Lord to open the door into pastoral ministry. I soon became the student leader of the university Christian fellowship and even led the evangelical Christian student movement in the country before I graduated. When I went to work in the Zambian mines, my church asked me to fill the pulpit whenever I was not working; I became their de facto unpaid pastor. Finally, in 1987 Kabwata Baptist Church called me to be their first pastor—and I am still there, 30 years later!
What is some of the history of Christianity in Zambia?
The famous missionary-explorer David Livingstone in the 19th century initially brought Christianity to central Africa. One of his greatest concerns was to stop the slave trade through commerce and Christianity. In fact, Livingstone died in Zambia while still trying to find the source of the Nile River. When Zambia gained independence from Britain in 1964, all towns named after British personalities and places were renamed—except Livingstone, which to this day is the only town or city in Zambia with a foreign name. Livingstone was so highly regarded that in 1973, the centenary of his death, celebrations honouring him were held across Zambia.
Another interesting aspect of Christianity in Zambia goes back to the ‘Comity Arrangement’. At the start of the 20th century, evangelical mission organizations decided the most efficient way to reach the various tribes was to divide them up among themselves so each organization could concentrate on one language. So most Nyanja-speaking people are Presbyterian and Reformed, and most Tongas Wesleyan and Brethren in Christ. One hundred years later, even for city churches speaking English, most people still identify churches as tribes. So it is difficult to feel accepted and to be chosen as a church leader if you do not belong to that church’s tribe. What was once the best way forward in missions has now become a snare!
How is a proper doctrine of creation important for pastoral ministry?
It is as important as the foundation is to a superstructure. What we read in Genesis 1 and 2 is foundational to our understanding of who we are and what our primary task is in God’s world. The very fact that God created us gives us a sense of purpose in life and also causes us to recognize the pivotal role of Christ in restoring us to our God-given purpose. The pattern of God’s creative activity in Genesis 1 becomes to us a pattern of how we ought to work to develop God’s world. In the way God relates Adam to Eve, we understand the relationship that obtains between male and female in the home, in the church, and in the world.
Also, trying to interpret the days of Genesis 1 as anything other than 24-hour days undermines the confidence of God’s people in their own ability to understand and apply Genesis 1 and the rest of the Bible for themselves without the need for ‘clever’ interpreters.
What are some possible misconceptions or challenges about Christianity in Africa?
One misconception is that Africans readily accept the Gospel. Not true. Africans are generally non-offensive and so will often answer your question in the affirmative even if they do not really mean it. It is almost a miracle to hear an African say, ‘No,’ to the question, ‘Do you want to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?’ This is worse in a public meeting. Many evangelists come to Africa and will see ‘thousands’ responding to their Gospel invitations. No sooner do they get back on their planes to go back home than their ‘converts’ go right back to their old ways.
On a more positive note, Africans normally do not doubt the existence of God. Even after many years of being taught evolution, the average African still believes in a Creator. In our evangelistic work, we can assume all that and simply go straight into talking about the Saviour who has been sent by God to save us from our sins. The greatest challenge is to get them to give up a salvation by works and rest solely on the merits of Christ.
Have positive or negative elements from Western Christianity been imported into Africa?
Western Christianity has emphasized the need to write and read Christian books. We need to learn this very positive element here in Africa. Sadly, there is some truth to the saying, ‘If you want to hide anything from an African, hide it in a book.’ We are still very much an oral culture, and desperately need to develop a writing and reading culture. We are only now beginning to write the biographies of our pioneering indigenous church leaders and the history of our churches. I can only hope it is not ‘too little, too late’.
While Africa continues to battle with its own form of syncretism (mixing pagan elements with biblical tenets), Western Christianity is doing the same as it gives way to postmodernism. A case in point has been the battle on homosexuality between the African Anglicans and their Western counterparts. We cannot understand how the church can champion something as an acceptable alternative lifestyle that is so clearly identified in Scripture as being patently sinful. There is pressure on the African church to accept this new heretical view.
What was the motivation behind African Christian University? Why is the training ACU is offering important?
The Reformed Baptists in Zambia came together to establish this new university. We desired to use tertiary education as a platform for ongoing evangelistic endeavours by running such an institution ourselves, as we had begun to do with primary education. At the same time, an American missionary couple (the Turnbulls) wanted to set up a tertiary education institution in Africa that would disciple young Christian minds in the liberal arts from a biblical worldview and make them the engine of holistic development in Africa. From these two streams, the river of ACU began to flow. We look forward to seeing what God will do with it. We emphasize not only that Christ is the fountain of all knowledge, but also that no work is too menial for us. One of our main distinguishing pillars is a program in which students are taught to work with their hands to look after their environment. They apply what they are studying immediately in the context of the university. That way, by the time they graduate, they will already have a few years of working experience under their belts, gained while being discipled by the lecturers. It will transform the work culture. There is no other university on the continent doing this, so far as we know.
You have written against false forms of Christianity in Africa. Can you describe how this is a destructive force there?
The growth of certain ‘health and wealth’ teaching in Africa has been hailed as part of the growth of the Christian faith in Africa, but that, too, is far from the truth. This is nothing more than African traditional religion with a very thin veneer of Christianity on top of it. The ‘prayers’ and ‘anointing’ of the ‘men of God’ are a substitute for incantations and ‘treatments’ by witchdoctors. So, this is not something to rejoice about. It is a false gospel that is sending people to Hell.
Its appeal to the popular mind is centred on temporal benefits—riches, jobs, promotion, healing, marriage, and so on. Its principal advocates have become extremely rich at the expense of their gullible followers. Many of these ‘men of God’ are guilty of financial and sexual misconduct, but are untouchable because their followers are browbeaten into silence—told they are not supposed to ‘touch the Lord’s anointed’.
Thank you, Pastor Mbewe!
If you would like to learn more about Pastor Mbewe’s ministry and African Christian University, visit kabwatabaptistchurch.com and acu-usa.com.