Thoughts on the Trip to South Africa
The last couple weeks have been a blur. On April 5-6 we had Alistair Begg at our church for a conference. On April 7, after preaching in the morning, I flew to Orlando for The Gospel Coalition conference. I got home on Wednesday and then turned around on Thursday, April 11 to fly to Johannesburg. I returned home yesterday afternoon. The trip to South Africa was 12 days, 9 flights, 10 panels, and 14 sermons (plus the world’s longest commercial flight).
Here are a few reflections, observations, and highlights.
1. I had a great time in South Africa with the rest of the guys from the States: Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, CJ Mahaney, Bob Kauflin, and Brad Wheeler. Despite very different personalities, every single one of these men was funny, friendly, and easy to get along with. It was a joy to sit under their teaching, pray with them, share meals with them, and watch Brian Regan clips with them. These guys made this trip one I’ll never forget.
2. As with any international trip, receiving is just as important as giving. Although I did a lot of teaching, I also did a lot of learning. It was great to see the reformed churches in South Africa, though small, yet growing. I left the country with a great deal of respect for the pastors I met: Tim, Al, Dez, Clint, Grant, Doug, Ken and many others. These are sharp men, committed to sound doctrine and expository preaching, and committed to seeing the gospel advance in South Africa. The “gospel-centered” movement in the country is, in many ways, still the size of a man’s fist, but I sensed clouds of blessing gathering overhead.
3. I understand the good news of Revelation 21:25 better than ever. Violent crime is rampant in South Africa. Almost everyone I talked to had been robbed, broken into, or threatened at some point in recent memory. One church we preached at had a sign saying they were not responsible for injury, theft, or death on the premises. Many South Africans shared with me that the most surprising thing about America is the absence of security walls, fences, and guards around our homes. You simply don’t find many buildings in the city without some serious security in South Africa. What good news that the New Jerusalem will be so gloriously safe that “its gates will never be shut by day.”
4. Although tensions still remain, I was encouraged to see the gospel bringing together whites and blacks in a way that would have been impossible (and illegal) twenty years ago. Our contacts were with white churches, but in each of them we saw more racial diversity than you find in most American churches (which is not entirely surprising since whites are less than 10% of the population in South Africa). At the pastors conference in Joburg it looked to me like the split between whites and blacks was roughly fifty-fifty. And at the same gathering there were dozens of first languages other than English. Isn’t it remarkable that the gospel does more for diversity than diversity for its own sake can ever do by itself?
On a related note, we were privileged to have Conrad Mbewe travel from Zambia to host the events in Joburg for us. What a wise, capable, and godly man. I’d gladly have him for my pastor.
5. Bad theology destroys and keeps the gospel from people. South Africa, like most of sub-Saharan Africa, is overwhelmingly Christian. The state of the church can seem impressive, but mature Christians in South Africa will tell you a different story. The Dutch Reformed Church is weak and getting weaker, awash in theological liberalism and secular agendas. The black church is beholden to the false gospel of health, wealth, and prosperity and the worst kinds of syncretistic charismania. South Africa is “reached” with the gospel in a technical sense, but the need for good teaching and sound doctrine is tremendous. If you want to serve the Lord in a Bible-starved location in the English speaking world, there are many places in South Africa for you to go.
6. There is a great need for theological education in South African and in the Global South. We came across a number of evangelical institutions working hard to train pastors, but not nearly enough for a country of 50 million. While the first priority in the missionary endeavor is, in many places, for pioneering church planters and evangelists, in many places the church is weak for want of solid teachers and educators. If there is anything we take for granted in the American church more than money it’s our easy access to the best books, training, and theological education. Let’s pray for the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his field, and to help make sure the seed that is sown is good seed and the crops that have been planted are strong enough to endure.
7. Christian publishers should consider what they are doing to further or frustrate the Great Commission. Everywhere we went we saw pastors and churches influenced by books coming out of America. Without much (that I could tell) in the way of indigenous theological writing and with (often) a great theological vacuum to fill, many South African leaders look to U.S. authors to fill the gap. When they get hold of Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, or some pragmatic book about ministry methods, the results can be disastrous for generations. To my surprise, even the influence of the emergent church is still significant in South Africa.
Conversely, when good books get in the hands of good pastors, healthy churches can be established and grow. I was particularly thankful for the legacy of John MacArthur in South Africa. With his radio programs airing for decades in the country, many Christians have been introduced to expository preaching and good theology. A number of pastors have gone to The Master’s Seminary for training. Invariably, the “MacArthur men” were leading some of the strongest churches. Newer resources from the YRR movement seem to be having a salutary effect as well. If only publishers would consider more than profits and furthering “conversations” when they send their books out into the world.