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Conrad Mbewe

Category Articles
Date October 14, 2003

by Priya Abraham

 

Conrad Mbewe slices the air with his hands. His booming baritone soarsto a frenzied pitch. "I ask, what is your attitude to authority in yourhome?" he says. "What is your at-ti-tude? If that’s whatcharacterizes your life, stop cheating yourself that you’re a Christian."The congregation’s eyes follow every jab of his finger, every sweep of hishands. They’re hearing – and watching – a regular Sunday sermon from theirpastor. But he also happens to be the Spurgeon of Africa.

Mr. Mbewe is the pastor of Kabwata Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia – aposition he took 15 years ago when he gave up a career as a mining engineer.The service over, he strides down the pew aisle, wiping fingers across hisbrow. His face collapses in fatigue.

For one month, Mr. Mbewe preached only once a Sunday, instead of his usual twotimes. After three bouts of malaria and back-to-back preaching conferences inNamibia, South Africa, and Zambia early this year, he was exhausted. "Whatimpresses me is how he manages to get things done," said church officeassistant Lumpuma Chitambala. "The question should be, when does herest?"

Mr. Mbewe’s doctor ordered two months of rest – which he loosely observed."I would sneak in here – my wife was working so she couldn’t policeme," he said, sifting through a stack of paper at his office desk. Behindhim a regal impala head dominates the wall. Just below, a framed portrait ofCharles Haddon Spurgeon rests on a bookshelf, a gift from a pastor in Kansas.

Mr. Mbewe isn’t sure why listeners compare him to the British "Prince ofPreachers." Perhaps it is because Mr. Spurgeon too toiled to the point ofcollapse, ministering to a congregation of 4,000, delivering sermons 10 times aweek, managing an orphanage, and running a preachers’ college – all of whichculminated in exhaustion and gout.

Or perhaps it is because Mr. Mbewe shares Spurgeon’s love for writing. Spurgeonedited and wrote for his monthly magazine, The Sword and Trowel; Mr. Mbewe hasbeen writing two columns a week for the last 10 years in the country’s DailyChronicle newspaper. One is a sermon, while the other examines popular socialquestions and is tailored for the ordinary man, similar to Spurgeon’s selectionof parables, John Ploughman’s Talk.

But where the Zambian pastor most resembles Spurgeon is in his challenge to the"mile wide and inch deep" church in Zambia. This year he declined toparticipate in Operation Sunrise Africa – an evangelical crusade meant todispense gospel teaching to 50 million people in 50 cities in 50 days insouthern and eastern Africa.

The cost to sponsor a city for the July and August campaign and three years offollow-up ministry is $160,000. Most of the funding has come from the UnitedStates. In Zambia, hundreds of pastors are taking part. "They were soexcited about this. My question is, what are they doing that I don’t alreadydo? You can’t win the world in 50 days. Every generation has to bere-evangelized."

This outspokenness in the pulpit and on national television panel discussionshas put the spotlight on Mr. Mbewe and his ministry. "People think thathe’s always serious – a sort of cold-blooded theologian," said CharlesBota, a 29-year friend of Mr. Mbewe. "He’s warm. He’s funny. He knows a lotabout the world."

On a Saturday afternoon, Mr. Mbewe chugs to the church gate in his ToyotaCorona, the one with the bumper sticker warning, "Don’t let the car foolyou – my treasure is in heaven." He’s preaching to a youth group atanother church. "My poor car is giving up," he says, as it stallstwice before reaching the road. Mr. Mbewe slides the stick shift into gear thenrests his left hand on the wheel, poking a casual right elbow out of thewindow.

Inside the church, with the rare intimacy of a small youth group, Mr. Mbeweabandons the rickety wooden lectern and towers a foot away from the front row.For three weeks he has preached from Galatians. Now he fires questions at thegroup, then stops short as they flutter through notes and Bibles. "It’stoo late, I’m already complaining," he says, as one young man yells out ananswer. "You know I always complain when I come here. You people don’tmake me feel like I’m in a youth group." His meaty, rippling laugh infectshis audience.

Back at Kabwata Baptist Church, Mr. Mbewe chats with church members outside arectangular building of church offices, school, classrooms, library, andsanctuary. None of this existed 10 years ago. In 1987 the 35-member church metin the local community hall. Now the congregation has grown to 200 members.

In that time the pastor has guided a steady treadmill of additions. Ceiling andpaint were added to the sanctuary in 1997 so the congregation wasn’tworshipping under naked steel roof sheets. An elementary school began in 1998.A printing press began in the garage in 2000.

The growth proved to be the pastor’s hardest test. Twenty members left overchanges he instituted. When he arrived at Kabwata, he found a team of deaconsand one elder heading the church. Within two years he created an eldership anddivided the duties, which left the deacons out of some decision making. He alsointroduced Reformed theology.

Church members accused him of singling them out in sermons and said he wasunfit to be a pastor. Dapson Mwendafilumba, a member who disagreed with Mr.Mbewe, argued in the pastor’s book-lined study that Mr. Mbewe wasn’t practisingwhat he preached. "He was not being more of a caring pastor in terms ofvisiting when he left the pulpit," he said. "I called him an actor. Isaid, ‘Look here, you don’t seem to marry the two."’ Mr. Mbewe describedthe period as the "worst in his ministerial life."

He used to joke, "If I coughed, people would say ‘He’s coughing too much,’or if I didn’t cough they’d say, ‘Why isn’t he coughing? Isn’t he human?"’

So five years into his pastorate; the congregation had to vote on whether itwanted him to stay or go. In the end, 92 percent of the congregation voted forMr. Mbewe to stay. Mr. Mwendafilumba, who joined another church, said they areon good terms now. He maintains that Mr. Mbewe could have gone slower on thereforms. Mr. Mbewe agrees. "He is very headstrong and likes to lead, likesto push," said Mr. Bota. "He’s rarely in a position where there’sanother guy that’s better than him. He tends to get what he wants done,done."

Mr. Mbewe’s wife, Felistas, recalls his patience when dealing with churchmembers who opposed him. "You can’t see my husband lose his temper,"she says "If he’s upset about something usually he withdraws: He washaving sleepless nights, wanting to write everything that happened."

Today, Mr. Mbewe’s reputation extends beyond Zambia. He has preached atReformed and Baptist conferences in the United States, England, South Africa,and Brazil. Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida,first met Mr. Mbewe at a conference in South Africa in 1995. "Conrad hasbeen gifted by God to preach to the consciences of people," he said."He is a devoted student of Scripture and human nature, as well as aravenous reader of theology. All of this he shares in common with Spurgeon.Also, like Spurgeon, though he is multitalented, he is first and foremost apreacher and loves to have it that way."

Even when Mr. Mbewe winds down on a Monday evening, his day off, church workersscuttle in and out of his front door. Several members of the college group slipinto his study to borrow a book. "This is what it gets like at thistime," he says, grinning from his living-room armchair. He doesn’t knowabout being the ‘Spurgeon of Africa’. But he does like being a pastor.

By permission of World magazine: March 29, 2003

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