Reported about the plans of the church in Zimbabwe to baptize more than 30,000 people into the Seventh-day Adventist Church on one Sabbath.
What’s happening in Africa?
By Pardon K. Mwansa
On May 18, 2015, I read an article on the Web site of the Adventist Review entitled, “Zimbabwe: 30,000 Baptisms Expected in One Sabbath.” It reported about the plans of the church in Zimbabwe to baptize more than 30,000 people into the Seventh-day Adventist Church on one Sabbath.
In 2014, while attending Annual Council meetings at the Seventh-day Adventist Church headquarters, I listened to reports of baptisms from different parts of the world. One African division leader reported that concurrent evangelistic meetings had resulted in 50,000 people being baptized in Uganda in one month. When we heard a report about Japan, the leader told us that Japan struggled with negative growth, meaning that not only did they not baptize, but that they lost some members. Reports from Europe reported baptisms in the tens, not tens of thousands. Anthony Kent takes up their challenge on page 22 of this issue.
When one reads about the impressive numerical growth in Africa, then hears about very low growth in other parts of the world, one is compelled to raise questions. Why is Africa responding in such powerful ways to the gospel? Are there cultural, sociological, historical, or even theological factors that could explain such a phenomenon? What does this kind of growth mean? What are the challenges that come with such rapid growth? And how can church leaders in Africa deal with these challenges? In this article I hope to respond to some of these questions.
Reasons for Rapid Growth
Leading people to Christ is undoubtedly God’s work through the Holy Spirit. Yet there are factors that enhance the work of the Holy Spirit and make it easy for people to turn to God. The following are some of those factors, particularly in Africa:
First, there are fewer pastors on the payroll in Africa, resulting in laypeople being active in ministry and church leadership. Many of these laypeople are passionate about soul winning and baptisms. My first pastoral assignment involved five congregations. I know of some who pastor as many as 35 congregations, with each congregation having as many as 300 people, or even more. This means that instead of having salaried pastors do ministry, ministry is done by laypeople.
Second, public evangelistic meetings are big in Africa. It’s a continent where people still have time to attend meetings. This is not the case in Western countries, where time is money. One does not have to struggle to find an audience ready to listen in Africa. Many come to public meetings in droves, many are convicted by God’s Spirit, and many are baptized.
Third, poverty and suffering are key factors that contribute to people in Africa turning to God for help. Many parts of Africa suffer from war, hardship, and poverty. There seems to be a direct link between being in need, experiencing suffering, and turning to God. In some parts of Africa, with less poverty and booming economies, growth is not reported in thousands of people, as in those parts of Africa that are less developed.
Fourth, new converts in Africa identify strongly with the mission of the church and want to witness to others about Adventism. When I became an Adventist, the first thing I wanted to do was to share with others the truths I had discovered. I remember conducting my first evangelistic meeting as soon as I became an Adventist. I was only 18 years old, and we baptized 35 people.
Challenges of Rapid Growth
While rapid growth is great, it has its own challenges. Often new members are not adequately prepared to live and uphold the values that the Bible upholds. As a result, many of them leave the church within a short period of time, or just live a very nominal life that does not reflect true Adventism.
Second, many times the rapid church growth is hindered because of lack of sufficient human resources, materials, and means to nurture and adequately establish the faith of those who have come in. In some instances there are not even church buildings in which people can gather every Sabbath for worship. Often divisions reporting high numbers in baptisms also report high numbers of church dropouts.
Throughout the centuries challenges of rapid growth have been similar. The book of Acts reports in several places rapid growth, thousands joining the church, at times daily (Acts 2:41; 4:4). But with this report came challenges that the church faced. For example, in Acts 6 the leaders start to experience administrative problems that arise as a result of rapid growth. Acts 15 records a controversy that arose as a result of the church growing beyond the Jewish people into the Gentile community. Some believed and taught that circumcision was necessary for salvation, while others did not think so.
The apostles responded to these threats in many ways. We can note three responses: First, they established a governance system that included appointing local church elders as the shepherds of local congregations (Acts 6 and 14). Second, they wrote letters and highlighted God’s Word as the only foundation of truth, thus combating erroneous teachings. Finally, they trained young leaders who could help in teaching the truth by traveling from one region to another (e.g., Timothy and Titus).
The challenges of rapid growth show up in the early Christian church in the fourth century. Prior to the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, Christianity was illegal and unpopular. But following this edict, the state proclaimed that all religions should be tolerated. This made being a Christian easy and in some cases even attractive and fashionable. Historians have noted this: “The fourth century was a glorious period in Christian history. Great numbers of converts were made from all levels of society, Christian leaders advanced to prominent positions in society.”1
Sullivan, Harrison, and Sherman also report the consequences of such growth: “The avalanche (flood) of converts, no longer faced with the terrible possibility that baptism might spell martyrdom, diluted the spiritual fervor that had characterized the pre-Constantine Christian Community. Discipline within the growing Christian ranks became more difficult. Christian practices of worship and Christian doctrine were threatened with obliteration before the flood of Greco-Roman religious practices and ideas still held by many of the inadequately trained and spiritually lax converts.” They further state: “The influx of pagan ideas and practices generated numerous heresies that set Christian against Christian in battles in which no quarter was given.”2
Possible Solutions to Challenges of Rapid Growth
There is nothing wrong with rapid growth. As a matter of fact, many of us would rather manage the challenges of rapid growth than little or no growth. The following are some suggested ways drawn from the Bible and experience in ministerial practice that have helped deal with challenges of rapid growth:
1. Focus on lay training: This would include training laypeople in areas such as church leadership and governance, church heritage and doctrines, and church growth.
2. Supply sufficient materials for nurturing of members: Reading of the Bible and other Christian literature has always helped nurture members. 3. Establish educational institutions in which young people are trained in divine things and nurtured in Christian faith. 4. Mobilize and engage all believers in ministry.
Asymmetric growth is nothing new. Paul’s preaching at Athens was met with little success (Acts 17:16-34); yet in Berea, people listened and studied God’s Word eagerly (verses 10-12). When we preach the everlasting gospel faithfully, we can leave God to organize the harvest, whether plentiful or scarce.
Pardon K. Mwansa, originally from Zambia, serves as a general vice president for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He lives with his wife, Judith, in Laurel, Maryland, United States.
1 This and the following comments are based on R. E. Sullivan, J. Harrison, and D. Sherman, Short History of Western Civilization (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), p. 237.
2 Ibid., p. 238.