Holding onto the gospel: The challenge of preaching Jesus in South Africa

Grant Retief has been working as a pastor and church planter in Durban, South Africa, for the past 12 years. In this interview, he talks with Paul Grimmond about the enormous social issues in South Africa, and what it means to hang on to the gospel and serve people there.

Paul Grimmond: Tell us what first took you to Durban and the ministries you’ve been involved in there.

Grant Retief: I graduated from theological college at the end of 1996, and then the bishops told me that I would be moved to Durban. That’s how it happened; there wasn’t very much choice involved. I landed in Durban wide-eyed and green and wet behind the ears, and was asked to look after an inner city church, which was full of poverty and problems—problems that you would normally associate with an inner city in the grips of urban decay. I was there for a year, which was a very important year for me—very formative. I was out of my comfort zone, and I learned lots of lessons on a very steep learning curve.

After one year, the bishops moved me again to a more normal church, if I can put it like that. It was quite a large suburban church, and I spent four years there as the youth worker. At the end of those four years, I took 25 young adults from there and we planted Christ Church Glenwood in a school hall across the road from one of our big university campuses.

At the beginning of this year, I moved to another church in the northern part of Durban in a suburb called Umhlanga. It’s a new suburb that is becoming the new town centre of Durban as the big corporates move out of the inner city, which is still in urban decay.

PG: You’ve told me that this picture of the fresh new city next door to the old, decaying city is a metaphor for life in South Africa. What’s life actually like in Durban?

GR: The impression that the West has of South Africa is largely right. Take, for example, unemployment: the official unemployment rate is 25 per cent. Unofficially, I think it’s closer to 40 per cent. That leads to all kinds of social problems. The HIV/AIDS rate is 40 per cent and climbing. Five million South Africans have HIV/AIDS, and will die from AIDS or AIDS-related disease. We are the rape capital of the world. Statistically, we’re the child rape capital of the world. And I read in a newspaper article that, last year, there were more murders in South Africa than there were people killed in Iraq. That’s fairly horrifying.

It’s worth saying, however, that most of the crime is geographically limited. A lot of it happens in the townships. Most South Africans live in townships, which are working class areas. Sometimes there is formal housing (though that would be very, very basic), but a lot of times, there would just be informal housing—slums and shanty towns that go up in among the formal housing. The unemployment rate in some of those areas would be as high as 80 per cent.

So South Africa is a place of two worlds. We’ve got, on the one hand, an emerging middle class (which is, for your interest, 50 per cent black) who live First World lives with access to First World medical care, entertainment and shopping malls, and there would be no discernible difference between the middle class of South Africa and much of Sydney or Australia. But then on the other hand, you’ve got this massive group of people who are working class and unemployed, who live in Third World conditions and have Third World healthcare, with all the problems that go with that—unemployment, low life expectancy, violence, crime, and so on.

PG: For someone hearing that from outside, it sounds staggering and over­whelm­ing. For you on the ground, it means wrestling with how to confront these social problems while, at the same time, giving people the gospel. Has it led to a split? Are there two churches in South Africa?

GR: I think it has led to a split, and that also has historical and systemic reasons. The apartheid government was the most successful social engineering experiment in the history of the world—with the exception, perhaps, of Nazi Germany. What the apartheid government managed to do very successfully was to separate the races in South Africa. I’m 39; I was born in 1970. When I was in high school, we had whites-only schools. That’s 20 years ago. So growing up as a teenager in apartheid South Africa, I didn’t have any black friends, and I didn’t know any black people other than those who worked for us as maids and gardeners. There was almost complete geographical and social separation. In the 16 or so years of democracy that we’ve had now, that hasn’t been undone. We haven’t had enough time to undo it—although it is much more mixed now than ever before in the schools and in different neighbourhoods.

As a result of the history and the apartheid system, there are two separate churches in South Africa. It’s not as easy as you think to integrate because it’s not only a difference of race, it’s also a difference in language and class. So integration in the churches in South Africa is a much more complex issue than it would be, for example, in Sydney. I know Sydney is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, but everybody speaks English, everybody’s literate and everybody is basically at a similar level economically, generally speaking. In South Africa, that’s not true: you’ve got illiterate people and literate people; you’ve got Zulu speakers and English speakers; you’ve got black and white—the issue has so many dimensions and it’s very, very complex.

It’s not an easy thing to have a mixed church. Although we all believe in Ephesians 2, although we all want mixed churches and although we believe in all the nations coming together, it’s a much more complicated question than just bringing people to church who are different to you.

PG: So, Grant, it’s a difficult place, with different cultures and different languages. Are they the only obstacles you face? What are the obstacles to the gospel going forward in a nation like South Africa?

GR: I would list three main ones. I’m sure there are lots of obstacles, and a lot of them we would share with you. But I think there are probably three unique obstacles to the gospel—maybe four in this country. One is that people want to leave: there’s a massive outflow of people from this country, so it’s difficult to keep good Christian people.

But I think much bigger than that is the problem of the prosperity gospel. Guys like Benny Hinn (who would be fairly fringe, I would have thought, in your circles in Australia) are mainline Christianity here in South Africa. We have satellite television in South Africa that beams in Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) from the US, which is all prosperity—Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, and so on. That would be mainstream Christianity for most people in this country. So the prosperity gospel has ravaged the church. It’s a false gospel, and it really has developed an almost parallel Christianity in South Africa. 80 per cent of South Africans claim to be Christian and, remarkably, most of them would actually be in church on a Sunday morn­ing. But what they would be hearing is prosperity, and they would not be called upon to repent. They’d be given expectations of getting rich and getting healthy—expectations that have ravaged the church. The prosperity gospel is Enemy Number 1, in many ways.

Second to this enemy is African traditional religion (ATR). ATR is a great wickedness for it is a demonic religion, and it involves the worship of demons under the guise of venerating the ancestors. It’s full of witchcraft and darkness, and it’s a terrible obstacle to the gospel. Amazingly, the people who dabble in ATR are the same people you’d find in church on a Sunday morning. What the prosperity gospel has done is it’s enabled people to be syncretic in their views: because the prosperity gospel is in itself pagan, it doesn’t call upon anybody to repent of paganism in the area of money and materialism, and therefore it doesn’t demand repentance in the area of ATR either. And so you’ve got this strange mixture of people in our country who would purport to be Christian and who would say the Bible is God’s word and view it as authoritative, but who would still visit the witchdoctor and venerate the ancestors.

I’ve worked out what the prosperity gospel and ATR have in common: it’s their particular view of the Holy Spirit. The way the ancestors guide you in ATR is through good and bad omens; ATR is essentially an omenistic religion. In the prosperity gospel, the way the Holy Spirit guides you is through good and bad omens as well. And so, when an African traditional religionist becomes a prosperity Christian, he or she simply replaces the ancestors with the Holy Spirit in his or her thinking about guidance. They don’t actually repent of their paganism; they just call the ancestors the Holy Spirit now, and guidance operates in exactly the same way. The prosperity gospel fits hand in glove with ATR: both are pagan, and they don’t actually contradict each other.

The third overwhelming obstacle to the gospel might surprise you when I say it: it is the overwhelming social need. It’s such a huge problem, and it is so in-your-face if you live here, that it can cause well-meaning evangelicals to go down the road of the social gospel, as opposed to sticking with the teaching that Jesus Christ is Lord. I’ve seen well-meaning evangelical people who have just shifted slightly in response to the extraordinary need in this country. My fear is the trajectory of that shift and its impact on the second generation. So while we have to respond to the social needs of this country because we’re Bible believers and because Jesus calls on us to put our arms around the poor, the needs are so huge, they can distract you.

I don’t mean to sound trite or glib here, but I’ve got to keep remembering that the primary AIDS ministry in this country is not orphanages and hospices, as good as those things are; the primary AIDS ministry is the preaching of the lordship of Christ, because AIDS is the first plague in the history of mankind that can be stopped with a change of behaviour. But the only time you will change your sexual behaviour is when Jesus is the lord of your sexuality. So I’ve got to keep remembering that while this doesn’t mean I will steer clear of secondary AIDS ministry (hospices and orphanages), primary AIDS ministry is gospel preaching and church planting. And keeping that balance and maintaining that focus, while at the same time respond­ing to people suffering from AIDS and HIV and poverty, is a difficult tightrope to walk.

PG: So what’s the future for the gospel in South Africa? What’s the future for the church in South Africa?

GR: Well, I can only answer you from with­in my own circles and from my own perspective. But it’s my opinion that South Africans are an unreached people group, even though 80 per cent would tick that they are Christians on the census forms. The evangelical gospel is very small and weak in our country. But there are little glimmers of hope here and there.

I think George Whitefield College is probably the best thing that evangelical Christianity has got going for it in this country—if not this continent—at the moment. It’s a young college, and it’s got none of the infrastructure and development of many First World colleges and seminaries. But it’s a very, very good thing, and it’s increasingly being recognized as the best thing we have to offer. The recognition is coming not just from within my denomination, but interdenominationally; there are lots of non-Church of England in South Africa students at the college. So I think the college is a critical part of the whole strategy to bring the evangelical gospel to this nation.

There are other groups and organizations that are doing good things. There’s a college in Johannesburg called the Johannesburg Bible College, run by Nat Schluter. It’s also very new, but very, very good, and we’re thrilled about its existence. It will also make an impact—especially in time to come.

In Durban, I’m involved with an organization called Entrust. We’ve taken the word ‘entrust’ out of 2 Timothy 2:2, where Paul instructs Timothy to “entrust [the gospel] to faithful men who will be able to teach others also”. Entrust is kind of a combination of MTS and the Cornhill Training Course in London, which teaches people Bible-handling skills. Entrust has a four-pronged strategy for reaching Durban for the gospel. The first prong is recruitment. (I might add, by the way, that we’ve unasham­edly nicked this from Sydney; we couldn’t think of anything better!) Recruitment is really why we’ve planted university churches—obviously to evangelize the universities, but also to challenge students to divert their careers into ministry.

PG: Can I just stop you there for a moment. Aren’t the university campuses still the domain of wealthy, white middle class South Africa? Who are you actually recruiting into ministry in a context like that?

GR: On the contrary: one of the significant changes that has happened in democratic South Africa is that the universities have opened up. Bursaries have been provided. The South African government is committed to tertiary education and to getting as many disadvantaged people onto the university campuses as possible. In fact, the two university churches we’ve planted on two different campuses are almost exclusively black. Interestingly, they’re not exclusively South African Africans; there are a lot of non-South African Africans in those churches as well. So they’re not churches that we would run, for example, in Zulu, because that would alienate the 50 per cent of the people who are coming to the churches who don’t speak Zulu, even though they’re African. There’s a small proportion of white people in those churches, but they’re predominantly African. So the recruitment is happening among Africans. It’s early days, and we’ve still got a very long way to go, but we’ve made a start, and that’s been encouraging.

The second prong is apprenticeship: we encourage students after university to consider giving up two years of their lives to train for future ministry. The third prong would be theological training at George Whitefield College in Cape Town, and the fourth prong would then be multiplication—bringing them back and planting churches with them. We haven’t yet achieved the fourth prong, but we’re aiming in that direction, and hope to achieve it quite soon. (You can find out more about Entrust at http://www.entrust.org.za/).

PG: This model—recruiting, apprenticeship and then sending them off for theological training and bringing them back to plant churches—is that the model, not just for Durban, but for the rest of South Africa?

GR: You know, I think that Mark Driscoll would probably have a problem with it because it’s long: it takes a long time to go from A to B. So if you’re doing a two-year apprenticeship, three years at theological college, a year on somebody’s staff team, and only then you plant, it’s six or seven years before you’ve multiplied. So there would be criticisms of it—perhaps valid criticisms of it—because it does take a long time. But I think this way, you wouldn’t be compromising on quality.

I don’t think we’ve been doing it for long enough to work out whether or not it’s the model that should be happening right across the board. We’ve only started in the last five or six years. But I think it’s a very good model from a qualitative point of view, and we’ve seen great results. In the region of Durban, we’ve got six or eight churches that have bought into this four-pronged strategy, and between them, we’ve got about 35 apprentices who are working in the churches. And that’s thrilling. 50 per cent of that is African, 50 per cent is western, and the African ratio is growing every year. We’re getting more Africans who are going to be part of this. So we’re encouraged about that!

But it does take time. And when people are dying (we’ve got five million people who are dying and going to hell because they’re dying without having heard the evangelical gospel), there’s an urgency to preach the gospel that does make me wonder about whether or not we’re taking too long to get into church planting. But I’m not sure how else to do it so you keep the quality. So the jury’s out.

PG: How can we be praying for you guys in South Africa? What are the key things for us to be praying about?

GR: We would be very grateful if you prayed that God would continue to strengthen that which is evangelical in this country—George Whitefield College, Johannesburg Bible College, Entrust, and there are some very strong and good evangelical churches around the country who need to be prayed for and encouraged to keep going. Pray that God would keep us evangelical, and that we wouldn’t be distracted by South Africa’s secular needs, but that we’d keep working out how to be gospel people in the midst of a country in great need.

Praying for the Entrust strategy would be great—that God would particularly bring across our paths black South African men who are prepared to divert their careers. You know, when they come onto the university campuses, one of the differences between African students and yours would be yours are still dependent on their parents, whereas with ours, their parents are dependent on them. Often if there are four or five children in a family, the parents will pick the brightest kid and send everybody else off to work to put that kid through university so that the qualified kid can now make a better life for the family. So to divert careers into ministry—at great cost to your parents and to your family, with huge expectations on your shoulders—is quite difficult. Pray that we would have success in getting young, black South African men to think about how to do this in a way that doesn’t dishonour their families.

And then church planting: pray that we would be able to find the means and resources to go planting in the townships and rural areas. We’re grappling with the question of how you do church planting in the midst of abject poverty, where it’s difficult to get support from the people you’re ministering to. We need lots of wisdom. We don’t have all the answers. Instead, we’re struggling to find the best and most efficient way of doing it.

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