The Spirit Gives Life

The Spirit Gives Life is a session built upon our new discipleship material, “Foundations for Life”. I’m currently writing a few chapters for my organisation Dignity. We have multiple authors from multiple backgrounds all callaborating to make a fantastic resource. As you can tell from the recording it’s really informal and the session would normally be done as a small group study in a village.

I’ve intentionally left the banter and interpretation in so you can get a feel for what speaking in Africa is like. This session is being translated into Bemba as I speak.

Also note, the importance of ‘story’ in speaking within Africa. The story of Faith and her sail in the Okavango Delta is designed to be memorable and a modern day parable of how the Spirit works in our lives.

Have a listen and visit another world!

Recorded at Dignity EQUIP Camp September 2016, Mkushi, Zambia.

© Jon Paul Witt and Dignity 2016.

© Image Copyright. Spyderonlines.com

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The Otavi Lesson

The mountains to the left of me stretch to the horizon, merging with the dry veld in front of me. The view is truly stunning. Leopards, various buck and baboons clamber over the rocks of the various kopje’s that are scattered high behind me. This is Ghaub in the Otavi Mountain Conservancy, Central Namibia. It’s now a guest farm with a view to remember and a very poignant history.

Ghaub used to be a mission station. Started in 1895 with the aim of reaching the Bergdamara and Hai communities, this Rhenish Mission was established in what must have been a very tough assignment. Walking around today, you can still see the humble mission origins of the buildings. Although of course they have been significantly upgraded.

The shame is that within 25 years of the establishment of the mission station at Ghaub, land was already being sold off and eventually in 1968 the mission came to an end. You can read more about the history here.

Walking with my children on the vast farm, we came across the old mission graveyard. As they ran on ahead, I was left alone to savour the considerable silence and vista. Over a few minutes I was overcome with a great sadness. Here lay children who had died of malaria and missionaries who had given their lives. All of them in unmarked graves with small piles of quartzite stone arranged as a simple headstone.

What had they achieved? 120 years after they began, the answer was they had built a guest house. The Bergdamara and Hai communities didn’t settle on the land, today it is all commercial farms. In short they gave their lives for seemingly not much at all.

Yet, it wouldn’t have felt like it. I’m sure it was very tough, I know Africa enough to realise that. I can imagine though the sense of pride, thankfulness and achievement that must of accompanied the establishment of the mission buildings and operation. These were true pioneers in almost every sense of the word. Standing there however, I can’t help that they fell for a lie that still shapes so much in mission, aid and in the wider church today.

To put it simply, they believed the modernist notion that infrastructure, buildings, “stuff”, would be the transformative element within the people they wanted to reach. Not quite “build it and they will come”, but not far off.

If they could see their efforts today, a lovely guest farm, I wonder how they would feel?

They are not the only ones.

There are many churches who in an effort to re-invent themselves change the physical structure of their building. Their assumption is that if we make our building more accessible to the community, then they will come and they will be transformed. We end up with a plethora of sports halls and multi function buildings with mainly crèche and child care being provided. We have a few cafes thrown in too. The buildings themselves are not the problem, although they do cost an awful lot of money, it is our view of the mission God has given us. Mission is meant to be with people where they are, not with us where we are. The direction is wholly wrong. That’s quite a costly mistake to make. In terms of people it is wholly disastrous. The church mainly sits and waits for people to come………… and spends a lot of money doing it

I’m not for one minute saying we shouldn’t serve people, a cafe is a good idea, so is helping people with their children, but let’s go and do it in the heart of the community. Let’s spend our cash on that instead. I bet that way we will bring the truth and love of God to far more people.

History is littered with lessons like that in Ghaub. We have cathedrals and church buildings that cost a small fortune to keep. The tourist attraction is a witness people say. I’m yet to meet anyone who had their life changed via a stained glass window. There are other buildings that have become offices, mosques or even simply demolished. In Manchester I even remember an old temperance hall that was now a pub….. What irony!

Mission is the same. There are thousands of buildings built in an effort to transform Africa. Orphanages, child care centres, schools, everything you can think of. I know I’ve done it! I wonder however, if this really transforms anything at all? Is it the same lie that we are falling for. A simple case, transforming people equates to providing buildings. From the African side, there is a thirst for development and buildings satisfy that thirst. They can be status symbols both for the community and more sadly the organisation that built them.

I wonder what we will look back on in 25 years time and see? A litany of neglected buildings (they’ll be ruins here in Africa) and re-appropriated churches? There’s a great rush to build churches in Africa, and yet I don’t see the same rush to transform people, especially in the remote areas.

The lesson for me is to always prioritise people. Instead of believing that physical structure is the key item in transformation, let’s go wild and build real community with real people in the heart of real places. Let’s be sure that we take God with us too. Of course, sometimes a building will help. It is very much a means to an end, but they are not the integral item that we think they are and very often our money would be better spent elsewhere.

Our lives in Christ have the very real power to transform society. When we speak we can speak the words of Jesus to people. When we act, we can bring his love directly to people.

Standing in Otavi I cannot think for one minute why we would want to do anything else. Looking past the graves of those brave pioneers, past the quartz stone piles to the mountains beyond, I yearn for reality and a cutting edge in the mission that I’m involved in. I certainly don’t want people to look back in years to come and wonder what all the fuss was about, or stay in a building that was once my office. I don’t want to spend my life making stuff that simply wears out. I want to build love and eternity in real people.

There is a lesson to be learnt from Otavi. I hope that we are listening.

A Rural Future?

Glenelg is one of the most remote settlements in mainland UK. Around 150 people live there and it’s connected to the outside world by a 9 mile single track road. It’s a very seasonal place for some. During the summer tourists use the ferry to the Isle of Skye.

I have a small bit of history with Glenelg. 17 years ago on my honeymoon, I ended up speaking at a local Christian Fellowship there. Initially the 20 or so people present thought I was the replacement Pastor from Inverness. That certainly caught me on the hop! Two weeks ago I visited the Church again on a damp and very windy Sunday evening. After a game of pool at the local pub, Jude, I and the kids went back to see what it was like.

I recognised one of the guys as soon as I walked in, a lovely guy with a very broad Scottish accent. I could even tell him what his job used to be, and still was actually! When I was last in the church he had just become a Christian, now he was the leader. How times change. It was great, but a comment he made stuck with me very forcefully.

“Not just Africa, we need mission work here”

The fact is he is correct. I’ve been thinking the same for a year or so myself. In his county and the Isle of Skye there is a population of about 100000 people. Perhaps around a few hundred people go to church, which is 1% or lower of the population. That is incredibly low, and definitely a situation that demands a response of reaching out.

When I am in the UK, I have more recently made Snowdonia my home and I stay in my cottage in the hamlet of Cwm Penmachno. Over 100 years ago, it was a hotbed of the welsh revivals, more preachers came from Cwm Penmachno per head of population than anywhere else in Wales. An interesting point is that in welsh a vicar is called a preacher, pregethyr, a hark back to the revivalist days. Here, the situation is similar. At best in Snowdonia there are small handfuls of people who attend Church, there is one such group up the valley from where we are. However, I can drive 25 miles North West and 17 miles East and not really pass a church of any note at all, save for the one Anglican Church in Betws-y-Coed. Again, the population of the National Park is around 90000 people. Again, I would estimate around 1% or lower attend church actively.

It isn’t simply just about people knowing Jesus as well. There are profound issues in rural society, that the church would normally contribute to, and yet it doesn’t simply because there are no people. No people equal no money. No money and well it’s difficult to do anything. This of course doesn’t just affect rural areas, it can also be said of cities. My observation is that there are many churches trying to change this in the cities and towns, there are hardly any in the rural areas. The situation away from the odd mega church or tourist area is immeasurably worse.

There’s an entire generation of people that are either disenfranchised from the Church or is completely ignorant to what it is.

Historically we hold onto the fact that the church has been strong, and yet our current situation demands a different response. We can’t do “church” and Christianity the way we have done over many years, the landscape has changed completely. This landscape demands mission. I think you could justifiably state that some rural areas are “practically” unreached at this point toward the start of the 21st century.

This to me all sounds very familiar. For years I have worked in Southern Africa, within remote rural areas of Zambia and surrounding countries. Logistically the situation is actually more difficult, but there are many parallels and I think strategies and lessons that we can use from one ‘live’ mission situation to another.

Within Zambia I rightly or wrongly decided that the existing church structures often presented more of a hindrance to the gospel. That sounds incredibly rebellious and maybe even a little arrogant, I’m aware of that. They were either too settled and focused inwards or were power games where different church structures vied for dominance within an area. We sidestepped all of that and in a very simple fashion planted Life! groups of people to teach Christ in their community and provide a forum, a way of reaching their community. Everyday Christians from all church backgrounds met together and those that were disenfranchised came. Together they reached people and were extremely relevant in their community. At the last count there were around 200 groups, around 3500 people meeting and touching thousands more.

In some ways we have forged a new way, a new representation of Christianity for everyday people.

Whether it is more authentic and proper, I’ll leave for you to decide. However, I know it works and I could never go back to using the old ways. The future is not dominated by singular church leaders or even denominational churches. We need to learn to see the church in a village in its’ entirety and work on that basis. Sooner or later we won’t have a choice, we will die out if we don’t change. That sounds tough, but we are one generation away from that reality.

I have a very strong belief that through everyday Christians, people like you and me, God will reach our villages and that 1% could become 10% and maybe even more. Once we take that view it has to shape our modes of operation and activities to embrace that truth. This belief is also pretty universal for most rural areas wherever in the world I have been, whether they are completely unreached or simply “partially unreached”. The key is everyone aligning themselves with the plans that God has for the village and enacting them. For me it comes down to this.

We need a fresh vibrant Christianity right at the heart of the village for everyone. For the sake of places like Glenelg, are we willing to embrace it?