BEAUTY FROM ASHES
Like many churches, Elim Baptist is made up of people at varying places on the road to the Celestial City. But probably unlike many churches, a majority of our believers are young people whose parents are unconverted. Over the past 3 months since I last wrote, our assembly has experienced a number of cases of church discipline. When I say that term, I mean that believers fell into sin and had to be approached. Thankfully, I do not mean that we had to remove any names from membership. In each case ranging from drunkenness to disobedience in the home the church member has responded with a willingness to repent and move forward.
In God’s remarkable providence, some good is already coming from the bad as at least one young man—who didn’t fall into sin—has taken special strength from these cases to redouble his flagging efforts at living the Christian life.
These and other issues were dealt with during the pastoral visitation which is serving an important part in the life of our church. Around the New Year, I visit the church members asking them four questions:
• Spiritually speaking, was this last year good, bad, or in the middle?
• How can we make the next year better?
• Are you willing to still sign the church covenant?
• How can we pray for you?
For three months, we have studied each of the Fruit of the Spirit, and now in 2014 we will work our way through 1 Corinthians. Please pray for our believers to continue the Biblical model of slow, but steady growth.
OUR SECOND AND ONLY FAMILY
On the 22nd of December, Alphaeus and Shonisani Nyalungu gave their testimonies at a full-house service including the Mashamba and Mbhokota congregations. This couple in their 30’s with three children have been worshipping with us for over a year now after having been burnt at previous prosperity “churches.” What is amazing for our church is that both a husband and wife were converted, and they are able to come to church each Sunday even though they live about 20 kilometers away.
At their request, we are now studying through the Baptist Confession of Faith each Saturday. Please pray that their children would be converted. Their eldest boy Nyiko is 8 and has been asking questions about salvation.
Along with this family, a young man I’ve referenced before gave his testimony though he was very nervous to speak before the august body of 80 or so. At 18 years old, Harry has been consistent to the workdays as well as nearly all the services for about a year. Though his mother is not a believer, and he does not know his father, we are glad he has joined our family.
Harry is in the photo with our church’s new handbell choir. Thank you Calvary Baptist Church in Mikado!
Last year no one asked, but undaunted, I’ll offer a recommendation of my Surprise Book of the Year: Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal by David Gordon. Pop culture is like eating spoonfuls of sugar, and thus its musical embodiment is sick as well. Don’t be scared: it’s less than 200 pages.
Another book that deserves a wide circulation was sent to me recently by a friend, John MacArthur’s excellent Strange Fire. You can also download audio lectures of the conference by the same name. Have you ever been bothered that a great book was written before you could even try your hand at writing on the same topic?
Rejoicing in providence,
Seth and Amy
Three weeks ago I had intended to send out this missive after our something-like-annual Bible Quiz tournament on 8 March. Eighteen mostly older teen church members from Elim and Trinity studied our church’s catechism entitled “The Foundation of Christianity” and then competed in a half-dozen games. The earthly accolades went to a team from Paul’s church who mastered the material including one 8 year old girl who answered several questions correctly. Yet as always the real prize goes to all those who learned to love Christ more. Here are a sample of the 135 questions.
- Q: How should you act before you are saved?
A: Before I am saved, I must strive to enter in at the narrow gate. Luke 13:24
- Q: What tools does Christ give to you so that you might persevere?
A: Christ gives me three important means of grace: the Bible, the church, and prayer. Matthew 4:4; Hebrews 10:25; Mark 14:38
- Q: What causes poverty?
A: Poverty is sometimes caused by the sins of others and sometimes by my own sin. Proverbs 13:18; 21:17
THE FALL OF JUST MEN
Over the past 3 months both of our churches have weathered a number of sad storms of church discipline. Some who have been with us for 6 years have fallen and in one case the man has been unwilling to repent. In one case, a woman has shown the fruit of the Holy Spirit by forgiving the offender. It is a great temptation to discouragement for both pastors and people, but we are hopeful that God will use even these setbacks for the furtherance of the gospel. Brethren, pray for our churches that our faith would not fail.
Recognizing that a church is not planted without mature men to lead it, 5 men and I will begin the first Saturday in April a men’s meeting for the purpose of preparing the future leaders of the church. Actually, we’ve tried to have meetings in the past for young men, so this is not really a new step for us, but we are intentionally focusing on local church leadership so that is a new emphasis. The ages of the men involved are 17, 18, 21, 24, and 36. Pray that these men would exemplify godly character and the fruit of the Spirit.
For about 6 months Kulani and Tshifhiwa have been faithful almost every Sunday in worshipping with us even though they are not quite ready to take up the cross and follow Jesus. We are eager for this young husband and wife to join our church.
For the past two months, a few Venda women have been worshipping with us as well. In fact, last week, one took a step of commitment by purchasing a Tsonga Bible from us. Pray that Luambo, Awelani, and Lucy would not only come to worship services, but would come to the wicket gate.
Finally, last Sunday night while we slept a team of young boys led by our neighbor broke into our house and made off with some electronics. But as we are calming down, we are grateful that what we love most cannot be touched, and what we love next most wasn’t touched.
Seth and Amy
About a dozen times over the past three months, five men have gathered at our home on Saturday evening for discussion and prayer. These meetings have been particularly rewarding as the future leadership for the church slowly takes shape. Each week we cover these four headings.
Our meetings open as we discuss how the previous Sunday’s worship services were conducted. Was everything set up on time? How could we improve the singing? Were there any awkward moments? Did the service lift our hearts to Christ?
Then we move to church discipline. If there are members who have not been attending we assign someone to visit or call them. Each man has a chance to say if he knows about any church member in need of spiritual help. We then prepare to pray for members and any unbelievers who have been attending our worship services. Typically, about a dozen unconverted youth and adults are with us on Sunday mornings. When we average 30 people in attendance that can be quite a significant segment of the congregation.
If any comments or review of the finances needs to be made, we make them here. Our average offerings per week have raised from $1.40 (2008) to $3.24 (2011) to $28.80 (2014). We also discuss our building plans for the week. Currently, after having laid the first 3,000 bricks, the toilet is finished and the foundation is underway.
From time to time theological and philosophical issues come up that the leadership of the church can discuss at this time. Last week, for example, we talked about what age we should allow children to be baptized. We’ve also discussed what message would be sent if our church played soccer against false churches.
Depending on the issues to be covered, these topics take about 30-45 minutes.
Nearly all the requirements for a pastor or deacon are some aspect of character and personal godliness in 1 Timothy 3. Thus, as men we ask each other the following four questions (or derivations thereof).
- Have you been reading your Bible this week? In what book? What have you learned?
- Have you been memorizing and meditating on Scripture? (EBC is working through Philippians this year.)
- Is there any sin that you have fallen to this week that you have not yet repented of?
- As far as you know, do you still meet the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3?
So far, about one man per week has admitted that he is struggling with anything from laziness to anger to lust and asks for the rest to pray for him. Though it only takes about 10 minutes, this section of our weekly meeting may prove to be the most valuable in forming and guarding Christlikeness.
Scripture assumes a church leader would be fluent, or at least conversant, in at least five areas. So we have chosen to take one of those categories per year as our theme over a five-year cycle: character, doctrine, preaching, prayer, and Christian worldview. In 2014, we are focusing on character using William Bennet’s Book of Virtues. The men read the story in the week, and then we discuss the meaning and application for about 15 minutes on Saturday night.
The previous headings take about an hour, but after we’ve worked through them, our hearts are ready to pray. We gather up the church discipline scenarios, accountability issues, and character studies for prayer as well as asking for the presence of the Holy Spirit in our Sunday worship. On top of these is added the needs of sister churches. Our prayers are conversation-style, and usually take about 20-30 minutes.
Is the growth 3 steps forward and 2 steps back, or 10 steps forward 9 steps back? I don’t know, but I do know that God’s grace has been evident in our assembly. Please pray that our church and family would be filled with the fruits of righteousness to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:11)
Investing in eternity,
Seth and Amy
In July 2011, I sent out a list of difficult ethical situations our team has experienced. Another list came along in July 2012, but last year I took a break while we were in the US. The world has not gotten easier in the last two years so here are another ten conundrums that commonly confront us.
1. Should I show frustration with incompetence?
If I’m purchasing at a shop and the employee is amazingly slow to help, is it justified to express that we are busy and would appreciate prompt service in exchange for our money? Would that communicate a Christian work ethic and personal responsibility or would it be one more example of American impatience?
2. Should I sit with my wife and children in church even though many churches separate the men and women?
Traditionally, Africans do not mix the sexes at church and maybe at other public gatherings too. Should we be like them to win them, or is there some distinctly Christian virtue in a man sitting with his family? And this goes for dinner too. Most Africans do not eat their meals as a family: Must we teach them to do so?
3. Should I spank village children?
On an average afternoon in the sunshine about 5-15 village children can be found playing in our yard. Once a 9-year old went home and brought a knife back because he and another boy had been fighting. He does not have a father living at home and probably will not get any discipline from the adults in his life. Should I discipline him so that he learns not to brandish weapons? What about the other little boy who stole our children’s toys (no dad there either)?
4. Should I allow children to return to our yard if they have not been punished?
And when the children come to play on our grass, we have to decide whom to admit. Should we allow kids to return if they have done wrong but have not yet been punished? What about the younger brothers of our teenager neighbor who has repeatedly stolen from us? When he broke in he used some small boys to fit through our window. Was it them?
5. Should I use loud speakers if that is what the culture wants?
Large speakers are used to amplify both speaking voices and music as a call to the village to signal that a social event is opened to the public. But they also are commonly found in parties where the purpose is entertainment or at churches where the purpose is to put on a show. Should we buy a set of 6-foot woofers to attract people to the church?
6. Should I ever encourage someone to pay a bribe?
If a police officer pulls me over and asks, “Now what can we do because of your speed?” Is it always wrong to give him money so that you can go on your way? What about customs officials? And the situation is more complicated when we think of some of our Zimbabwean friends who have slender bank accounts. Could they pay an official to get through?
7. Should I use a literal translation that is difficult to understand or a thought-for-thought translation that sometimes oversimplifies theological discourses?
Tsonga has two translations. The first from 1907, revised in 1929, is more literal than the recent 1989 Good News Bible. The modern is generally easier to understand, but is also looser than the earlier translation. The earlier translation has many words that no one knows; and just remember, the education level is low, and very few people have dictionaries. Both translation employ the same Greek text. Which one should I use? Or both?
8. Should I rebuke unconverted people for sinful behavior?
I am returning from preaching at an evening Bible study as I walk on the road by my house. Two young people in the dark are preparing for sin near the corner as I near home. Should I rebuke them to have a moralizing effect on the community? Or should I ignore them because they are only doing what sinners do? After all, if they stopped that particular sin, it wouldn’t save them. Yet how can we be indifferent to blatant violations of God’s law?
9. Should I open civil functions in prayer if the society is nominally Christian?
They don’t care about my gospel, but they are as one writer says, “incurably religious.” So they ask me to open their children’s graduation from kindergarten with prayer. Does that open a door for the gospel, or does it sanction their own baseless claims to being Christian?
10. Should I feel obligated to stay in a place because of the investment of time and money?
Many villages need the gospel and ours has not been overwhelming in its response to our ministry. Should we stay here because we’ve put so much money into our house? Or because seeds take time to grow into trees with fruit? Or are we nearing the time to shake the dust off of our feet? It is difficult to know when we should endure all things for the elect’s sake and when we should preach the gospel where Christ has not yet been named.
Hopefully, these scenarios will inspire godly conversation and fervent prayer. Remember us with the words of Paul to the Philippians: “I pray that you would overflow with discerning love so that you will know what is right in any situation.” We would enjoy hearing from you if the mood betakes you to hit “reply.”
With Mind and Heart,
Seth and Amy
Nine kilometers away from Elim, Trinity Baptist Church in Mbhokota has finished building and begun worshipping in their new facilities. The church was built entirely by the church members and led by their pastor. For several years now they have given their time to clear the stand, dig the holes for the fence posts, mix the mortar, carry the endless stream of bricks, raise the roof, install the glass, and hang the doors. I only omitted a few thousands tasks in between, but that brief outline should stimulate you to feel the weight they’ve felt since 2012.
Last Sunday the Baptist churches in Elim, Mashamba, Tshikota (Venda), and Louis Trichardt (English and Afrikaans) joined with Trinity to worship together and rejoice at a job well done. In 10 years, I don’t think I have ever been in a larger gathering of converted Tsongas. Our gathering included inspiring singing, impressive testimonies from two new believers, and a Spurgeonic sermon on the Treasure Hidden in the Field (Matt. 13:44). Paul summarized the service in the last line of his most recent prayer letter: “And as a hundred black and white and brown faces pack our little church, is it not hors d’oeuvres for the Marriage Supper of the Lamb?”
We have enough experience and theological mooring to know that buildings will not produce an instant change in the size or strength of the church. Those who would prefer sleep, alcohol, or entertainment to serious wonder at God and His Word will still prefer those things even though they have a brick and mortar monument to the gospel in their village now. However, we also know that God works through means, and that many people see the new facilities since it sits right on a busy road.
Pray that their well-designed sign, excellent location, and arched windows would cause people to visit the only church in a community of probably 10,000 that humbles men and exalts Christ.
I was recently asked why we are not soliciting funds from richer churches in order to speed our building programs. At least four reasons come to mind, but I’ll just hint at some of them in this letter.
1. To form godly character
Sunday a man named Given Chauba was honored for his unflagging work as the building was in construction. His integrity was strengthened and confirmed over the last few years. Punctuality, care for detail, and self-denial are just a few of the Christian virtues that have bloomed more brightly than before in the workers—nearly all of whom have no fathers at home. Taking away this benefit would be like depriving a graduate of his college education. Maybe you know some recent graduates who need an education like this?
2. To emphasize the spiritual nature of the church
Don’t we all tend to be impressed by big buildings? While that is not necessarily wrong, it may distract from the NT gospel. The faith is found first in changed lives which we hope will produce buildings, but bricks and mortar by themselves can sometimes give the false impression to the believers as well as those watching that NT Christianity is more outward than inward.
The years of work and thousands of bricks have been a tool for sanctification at Trinity Baptist Church and even at our church too though we’re not as far along as they are. Therefore, please pray that God would supply Trinity with men of integrity who could lead the church freeing the churchplanters for their next task.
On a family note, last Saturday Carson (2 years old) was fitted out with a fashionable plaster boot after fracturing both his tibia and fibula. He’ll now have a month to read books on the couch, yet his misery is mitigated by the presence of his grandpa (my dad) who is visiting us for a few weeks right now. Injury makes us grateful for our children and the great majority of days God gives us with both health and safety.
Seth and Amy
EMPLOYMENT IS UP
At the close of 2013, our church had had only two members with jobs during the first 6 years. One of the working members passed away in 2010, and the other only attends services about two times per year because he lives in Johannesburg. Then things started to change.
One week before 2014, we baptized a husband and wife who each were employed. This was both a family as well as jobs added to the church. Then one of our single ladies procured gainful employment around February. Over the past three months, three others in our church have found work. For these last three, I accompanied them as a character reference to scores of businesses in the town of Louis Trichardt about 25 kilometers away. After several weeks, one company had a number of openings due to theft, so two guys squeezed in at Coca Cola.
SOUTH AFRICAN SALARIES
How much pay might you expect if you got a job in South Africa? Our province, Limpopo, is the poorest with an average of R4,737 [about $430] monthly salary. That number includes two worlds: the cities and the villages. So, the average pay of the cities balloons that number above the majority of people who earn much less. Over the whole nation whites earn about 6 times more than blacks. A 25-year old at our church got a job in June earning $170 per month. Another got a job for $300. One young man who is only working about 2-3 days per week takes home between $60-80 per month.
While the “official” unemployment rate of SA tarries at 25%, the real rate may be higher for two reasons. First, official numbers are sometimes adjusted according to the need of the politician. Second, and far more drastic, is the difference between urban and rural population. Fewer people have jobs in the rural areas, so in our village I would expect the percentage to be significantly higher than the national 1 out of 4. Probably 1 out of 3 in our village need work.
JOBS AND CHURCHPLANTING
For nearly 8 years we have been laboring to form a church in our village, and now we have a number of the components in place. There is a group of believers who prefer expositional preaching and sober worship. They are becoming accustomed to church discipline and the demands the NT places on true believers. We are slowly working on a building project with hopes to enter the building before the end of 2016. Our congregation supports a churchplanter. All along we have been trying to train men (every true missionary is), but we have been rather blessed with boys than men. The last piece of this mosaic is male leadership before we can begin a similar work of art in another village.
And jobs are a key component of male leadership because in order to be a man, a boy needs a wife and a house first. Both of those are difficult without a job. Committing the faith to faithful men (2 Tim. 2:2) usually assumes that the men have a way to support themselves, but in the developing world, this is often one of the biggest roadblocks. Thus employment helps the new churchplant. Jobs are crucial to a mature church because of the character they instill and require. Gainful employment also means support for the pastor and missionaries. Furthermore, in Africa young men need to pay the bride price, an impossibility without a consistent paycheck.
In summary, we now have six members who are working and one who is not a member yet, but attends consistently. Twelve months ago, we had one man with a job, and he didn’t attend the services. Please pray for others in our church who need work: a widow, three other women, and a some young people now out of school. Pray that those who are working would have wisdom and the fruit of the Spirit with finances. And pray for our church to be soon blessed with men who can hold the helm so that Amy and I may board another ship.
Working while it is day,
Seth and Amy