UNSCREWING THE INSCRUTABLE
Believers going through difficult times commonly trust that their Father is working out wise and holy purposes for their eternal happiness. During 2015, we experienced a number of sharp turns that caused us to ask, “Where are we going?” We knew the ultimate destination was to have our character formed more perfectly like the Lamb who did not open His mouth before His shearers; but why did He have to use violent crime, broken limbs, and rejected visas?
Because of those events, we spent several months away from our church this year, and yet in our absence, the church grew in a way that for us had no precedent. Last year at this time we had eight adult church members at Elim Baptist. As of December 27, we now have fourteen. May I introduce them to you?
- As a middle-aged school-teacher, Paulinah Maphahla began attending our church last February and was baptized in August. She said her interest had been shaken in her other church because, “They always talk about money.”
- Aniki Mphaphuri married Ntwanano (a church member), followed Christ in baptism, and has hosted the weekly prayer meeting at her home for the last few months. She is a young mother also from a prosperity background which she rejected because, as she said at her baptism, “There is no life or gospel there.”
- As a Sotho who speaks Venda, Steven Maleti joined through baptism a Tsonga church saying, “It is nothing to learn Tsonga so that I can be in a church that teaches the Bible.” He and Alpheus have captivated me with tales from the cult, like the pastor who insists people call him “Major One” and bow in his presence.
- Tiyani and Glory are also newlyweds though they have both been believers for a number of years. She comes from Paul’s church down the road, but now they both live in Elim. We hope that in the future they will be a great help to the church.
- Johanna Simango has been one of Amy’s closest friends for years though she has steadfastly resisted our efforts at evangelism. Her 13-year old son was baptized in April, and she shocked us by confessing Christ publicly in August. Last Friday she told Amy, “When you left last year, I began to think that for all the years you had lived with us, I never listened to your message. So I decided that if you came back, I would learn from your church.”
DIGGING HIS OWN GRAVE
If a believer’s old man dies with Christ, and if this truth is pictured in baptism, then Caleb had to dig his own grave two weeks back as the boys from the church excavated the dirt so that the creek would fill with enough water for immersion. God’s work of grace is continually evident in his life as he reads and memorizes on his own. He talks often of planting churches among the Tsongas of Mozambique, but he’s a little concerned about getting a wife to go there with him!
BOOK OF THE YEAR
Ralph Venning’s The Sinfulness of Sin, 1669. Full of Scripture and metaphors, this old book has no fluff. Here was a pastor who directed his congregation to a sustained effort at hatred of sin. I counted only two pages of 284 that did not use a Scripture reference. He was a learned man who had not forgotten that learning only matters if it helps us love Christ and hate sin.
And if that sounds too heavy, my second place for this year was Pilgrim’s Progress, which Amy and I read together with great profit—a superlative work.
For Him who makes all things new,
Seth and Amy
22 March 2016~ The Children of God Who are Scattered Abroad
A special joy known only to those who love the church of God rests on the birth of a new assembly of believers. After years of evangelism and preaching, the Whunga Baptist Church was officially formed on Sunday, 20 March 2016. On that weekend, Alpheus Nyalungu and I arrived in Whunga, Zimbabwe in order to lend our support and approval to the two men who are laboring to evangelize there.
Though the village is only 250 kilometers from us in South Africa, Saturday’s trip—including the border crossing—took 10 hours. The return trip on Monday was a breezy, 5-hour jaunt. On our return we were so pleased at the speed with which they were processing us at the border crossing that the official took our happiness for mockery and along with a scowl held up a hand-written sign that said, “beware touts”.
The village of Whunga is positioned about 50 k’s off a major asphalt road in Zimbabwe in a hot and usually dry region. This last year was especially bad for crops, but one benefit of the arid condition is the absence of mosquitoes. Whunga and the villages around it have no electricity, running water, police, or health services, but thankfully, cell phone signals have spread their growing webs there.
Saturday night we slept in Zezani in Jastone Sebola’s copy shop where he makes a living for himself and his brother by making photo copies and other printing requests. Solar panels and batteries power the machines. Jastone is the twin brother of Justice, both of whom graduated from Limpopo Bible Institute in 2010.
Jastone left a good-paying job in Johannesburg, South Africa at his brother’s request to help him plant the church in Whunga. What is his role in the church plant? He pays the bills for both families while his brother invests the most time in evangelism and preaching.
As we drove the road to the village Sunday morning, the rains that had not come that year suddenly fell. The flash flood spawned tributaries and streams that crossed and re-crossed the road. Suddenly sections of the road had become rushing paths for the drainage water.
Jastone’s twin, Justice and his wife Lisa stay in the village of Whunga at which we joyfully arrived through the rain. They ushered us into their two-room house where I had a pleasing vision of his solid library which included a number of Banner of Truth books.
A path about two kilometers long reaches the school building where the believers meet. They had a simple guitar that Justice had learned to tune by ear. Along with some chords he learned while at LBI, they sang several hymns in Venda during the service.
Alpheus, my friend from Elim Baptist in South Africa, preached the morning sermon in Venda on the hatred that a true Christian has for sin. Then we began hearing testimonies from the 9 who were prepared to be baptized that day. Jastone had translated and printed the church covenant of Elim Baptist to be used as the covenant for the believers in Whunga, and they all agreed to bind themselves as true Christians. Before heading to the river, we invited those who had been accepted for baptism to enjoy the Lord’s Table for the first time in that village.
Then we all made our way to what was now a fast-flowing, broad, yet shallow river where I was told repeatedly there are no crocodiles. They sang one of the songs from the morning, “Heart, Soul, and Body” a song of dedication to Christ while I baptized the 9 new members of WBC which included both Jastone’s and Justice’s wives.
Both of these men chose to live in these poor villages. They could at any time return to South Africa and search for jobs which would allow them to live in significantly greater comfort. But for the sake of the church which He purchased, for the glory of God seen in the slowly changing lives of the new believers, for love of those souls whose only end is eternal torment without the message of the gospel, for hope that a slow, steady ministry will produce fruit that endures into eternity, these brothers and their wives live and minister in a place that would be too difficult for most Western missionaries.
On the way home, Alpheus and I spoke about the comfort we had taken from seeing this new body of brothers and sisters. If Jastone and Justice can provide for their own needs as tentmakers while evangelizing in the rural areas, then it can be done again and again. Please join us in praying for the rural areas of southern Africa that God would send out laborers into the many thousands of villages.
With hope in God,
Seth and Amy
PS. This letter is an edited version of a fuller account with more pictures posted here.
Saturday afternoon at Trinity Baptist Church in Mbhokota, Alpheus Nyalungu answered 110 theological questions posed to him from five pastors who were attempting to recreate the scene that Timothy experienced 20 centuries earlier (1 Tim. 4:14) in front of the godly men who laid hands on him. Then Sunday morning, 15 May 2016, the Elim Baptist Church gained a second pastor as we united with other churches for this purpose.
Over the last 5 years, Alpheus and his wife Shonisani have served to encourage us by arriving on time, calling other members, involving themselves in nearly every meeting of the church, and providing endless stories about the foolish and pagan nature of the prosperity churches. Recently, as his bakkie pulled up to the building our church meets at, I greeted him only to hear the voice of John MacArthur’s preaching coming from his phone. For the last year or so, he has been preaching with me through 1 Corinthians and now through 1 Timothy. Over the last few years, we have gathered some believers together through consistent evangelism, but until an assembly has a pastor, each of the three self’s is fragile.
Whenever we hear of the grace of God drawing men from darkness to light, we rejoice, but last Sunday’s service was especially inspiring for us. Melvin Hodges, a missionary in Latin America, popularized a simple way to evaluate the success of missionary labor. A church must be self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing. These three self’s, as they came to be called, were so important because they contrasted with philosophies that produce churches which often collapsed once dollars and staff were removed. If it takes America to keep it going, then it is sharply different from the churches in the book of Acts.
To many the idea of missions is something other than a “self-ish” church. They may support drilling wells, short term visits, orphanages, hospitals, teaching English, or administrating micro loans. For the good done for Christ and His Kingdom through all those efforts, I praise God, yet the Great Commission as modeled by Paul is a call to churchplanting. And more than that, it is a call to plant churches that will be administered by the members of that culture not by a group across the ocean. It is a call to plant churches that do not sputter into oblivion when the dollars dry up because they are supported by the indigenous believers themselves. It is a call to plant churches that have enough vital faith to evangelize without the efforts of short term trips and the bearers of master’s degrees.
As missionaries we are full of joy that EBC stepped nearer to the goal of the Great Commission. Join us in praying that this pastor and this assembly will constantly feed these three fires and so support themselves, govern themselves, and propagate the faith that has been delivered to them.
Walking in Paul’s footsteps,
Seth and Amy
This is the fifth year that I have offered up fodder for dinner conversations with a list of ethical dilemmas. The other four years are combined into one list, but the point of all is that you would pray for us the way Paul prays for his dear Philippians:
9 And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; 10 That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ;
- Should I pray for my children to become missionaries?
A godly, graying missionary of 120 years ago wrote that he prays for each of his children to become missionaries as he had done. For fear that I would press my own beyond the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, should I restrain my prayers to general requests? Or for the sake of the immortal souls of so many Tsongas, Vendas, Shonas, and other language groups, should I follow Paton’s example? If I do pray for them, should I do so in their presence?
- Should I congratulate unmarried couples on the birth of a child?
We love life, but in general, you get what you honor. If we honor the birth of children from unmarried parents, will that water the seeds of fornication? But if we don’t congratulate the new parents, isn’t that rude?
- Should I tell a polygamist before he is saved what he must do with his wives?
When I am talking with someone who has multiple wives, should I stay at the cross and let the moral issues work out in time? Or should I tell him the law up front so that he doesn’t feel tricked? A closely related question is: Should a church have a single position on polygamy, or is Scripture broad enough to allow us to take each case as it comes?
- Should I offer classes on life skills?
Is teaching English a great evangelistic tool, or is it one more reminder that I am a rich, white? If that is a significant factor in building my church, will it tend to discourage those Africans who come after me?
- Should a middle-aged woman be counted as married if the man does not pay the bride price?
Recently, two unconverted women asked me after a Bible study, if they may live with a man now that they are both beyond “youthful.” Neither of them are saved, but they are both near the wicket gate. However, it is rare to hear about a woman over 40 who was purchased with the usual bride price. May a middle-aged woman be married without it? If so, then is there any difference between a middle-aged woman living with her boyfriend and a middle-aged bride?
- Should mothers be instructed to nurse their babies privately?
As we build our new church building, we had thought to put a nursery in the back with a glass pane so that the mothers could watch the service while they care for their infants. While putting down the bricks last week, our church members agreed that no Africans will use that cry room. Should we build the room and then teach them to use it, or let it go since the NT never commands believers to have a nursery?
- Should a man be allowed to seek employment away from his family for extended periods of time?
Married couples should stay together. But what if the man can only find work far away? What if he can only return to the village twice per year? Should our church allow members to live apart from their wives, or should we practice church discipline? How long may they be apart—2 weeks, 2 months, 12 months?
- Should I pay a policeman if I am convinced that his request is unjust?
If a policeman asks for money does his position mean that I may give it with a clear conscience since he represents the taxing power of the government? Or if I pay am I just taking the easy way out so as to keep myself from greater inconvenience and thus also strengthening patterns of corruption?
- Should I ask men with slimmer gifts to speak in public settings to give them more experience?
When is it wise to ask a man to preach on Sunday or at a conference so that he will gain experience, and when is it unkind to the listeners to schedule a novice?
- Should I expect African pastors to live on a fraction of an American missionary’s salary?
When we train men to pastor the churches we start, should we expect them to live on less than we do? Should they be encouraged to go to America to raise support so that they can enjoy the same benefits we enjoy? Or should they be expected to live on less because they should follow the culture and society in which God has placed them?
That our love would abound in knowledge and judgment,
Seth and Amy
1 August 2016~ After 3,650 Days
On the first day of August 2006, a young man of singular gifts and zeal set foot on South African soil to make his home among the Tsongas of southern Africa. He has been here now for a decade as a vehicle of grace and blessing to me, my family, and the converts he has hewn out of the rock.
Some of the most valuable books in my library are signed by Paul Schlehlein when he gave them to me. Watts’ Logic (the expensive edition by Soli Deo Gloria, not the cheap paperback reprint), Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology, and the MacArthur Study Bible have all strengthened my grip on theology and my love for truth. Paul introduced me to catechisms which have been the means of conversion of probably a dozen people whom I have had the privilege to baptize. Every few weeks—or even more frequently—my inbox receives some note of grace or encouragement to refuel my tired emotions in the spiritual war. He is ever endeavoring to unearth some new avenue for the truth to reach the hearts of those God has given him.
Who else could I find to discuss at length the definition of marriage in an African context, the effects of religion on African poverty, and even the Christian nature of friendship? His fellowship has often taught me, even while I was an instructor with him at a Bible college for several years. Those lessons which have left the deepest impact on my life involve character and discipline. For example, when two believers have a problem, he gave me the phrase, “Get all the dirt out.” (cf. Rom. 12:18 and Matt. 5:23-24)
I have often heard him thank God for the discipline he learned during his formative years, rather than so many who are embittered if they were denied some liberty. Though he could serve in any number of capacities with a larger influence, he chooses to live quietly in a village of about 10,000 people laboring away to form a congregation that will last long after he is gone. Rarely do I see him traveling or running errands without one of his children at his side whom he obviously views as his first plants to tend.
He may be the most spiritually intense man I have ever met. In him the words of Jonathan Edwards’ fifth resolution have taken flesh: “Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.” And again the sixth, “Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.” When I have spoken to others about Paul, I have often said that he is similar to Jim Elliot, except that the Lord has been pleased to preserve one of them on the front lines longer.
Few other men of my acquaintance labor to understand the deep things of God like John Owen while at the same time striving to reach the lost like John Bunyan. Few other men of my acquaintance are willing to bear the stares and laughter of the benighted lost like John Paton while at the same time teaching through every verse in the Bible like John Calvin. Few other men of my acquaintance love evangelism like Jonathan Goforth while at the same time remaining bold like John MacArthur.
And it is this dear brother and fellow servant, whom God has seen fit to brighten my evangelism and my home for the last decade. For him, I may truly say, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, for you have often refreshed me.”
In these cynical days when heroes always discomfort us a little unless they have some obvious moral weakness to which we can relate in our own flabby state, we need to remember those whom God has favored and imitate their faith.
In gratitude for 3,650 days of mutual fellowship, service, and churchplanting,
Seth and Amy
27 September 2016~ Fledgling Bodies of Believers
Fellowship in the gospel
In August, eight friends from our sending church arrived at 5:30 am after 20 hours of sitting on airplanes. Over the next few days, a large pot of conversations, laughter, prayer, and visiting produced a short-term trip that fit Paul’s description of a “partnership in the gospel.” As an American, I am aware of our love to be doing, yet these believers were content to encourage us and the Schlehleins without accomplishing some project.
As they sympathized with our small labors and pains, as they saw those Tsongas and Vendas whose names are written in the Book of Life, and as they exemplified a gracious and humble spirit, our hearts were mutually strengthened in the Great Commission. If you are thinking of a short-term trip, I offer this as a model for the way American Christians should visit foreign countries.
At the Baptist Church of Louis Trichardt where I am now serving as the English pastor, we emphasized missions for the month of September. During that time, one of the ladies who has been attending for months was converted (3 September) and baptized (11 September) as the 10th member of the church. Each week the sermons were directed toward New Testament missions, and we held prayer meetings for different people groups in southern Africa. Two of the men trained at our Bible college returned from Zimbabwe to introduce themselves to the believers who stayed around after the evening services for an unusually long time talking about churchplanting in the villages. Attached are pictures of two of these families each of whom has taken in several orphans.
For the rural areas
In August with our friends from Bethel in the US, we visited two new churches in the rural areas of Zimbabwe, and in September, three pastors of rural churches spoke at the churches in South Africa. In total, four different villages of Zimbabwe that do not yet have electricity or running water, now have a church and pastor that preach the 5 Solas. In South Africa, I have been evangelizing in Valdezia, and Paul has seen two significant groups gathering each week in two different villages.
Across this huge continent with 54 countries and 1.2 billion people, 3 out of 5 Africans live in the rural areas where the potential to hear the gospel is far lower than in the urban centers. Will you join us in rejoicing that our Father has answered prayer and blessed His Word to the conversion of the 130 believers represented by these scattered assemblies? Then with hearts full of joy in God’s mercy, will you please pray that the Word of God would prosper in these rural locations so that churches would be formed?
With hope for the conversion of those in the poorest places,
Seth and Amy
31 December 2016~ Our Last Service at Elim Baptist Church
An indigenous church
In roughly 15 years of preaching, Paul the apostle visited over 20 places that are listed in Acts leaving churches in each place. Our calling is the same though our gifts and godliness are a shadow of the first Christian missionary. After 10 years of evangelism in the villages around Elim, last week we gathered for the last official meeting with the Elim Baptist Church. As you may recall from our May letter, Alpheus Nyalungu has been ordained as the pastor of the 25 believers there.
What passed through our hearts as we worshipped with them for the last time? The sadness we think we would feel when one of our children leaves the home. The joy that is in the presence of the angels, since one decade ago, all of these who are now dear brothers and sisters were separate from Christ, having no hope, and without God in the world. The fear of future sin, since it is a long and dangerous journey through the narrow gate and to the Celestial City. The hope that these believers would show themselves examples of the faith as the Thessalonians did (1 Thess. 1:6-8).
An indigenous building
This week, just before the new year dawned, the church finally gained protection from the rain as we raised the roof. Over the last 4 years, 99% of the labor was done by Tsonga Christians the majority of whom began the process as boys and ended it as men. Lord-willing, the church will use the new building this weekend because the daycare in which we had been worshipping was destroyed in a storm on 24 December! The church’s first service will be conducted in a building without doors, glass in the windows, or the missionary; but they do have bricks, a roof, and the Word of God.
An indigenous budget
In November 2012, EBC made the final payment for the land and began digging holes for fence poles. At that time the average monthly offerings were $22 and the estimated building cost was just under $18,000. The membership contained only 4 adults, none of whom were employed. This year, there are 14 adults representing 9 jobs with an average of $285 per month in the offerings. During the building project, the members voted to support a churchplanter in Zimbabwe at 10-15% of their budget, and in 2017, the members voted to raise the missions support to 20% of their budget.
Though the members paid for nearly everything themselves, this year New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg surprised us with a generous offering to cover the entire roof. Without that gift, I am not sure what the church would do now in light of last week’s storm, since none of the members has a home large enough to hold the 30-40 who meet each Sunday. Like David found Barzillai (2 Sam. 19:32), we have found friends along the road as well.
Paul’s prayers for a young church
As we look back at this church, our only hope is found in the Lord of the Church and His reviving Spirit, since both our labors and their maturity are sandy foundations at best. Do labor with us in prayer as Paul did for his beloved Thessalonians.
- Thank God for their faith. 1 Thess. 1:2
- Pray that these Christians would be models of the faith. 1 Thess. 1:6-7
- Pray that the Word of God would sound forth from EBC. 1 Thess. 1:8
- Pray that they would increase in love for one another. 1 Thess. 3:12
- Pray that each Christian’s heart would be established in holiness. 1 Thess. 3:13
- Pray that they would persevere until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thess. 5:23
Our future plans
Lord-willing tomorrow, we will begin Sunday services with a small group in Valdezia, another village about 25 kilometers northeast of Elim. We must meet at someone’s home under some trees because we do not live there, and it is poorer than Elim. Thankfully, EBC purchased chairs for us to begin this new churchplant. Since August 2015, I and other believers from EBC have been teaching in homes throughout this village of about 15,000. Please pray that God would open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light.
“Book of the Year”
In 2016, one long-dead author won my “book of the year” prize for the second time. Each morning for about two years, I read one hymn from Isaac Watts’ Psalms and Hymns. He rewrote each of the psalms of the Bible into rhyming, Christian hymns as well as hundreds of other poems. We have also used them in our evening family worship. If poetry can’t light your fire, then another (very slim) great book from this year was The Unquenchable Flame by Michael Reeves—a short introduction to the Reformation. Let me know if you give either of these a try.
With Paul as our model,
Seth and Amy