Interview with Dr. Conrad Mbewe

Recently, Dr. Conrad Mbewe spent the weekend ministering at Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Dr. Mbewe is a Reformed Baptist pastor in Zambia’s Kabwata Baptist Church. He is also chancellor of the African Christian University, principal of the Lusaka Ministerial College, editor of Reformation Zambia magazine, author of a number of Christian books, and a frequent conference speaker. He kindly answered some questions from Pastor William Boekestein on the way to the airport at the end of his stay in Kalamazoo.

WB: Conrad, you spend a bit of time preaching in the US and you invite preachers to Zambia and elsewhere. Why bother? Why not let’s just keep to ourselves and save the resources, time, and energy?

CM: The body of Christ cannot be compartmentalized. You cannot break it down into cities, states, provinces, nations, or even continents. It’s one body. Because it is one body we are to mutually edify one another. So whatever gifts Christ has given his church in Africa, they are not only for Africa, they are for the body of Christ worldwide. Similarly, the gifts that God has given his body in the USA are not only for the body in the USA, they are for the body of Christ at that point in history, and indeed in the future, worldwide. So, we make a grave mistake when we become parochial in our thinking and in our ministry. And one reason is that we invariably enrich one another by cross-pollination. There are scriptural truths that I may not think about simply because I’ve got my own cultural lenses on. Somebody coming from another part of the world, opening up, illustrating, and applying the text will invariably enrich me. There is a lot to be gained by paying the price—and it is paying a price, not just in terms of time away from family and friends, but also in terms of money that is spent for such long-distance travels. But it’s worth it. It enriches the churches across the globe.

WB: Could you give some examples of what North American Christians might be able to learn from Zambian Christians and vice versa?

CM: First of all it’s worth underscoring the fact that North American Christianity is ahead of us by at least two hundred years. You’ve gone through a number of curves that are still ahead of us. And so, there are not only positive lessons that we can learn but negative ones as well. You have made mistakes that have proved costly, not only to the church but to society as well. And it makes sense for us be exposed sufficiently to what is happening here so that our young people—who see America as the promised land, as the place where everything is bright and beautiful—can be warned that what comes though the television screen with all the nice painting and veneer on top is not necessarily what things are like on the ground. So in that sense there will be lessons learned from the American church.

There is also that fact that you have Bible colleges, literature, and highly trained human resources to lead block classes, in order to come and speak in conferences, and so on. And we can really profit from that.

The opposite is equally true in that from the African context, the work of the Spirit is still very fresh. We are still not in what I would call the sin of the fourth and fifth generation of taking the things of God for granted, of opting to go and watch a sports game instead of being in a place where God’s Word is being faithfully preached. So, quite apart from the Word that is preached and conveyed when preachers come here, it’s also the ambience and the atmosphere, the sense of the freshness of the Christian faith that consequently can be shared. And then, when Americans do visit our part of the world there are aspects of communal life, for instance, that are closer to what it once was in biblical times that they can see, and then hope to reciprocate or reproduce upon getting back to the Americas.

WB: Could you identify some of the least helpful theological exports from the West to Africa? What have we sent you that you wish we hadn’t?

CM: Yeah, that’s a good one. I think the major export is obviously through the mass media, through television, through the Internet, and usually it’s a hyped-up form of Christianity that is really conveying the impression that to have the real Christian faith you must have everything bigger; more of this world’s goods. An obvious example: someone from Zambia just asked me whether I have watched Preachers of L.A. I said I watched five minutes of it once. But, I switched it off; I couldn’t continue. She said it was funny. I said, “No, it was disgusting.” I went the extra mile to talk about not just the misrepresentation, but also how they are not just destroying souls who go to listen to them in their churches, they are now even destroying souls of people that are far away. And also, the extreme form of the charismatic movement did not begin with us. It was initially exported as the health and wealth gospel from across the Atlantic and then baptized into African waters. So, if that had not initially come from there, then we probably may be fighting something different. But it was basically the Trojan horse that came over, and then a few African warriors were thrown inside and they’ve now come into mainline evangelicalism.

So those would be some of the issues, but I would want to say that there is also a lot of good that has come through. I mean the Reformed resurgence that is taking place on the African continent at the moment is a second wave. The first was essentially through literature, and it would have been primarily through books like those coming through the Banner of Truth Trust. But now, young people are downloading sermons, using their cellphones and listening to sermons by Piper, MacArthur, Washer, and so on and they are beginning to look for churches with the kind of faithful exposition that they are hearing in downloaded sermons, which they are often sharing with one another. And so we have a lot of young adults who are getting fed up with the chaff they are listening to week by week, and they are saying, “Where can we find something better?”

WB: You’re near the center of this Calvinistic growth in Zambia, so you obviously think Calvinism is good for Zambia. Why?

CM: Well, first of all, it defines the purest form of the gospel.

WB: Sounds like Spurgeon: “Calvinism is the gospel.”

CM: Yes! Any place where the true gospel is being preached you are having a “salt and light” effect, not only upon the people getting saved but upon the community as a whole because, as individuals get saved they become the channels through which good might be done to the world. Second, the Reformed faith takes us back to the Bible and says, “This is the basis upon which life ought to be believed.” It gives a sense of direction not only to church life but to family life, to community life, I mean, literally everything. And that’s an all-important point because clearly that’s the mind of the Creator, it’s the mind of the governor of history. Consequently, it can only do good when people are taken back to the Scriptures and base their lifestyle upon the Word of God. To sort of put it all together, Calvinism puts God back at the center of all things as the sovereign God who must be worshiped, must be glorified in all things. And that to me is what Calvinism brings into churches, into communities, into individual lives. So I’m excited about that.

WB: I want to read one of my favorite passages from your book, Pastoral Preaching. “When people come to church they need to be redirected to see that God is real and that he is concerned about the smallest details of their lives. This is what preaching does, it causes men and women to be conscious that beyond the physical reality, there is a spiritual presence of God who is in control of all things.” That is such a beautiful passage. Can you say a little bit more about that? Why is that the most important thing that preaching needs to do?

CM: In the African context, a lot of people tend to think that preaching is like the full stop or what you Americans call the period at the end of everything. And it’s the everything else that really matters, and so in our churches they might have six or seven choirs, one after the other, and really revving everybody up in their emotions, and when everyone is tired, then they say, “Okay, the preacher can come forward.” And even when you are going forward, you can tell that guys are getting ready to sleep. It’s not the climax of the worship, and so what I’ve been trying to do in this book is to reinvigorate preachers to make them realize that, as Lloyd Jones said, “We are giving people the sense of God.” He not only created the world and set it into motion, but he is present; he is here, he is dealing with our hearts, he is dealing with our communities, he is dealing with our nations. Ultimately, of course, he is dealing with us as individuals, and we ought therefore to respond to him immediately because he is seeing what is happening in our lives and he wants us to make God-glorifying changes. So it’s really that atmosphere that I insist that preaching ought to be about rather than just being an end to a meeting or piecing together nice stories to keep people entertained.

WB: Or tips for successful living?

CM: Yes, or six steps to this or that.

WB: So preaching is an encounter with God.

CM: Yes, it’s basically you saying, “Thus saith the Lord,” and as much as possible the preacher getting out of the way and letting God speak. Rather than people going away saying “That was a great preacher,” they should be going away saying “That is a great God.”

WB: You also write, in Pastoral Preaching, about the low pay that many African pastors receive for their labors. What is the best solution for that challenge? Is it Western aid? Is it more sharing among African churches? Is it better teaching on the subject? Is it a combination of those? Is it something else?

CM: I’m a little unpopular back home for the fact that I insist that churches must be independent financially. Second, I insist on is the fact that the pastor should live like his people. In other words, if your people are suffering financially, suffer with them. You cannot have a pipe elsewhere that is feeding you so you are living like a prince and then your people are living like paupers. Jesus tabernacled among us. He wasn’t riding on the angels’ wings as he was making his way in Judea and Galilee and so on. He walked. He made his feet dirty, you remember a prostitute washed them with her tears. At one point he sat by a well, too tired to make it into the city, and consequently a few ladies attended to him by giving him water from the well and his own disciples finally came back after shopping from town. He didn’t need to do that. But he is our pioneer. He is our model, especially those of us who minister. So that tends to be the gist of my approach. And therefore, I tend to say that the African church must find answers to this issue. We must not say to the Western church, “Continue giving us money.” Yes, they should come alongside us in the work of missions because they have resources we don’t have and we have a debt of opportunity they don’t have, and it’s a good time to join hands and do things together. But we must have a closure. Missions must have a terminal point, beyond which those churches must now struggle in their own context.

WB: You need an exit strategy for support, don’t you?

CM: Yes, it’s important because as long as the African church continues to depend on the Western church, it will not challenge its own people to share their good things with their pastors. They ought to share even their little with those who share with them from the Word of God that enriches them. So in rural areas, semi-rural areas, when I visit, I always insist that if your people are struggling, you must show them that for the sake of the gospel you are willing to be here, to struggle with them.

WB: That’s not necessarily the message they want to hear.

CM: No, definitely not!

WB: But long term . . .

CM: But long term they are seeing that this is what the solution is. To begin with, it may mean that a pastor may be involved part time with, for instance, subsistence farming, that takes away part of his time, but it’s while he is building his church’s capacity, and the numbers in his own church. But as the teaching continues, God’s people should see that the more time a pastor is spending taking care of his family, through tent making, the less time he is spending enriching our lives with the truth. And therefore, the goal should be to get him independent of that even if it means on our farms a certain section is being set apart for him.

WB: Last question is an easy one. You have an interesting hobby—is hobby a strong enough word?—a hobby that relates to Matthew 6:26. Can you tell us about it?

CM: Yeah, “Look at the birds of the air.” [chuckles]. Yes, it’s not what I grew up as, it wasn’t a hobby for many years. But on one occasion I was visiting South Africa, I was preaching, and there was a brother who came from Canada who was part of the trip that we undertook in a game park, and his interest in that game park was not primarily animals, it was birds. He had these binoculars, and he had a book of birds, and every time some birds would be seen he would tell the driver to stop. He would check his book and so on. And I kept thinking, Here’s a guy coming all the way from Canada and he knows almost all the birds we are seeing! Granted, a few times he had to check is book, but I knew nothing. But it wasn’t just his knowledge, it was his enthusiasm. Because when he would speak he would be talking in terms of, that bird migrates from Europe and is only around here in winter, or that bird is very good in the way it makes its nests, and that bird that is the female, that is the male, look at their colors. And I thought, Wow, I am ignorant. [chuckles] When I got back home, the birds that were outside my house for the first time—I noticed them. And from there I began to try and take pictures of them. I realized birds wouldn’t allow you to get close and they only give you like five seconds and they are gone, and that is what made me start moving from the point-and-shoot cameras to the DSLR cameras where I am now putting on the lenses and shooting them at a distance. Then, wherever I go I buy the books for the birds of America, birds of Asia, birds of Europe and Africa and so on. And I love to read about the birds, so I take pictures first and then when I’m alone I not only look at the pictures, I try to Wikipedia them, learn a little bit about them. It just makes me appreciate what God has done in his creation. It’s such a variety I can only imagine that the competition is with flowers in the world of birds.

Rev. William Boekestein  is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI