Everything will be revealed at the judgement seat of Christ and we must judge nothing before the time. Nevertheless, we are right to look into the history of the great enterprise of Christ in the earth and seek to understand our present situation and how we reached it. I believe that this is especially challenging in the case of Africa.
Although missionary work must continue until the Lord’s return, and there are still vast numbers of unevangelised people, we do seem to have reached the end of an era of missionary endeavour, at least in Africa.
From the time of David Livingstone until well into the third quarter of the twentieth century, large numbers of Evangelical missionaries committed their whole lives to preaching the gospel in that huge continent.
They came, of course, mainly from the UK, USA, Australia, South Africa and Western Europe. Many lived and died preaching Christ’s gospel. Among them were doctors and teachers, nurses and administrators, who worked alongside preachers, among children, among women, and so on. They were a great and noble army.
Such work has not ceased, for they are still going forth at the Lord’s call. But for a variety of reasons – some of which are easy to discern – pioneering missionary endeavour in many parts of Africa is now much reduced. It is appropriate, therefore, to pause and examine the long-term results of this great period of missionary activity.
It would be wrong to generalise but certain trends and effects are widespread in Africa – at least in Southern and East Africa. I would like to focus specifically on Zambia.
Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) received large numbers of Evangelical missionaries – Anglicans, Christian Brethren, Presbyterians (from Scotland and the Dutch Reformed Church), Methodists and Baptists (first from South Africa and later from Australia).
The Salvation Army and various Pentecostal groups also established work in Zambia. Besides these, the Southern Baptist Convention of the USA, Lutheran denominations and interdenominational missionary societies have all laboured in this country. This provides us with a fascinating situation to survey.
Zambia has a small population for the size of the country. Its area is considerably larger than France yet even today it has a population of only 10 million or so. A census conducted in 1956, eight years prior to independence, revealed a total population of just 2,360,000, of which 73,000 were Europeans and 9,600 of other non-African races (mostly Asian).
Clearly, a large amount of missionary activity had been in progress for many years to reach a remarkably small population. The population was originally far-flung, with many tribes and language groups spread across the country, so missionaries had to be dispersed far and wide.
But during the 20th century Zambia became highly-urbanised with the development of copper mining. The population migrated from the country to the towns and large rural areas were depopulated.
This meant that much of the missionary work could be focused on the emerging towns and, as a result, Zambia became thoroughly evangelised – one might even say saturated with the gospel.
What has been the legacy of this extraordinary level of missionary activity? We must face the sad reality that the long-term consequences appear disappointing.
Suffering from liberalism
Firstly, most of the churches formed from the missionary projects of major Western denominations have gone the way of their parent denominations. The various branches of Presbyterianism and Methodism have been swallowed up in the United Church of Zambia and the Reformed Church of Zambia.
These large denominations have suffered much from theological liberalism. They certainly did not decline as quickly as their equivalent groups in the UK, and there still remain Evangelicals among them, but they are now highly committed to education, developmental projects, national politics, etc. rather than the gospel.
The original Baptist work was largely confined to one tribe in the north of the country (the Lamba Tribe), and there are still many quite small churches in that group. Sadly, their pastors are often impoverished – both theologically and materially – and one is bound to question the future viability of that work.
Lack of preaching
The Southern Baptist work seems stronger but has suffered from problems between the churches and the missionaries in recent years, leaving deep divisions. Also, preaching is no longer central to the lives of many of the churches, which place greater emphasis on choirs and congregational singing.
Brethrenism achieved a great deal in Zambia, the movement having recently celebrated 100 years of Christian witness in the country. Many good and godly people have emerged from this grouping but the work has suffered greatly from their traditional refusal to countenance a settled and recognised pastoral ministry. In many areas, the ministry each Sunday is very limited.
Perhaps the most prominent of the so-called interdenominational societies has been the Africa Evangelical Fellowship, now amalgamated with the SIM. The AEF established its own denomination, the Evangelical Church of Zambia. Sadly, this grouping has also lost its evangelistic stance and is heavily involved in societal issues. It also lacks clear doctrinal convictions.
The reasons for this sad decline in the denominations formed through missionary work are at root no different from those affecting Western churches. However, some tendencies are specific to Africa and need more careful study.
One such factor that runs through this history is the power of tradition. Most denominations have their particular church traditions to which they cling tenaciously, often preventing them from responding to the needs of the day.
An example is the original work carried out among the Lamba by missionaries from the South African Baptist Union. Lamba is not widely spoken in Zambia but the Lamba Baptists insist on using it in their churches.
This is a tradition that seems to bind them to their founding missionaries and gives them a sense of identity. This kind of traditional attitude is very strong in Africa, but can easily consign a church to history.
However, the picture in Zambia is not entirely negative. Even though the major denominations have largely departed from their Evangelical and evangelising roots, there a is wonderful and challenging legacy.
In the sovereign purposes of God, there remains throughout the country immense respect for the Holy Scriptures and a remarkable openness to the gospel. The spiritual harvest fields of Zambia have been thoroughly ploughed and there is much good ground in which to sow the seed of the word.
Few other countries in the modern world can be so receptive to gospel preaching at this time. Of course, this means that the promoters of charismatic heresy and the cults see great opportunities – weeds grow best in fertile soil!
Also, there are true believers in almost all the Protestant denominations. Often they are exceedingly hungry for faithful Bible teaching and ministry – and they are very responsive when they receive it. We have observed this in the encouraging response to the weekly TV Bible ministry of Lusaka Baptist Church.
This openness to the gospel and hunger for the Word of God is, I believe, the greatest legacy of the missionary era. But it may be relatively short-lived. The influence of Bible-believing missionaries and of the faithful African brethren who followed them in the churches must fade away in a generation or two – unless the Lord is pleased to do a mighty work in the land.
What can be done?
The challenge comes mainly to the genuinely Evangelical churches in Zambia. This is their moment of opportunity and they must grasp it, whatever the cost. The gospel must be preached to the nation in its fulness.
The cause of Christ in Zambia cannot prosper on the minimalist gospel of the interdenominational movements. There must be the full-orbed proclamation of ‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints’.
Furthermore, the country needs strong churches that, under God, have the resources to advance this great work. We must pray for the churches and especially for their pastors, that they will remain faithful to their high calling.
Many churches have been depleted by the emigration of their members – and sometimes their leaders – seeking better economic opportunities for themselves and their families in wealthier countries. Perhaps Zambian Christians living in the UK might search their hearts and ask if they are truly in the place of the Lord’s choosing for them.
Africa is a sad and troubled continent, with enormous political and social problems. If it pleases God, Zambia could be crucial in the great enterprise of the gospel within Africa. Indeed, it could be the country from which a new wave of missionaries goes forth into the whole continent. The Lord alone knows how long this opportunity will last.