Malawi has a rich Christian heritage, beginning with its famous pioneer missionary, David Livingstone.
During the twentieth century, the Church of Scotland, Free Church of Scotland and Dutch Reformed Church, co-operated to form the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP). This new denomination became so influential in Malawi that by the late 1960s it was considered the unofficial state church.
Malawi’s first president, Hastings Banda, was an elder in it. His popularity resulted in masses of people seeking CCAP membership to demonstrate their loyalty to the new president.
By the time he retired from office in 1994, membership stood at over two million. However, the Church today faces significant problems.
The greatest need of the church in Malawi is well-trained, spiritually mature, dedicated Christian leaders. Almost every denomination in Malawi is in the business of educating pastors, but the great majority are trained only at a pre-university, or even pre-secondary school level.
In addition, they are not necessarily leaders — that is, dynamic, mature Christians who can inspire and lead churches and denominations.
Gomezgeka Mkandawire has noted: ‘Malawi has a leadership crisis. The Christian educational system is designed for training workers, not leaders. There are few or no people with an enterprising mind, who can take initiative, be creative and innovative’.
The church is experiencing exceptional growth, but most Evangelical denominations can only supply one full-time pastor for every 10-15 churches planted.
A CCAP pastor may be assigned a church plus a dozen or more ‘prayer houses’ (which are, typically, fully functioning churches, each with over a hundred communicants taught by marginally trained elders).
Recently I met the former CCAP pastor of Zomba (Malawi’s fourth largest city). He used to oversee 9,000 members spread across 13 preaching points.
Hundreds of thousands of professing Christians are taught every Sunday by untrained lay leaders. The result is a limited understanding of basic biblical truths, leading to corrupted theology, syncretism and shallow commitment.
A Canadian missionary told us of a ladies Bible study at their church in Malawi’s largest city, Blantyre, where the study leader explained to the women how to give new-born babies a ‘holy bath’ shortly after birth.
They were to invite other ladies to attend the bathing, pray over the water, and then feed the baby a spoonful of bath water after the washing!
Malawi’s poverty leads to an over-reliance on Western resources.
Partnership with overseas churches need not necessarily be negative, since the nature of mission and church should encourage interdependence. But when a relationship becomes a one-way trap door, with the West dumping everything in and receiving nothing in return, it cannot be healthy.
Should we then stop giving to Africa? No. But we should re-examine the best way to facilitate the planting of self-supporting and self-propagating churches, rooted in the doctrines of grace.
When Banda’s 30-year reign ended in 1994, so did much of the influence of the CCAP. Not only did it lose its political clout, it lost many marginally committed communicants who had been ‘Presbyterian’ in name only.
Meanwhile Pentecostalism has boomed. Pentecostal churches appeared lively and contemporary, with something previously unheard of in the CCAP — youth pastors!
As a result, a generation of young people has spent the past ten years looking for alternatives to the Presbyterian church, and many have ended up in Pentecostal churches.
Much has been said of Islam’s designs on Africa. It was a shock when in 1994 Malawi — recognized for over 100 years as a Christian nation — elected a Muslim, Bakili Maluzi, as its president.
But the Christian community has not been persecuted. Rather, there came a new boldness to the Muslim community — new mosques; a noticeable growth of Islamic institutes; more women wearing black chadors; and new funding from Islamic countries, Kuwait and Libya in particular.
Malawi’s president will be stepping down in May 2004, but Islam’s foot is now fully in the door. Reversing the Islamic trend would be an unprecedented accomplishment in Africa.
Muslims are patient. They do not demand or expect the instant conversions that many Evangelicals press for. The transformation of a nation from Christian to Muslim may take two or three decades, as is happening in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire and Tanzania.
The question in Malawi is, whether the dangers of Muslim encroachment will be recognised before it is too late for Christians to formulate a meaningful response, especially with regard to evangelism.
In November 1840, a few weeks before David Livingstone set sail for Africa, he opened his Bible to Psalm 121 and read aloud: ‘I lift up my eyes unto the hills — where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth’.
Today this passage is dramatically relevant to the Christian church in Malawi.
The needs are great — at times overwhelming — yet we serve a God who is powerful and the maker of all we know. He is able to overcome the greatest obstacles in order to advance the glorious kingdom of his Son.