A Visit Of Contrasts

For the first time ever, we’re undertaking a Moderators’ Blog Swap with the Moderators of the URC General Assembly. Read on to hear about John’s incredible recent trip to various countries in Africa!

Preaching in St Matthew’s Church in Lusaka, Zambia, was memorable; the contrasts with the average URC gave pause for thought. It was assumed any one of the Elders would be willing to take whatever part in the service the Church Secretary allocated to them when they arrived. About half the congregation arrived late but eventually we were 300. The music moved effortlessly between traditional hymns, exported from Europe and translated into the local language, and songs with an African beat. Four choirs contributed to the worship and every one had learnt their contribution by heart: there was the men’s choir, the ladies’ choir, the church choir and the youth choir. Nearly everyone brought their own Bible and studied the Scripture readings. The only requirement of the preacher was to preach for a minimum of half an hour! The congregation was as silent and attentive during the sermon as they were exuberant during the singing. Oh, and the service lasted three hours.

The outside of St Matthews United Church of Zambia
The building of St Matthews United Church of Zambia

Afterwards the stewards directed the congregation to leave one pew at a time so that absolutely everyone shook hands with the preacher at the back of the church. As wave after wave of the congregation came up to me, what struck me most forcibly was the age distribution. The elderly were a small minority. When a country has an average life expectancy of only 40, perhaps that is not surprising. From almost every pew came teenagers and young adults, scores of them. I am still waiting to visit a URC that looks like that.

In many churches I visited in South Africa and Zambia, one reason for the age profile is the work of the Boys’ Brigade. At St Matthew’s, Sunday was the day almost all the church activities happened and the BB was meeting in the afternoon. I met Bridget who is one of their Warrant Officers and in a uniform instantly recognisable. On Easter Day I was in a small, poor church in a very deprived area of Johannesburg. Nobody there had any money but the church building was immaculate as the BB had given up their Saturday to scrub it.

The Boys' Brigade Marching Band in action
The Boys’ Brigade Marching Band in action

One day, I travelled for hours alongside the River Zambesi, a route used by the pioneer missionary David Livingstone – although he did not have four wheel drive. My destination was to represent the URC at the reopening of a Mission Hospital at Mwandi. Much of the energy between the lengthy speeches was provided by the local BB marching band who managed to use the same instruments as a band in Britain would have and still sound Zambian. They returned home in the back of an open lorry (Zambians not being too fussed about Risk Assessments) still playing their instruments with vigour!

The centre of gravity of world Christianity is now in many respects in Africa. Given the energy and commitment of the younger disciples there, it is in no danger of fading away.

John Ellis is one of the two current Moderators of the United Reformed Church General Assembly and writes regularly over at assemblymoderators.urc.org.uk.

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