When one loves to read, write, or ponder, the nature of the church, it can be tempting to remain rooted in one’s own cultural or denominational context. This would be a mistake. The church is not simply the church as it exists in Canada. Thus, ever since I found my affinity ecclesiological works, I have attempted to hear voices form outside my own context. Conrad Mbewe’s God’s Design for the Church was the latest text I took up in this way. I received a complimentary copy through Crossway’s blog review program, and it is as part of this program that I offer this review.
The story behind Mbewe’s book is one of the things that first captivated me. Mbewe is unashamedly writing about, and for, the African context. He describes how the church in Africa has exploded exponentially, with new church congregations popping up on a weekly basis. While not criticizing this, nor denying that the western church can learn a lot from the African context, Mbewe breaths a word of caution. Such church pop-ups are not always rooted in biblical reality. Thus, Mbewe tackles various situations and ideas, that for a western Christian may appear nonsensical, even humorous at times, yet are real threats to the church in Africa. As he writes “I recognize the need for the application of Christian truth to vices that are peculiarly African” (16).
What I valued most in this work is the anecdotes about the African church that flow throughout the work. I found this valuable precisely because it pushed me beyond my own context. For example, Mbewe speaks of the tendency to make the preacher of the Gospel simply another form of “witch doctor” or “tribal chief.” The danger in this, as Mbewe explains, is that the congregation blindly bestows authority and power upon the church leader. Unfortunately, many of the leaders of the new churches in Africa, Mbewe explains, have no biblical or theological training. For example, Mbewe speaks of one church leader who told his congregation to eat grass to draw close to God (45). In telling such stories and anecdotes, Mbewe masterfully speaks to the pertinent theological or biblical point. Thus, while learning about the uniqueness of the African church, Mbewe also provides a great education on the biblical and theological roots for any ecclesiology.
In this way, I found that Mbewe’s book spoke prophetically to the western church. Consider some of the issues common in the African context: “Church leaders sometimes want to use the power of their numbers to sway political elections” (43); Worship songs are “about some vague “blessing” that God bestows upon us. What matters are the danceable tunes…They do not lead to true worship, only self-indulgence”(67); the need to “bring back servant leadership”(109). In each of these descriptions, and many more like it, I found a correlation with that which plagues the Christian church in the western context. In reading about the Church in Africa, and about the issues and concerns there, I was more able to hear the challenges and concerns for the church in my own context.
God’s Design for the Church is a unique read. It opened my eyes to a church culture beyond my own. I did not agree with everything that Mbewe wrote about, either biblically, theologically, or denominationally. That’s ok. Ultimately, I finished my read feeling like I was better equipped to serve the church in my own context, by reading about the Church in the African context. And for that I am grateful.