Zimbabwe - National Believers Pick Up The Reins

by Phil Barnes

The story of the decline and fall of Zimbabwe is not so much about how dreadful things are there; it is more about how far the country has fallen in such a short time. "You have the jewel of Africa in your hands", said President Samora Machel of Mozambique to Robert Mugabe at independence in 1980. "Now look after it." And for almost 20 years, Zimbabwe was an exception in Africa. Although many of the problems so common to the continent revealed themselves to some extent, there was a level of stability, security, affluence and functionality not seen in most other African nations.


Robert Mugabe was effectively the only post-liberation leader the nation had known, and his leadership had been largely unchallenged. This 'Jewel of Africa' had been a breadbasket, a net exporter of food, tobacco, cotton and minerals. The country had a more developed manufacturing sector than neighbouring countries and medical facilities that made travel to South Africa for treatment unnecessary, not only for Zimbabweans, but also for those in surrounding countries.


By the late 1990s, a series of catastrophic economic and political decisions, including the infamous 'land redistribution programme', began the steep decline that adversely affected every aspect of society and from which the country still has not recovered. Political opposition to Mugabe gained strength and his preoccupation with crushing it resulted in further destruction of the political, social and economic stability. Basic commodities became unavailable, some who had been prosperous lost everything, and the poor, who had always been able to meet their basic needs, were starving. Hospitals had no drugs, shop shelves were empty, fuel was only available through back channels and food items could only be found on the black market. Runaway inflation resulted in the printing of 100 trillion dollar notes (afterthe dropping of nine zeroes) and, eventually, an official inflation rate of 231millionper cent. In 2009, the Zimbabwean economy collapsed entirely and the currency was withdrawn in favour of the US dollar. The effect of this is that goods are now available but expensive, as is labour, relative to many Third World countries. So people in Zimbabwe today are struggling with high unemployment and a relatively high cost of living for a Third-World country. Many manufacturing jobs disappeared as the global economic advantage of cheap labour came to an end.


The political situation is similarly shambolic. Mugabe, now 89, has somehow been able to hold on to power despite losing the last election. He was, however, forced to form a coalition with the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), sharing power with Morgan Tsvangirai who holds the office of Prime Minister. This is not really a functional arrangement and, more ominously, the succession struggle which will ensue within Mugabe's party when his time is up, creates an unease which threatens the order and stability that has been restored over the last couple of years.


Through the Mugabe years the missionary presence in Zimbabwe declined. Most mission workers who were in the country at the time of independence received Permanent Resident status, but it became increasingly difficult for new workers to come. Some were able to enter on temporary employment permits, student visas and by other routes. The resistance to foreign workers has been motivated by an 'anti-West, anti-colonial' determination more than by an anti-Christian sentiment, although at one point Mugabe publicly declared that, "the only problem in Zimbabwe is that there are too many Christians", and, in 2000, openly stated that "whites are enemies of the state".


Mission workers who had served for many years, such as Jack and Margaret King, John and Eleanor Sims (USA), Arthur and Christine Hallett, and Marston (Taffy) and Betty Martin, returned to their sending countries. Deryck Jones is still serving at the Theological College of Zimbabwe in the Bulawayo area, and helping with teaching in assemblies all over the country. Steve and Francine Lilford (Canada) became involved inFarming God's Way, a project now calledFoundation for Farming, in the rural village of Chibuwe, a few hours south of Mutare.


There is no doubt that the difficulties of the past decade have served to force the transition of the 'ownership' of the Lord's work in Zimbabwe from expatriate workers to national believers. In the late 1990s, Stewards Trust Zimbabwe (STZ), the legal entity that held deeds to all assembly properties and the missionary guest house, was made up of expatriate mission workers. As the changing conditions forced their departure, a board of national brothers took over leadership of STZ. The absence of mission workers and the funds that often accompany them, forced, or perhaps allowed, the Zimbabwean believers to accept responsibility, before the Lord, for the work. Some ministries, activities and outreaches were dropped since they were not sustainable under the declining conditions and without mission support. Others were adapted to be sustainable by the national believers. For instance, where five mission workers had taught 3,500 school children the Scriptures every week in six or seven schools in high-density suburbs, national believers were now teaching all the grades in one central school, reaching 900 students in a sustainable way that did not require vehicles and petrol.


Many things have changed throughout this transition as the church has found its own level of ownership and sustainability. Some things have flourished while others have dropped off. And while we in the West often ask "What's the best way to help?", we must always insist on the priority of affirming the two values of ownership and sustainability which have begun to develop through this transition.


In general terms, many - even most - Zimbabweans would admit to be 'Christians' if pressed, but for an African, professing tobelievesomething is not really the issue, as it is in the West. Often the 'belief' has simply been added to all the other beliefs. What is more significant is a willingness torenouncecertain beliefs and practices, especially those associated with African Traditional Religion, which is full of animism and ancestral worship. This willingness is not as forthcoming. To say "Yes" to claims pertaining to spiritual matters is relatively easy - as they say in the vernacular "Who can say 'no' to God?" But renouncing traditional beliefs and practices will result in intense pressure from the whole extended family. The first time tragedy hits anyone connected to the family, it is likely to be blamed on the spirits' displeasure with this believer. This results in syncretism among professing believers. Many believers who will gather for prayer in time of crisis may find themselves, after the prayer meeting, calling on theN'anga (witch doctor)as well.


Historically, the assemblies have received sound teaching in this regard, and today there are strong brothers who are able to teach with conviction against this tendency. It is hoped and believed that today there is a stronger commitment among the assemblies to the Lord and to His Word, than is often found among the plentiful churches that continually spring up all over the country. Many of those churches are founded on a blend of emotion, promised prosperity and African tradition rather than on sound teaching of the Word of God, and are often driven by the power of a charismatic figure rather than by the Spirit of God.


And so the great need in Zimbabwe is for solid leadership from the national believers now charged with the oversight and development of assemblies. The effect of any of them straying from the Lord or from His Word is devastating. Conversely, the impact of solid national believers who will take a strong stand, retain a high view of Scripture, and be willing to abandon any ungodly traditional ways, is much greater than that of an expatriate worker. As this is being written, the sad news has come in of two capable, gifted leaders whom we know, falling into sin and abandoning their families and the church. These are men who were trusted, who taught and held leadership positions. Whatever else we might pray for the believers in Africa, there is nothing more urgent than strong church leaders who will remain faithful to the Lord and to His Word. The pressure on them is great - pressure from unbelievers in the extended family, pressure from syncretistic indigenous church groups, and pressure from the harsh socio-economic and political realities of each day.


Many of the 'negative' things that have taken place during the last ten years in Zimbabwe have had positive effects in the life of the church and individual believers, and the lessons learned in Zimbabwe can have profitable applications. The goal of overseas missions should be to establish an indigenous, self-sustaining, self-propagating, self-governing church, free from foreign supervision. It took the catastrophic decline in Zimbabwe to bring this about. We must find ways to make it happenintentionallywhen times are good.

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