There was a time when I viewed church buildings somewhat negatively. I saw them as a massive use of funds that could go toward ‘real’ ministry. I felt that they promoted a wrong view of the church – a building rather than the body of believers. And, unfortunately, I carried my negative view of church buildings to the mission field in Zambia.
As we did pioneer missions among the Lozi people, preaching the gospel in unreached villages, we often heard the question, “When are you going to build a church?” I screamed silently in my mind, “The church is the people, not the building!” My heels dug in a little further to fight that false idea. And I still remember the day, seated on a hill overlooking the Zambezi River in Western Zambia, when Pastor Conrad Mbewe set me straight.
Pastor Conrad is thoroughly committed to the Scriptures and sound doctrine. He is no pragmatist. But in his kind, quiet, patient way, he enlightened me on African culture. “They will never trust you and take you seriously until they see a building.” This was not a hill to die upon to preserve pure ecclesiology. It was simply a matter of trust.
People in the village tend to be skeptical and mistrusting. They are often suspicious that you are there to take advantage of them in some way and then disappear. Our insistence on keeping things informal and our refusal to construct a building reinforced their perception that we might abandon them at any moment.
A church building communicates permanence and commitment to the African community. It is a promise that the pastor will not simply rob them of whatever resources he can get and then leave them. The building is a vivid visual statement that the pastor and the church are committed long-term to ministering the gospel in that community.
Is it accurate to say that a building is absolutely essential to the life of a church? No. But is a building extremely helpful in the life and ministry of a church in most African contexts? Yes.
This is why my heart rejoices every time I receive photos from Pastor Poniso Kuyumbana of his church building construction. Poniso has been laboring for several years to plant a church in the Lozi town of Senanga in Western Zambia. While we saw maybe one conversion in three years, Poniso had a congregation of over 50 within 3 years, seeing several converted and baptized. A few years later, the Sunday gathering is now pushing close to 100 some weeks!
Poniso’s church-plant first met in a rented room. But few people take a church seriously while they rent a room. Senanga Baptist Church was thrilled when someone donated a large event tent and they were able to meet in their own space. But still, a tent is temporary and does not communicate permanence to the community. In fact, the tent proved to be quite temporary, as it was no match for the winds and storms of Western Province. Twice the tent was badly torn by strong winds. The third time, the tent was damaged beyond repair.
At long last, in answer to years of prayer, Senanga Baptist received funding assistance from their fellow Reformed Baptists in Zambia, cement blocks were molded, and walls went up! Thanks to the generosity of HeartCry donors, we were able to contribute the funds needed to purchase the roofing material. Covid-19 slowed the construction process, but this week I was overjoyed to receive photos of a finished roof on their church building!
Please pray for Pastor Poniso and the Senanga church that they will be able to press on to complete the building. And please pray as that church seeks to be a beacon of gospel light in a very dark place.
S.R. previously served as Africa Coordinator in 2008. He and his brother, and their families served for almost three years as missionaries to the Lozi people of Western Zambia. Upon returning to the States, S.R. joined a church-planting work in West Virginia. S.R. and his family now live in Christiansburg, VA.More By S.R.