The church in Malawi is like this. There was once a mother who gave birth to her child, and abandoned the child in the street. The mother went away, and so this child begins to grow by himself and grows as a beggar in the streets: ‘Grandma, help me. Sir, help me.’ He sits under a bridge all day, every day. So think about this child when he grows up. What kind of thing can this child teach?
We have lots of that kind of people, especially in our rural areas. Yes, they heard the Gospel. Yes they have received Christ as Lord and Saviour. Yes they have been spiritually born. But they were abandoned at birth, they were not fed, they were not trained. And now this beggar child is an elderly man or an elderly lady, and inevitably ends up entrusted with the work of God in our rural society, and finally he is told to preach. What kind of thing can this spiritual beggar teach?
I heard these wonderfully evocative words from a church leader here in Malawi during one of the interviews I have been conducting for my dissertation. Essentially he was saying that in much of the Malawi church it is a case of the spiritualy blind leading the spiritually blind.
I have been rather quiet about my work here in Malawi over the last few months. This is partly because my work partnering with church leaders, facilitating strategy conferences, helping at leadership training etc is just not as photogenic as children’s holiday clubs or visits to the magnificent countryside. But it is also partly because my head has still been filled with my (even less photogenic) dissertation writing concerning how to reach Malawi’s rural leaders with preacher training.
Nevertheless – as this interviewee reminded me – the field work has been a wonderful privilege as it took us to parts of Malawi that we wouldn’t otherwise have gone to, and encouraged us to listen to people we wouldn’t otherwise have met. This has allowed us to get ‘under the skin’ of our new spiritual home here in Malawi.
You see, it seems to me it is very easy for a visiting western Christian to swing to one of two stereotypical views of the church in Malawi. On the one hand there is the romantic stereotype. We see the vast numbers of people filling the churches in Malawi with their lively and demonstrative worship. And we think “How wonderful. They may be poor but they love the Lord.” On the other hand there is the cynical stereotype. We see – as one Blantyre pastor described it recently – the “discord in the churches just beneath their vibrant harmonies” as they “reflect the world around them and revolve around tribal battles for power and resources rather than Gospel priorities”. And we think “How terrible. No good can be done here”.
However, listening again to the recording of my parable-telling interviewee this week, it suddenly struck me that this was exactly the imperfect but Spirit filled mess that Paul faced as he taught the Corinthians or coached Timothy. Paul could never be accused of slipping into either of those stereotypical extremes, and I am ever more convinced that he would have recognised in Malawi a familiar pattern: generation after generation of church members growing up with a dearth of authentic discipling, and a dearth of biblically sound and listener engaging preaching.
For, in the context of Malawi – where some 80% of people live rurally, where physical and electronic communication is phenomenally inconvenient and expensive, where the vast majority of people are functionally illiterate, where only a tiny minority of church goers own a bible, where society is still fundamentally oral in its norms – in such a context, just as in Jesus’ or Paul’s day, it is preaching and the preacher that remains at the heart of God’s plan for the church and for society.
Once again it seems to be clear – even if it isn’t photogenic or particularly exiting – that preacher training must be at the heart of any “Kingdom strategy” for sub-Saharan Africa.
“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14)