Leaning a little nearer to the microphone the distinguished grey-headed politician declared, ‘The people of this country of South Africa truly constitute a Rainbow Nation’.
When final democratic rule was attained in 1994, Nelson Mandela, the new state president, chose an apt illustration, for South Africa’s citizens originate from a multiplicity of backgrounds.
Whether from local African stock or Malay extraction, from Holland or France, from Chinese or Indian races, the mix has an immense variety. This poses a particular challenge to church-planting and pastoral ministry. It emphasises that Christian literature has a vital supporting role to play amongst a diverse people.
Literature work in South Africa takes place through a variety of channels. There are private initiatives in distributing Bibles. The Gideons invest much money and effort into distributing the Word of God in schools, hospitals, prisons and hotels. Resulting testimonies of conversion and blessing continue to be received on a regular basis.
While openings for Christian organisations into the nation’s schools are diminishing, tracts and Bible portions can still be distributed to schoolchildren. The rising tide of secularism has given rise to a number of private and church schools, with more opportunities for literature work.
Bible correspondence-courses are run by a number of mission organisations and these play a useful role in providing a doctrinal foundation for students (who are often prisoners). Many of these courses may be considered elementary — and some are more man-centred than God-centred.
When it comes to advancing the Reformed faith through literature, the dynamics are different and some less-than-conventional mechanisms may have to be applied. There are two factors which make the task of effective literature dissemination particularly challenging — the weak economy and the low level of literacy.
The country’s weak economy puts inevitable pressure on the ways people spend their available cash. To most people the buying priorities are essential commodities like petrol and food, and school uniforms and textbooks for their children. There are taxes and insurance to pay, and anti-crime systems (security alarms, private sentries, handguns etc.) to fund. For some, Christian books are considered unaffordable luxuries.
A new way of selling Christian books in South Africa was developed in the 1970s, especially by the late Arthur Merrington, and a number of discount mail-order ministries were established. These focused on importing and promoting good books from reliable publishers, and have proved an effective way of selling books in a deteriorating economic situation.
The dissemination of Reformed, evangelical literature is made more difficult by the pragmatism of some Christian bookstores who, sadly, allow ‘bottom-line’ financial considerations to determine what kind of literature and goods they sell. The fact that the general Christian public spends its money on books which are theologically undesirable reflects a lack of personal doctrinal understanding. People become subject to the fads and fancies of bookstore salespeople, who promote the sale of frivolous, fanciful and superficial material.
Nevertheless, the distribution of serious literature in South Africa is proceeding vigorously, often behind the scenes, or by mail order, and at conferences, church camps, and special events.
The problem of low literacy levels among black South Africans compounds the economic problems they face. There is a crying need for the subsidised distribution of simplified Christian works. Grace Publications are doing a superb work in producing their Great Christian Classics series, but there remains the challenge of getting these books into the hands of the people who need to read them.
South Africa may be a ‘rainbow nation’ but there is one unifying principle, in particular, which should be noted. Most people have at least some knowledge of the English language, which is consequently a significant vehicle for the communication of the eternal truths of God’s Word.
The door, for the time being, is open. Despite the rising tide of violence and lawlessness, God is able to use and bless the distribution of literature that honours him.
I have never failed to be moved by Paul’s instruction to Timothy in the closing days of his life to ‘bring the books … especially the parchments’. The apostle, soon to depart for glory, wanted to be reading even in the closing days of his life. How much more are the tools of sound Christian literature needed in the churches of our day.