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September 23, 2008

Southern Africa: To Faith From Fear

A hundred year old link to a church in Zion, Illinois, provides a gateway for the Gospel to more than twelve million Africans.

  • Ready to Listen

    Even though Swaziland has the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the world, it is still difficult to get the younger generation to listen and change. Up against that challenge, God has opened the doors to millions of amaZioni believers who are hungry to learn and ready to listen to biblical teaching.

  • Worship Together

    Tension between Mozambicans and Swazis often keep the two separated, but through the invitation of this Swazi church, the two were brought together. As the Mozambique amaZioni join the Swazi amaZioni in Mbabne, they remove their shoes to enter the sanctuary.

  • Zionists

    Being able to say "we are Zionists just like you" has gained the Brittens significant inroads to the amaZioni. Each time they visit an amaZioni service they dress in the appropriate attire, Bruce carries a staff, and they both attend the service barefoot.

  • Ingredients

    Mamba (right) and Simelane (left), both employees of Dups Pharmacy in Mbabne, Swaziland, happily explain the proper use for these potion ingredients. Out of fear of pleasing the ancestors and fighting off bad luck, these items are frequently used by the people of southern Africa in their religious practice.

In South Africa, Alpheous Mpungose, called by his praise name “Kubah,” rejected the expectations of his family and his church. Kubah’s parents were “prophets” in a Zionist church who practiced traditional African customs commonly referred to as witchcraft, such as appeasing dead ancestors and making healing potions.

As the oldest son, Kubah was the heir of their knowledge and power. He rejected their expectations but never rejected them. Before her death, Kubah’s mother became a believer, and he stayed in the church convicted by God that the best way to reach his community with biblical truth was to be an influence from within.

In Swaziland,  TEAM missionaries Bruce and Carol Britten find themselves the unlikely guests of amaZioni (people of Zion) churches. As foreigners outside the deeply held African traditions, and as missionaries with an evangelical mission agency, the Brittens might expect a cool reception in the indigenous and unorthodox amaZioni churches. In fact, that was the case until they joined Zion Evangelical Ministries of Africa (ZEMA) as workers on loan from TEAM. Now they are invited speakers at amaZioni churches, and teaching amaZioni pastors in packed-out classes at Zion Bible College.

In Mozambique, Zionist and other fast growing indigenous churches are struggling with false doctrines and a lack of leadership with a biblical foundation. ZEMA, along with partnering evangelical churches in Mozambique, the southern African region, and around the world are cooperating to build strong and biblically founded congregations. All across southern and central Africa, many people in the amaZioni movement (estimated at 12-15 million members) are seeing the light of biblical truth and moving from lives controlled by fear to lives liberated by faith.

That kind of hunger for the truth is evident in a story Bruce Britten recounts as we drive to the Zion Bible College class being held at Nhlangano Farmer Training Center.  As we travel on a mild winter day in May (Swaziland in the Southern Hemisphere is the opposite season of my home back in Illinois), the car is completely packed. Bruce has removed the back seat to make room for more luggage, and he sits on a makeshift cushion reviewing his speaking notes for the one and a half hour ride. Bruce shares with me that just three years earlier on their way to the very first class of Zion Bible College, he had looked over at Carol and said, “If we have five students today it will be great. If we have two or three, they still need Bible training and it will be worth teaching them. If we have eight, it will be a complete miracle.” On that first day, God made a different calculation. Thirty-nine students showed up! What a miracle!

And from there it has continued to grow. Now students meet at three sites for classes: Mbabane, Nhlangano and Manzini. In 2004 the enrollment at the class in Mbabane was 45. After the two other sites were added in 2005 the enrollment jumped to 142. Now the enrollment for this year is over 200. “This is definitely God’s timing,” says Bruce. “Most amaZioni pastors used to have little interest in the Bible. Now they love it, especially the books of Romans and Genesis.”

How did millions of people across Sub-Saharan Africa become part of a massive spiritual movement known as the amaZioni? How did this movement, once closely related to a Christian church in Zion, Illinois, stray so far from biblical truth? The story of their history is as improbable and amazing as the miracle of transformation being experienced in Zionist churches today.

John Alexander Dowie, born in the United Kingdom in 1847 and raised in Australia, migrated to the United States in 1888. His early years in the US were spent as an itinerate evangelist on the West Coast. In 1890, Dowie moved to the Chicago area. When the World’s Fair began in 1893, he set up a building at the entrance of the fair for people to come in and receive prayer for healing, and he also opened Zion Tabernacle in Chicago. Dowie’s outright denunciations of the newspaper, alcohol and tobacco industries, mainline “apostate” churches, the medical and pharmaceutical professions, Masons, and a host of other things brought harassment from the city of Chicago and its residents. Dowie was arrested over 50 times for various violations such as operating hospitals without a license. Because of this harassment he announced his plans in 1899 to build a city that would be free from the evil of the world. In preparation for this city he bought more than 6000 acres of land between Chicago and Milwaukee, and in 1901 people started moving to the city of Zion, Illinois.

During his time in the United States Dowie edited a weekly paper called Leaves of Healing and saw to it that his paper received international distribution. Through the paper Dowie gave written accounts of God’s healing in people’s lives, appeals for membership, and written copies of his sermons. The paper achieved worldwide exposure and adherents started appearing in parts of Europe, Jamaica, the Philippines, Guyana, and southern Africa. A member of the Congregational Union of South Africa, J. Buchler, appealed to become an ordained minister in Dowie’s church, by that time known as the Christian Catholic Church. Dowie, together with Buchler and another man named Pieter LeRoux, a member of the Dutch Reformed Church in southern Africa, formed the Zionist organization of South Africa. Needing missionaries to help with the work, the church in Zion, Illinois sent Daniel and Emma Bryant (an elder in the church) in 1903 to work with Buchler and LeRoux in spreading the Gospel. The Bryants arrived in 1904. Over the next two years more than 5,000 people joined the Zionist movement in southern Africa. While these first members were mostly white South Africans, the Zionist movement expanded quickly into communities of black South Africans as well.

Due to financial problems in the church in Zion, Illinois, the missionaries in southern Africa were called home. Daniel Bryant asked Edgar Mahon to watch over the Zion work, which he did for a time, but later  started the Mahon Mission (a Bible-believing movement of about 140 churches today). Daniel Bryant returned to South Africa for one year in 1907. In 1909 he started Grace Missionary Church in Zion, Illinois which sent missionaries to work with Mahon in the early years, but after that and until around 1980, the African Zionists were overlooked by the Bible-believing community.

In 1996, the Christian Catholic Church in Zion, Illinois became Christ Community Church (CCC). Through recent years CCC has held to solid biblical teaching and to their purpose “to make known and promote the worship of God in obedience to the Great Commission and the Great Commandments.”

When CCC in Zion, Illinois realized that a large following of people in southern Africa traced their spiritual heritage back to Dowie’s movement, they sensed a responsibility and an opportunity to teach the Bible to this group, bringing them back to biblical faith.

During the time that no missionaries were working with the Zionists in southern Africa, the belief system of the church changed drastically. AmaZioni believers rarely accept salvation solely in Jesus Christ. They look to prophets that emerged from within the church and to traditional African religion and other practices that the Bible condemns. Yet within their beliefs are trappings of Christianity, seeds that were planted by the missionaries in the early 1900’s.

The exact number of amaZioni is unknown. In South Africa the number is about 8 million, and throughout southern Africa ZEMA estimates there are between 12-15 million. Researchers at the University of Zululand and Professor G.C. Oosthuizen, a well known researcher in African independent church movements, estimate that within the amaZioni movement 4,000 different denominations exist. Each of these denominations is directed by a spiritual leader or prophet who guides their followers. The amaZioni leadership hierarchy typically follows the model of tribal Africa. Lineage plays a large part in the appointment of leadership, yet if a strong leader or prophet emerges and people follow, they may start a new denomination.

God has already prepared the hearts of the amaZioni to receive biblical truth, and because of this tremendous opportunity for the teaching of the Bible, the churches in Zion, Illinois formed Zion Evangelical Ministries of Africa (ZEMA). ZEMA traces its roots back to Edgar Mahon (Mahon Mission) and 1907 when Daniel and Emma Bryant returned back to the United States. ZEMA relies on partnership with like-minded organizations that can provide trained personnel and resources to meet the exploding needs of the mission. One of those partnerships is with TEAM, the mission agency of Bruce and Carol Britten. ZEMA’s current director, Mike McDowell was also a missionary with TEAM in Papua and the Philippines. ZEMA also partners with the Baptist Union in southern Africa, SIM, and World Relief. Thirty-nine missionaries are connected in various ways to ZEMA. Some of these are self-supported South Africans that have retired and now teach in the Bible schools, and others are from Europe and the United States.

To provide the Bible training that the amaZioni greatly desire, Zion Evangelical Bible School (ZEBS) started. The curriculum takes a Zion pastor about four to five years to complete and walks through the entire Scriptures, issues of theology, and church development and ministry.  Rather than stand up and proclaim amaZioni believers heretics, Mike McDowell compassionately conveys the idea of meeting Zionists where they are and leading them with truth, not condemnation. “We have the unique distinction of saying, ‘we actually are Zionists just like you,’ and that makes a connection that southern Africans resonate with.”  Many of the pastors that come to the classes are not believers when they start the program, so in every class there are people who trust Christ.  Many Zionist pastors view recent missionaries’ outreaches to Zionists as an attempt to steal sheep from their flocks in order to create a church for themselves. Crossing the bridge of ZEMA that connects to their Zionist heritage and leaving new believers in the Zion churches to preach the gospel and teach the Bible dispels that animosity.

There are now 27 ZEBS sites throughout southern Africa with over 900 students. In addition to ZEBS, another ministry tool that is used by missionaries ministering to the amaZioni is a course that explains the history of Zion and Dowie called, “This We Believe.” This is a chance to talk about Dowie’s large vision and to emphasize the teachings of “Zion”. When people ask, “what are the teachings of Zion?”  They are told that the teachings of Zion are the teachings of the Bible.

Most of the amaZioni denominations relate back to Dowie and Zion, Illinois, although to many,  Zion is simply a fabled place that may or may not actually exist. Yet when ZEMA missionaries show up wearing the Zion city seal on their jacket, there is an immediate recognition and connection between the amaZioni and the missionary.

This happened in Mozambique. A missionary with ZEMA, traveling between the four areas where he holds ZEBS classes, stopped between the major towns of Beira and Tete. When he entered the village the elders recognized the city seal and took him to the center of the village where they too had the identical seal engraved in a stone. He had never been there before, and they asked him what he was doing in Mozambique. He told them that he was there to teach the Bible. The villagers were so excited because they said they had been praying for years for somebody to come and teach them the Bible. They even asked him to call his wife and have her come so he could stay longer. He replied that he couldn’t do it because he was on his way to another city where he had already arranged some Bible classes, but encouraged them to continue praying for God to send them a missionary who could teach them the Bible. They responded, “We have been praying for generations for God to send us a missionary and we are tired of praying. It’s time for you to do something.” That was a huge conviction to the missionary. Pray for God to send a missionary to that small village in Mozambique that is predominantly Zionist and is desperate to have the Bible taught to them.

This is one example of the many denominations of the amaZioni that are pleading for someone to come and teach them the Bible. Mike McDowell emphasizes that the vision of ZEMA is to provide for all of these denominations: “As many amaZioni denominations that want to hear the Bible…I’d like to put someone there that can teach them. The ultimate goal is to put someone who can teach the Bible into all of the Zion denominations that want one. There are about 4000 Zion denominations, so we need about 4000 people.”

Bruce and Carol Britten wanted to be a part of this but had a difficult time gaining an inroad with the amaZioni. When they came under the umbrella of ZEMA, the Brittens found that their ministry was quickly accepted by the amaZioni in Swaziland. The Brittens received their commission from the Community Christian Church in Zion, Illinois, along with a letter stating their appointment from Zion. Now they can say that they too are Zionists and are not there to damage congregations or steal members.

Just like they do each Saturday of ZBC classes (ZEBS is known as Zion Bible College in Swaziland), each of the 75 students arrives to be registered by Carol. Turning in their homework notebooks, they pay 10 emalangeni (approximately $1.50) and proceed to their seat in the classroom. By the time the class is scheduled to start, the room is full, and one of the students starts to sing. Rich, four-part harmony echoes through the concrete block building and out into the courtyard where some students are still registering. This beautiful singing is a large part of the culture, and often while they wait for a meeting to begin, someone will start to sing; everyone else joins in.

The lectures given by Dr. Xaba, Pastor Sangweni, and Bruce Britten, address issues such as leadership, exegesis, and the battle between our natural desires and the Holy Spirit. But before the theological issues become the main subject, Bruce deals with an issue that consumes the minds of every Swazi. On each of the four walls of the room posters announce the dangers of HIV/AIDS. Swaziland has the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence among adults aged 15-49 in the whole world (33.4% according to statistics released by UNICEF). Each weekend funerals fill up the schedules of the Swazis, and it seems that no one can go one weekend without someone they know dying from this disease. So, in the midst of these four walls filled with posters, Bruce takes an opportunity to address the issues of abstinence and faithfulness within marriage.

While some might see the topic as a “once-in-awhile” issue, Bruce takes every opportunity to address HIV.  Today he uses the stories in 2 Samuel to encourage sex in marriage only.

Establishing strong relationships with amaZioni pastors remains a goal of the Brittens. These relationships open up opportunities for Bruce and Carol to worship with a number of amaZioni congregations on Sundays.

In the Britten’s home office a number of robes hang, and depending on which denomination of the amaZioni they visit, they wear a specific robe. This particular Sunday it was the white robe with blue trim for Bruce and a blue outfit and hat for Carol. We visit a church in the New Blessings of Salvation denomination that Pastor Paulos Mbuyisa oversees. He serves as the archbishop for the denomination, serving 50 pastors of the New Blessings of Salvation branch of the amaZioni.

There is a special connection between this church and a Swaziland branch of the Mozambique amaZioni church, and today these two churches worship together. The one church has found its way to biblical faith, and the other is beginning the journey. After many songs and testimonies, Bruce gives a simple salvation message much like that of Billy Graham. Then Pastor Mbuyisa gets up and restates that same message of salvation and how important it is that we focus on the Bible and live by its teachings.

Because of fear, the amaZioni rely heavily on traditional African religious practices. Always present is the question whether or not the ancestors are pleased with them, so fear dominates much of their mindset. Focusing on pleasing the ancestors with their present actions, they also seek the counsel of the ancestors for future decisions. Fear is so strong in Africans’ minds that it is difficult for them to leave behind witchcraft 100%. If prayers work, fine. If not, it is off to the witchdoctor for muti (siSwati for “medicine”).

To make sure that daily life goes as smoothly as possible and that hard situations are solved as easily as possible, some within the amaZioni will turn to various potions and witchdoctor remedies. While walking in Manzini, Bruce and I come across a store selling such things. When we enter there is a large selection of items sorted into a number of shelves and bins. Roots and bark, a baboon skull, the body of a bird, and other forms of muti are available for purchase. The two attendants, Mamba and Simelane, begin to tell us about the various uses of these items. Should you have a group of people that do nothing but quarrel, you need to purchase a bird. These birds are known to fly together because they love each other deeply. Therefore a potion with this bird will stop the group from quarreling and bring them together in love. If it is time for exams, it is common for people to come into the store and purchase the baboon skull. Baboons never forget, so this potion would help a student remember what they have been taught. Should you feel sick or experience a lot of vomiting, Simelane tells us you can take a piece of an ostrich egg and burn it into ash. Then you can take the ash and add it to water, and that will cure the vomiting.

Pastor Alpheous “Kubah” Mpungose tells a similar story. Kubah is a graduate of the ZEBS program and now teaches classes himself while also pastoring a Zionist Church in South Africa. He relates that after his graduation and his return to the church, the leaders did not accept the Bible message that he was bringing. They would still rely on healing from the potions of the witchdoctors and prophets of the church.

Iswasho, a water and ash mixture, is thought to cure your illnesses and stop vomiting by cleansing you of the bad luck inside your body. Sometimes people will take a bath in this mixture to also cleanse the bad luck from the outside of the body. This fear of bad luck is what drives the amaZioni to turn to a witchdoctor or prophet to tell them what they need to do to steer clear of bad luck. Sometimes it might be a potion, other times it might be carrying a certain type of cloth around with them, or it might even require them to put a big cross on the back of their robes.

Kubah, in telling his story, states that moving from the fear of this bad luck to faith in the power of Jesus Christ brings a lot of challenges. “First,” he says, “your family will usually reject your new beliefs and your attempts to bring biblical teachings.” When Kubah came to faith in Jesus he chose to attend ZEBS, but his return to his church brought opposition. It is normal for an amaZioni believer, who has turned to follow Jesus and the teaching of the Bible, to bring their family together to make a declaration that they will no long practice the pieces of African traditional religion that fill the amaZioni church. If they do not do this, the family constantly tries to pull them back into those practices and sacrifices.

Kubah does not focus on the negative aspects of the amaZioni faith or the things the leaders should not be doing. He continues to be respectful of the elders in the church and yet undeterred in his efforts to teach the Bible. It is important to not tell them what they are doing wrong, but to lift up biblical truth, and let the Bible convict them of destructive practices. Today Kubah’s church is a Bible-believing amaZioni church where many of its members have experienced salvation in Jesus Christ alone, keeping their focus squarely on the teachings of the Bible.

The impact that this Bible teaching is having on the amaZioni church is unquestionable. One pastor told a ZEMA missionary that before he received this Bible training he was pastoring a congregation of people, but it was as if he was driving a bus and did not know where he was going. Now that he has received training and has come to faith in Jesus Christ, he knows where to lead his church and knows the truth that he must preach.

The approach of the ZEMA missionaries is slightly different than other missionaries who often expect the amaZioni to reject the amaZioni church once they have accepted biblical truth and salvation. ZEMA missionaries, through ZEBS, are reaching pastors inside the amaZioni church because of the bridge that they have through the Zion, Illinois churches. This allows the pastors to take the truth of the Bible back to their congregations and see God work transformation from the inside out as the amaZioni hear and receive the truth of the Bible and salvation through Christ.

This method relies on building trusting relationships with the amaZioni pastors. While they have seen missionaries come to southern Africa and take believers out of their congregations, the ministry of ZEBS and ZEMA missionaries encourage the amaZioni believers to go back to their churches and villages and tell others about the truth of the Bible and the salvation that Jesus Christ brings. Pastors do not feel threatened that the training of ZEBS is going to cause their church to disassemble or die. They see that these training opportunities are healthy for their people and even for themselves.

While in a ZEBS class one student asked Greg Seghers, a ZEMA missionary in South Africa, “As a white missionary you come and tell us what we have to leave in our culture to become a Christian. What did you have to leave in your culture?” This question caused Greg to really search his heart and evaluate his relationship with Christ.

The path of the amaZioni believer and the Western believer actually run parallel in that we both have certain fears that we must turn away from to wholly trust Jesus Christ. In a society focused on career path and the importance of financial security, sometimes we find ourselves bound by a fear of not having enough. There are other fears that we blindly allow to keep a hold on our lives so that we do not turn to complete faith in Christ. It is a journey that every believer has to make, a journey in turning from fear to a whole, uncompromised faith and dependency on Jesus Christ.

Even though many Westerners would claim that they have moved from a life of fear to a life of faith, there are still areas that we have not totally given up to Christ.  Sometimes we are blind to the evil or the chaff that has blown into our Christian walk, and while we may point out to someone else their reliance on fear rather than faith, we must still keep an inventory of where we stand. Do we rely on fear more than faith? Does God need to free us from something in our own culture so that he can move us to a more pure faith in him?

-Written by Robert Johnson
-Photography by Robert Johnson

[Originally published in TEAMHorizons September 2008]

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