A Great Inheritance: An Interview with Conrad Mbewe
by Conrad Mbewe
Tabletalk: How did you come to faith in Christ, and when were you called to pastoral ministry?
Conrad Mbewe: I was brought up in a church-going family. Upon finishing high school at the end of 1978 (I was in boarding school), I found my elder sister converted to Christ. Watching her life convinced me that there was something she had that I did not have. A friend of mine, who had also recently been converted, sent me a letter in which he shared the gospel with me. For the first time, I realized that I needed to repent toward God and trust in Christ alone for salvation. I finally yielded my life to Christ on March 30, 1979. I was baptized exactly one year later, and soon after that I began to sense that God wanted me to serve Him in the pastoral ministry. I was already studying for a mining engineering degree, so I waited a good seven years before Kabwata Baptist Church called me to be their pastor.
TT: Tell us a little about Kabwata Baptist Church.
CM: Kabwata Baptist Church is a Reformed Baptist church based on the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. It began as a church-planting effort of the Lusaka Baptist Church in 1981 and was finally constituted in January 1986. The church presently has more than four hundred members, with seven elders and six deacons. We emphasize membership involvement in various outreach ministries in the church and also church planting across Zambia and in neighboring countries. Hence, the church presently has about fourteen outreach ministries and more than twenty active church plants.
TT: How would you describe the overall state of the church in Zambia, Africa? Has the influx of aberrant forms of Pentecostalism impacted the health of the African church?
CM: The church in Zambia in particular, and Africa in general, has a great inheritance. The evangelical pioneer missionaries did what they could to give us New Testament Christianity. By now, most Africans south of the Sahara would consider themselves to be Christians, though most of them would be nominal Christians. Granted, low levels of education at that time led these missionaries to give us only the basics of the Christian faith—but the faith they preached was largely true to the Bible. Sadly, it left us vulnerable to Christian aberrations, which have come in like a flood. The health-and-wealth form of Pentecostalism has now taken center stage as the most widely known form of “evangelical” Christianity. The result of this has been a loss of the true gospel and the loss of servant leadership in the church. African traditional religions have come into the church through the back door in the name of “deliverance.”
TT: Why did you write the book Foundations for the Flock, and what is its main thesis?
CM: The book Foundations for the Flock is actually a compilation of photocopied booklets that I have been writing over a period of about twenty years. As a pastor of a church, I have been addressing various pertinent issues that I think are vital for the health of God’s people under my care and keeping them in printed form. Well, an American brother who visited Zambia came across these booklets (about forty of them) and offered to find a publisher to put them in a more permanent form. Foundations for the Flock is the fruit of that offer. The publisher took about ten of the booklets, which dealt with the subject of the church, and compiled them into one book. I must admit I am still amazed that the few loaves of bread that I offered to my own congregation can now be multiplied into food that is available across the globe.
TT: What are the goals and purposes of Reformation Zambia magazine?
CM: The Reformed Baptist movement in Zambia had grown from about six churches in 1990 to about thirty-five by the year 2000. At that time, the only national rallying point for these young churches was a conference that takes place every year in August. I was particularly burdened that we needed to expand this rallying point. I was convinced that our pastors had much to offer and, given a platform like a magazine, their ministry to the churches could continue throughout the year. So, we began Reformation Zambia magazine in 2004 to provide such a platform.
TT: What are three unique challenges facing men who want to enter pastoral ministry in Zambia? How are you working to meet these challenges?
CM: The first challenge is a lack of training facilities. We have a few good Bible colleges, but these are still in the Western mold, which demand a person to live there and to learn in lecture format. Very few can undertake such an expensive venture. The second challenge is a lack of good books. The price of good books here puts them far out of the reach of most of our pastors and Bible college students. The third challenge is a lack of good role models. The general attitude toward pastoral ministry here is that it is the first rung of the ladder and, as soon as you possibly can, you must move on to something else. Hence, most of our good men are not pastoring churches. They are denominational heads or leading religious non-governmental organizations. That is very sad. In a small way, we are encouraging churches to run part-time Bible colleges. We are also running a bookstore. A number of our churches with seasoned pastors are also running internship programs. However, all these are a drop in the ocean compared to the level of need in Zambia.
TT: What are two of the biggest misconceptions that Western Christians have about the church in Africa?
CM: Most Western Christians learn about Africa through the news items splashed on their television screens. The staple diet there comprises civil wars, poverty, corruption, AIDS, and so on. The second source is often those who come to Africa on mission trips. This also leads to lopsided news that tries to show how needy Africa is and, therefore, how the ministry of those missionaries is so vital. This news is not false, but because it emphasizes one side of the African story, it causes a lot of misconceptions on the part of those who are back home and have never come here.
This has resulted in Western Christians viewing the church in Africa as being both ignorant and poor across the board. Therefore, the general thinking is that the African church is still in the phase where paternalism is justifiable rather than true partnership. While it is true that there is more poverty here than, say, in the USA, there are some churches that have running water and electricity, and whose pastors drive good cars. We also have church leaders who are knowledgeable and very godly, whose labors are impacting not only the church but also their society.
TT: What are two important lessons that Western Christians can learn from the African church?
CM: Western civilization has lost a lot of its interpersonal virtues. It has become overly individualized—if you see what I mean. Issues like hospitality, respect for authority and the elderly, being more people-conscious than time-conscious, and so on are largely lost. This has affected not only the society generally but Christians as well.
Western Christians have filled their lives with too many things (toys?) that have robbed them of eternal perspectives. Electronic gadgets, holidays, sports, recreation, and so on have almost become idols. Even church must be about having fun. The church has little time in the lives of its members to prepare them for eternity. There is a greater consciousness of eternity here in Africa. Perhaps it is because we have fewer toys to dull our spiritual senses and death is all around us.
A greater exposure of Western Christians to their African counterparts may help them regain some of these lost virtues, strengths, and perspectives.
TT: What are the best ways that the Western church can serve the church in Africa?
CM: I know that what I am about to say will sound like a broken record because you have probably heard this said over and over again. I think that the best way for the Western church to serve their brothers in Africa is by allowing true partnership to take the place of patronizing paternalism. That is a loaded statement. We are all sinners saved by grace and need to give God all that we have so that together we can fulfill God’s evangelistic and cultural mandate. I really think that it must begin with the Western church learning to listen humbly to their African counterparts, who are also filled with the Spirit. Up to now, the listening has been largely one way. Thankfully, there are blessed exceptions to this rule.
Conrad Mbewe, widely regarded as the African Spurgeon, is pastor of Kabwata Reformed Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia, Africa, and the principal of the Reformed Baptist Preachers College in Zambia. Rev. Mbewe is the editor of Reformation Zambia magazine and writes three columns in two weekly national newspapers. He is the author of Foundations for the Flock: Truths about the Church for All the Saints, and he regularly blogs at A Letter from Kabwata.