The gospel in Namibia
Namibia was a German colony between 1883 and 1915. Subsequently it was ruled by South Africa until 1990.
The first missionaries to arrive in Namibia were Abraham and Christian Albrecht of the London Missionary Society (LMS). They crossed the Orange River and established a mission station in the deep south of Namibia in 1806. This happened some 35 years before David Livingstone set foot on African soil in March 1841.
In 1814 Johann Heinrich Schmelen established an LMS mission station at Ui-Gantes (Bethanie) — a strategic base from which other mission stations were planted.
Other early missionary endeavours stemmed from the Wesleyan Missionary Society, and the Rhenish and Finish missions. Patrick Johnstone says: ‘Namibia for long had the highest percentage of Christians for any country in Africa.
‘The early labours of German and Finnish Lutheran and then Anglican missionaries gave birth to large denominations.
‘The influence of liberal and then black theology eroded that spiritual heritage, and true discipleship and holy living are now in short supply and nominalism widespread.
‘There is a noticeable turning away from Christianity and a lack of openness to the gospel.’
Twentieth-century mission in Namibia has taken place against the background of four developments.
First, mainline Protestant churches have succumbed to theological liberalism and ‘black theology’, the latter associated with the ‘liberation’ struggle. True Evangelicals in these churches are few.
Secondly, Roman Catholicism has grown to be the second largest denomination in Namibia. It has made significant contributions to hospitals, schools and social action, but not to gospel preaching, personal evangelism or true conversions.
Thirdly, the Dutch Reformed Church pursued separate development (apartheid) in its churches until the 1990s. The Church’s credibility has been severely undermined as a result.
Fourthly, the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement has produced many unruly and undisciplined splinter groups. Dreams, visions and spurious prophecies dominate their proclamation.
Commitment to biblical preaching and the authority of Scripture has for long been absent from Namibia. The Evangelical and Reformed faith is not well understood. In fact, ‘Reformed’ may be a ‘dirty word’ here, since the Dutch Reformed ethos has left a bitter aftertaste.
Solidly Evangelical denominations are rare. The Southern Baptists commenced a work in 1968, as did the Africa Evangelical Fellowship (AEF) around 1970.
AIM missionaries now work under the banner of AEF, and SIM has, of late, taken over the leadership of both. The AEF has planted ‘Evangelical Bible churches’, which are similar to Baptist Churches.
At the beginning of 1990, three months before Namibia became an independent nation, I was called as Pastor of the Eastside Baptist Church in Windhoek — now a modern city of about 250,000 inhabitants.
Having just graduated from a Baptist seminary in South Africa, I found myself in a challenging situation.
At seminary I had become acquainted with the Reformed faith through books by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spurgeon, and others. I began to compare the work in Namibia, which was carried on by Southern Baptist missionaries in classic Arminian style, with what I now understood to be a biblical view of missions, evangelism and church planting.
Typically, evangelistic work in Namibia had been conducted along the line of Donald McGavran and Peter C. Wagner’s ‘church growth’ methods (it is not difficult to gather people together in the rural areas).
It was evident that the planted Namibian churches lacked the marks of true biblical churches.
I realised the deep problems we had — a lack of understanding of biblical pastoral leadership, the need for godly leadership, a sound doctrine of the church, and so on.
With my new-found convictions I began to walk where angels fear to tread. Fortunately youth and ignorance were on my side. I had no idea what was awaiting me!
Providentially, the Lord was pleased to raise up at this time a young Oshivambo man named Laban Mwashekele. He was a shepherd, converted through the evangelistic labours of a German farmer, and displayed an unusual eagerness for the Scriptures.
He was accepted as a student at a South African seminary. Here he too discovered the Reformed and Evangelical heritage through reading Lloyd-Jones, Spurgeon and other Baptist fathers.
When Laban graduated and came back to Namibia in 1993, our hearts were knit together. Since then God has been pleased to use him mightily in evangelistic labours.
In the meantime, we were joined in 1997 by a young Dutch Reformed minister, Jacobus de Koning, son of a well-known Dorothea Missionary, Johan de Koning. He is a gifted theologian and pastor and was encouraged by Eastside Baptist Church to begin an Afrikaans-speaking Reformed Baptist work.
Two years ago, a young man from the Rehoboth Baster people, J. T. Beukes, came to Reformed and Evangelical convictions and joined our growing Reformed Baptist team in Windhoek
He is now the pastor of the Faith Reformed Baptist Church, a small but growing work.
Undoubtedly the greatest encouragement in terms of church growth is found among the Oshivambo people. God has been pleased to use Laban Mwashekele’s radio ministry in the Oshivambo language.
He is eagerly listened to, and when he visits the towns, people flock to hear him. Many have been converted to Christ.
The current HIV/AIDS situation in Namibia is serious. This has become a silent and largely ignored calamity, with between 20-25% of adults and young people infected. There are already 67,000 AIDS orphans.
The Ovambo people are the largest population group and the most severely affected by AIDS. There is no doubt that God is using this calamity to draw people to himself.
A typical service held by Pastor Mwashekele is unlike most ‘crusades’ we see here. He has no posters to advertise his meetings; there is no music group or choir to draw the young people; advertising is by word of mouth.
In evangelism he will characteristically expound the Scriptures systematically, night after night. He makes no altar call in the accepted sense, but invites people to come to see him the next day, where he makes himself available for counselling and discerning the Spirit’s work in the life of the enquirer.
We give thanks to God for his mercy to us. We long for this same work to be done among the other population groups of our country.
Reformation inevitably demands change and upheaval. The Oshivambo word for ‘Reformation’, ovitungululo, is an interesting one. It translates literally as ‘breaking down — building up’.
We have seen plenty of that! For us in particular, it has brought conflict with Southern Baptist Missionaries, whose policies and views are at odds with the Reformed faith.
Sadly this has led to a breakdown in relationships. However, at national level, the Reformed Baptist movement has done its best to maintain excellent relationships with the brethren.
Perhaps it needs to be also said that the ‘Reformed movement’ is very young. Many have yet to reach maturity. Our outworking of the Reformed faith is not always what it should be.
In worship style, Reformed Baptist churches here might be miles apart from those in the UK or North America. However, the Namibian churches earnestly pursue the Reformation essentials — Sola Scriptura, Sola Christus, Sola Gratia, Sola Fides, Soli Deo Gloria!