This conversation was to be the first of many powerful, intense, delightful, fruitful conversations, including one just last week. Last week’s conversation took place in the house of Coenie and Lydia in Stellenbosch. They were hosting me the last few days of my recent journey to South Africa to celebrate the first five years of Partnership for Missional Church-Southern Africa. The visit included two major gatherings, one in Johannesburg (over 80 congregational and judicatory leaders and scholars) and the other in Cape Town (over 150 congregational and judicatory leaders and scholars). We both were filled with joy at what God has made of that first conversation. His Dutch Reformed imagination would call it Providence. God surely provides more than I usually imagine.
That first conversation led Coenie to visit a Gospel in Our Culture conference where Alan Roxburgh and I made presentations on the research we were guiding on demoninational, and non-denominational, systems and how they innovate local missional churches. We shared among other things the work of the Partnership for Missional Churches-North America. Coenie and his colleagues, including Jurgen Hendriks, also a professor at Stellenbosch, were engaged and intrigued. Perhaps, they thought, something like PMC could work in southern Africa.
They returned to South Africa and organized a trip of 14 church leaders, with the primary focus on local church leaders. They visited a number of local churches and judicatories who had been a part of PMC North America. We sent them to a wide variety, including congregations who really had not taken up the challenge to be missional. They ended their visit with a few days with us in Saint Paul. They noted that they had visited a number of other organizations like ours and the congregations and judicatories they had worked with over the years and made a comparison. They noted that we were the only organization to send them to congregations that had not taken up the missional challenge; you might call them failures from our point of view. They noted they liked our concept of excellent failures since they were quite certain they would have many failures in southern Africa and they wanted to work with an organization that knew how to innovate out of failure. They knew the church could fail; they needed partners who understood failure as a part of Christian innovation.
This led to an invitation to travel with a number of key leaders in their country sharing our theory of Christian innovation and explaining the journey of spiritual discernment we call PMC. I arrived to find a new partner, one of the most amazing church consultants, pastors, and theologians I have ever had the privilege to partner with, Frederick Marais. Frederick had done his doctoral work with Jurgens and was Coenie’s partner at BUVTON, a continuing education organization attached to the Theological Faculty of the University of Stellenbosch. Over the next couple weeks, Frederick and I traveled to Gauteng, both Johannesburg and Pretoria, the Eastern Cape (Port Elizabeth), the southern Cape (George) and the western Cape, (Cape Town) and spoke to faculty, pastors, laity, and other mission related organizations.
Along the way, I met other partners who have become close friends and co-workers in the missional church movement. Among those were Jannie Swart, Nelus Niemandt, Gideon Kok, David Venter, Theo Marais, Johan Kotze, Steven Moreo, Andrew Esterhuizen, Gordon Dames, Nico Simpson, Danie Mouton, Felix Meylan, Benjamin Nopeche, Elna Mouton, Dirkie Smit, Nico Koopman, Wynand Nel, Divine Robertson, Pieter Van der Walt, Corrie du Toit, Ian Nel, Cicilna Grobler, Christna Van de Merve, Hannes Theron, Frances Ludik, Hannes Pretorius, Frederick Nel, Hugh Arnott, Marius Nel, Christhilde Pretorius, Hettie van Niekerk, Esme Arnott, Kubus Sandenbergh, Hansie Breedt, Linda Sandenbergh, Skalk Pienaar, De Wet Strauss, Breda Ludik, Zack Pienaar, and the list could go on. (I hate making a list because I know I have neglected some very important persons.)
While starting in the four Reformed Churches, still divided by the forces of Apartheid, the original gatherings included Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and some independent churches. Eventually over twelve major denominations would become a part of PMC-SA. They would speak five different languages and make this American English speaker feel exceptionally welcome at the same time asking tough questions that indicated how seriously they were considering the partnership with CI.
Against my advice, they started with clusters in Gauteng, Port Elizabeth, George, and Cape Town. The beginning two years had me crossing the Atlantic to Amsterdam and then south to the tip of Africa twice a year. I learned the lessons of sleeping on planes and working through the jetlag. I learned the lessons of constant translation and the work of listening to how I was continually failing and needing to learn from the failures.
Soon Pat Taylor Ellison joined me on the trips as we coached our partners into the work of PMC. In addition to doing training and consulting, Pat worked with the reading teams who had the overwhelming task of reading hundreds of Congregational Discovery interviews and writing thoughtful reports. I am still amazed at the work they accomplished. Despite the massive challenges of creating a support system of consultants, trainers, readers, researchers, and theologians in several different denominational systems and languages, those initial clusters of congregations hung in and accepted their “guinea pig” status with energy, good will, faith and hope. The financial resources alone were so much smaller than our North American resources as to make it a miracle that the partnership flourished. Amazing, I say, truly amazing.
Now five years later there are hundreds of congregations in Namibia and South Africa already through the three year journey and working on their own learning and growing phases. The drop out rate was almost negligible when compared with North American experience. Despite the steep learning curve, the financial challenges, the continuous innovating of culturally appropriate processes, PMC southern Africa continues to grow. Other churches in other countries have invited PMC-SA to partner with them in the journey. These include Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi, and Nigeria with interest in other sub-Saharan countries. Nothing in my life’s experience prepared me for this blessing.
Some of the scholars and congregational leaders gathered for the two conferences, one in Cape Town and the other in Johannesburg, repeated my amazement, delight, and thankfulness. They spoke of the surprises from the research. They admitted to failures and asked very tough questions about the remaining challenges. We saw genuine growth in the ability of local churches to work across denominational and cultural boundaries but we also learned of failures to do so. New and tougher challenges were uncovered by both missiologists from three of South Africa’s major universities, Stellenbosch (Xolile Simon), the University of South Africa (UNISA) (Klippies Kritzinger), and Pretoria (Nielus Niemandt) and Wellington (Eben Moories) and lay and clergy leaders of the congregations who have made the journey.
Still, the overwhelming evaluation was one of transformation, personal and communal. The basic practices of PMC, the three phases, the Dwelling in the Word, the Congregational Discovery process, the risking to create multi-cultural bridges to members of the community, and the struggle to focus and get short lists, proved durable, dependable, and strong for most of the congregations in PMC-SA. From the side of PMC-NA, we have seen tremendous learning from our southern African partners. In PMC-NA we made major changes in our second phase, especially the plunging into cultures different than the dominant culture of the local church; these changes have alone transformed PMC-NA by the PMC-SA learning. The learning goes on and the challenges exhaust and inspire. The Holy Spirit leads on and we stumble and tumble into God’s preferred and promised future together in God’s mission.