Missionary Update by Dave Beakley
In America, “average” is considered to be failure. Parents try desperately to get their children to enroll and excel in Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school so that they can accelerate their entrance into University or even better, to be accepted at the “top” universities. Children as young as 4 and 5 years old begin training for gymnastics, baseball, and other sports and often have various “skill” coaches. Piano lessons begin at 5 with recitals soon to follow. No sir—my child will not be “average.”
With that said, this mindset is also in the ministry. Every pastor sees himself as a “man of God” who can speak with authority and employ the wisdom of Solomon in shepherding. Students strive to sit under the “Gamaliels” of the current Evangelical preachers so that they can be “excellent.” No one sees himself as an “average” pastor.
Christ Seminary (CS) in Polokwane, South Africa has been training African men for the pastorate since 1997. At the beginning, the goal was to provide a basic theological education meant for men who came from a previously disadvantaged background and a rural context. Pastors in rural churches were few, and those men had a meager grasp of Scripture and a low view of God. The people had a great need, and were happy to have men who could now explain Scripture while living in their context.
Over the next sixteen years, God has blessed CS with over 120 graduates, and year after year the group has increased in their educational background and keen grasp of theology. The faculty here has been excited about how we have been able to increase the level of teaching to more advanced concepts. Perhaps the time has come now that the Lord will bless us with “above average” men to really make a difference. After years of “average” rural pastors, maybe the Lord was now going to provide men with more advanced education and the ability to rise above the fray so that we could graduate men who could make an impact.
Enter Joseph Hlongwane. Joseph interviewed with the faculty of CS in Oct 2009. His background was ultra-charismatic and was looking forward to learning more about how to grasp the power of the word-faith movement. Joseph came to us because of a 2008 graduate named Obed. Both Obed and Joseph joined the ministry together in the 2000-2001 timeframe, and were both ultra-charismats. As Obed began his studies at CS, Joseph began to see a change. Initially, Obed’s change in preaching was strange, and seemed void of the Holy Spirit. Even though Joseph began to mock and criticize Obed, the preaching came and seemed to increase in power. As Obed began to experience severe suffering with the untimely deaths of his first two newborn babies, and the discovery of a debilitating sickness, his preaching seemed to gain in power and weightiness. All Joseph could think of was, “how can I have what this man has?” Thus, the interview.
When Joseph arrived at CS in his first year, his performance was as expected. Full of energy and high expectations the first day followed by despair, giving up, and wanting to quit after the first couple of weeks—and that was just after English and working on Bible memory! But, Joseph was resilient. After the first semester, Joseph’s preaching started to change. By the midst of his second semester, his preaching had changed so much that his word-faith church threatened to fire him unless he changed back to the old way, and his wife threatened to put him out unless he started preaching prosperity.
After a partial blindness set in during his second semester, Joseph dropped out. I thought Joseph—one of the “average” guys—was now out of the picture. Not to be deterred, Joseph returned to start anew in 2010. Naturally, Joseph now did very well in English and Bible Memory. As the year was winding down, then the bottom dropped out. Joseph’s newborn baby just died (that happens often here in Africa). The knowledge of God’s sovereignty and goodness were anchors for Joseph, along with his remembering of his friend Obed and how he took a stand for the Lord during tribulations. Joseph pressed on.
In 2011, Joseph tried hard with Greek and passed with a 50% (this is the pass mark in South Africa). While he struggled, he passed, yet we were still hoping for the Lord to bring men who could demonstrate academic excellence and become “above average.” This past year, Joseph tried his hand in Hebrew along with Historical Theology, Systematic Theology and a whole host of advanced subjects. I wasn’t sure that this “average” guy could make it. After all, not everyone is called to the ministry. Then, the Lord showed me that my grading system was skewed.
In April, during the middle of the semester, I noticed that Joseph arrived in class late. Four days late! When he was called to my office, we began the “tough” conversation. I expected to hear about money problems, taxi problems, family problems—all kinds of problems so that he would avoid Hebrew. What followed was a lesson from the Lord about “average.”
With his head hung down, Joseph began to recall his circumstance. He said, “Pastor Dave, I really wanted to be here on Tuesday, but I really couldn’t.” I stared into Joseph’s eyes with the compassion of a TMS Dean. Joseph continued. He explained that a young man from his church had met with him the previous week and confessed that he had taken a young girl out to a restaurant and gave her a “date rape” drug and then took her back to his place and slept with her. The young man was obviously expecting to hear how this was the work of Satan and demons, and that he was forgiven. Joseph said the unthinkable (in Africa, the biggest sin is to break community with someone—no Christian is a sinner). Joseph said, “You have one choice. You need to confess your sin and repent to the Lord, and go to the police before she does.”
Needless to say, the young man was devastated. After much debate over sin, guilt, confession, repentance, and demons, the young man left and took an entire bottle of sleeping pills. He went into a coma and was on the edge of death. The next day, various pastors from the area called Joseph and rebuked him for giving “very bad counsel.” They said that demons are the cause of sin, and he should not have told this young man that he was at fault. They said that Joseph sinned. Joseph vigorously debated with them using Scripture as his authority. The Bible calls this sin and commands us to repent was the continuous reply with verse after verse as his reasoning.
Then, the day before he was to come to seminary, there was a knock on Joseph’s door. When Joseph opened the door, he saw the young man’s father. The older man looked at Joseph and said, “You gave my son very bad counsel, and now he is busy dying. You are the cause of this. If he dies, you die.” At this point, Joseph then looked at me and said, “Pastor, if I were to leave and come to Seminary for my classes, this man [and the entire community] would say that I was running away from this problem. They would say I was running in fear because I sinned. I couldn’t leave until I knew if the young man would live or die. After a few days, he pulled through, and when I knew that he would make it, I felt I could come to Seminary without damaging my testimony for Christ and the ministry.
At this point, I was extremely blessed by “average!” And then, to top it off, Joseph looked at me and said, “Pastor Dave, one more thing: my wife saw my grades in Greek and she wasn’t happy. She said with these grades you don’t really know Greek, and if you don’t know Greek then you can’t properly teach me the Bible. I want you to re-take these Greek classes. So, I want to re-take these second year classes even though it will delay my graduation.”
The Bible is filled with “average.” There is even a prominent book on the market titled, “Twelve Ordinary Men” describing probably the most influential men on the planet in the past 2,000 years other than Jesus Christ. We forget that some plant, some water, but it is always God who provides the increase. We often place great importance on speaking and writing, but the Bible indicates that perhaps the most important thing that we can do is “stand.” We take a stand and then God swirls the circumstances of life around us so that all those around without a doubt can see the majesty of God.
At the end of the day, our task is easy, but somehow eludes our grasp. We focus on preparation, study, argumentation, and basic “spirituality.” While these are good things, it is not the main thing. We can actually be excellent in these areas, but fail in the most important area. One can struggle in these areas, but when they succeed in the most important area, I will no longer see them as “average.” In fact, I think I will just strive to be “average” like Joseph.
Ephesians 6:13 (NAS) Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
Joseph Hlongwane at the Beakley’s “House of Wonders"