By RODNEY BROWN Bellville, South Africa
Evangelical missionary work in South Africa goes back to 1737 when George Schmidt, a Moravian missionary, came to the country. He settled in a town now known as Genadendal, in the Western Cape. Eventually he had to leave due to opposition when he baptized believers. The problem seemed to be on two fronts. First, this caused an upheaval among the Colonialists in the Cape, as, politically, it was not clear whether or not converts to Christianity from the indigenous population should be accorded the same civil and political rights as the Colonists. Second, the ‘Council of Policy’ forbade such baptisms by Schmidt, citing the excuse that he was not an ordained minister. In 1744, Schmidt left the Cape for Holland to be ordained, but he never returned.
Assembly work commenced around 1850, first by brethren in business and later by full-time commended workers. Over the years the work has extended to many areas of the country, although there are still provinces with no assembly testimony. The assemblies vary greatly in size. Sadly, due to numbers dwindling away, some assemblies have closed. A few assemblies in the Western Cape, where a reasonable number are in fellowship, have some brethren who go into rural districts each weekend to support small assemblies, as part of the ‘Evangelical Enterprise’. They use a minibus and leave two or three of the visiting brethren at different locations and then fetch them en route home on Sunday.
Emmaus Correspondence International operates in South Africa in five languages: Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Xhosa and Ethiopian Amharic. At present, there are about 22,500 students registered in the English school and eighty-four percent of these are active. The Zulu school has about 2,000 students. The new Afrikaans school is growing and showing very good potential. At present, it has just over 400 students. The Xhosa Emmaus work is struggling but has good prospects with new initiatives put in place. The Amharic work is growing, having seen over 300 students achieve their diplomas in the last three years (June 2019).
Generally speaking, there is religious tolerance in South Africa, and there are quite a number of religions within the country. In a 2015 census, eighty-six percent of the population claimed to be of the ‘Christian’ religion. There is relative freedom to evangelize in church buildings, public halls, schools, prisons, care institutions and some work places. There are also a few Christian radio stations, Christian book shops, with organizations and publishers producing evangelistic literature in many languages. Open air preaching is carried on in many communities and very often people are willing to listen to the messages and receive literature. It has been noted that, in general, there are more unbelievers willing to listen to the gospel in the open air, than would attend a meeting in a hall. Many people amongst the less affluent communities see it as an honour to welcome Christians into their homes to preach the gospel.
Due to the unstable political situations in some other African countries, refugees have flooded into South Africa although they have not always found the better life they sought. In recent years, some South Africans have blamed foreign Africans for taking local houses and jobs (as many of these refugees find casual employment) and have made them unwelcome in their communities. Christians have taken the opportunity to befriend them and they are responsive and willing to accept literature in their home languages.
Alcohol and substance abuse are major problems. In many township areas, gangs operate openly, and this often leads to indiscriminate injury and death. Violent crime is widespread, as reflected in the statistics for 2016/2017, when the murder rate was over fifty persons a day countrywide. Sexual immorality and the disintegration of the family unit have led to much parental neglect, abuse of many kinds and dysfunctional homes. It is good to remember that evangelical believers have the answer to this crisis in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Many children in these circumstances have heard the gospel through outreaches, and it is so good to see God’s power displayed in transformed lives.
Many South Africans have grown up with some knowledge of the gospel. Sadly, many who have professed faith in Christ have not continued in the faith, calling themselves ‘backsliders’. This may be due, in part, to some preachers pressurizing people to make a profession, without a clear understanding of the message. On the other hand, it has been very encouraging to follow genuine cases of conversion. It is good to visit assemblies where new believers have come into fellowship and to listen to their intelligent participation. It has been wonderful to hear young converts relating clearly how much God has changed their lives. It is so encouraging to see these believers so enthusiastic in their service for the Lord.
Please pray that the government might continue to be sympathetic to gospel preaching and that many doors might remain open for Christians to take the message to the people. Pray for the gospel to be preached soundly, and for genuine repentance and conversion. Pray that workers would be called and sent into areas where there is very little evangelistic testimony. Pray that believers would remain faithful to the Lord, and not succumb to temptation. Pray that Christians would have an appetite for the scriptures and that they will be strengthened in the faith.
As we think of the future, we are reminded that we do not know how long we have left to serve the Lord. We must use the opportunities available to us, so that we, with many others, will be ready to meet Him when He comes again.