Tins country of about 14 million inhabitants poses many problems to public evangelism. Here Asians, black Africans, white Africans, and mixed-blood colored Africans mingle on the streets of modern cities and on the back veld, where primitive mud huts dot the skyline.
There is no such thing as holding a campaign "for the black Africans" of Johannesburg, for example—you must decide which black Africans will be your target, for they speak about twenty-two different languages and cherish different cultures! Nor is your task simplified if you confine yourself to evangelism among the white people of South Africa. The language of the majority is Afrikaans, the only language that ever originated in South Africa, taking shape from basic Dutch between 1652 and 1750- but English is the language of about forty per cent of the people.
Evangelism among the Coloured people is interesting but also problematical. Their cultural leaders regard the Coloured people as the only true South Africans. They contend that whereas the white man invaded the country from the south and the black man from the north almost simultaneously about three hundred years ago, the Coloured race of nearly a million people originated here, and ninety per cent of them speak the only language that originated here, Afrikaans. A considerable number of them are Moslems, more are Christians of about 150 sects, and the rest indifferent to matters of the soul.
A Racial Melting Pot
Add to this racial melting pot the factors of enormous distances, sparsely inhabited reaches of the country, a prevailing scarcity of workers and money, ingrained prejudices in every racial section of the population, the complicating rise of unreasoning nationalism with the force of a new religion, and a preponderant primitive culture in major areas of the country, and you begin to get an idea of the challenge that faces public evangelism here.
And after mentioning all these facets of the problem, we have not discussed the Hindu Indians or the Moslem Pakistani South Africans, or the Greeks, Portuguese, Jews (South Africa is to them a Canaan and a fortress), Chinese, Arabs from the Lebanon, or the Dutch, German, or French communities!
How are we trying to meet the needs of the hour in this country of absolute freedom of religion?
Among the white people our members concentrate on audio-visual studies in English and Afrikaans, our workers hold efforts that differ in scope from cottage meetings to campaigns in town halls and tents, and our evangelists hold city-wide campaigns that last most of a year. Notably successful in city evangelism have been Pastors J. Van der Merwe, South African Union Conference evangelist; Alvin Cook and Ray Kent on loan from the Australasian Division; A. Bambury and C. Birkenstock of the Transvaal Conference. Some of their campaigns have yielded more than one hundred souls each. This is an amazing figure when the smallness of the city population is considered, and more so when it is realized that only a fraction of that population can be appealed to in any one campaign because of language, cultural, and ethnic considerations.
Six Sessions in One Day!
The country is wide open for Coloured evangelism. But men of vision and experience are sadly lacking at the moment. In 1964 I had the privilege of holding a city campaign for them in Cape Town. The largest cinema was hired and advertising started. No fewer than 10,000 applications were received for admission to the first Sunday meeting. I was forced to have six sessions that day, at 10:00 A.M., 12:00 M., 2:00, 4:00, 6:00, and 8:00 P.M. Many were turned away. Our sturdy doormen were swept away in the human flood that rolled into the great auditorium for the final session of the day. God blessed, and the good brethren of the Cape Conference gave excellent and unselfish support. The result was 154 baptisms.
One of the problems of the Cape Conference has been shortage of means. Now they have acquired their own printing press, and some of the men are holding reaping efforts with spectacular results. The average budget of such an effort is about thirty dollars.
A Modern Babel!
For a long time work among the Bantus was almost nonexistent, but wise planning is putting modern evangelistic aids into the hands of our African workers and giving them an insight into advertising techniques.
In 1965 I held a campaign among the Bantu in Kimberley. The perennial problem of South Africa was not absent. I spoke in English, Pastor Setlhare of Bechuanaland translated into Chuana—but the Xhosa-speaking people stayed away, unable to understand enough of Chuana or English. Three of the other workers in the effort could speak no Chuana, and had to try to do their visiting in Xhosa, their own home language! Eventually it became evident that some of the Africans interested in the message did not understand the Bantu language but spoke Afrikaans almost exclusively!
At the time of our first baptism I was surprised to discover that my four colleagues had never seen a public baptism on a stage. Not only were they favorably impressed, but most of the audience lined up after the meeting to inspect the baptismal tank and floral arrangements behind the curtains. These workers have gone back to their fields with a new vision of what can be done in all-out evangelism.
Department of Evangelism Organized
A momentous forward step has just been taken in South Africa by the organization of a department of evangelism on union conference level. J. Van der Merwe, Ray Kent, C. Birkenstock, A. Bambury, and the writer received calls to launch this department with city evangelism throughout the country. Each effort is made a minuscule school of evangelism and communicates its techniques and spirit to the participating workers and the rest of the field.
Does evangelism work when faced with such intricate racial and geographical problems? The Holy Spirit admits no insuperable problems where the human heart is accessible to His power. In the past three years of public evangelism I have been privileged to hold a European campaign in Cape Town, and Coloured and Bantu campaigns. The Holy Spirit has manifested His presence and power by ushering nearly three hundred persons through the baptismal waters.
In these city campaigns we secure our audience first by launching a Bible correspondence course and then by specific advertising for the opening meeting. The advertising includes hundreds of posters silk-screened at home by the team, 60,000 to 80,000 handbills distributed by the church members, and newspaper advertising at the special rate available for charities and churches. But the most successful device seems to be the mailing out of thousands of "personal" printed letters of invitation in envelopes addressed from the voters' roll by volunteers from our own ranks. Bookings are taken over the telephone and at the theater, and sessions are organized to cope with whatever develops. Usually in a big city campaign we can get a starting audience of at least 4,000.
Sunday Afternoon Meetings Best
Where are the meetings held? In this religious country all cinemas are closed by law on Sundays. So we hire the best available for our religious meetings and have no difficulty getting them, provided we are prepared to pay the high rentals. Then we have the meetings on Sunday afternoons, when we are not in competition with any of the local churches. This gives us our best audiences.
After five months of steady three-meetings-a-week (two in smaller hired halls) work, we usually find the situation breaking favorably. From that point onward to the end of the year we may hold as many as seven baptismal services, the last three or four in our central church in the city.
This work is thoroughly rewarding, although arduous. I remember the thrill of baptizing the son of an Anglican minister, the wife of a Congregational minister, and an Adventist sister's husband who had resisted the message for fifteen years. I remember baptizing Catholics and the joy of seeing them embrace the worker who had regularly visited them throughout the campaign.
We in God's work in South Africa, a radiant land where people seem to be born with stronger religious motivation than almost anywhere else, do not feel that we have the answers yet, but we do know that unless we launch out nothing happens!