New Challenges for the Church in SA – How will we respond?

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Coenie Burger

 Toespraak gelewer by die opening van die United Congregational Churches of SA in Upington 

I have been asked to say something about
the task and challenges for the church in the next couple of years in our
country.

 

I am one of the people who deeply believe
that the church has a huge role to play – everywhere, but especially now in
Africa and in South Africa.  I really
believe that Africa and SA will be in deep trouble if the churches do not do
their part the next couple of years. 

 

The difficult question of course is what the churches should be doing?  It has been said that the most difficult decisions
in life is not always those between right and wrong but sometimes those between
what is more important and what is less important.  We need to talk and pray about this because
the needs of the country and the demands on our time and attention is so huge,
we would not be able to do everything. We have to make decisions about what is
vital now and must be done and what
can be left for another day.

 

In his book The Responsible Self Richard Niebuhr makes a remark that can help us
when we try to answer this question.  He
says that before we can answer the question what the church must do we first
need to ask the question what is going on, what is happening around us.  We are not living in Australia or Japan, or
Nigeria. We live in South Africa in 2008. 
This is where we are called to witness to the Gospel and to be disciples
of Jesus Christ.

 

What
is going on? (1): a social analysis

 

So what is going on in SA?  What is happening in our beloved country in
2008? 

 

We have problems.  I think we have our first real crisis after
the transition of 1994.  We have a number
of problems.  At SACLA 2 they spoke about
the seven giants: poverty, crime, violence, racism, lack of education, HIV and
Aids, moral values, and some others – we know the list.

 

We are at a different point now – even from
last years when I was with you in Oudtshoorn. 
If you ask me to give a condensed overview of where we are now, I would
say we are facing at least four looming crises:

 

Firstly, there is a political crisis – after Polokwane – coming from deep divisions
within the ANC leadership.  But the
crisis in not only on leadership level. 
I believe it goes deeper. I could see and hear it clearly at the meeting
of the SACC a month ago.  A lot of ordinary
people have the feeling that the ANC leadership has failed them.  There is a clear loss of confidence.  I heard pastors saying: we will have to think
for ourselves and take more responsibility for our communities. May be we
trusted the politicians too much.

 

You will understand BS – coming from my
background in the DRC and the relationship that we had with our government – if
I say there is some good in this.  We definitely
trusted the politicians too much.  In the
church we need to think for ourselves and not to be scared to challenge the
politicians.  They are people like us and
are supposed to be our servants – not our lords!

 

There is also a looming economic crisis. I am not only referring
to the plight of the poor, and price hikes as far as food, fuel and electricity
is concerned. I am even more worried about expectations as far as lifestyle is
concerned that is bound to disappoint because this country do not have the
resources and capacity to give all the people all they want.  The fact that we are struggling with the
education system in our country does not help either.  It is widely acknowledged that the single
most important factor contributing to the eradication of poverty is education.
For me some of the most tragic stories we hear are about problems in the
schools – and then not always problems with the children, but problems with
teachers and administrators.  I really think
that this is criminal, because we work with the future of our children.

 

We also have a number of social problems. Racism is still alive
and well, classism is becoming a bigger problem, the levels of violence and
violent crimes in our communities are very, very disturbing and of late we had
these problems with xenophobia. These are all danger signs. But personally, I
think, we must not be too severe on ourselves a far as these social problems
are concerned. I am hopeful that we will win this one.  If you consider where we were 20 years ago I
think we have come a long way.  There is
still a lot of work to be done, but I am hopeful as far as this problem is
concerned.

 

We also have a moral crisis BS about which I need not say that much. The concern
is that in a country where 80% of the people profess to be Christians you do
not expect these high levels of crime, immorality, bribery – on grass-root
level but also on leadership level. This is not good.

 

If I look at the four looming crises I
would like to make one more remark. I detect a common denominator here, a
deeper cause that we need to name.  It is
not the deepest cause and definitely not the only one, but if we see this one
clearly it might help us in the way we try to deal with these issues.

 

Apart from all the complications in our
situation, BS, we are also a country, a people, struggling on more than one
level with identity questions. Who
are we exactly?  Are we a First World or a
Third World people?  Are we Xhosa, or
Zulu or Coloured or Afrikaners in the first place or are we citizen of a new
rainbow-nation?  Are we still living in
our “tribes”, with our tribal values and commitments? Or are we indeed becoming
a modern, people living more and more in a globalized world.

 

I deeply believe that some of the crises I
mentioned are related to the fact that we as a nation are in a major transition
– actually more than one transition happening at the same time.  And these transitions affect our values, our
expectations, our roots and our identity.

 

I mention this identity crisis because BS
it helps me in my thinking about the church and our role and task. If the
larger part of the problem has to do with identity then we are the people that
can help.  Because the Gospel is not only
about changed behaviour but also and foremost about a new identity.  We have an opening for ministry here…

 

What
is going on? (2): what God is doing!

 

When Niebuhr said that we need to ask what
is going on before we can answer the question what the church must do, he
actually referred to more that just a social analysis of our current situation.

 

Niebuhr was a Reformed theologian with a deep
belief in God’s providence and in the ongoing presence and work of Christ
through the Holy Spirit.  He really
believed that God is present with us and is working amongst us even as we talk
here.  One of his most helpful statements
is that we can know in even the most horrible of situations on earth, that
Christ is present and working also in that situation. 

 

So when he said that we must ask what is
going on, he did not only refer to what people, us humans are doing.  He actually meant: we must try to understand
what God is doing amongst us!  That is
another question – not an easy one, but still a wonderful question to grapple
with. 

 

It has taken me 45 years to realize that
this conviction that God is present and working amongst us in even the most
difficult of situations is very near to the core of a reformed understanding of
the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He did not only work in the past and in the future
– He is also working now. Both Calvin and Barth has put the focus of their
theology on this living and ever-present God who in acting in the present. 

 

If we indeed believe this, that the
sustaining and providential work of the Father and the saving work of Christ
through the Spirit are still going on now, then it makes sense to ask this
question of Niebuhr.  What is God doing
now amongst us?  We do not come to an
unploughed field.  We are not given a
clean, unwritten slate. We do not only hear the words “I send you”; but we also
hear the words, “come follow me”.  Christ
is not sending us to any place where He Himself will not already be present
when we arrive. Ideally we should always try to see Him in front of us – so
that we can follow him.

 

If we believe that, as I do and as I think
you do, what then do we say is God doing amongst us?  That should be the topic of many more
discussion between pastors and members than we have at the moment.  I wish we had the time for all of us to think
about this question and to respond to it. 
Where in your own lives BS, where in you family life, in your church, in
your community, in our country do you see Christ at work?

 

Can I share a couple of observations with you?:

The first one comes from my own research
and reading: there can be no doubt that God is doing something big in Africa –
has been doing it for the past 150 years. 

Most of you will know that while the number
of Christians in Europe and the North America (traditionally the centre point
of Christianity) is declining sharply the Christian Church is growing in Africa
(also in South America and part of Asia). 
The official statistics says that the number of people belonging to
Christian Churches in Africa has risen from 10-12 million in 1900 to 360-380
million in 2000.  In SA the number of
black people belonging to Christian churches grew from 26% in 1911 to 76% in
1990! And these are not just numbers. 
When asked (by the HSRC) about he institutions in the country they trust
most, South African responded overwhelmingly by putting the church on top of
the list – by a long way.  More than the
courts, the newspaper, the political parties, even the ANC! 

 

Andrew Walls, the greatest living
missiologist in the world today, deeply believes that God is putting up a new
church in Africa.  He says that already
in 1910 at the First Mission Conference in Edinburgh people sensed that God is
moving beyond the Western World of Europe and North America.  The organizers invited many young Christians
from the east (almost none from Africa!) because they thought God was moving
east.  They were right about God’s moving
out, but Walls says, they had the direction wrong:  God was not moving east; He was moving South
– to Africa!

 

This new young church is frail and its life
is in danger because it is not always fed well with the right foods (and we
need to talk about these concerns).  But
it is out there – in huge numbers.  There
can be no doubt that God is doing something new and large in Africa.  But we might mess it up we do not attend to
it with more care and obedience than what we are doing at the moment.

 

The process that I am referring to now is
sometimes called discernment – that we try to understand the signs of the
times, but even more important than that: try to see and understand what the
living God is doing and where He is leading us.

 

At the institute where I work in
Stellenbosch we nowadays start our revisioning processes with congregations with
a time of discernment. One of my colleagues has written a book about how church
meetings (councils, districts and synods) can be organized and arranged to
allow time for listening and discernment.

 

This is Good News.  We need to allow time for reflection and
discernment because God’s work does not start with us but with Him. If we
called disciples we should not try to lead all the time and to be too original
– we are mostly called upon to follow.

 

How
do we as church respond to this?

 

Now that we have spoken about what is
happening around us, we can ask the question: what is that we as the church in
SA must do? 

 

I would like to say something about rediscovering
our calling as a church and rediscovering our identity.

 

Firstly, we must rediscover our calling as
a church. And what we are called to do is not a secret. The clues are clear.  In the Old Testament we constantly hear about
three actions or ministries associated with the time of the Messiah: loving
graciously, doing justice and knowing God.  We can know that our calling will always
somehow be connected to these three words.

·        
Firstly, the prophets said that
there will again be love in the land, gracious love; people will attend to one
another; the weak and the poor will be cared for, the bruised reed will not be
crushed and the dimly burning wick will not be quenched.

As followers of
Christ we are called to minister to the brokenhearted, the poor and the
afflicted with the gracious love of Christ

·        
Secondly, the prophets said
that the Messiah will bring forth justice and peace to all the nations.

We are called to
seek justice and righteousness where-ever we go and in whatever we do.  God is a God who loves what is just and fair and
good and we should have the courage to stand up for what is right.

·        
Thirdly, people will know the
Lord and his will: the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, Isaiah
said.

If have always thought that Micah summed it
all up excellently in 6 vs 8: “He has showed you, o man, what is good: and what
does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to
walk humbly with your God?“                        

 

It will make a huge difference if we see
this not only as a task but as a calling from God. Reformed theologians through
the years had a preference for the word calling because to have a sense of call
is something special. I have done some research and reading on the concept of
calling and I can tell you it makes a huge difference – especially in tough
times.  In Ephesians hope is more than
once connected to a sense of calling.  In
our church I have also seen that positive energy often stems from a sense of
being called.  I have often seen that people
who are complaining and who are negative are Christians without a clear sense
of calling.  If you have a strong sense
of calling, you can face a lot of problems and frustrations without getting
overly negative.  The philosopher Fredrick
Nietzsche said somewhere: “he that has a why to live for, can bear with almost
any how”.

 

What is the difference between a task and a
calling.  Behind a calling is a living
God, who knows our names and who speak to us, who cares about us, who loves us,
and who have invited us to live in a personal relationship with Him. You can
deduce an order or a command from a book, but for a calling you need a Voice, a
Some-one, and relationship.  In and
behind the Word you need to see the Living Christ and you need to hear Him calling
us – calling you, to follow Him. 

 

I want to conclude. We must not only recover
our calling as a church, we must also rediscover our new identity in Christ. The
real secret of the church is not so much in its new calling, but in its new
identity.

 

We need to claim the new identity that we received
through baptism, we need to be reared and trained in this new identity (I fear
this is where we are often failing our people) and then we must act from that
new identity.

 

In my own church BS I often feel that we do
not really understand and value our new identity. We are not taking ourselves
seriously as Christians – and if we do not take ourselves seriously as
Christians how can we expect other people to do it.  We sometimes talk and act as if being a
Christian, being a Child of the living God, a brother of Jesus Christ and a
minister of the Gospel is a common and cheap thing – nothing.

 

I deeply believe that the church can play a
huge role in this country the next couple of years, but if we do not learn to value
our identity as Christians, we will not make that difference. 

 

I am saying this to my own people: if we
allow the politics of the moment to intimidate us, and to lure us into thinking
primarily politically about our situation, about ourselves and our actions, we
are doomed.  I have told people: if I think
of myself as being a white, Afrikaans-speaking, Afrikaner in the first place, I
have a lot of worries.  But if by the
grace of God I can get beyond those secondary identities BS and think of myself
as a Christian in the first place, then it becomes easier.  Then I know that even if lose my life on earth
that my life is in God’s hands – hidden in God with Christ.  And what’s more, I suddenly gain a huge
number of brothers and sisters in this country. 
We are not alone – there are a lot of people who share our cares, our
commitment, our hopes and our prayers.

 

In sport when a good team loses they would
often say: maybe they were not hungry enough for the win.  I am worried that we as church got lost along
the way, that we were trapped in other dreams and hopes and commitments than
the hopes and commitments of the gospel. 
Sometimes I think we are not hungry enough for God, for his will, for
his Kingdom, for his glory.

 

Allan Boesak tells a wonderful story about
an old woman in Washington. They we talking about the lack of leadership in
countries, and in the church when at the end of the conversation she said,
almost as if still in thought: “may be we are the leaders we have been praying
for…”

 

It is time to stop looking at others, and
to ask: Lord what is that you expect me to do.  

 

 

 

         

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