Free Reformed Churches of South Africa
A Bit to Read
The Free Reformed Churches of South Africa
NOTE: the Deacons have placed the needs of the Free Reformed Churches of South Africa on their collection schedule, to begin in January. So that the congregation knows what the collections are for, the deacons have asked me to introduce these churches to the congregation. They asked me to make this introduction because they’d heard I once visited the churches in South Africa and so I should know…. Such misplaced confidence! :)
When so many of our (grand)parents boarded a ship to leave Holland and start a new life in Canada, other Dutchmen left the Lowlands to begin anew in South Africa. In the course of the 1950s, churches were instituted in Capetown, Johannesburg and Pretoria, which federated together to form the Free Reformed Churches of South Africa. Synod 1958 of the Canadian Reformed Churches established sister relations with these churches of South Africa.
The federation of three churches instituted in the 1950s remained at three churches for several decades. In the course of the 1990s the church in Pretoria had grown to such numbers that a second church could be instituted in that city. Around the same time liberalizing trends in one of South Africa’s mainline churches (the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk) saw two small congregations of ex-NGK people join the federation, to make a total of six churches. One of these six has subsequently disbanded because it was no longer viable, and its minister (Rev Mendel Retief, himself also ex-NGK) is now serving the church of Kelmscott in Australia. Four ministers serve the five remaining congregations (numbering some 1500 members). The churches also support one emeritus minister.
For many years these South African sister churches have remained rather remote to us in Canada. Our recent Synod in Smithers, however, received the first-ever official visitor from the Free Reformed Churches of South Africa, in the person of Rev C Kleyn. Amongst his other duties at Synod, Rev Kleyn delivered a speech, which was subsequently printed in the Acts (pages 251-256). The information and request contained in this speech attracted the attention of our deacons.
The country of South Africa has an enormous indigenous population, consisting of numerous tribes and languages. The vast majority of this indigenous population lives in townships close to such major cities as Capetown, Johannesburg and Pretoria. The mission field, then, was literally in the church’s backyard. With assistance from the sister churches in the Netherlands, the Free Reformed Churches of South Africa rose to the opportunity and have for many years supported several missionaries. The mission work was not limited to bringing the gospel to those who did not know Jesus Christ, but included also theological training for future office bearers to serve in the mission churches, including ministers. Dr AJ deVisser, currently a professor at our Theological College in Hamilton, was a missionary for years in Soshanguve near Pretoria, and heavily involved in training young men for the ministry.
Under the blessing of the Lord, this mission work has borne rich fruit. In a black township near Pretoria two churches have recently been instituted (Soshanguve and Mamelodi), with some 400 members between the two of them. Both churches have a fulltime indigenous minister. These two black congregations are now part of the federation of Free Reformed Churches of South Africa, so that the total number of congregations in the federation now comes to seven, with a membership of some 1900 persons. As the whites speak Afrikaans and the blacks speak Sotho, a common language had to be adopted for ecclesiastical meetings: English.
Meanwhile, three white missionaries continue to labor in the black townships around Pretoria and two white missionaries labor among the indigenous people living around Capetown (where the locals are not considered ‘black’ but ‘colored’; they are the descendents of the Hottentots). Seven theological students assist these five missionaries – which in turn looks promising for expanding the work in the years ahead. In fact, in his speech Rev Kleyn mentioned that “within the next year or so we expect five students from the mission churches (three black students and two colored students), to present themselves to the churches for examination in view of becoming eligible for a call. We presently have 7 mission posts, a few of which, the Lord willing, will likely also become self-governing churches within the next few years. If this development continues it could well be that within ten years the majority of churches in our federation will be ex mission churches. This is an exciting development for which we thank God.”
Yet such a wonderful development will also bring enormous challenges. In his speech to Synod Rev Kleyn mentioned one: “In general there is very little expertise in the mission churches. Just imagine caring for a congregation of 300 members with just 4 office bearers who have never done this work before and have received very little formal education;” that’s a reference to the Soshanguve congregation. Indeed, a challenge for the sister-churches! May the Head of the Church give strength and wisdom to the more established congregations to give good advice and assistance to the newer sisters in the federation.
Another challenge relates to finance. Unemployment among the blacks and coloreds of South Africa is somewhere around 70%. It is then virtually impossible for the indigenous people to support their own ministers. So support for these ministers has to come from the other churches in the federation, via the Fund for Needy Churches. Yet, as Rev Kleyn wrote in a letter explaining the needs, the Fund for Needy Churches is “already in the red and we expect to have a shortfall for the year of about 30,000 rands” – the rand, of course, being the South African currency; one Canadian dollar gets you about 6.8 rands. In the past year, deputies have had to increase the contributions required from the membership, but only four of the seven churches were able to meet the increase.
Rev Kleyn has drawn to our attention a second need, this one not quite as urgent as the first. As we’ve done here, so our brothers and sisters in South Africa set up their own Christian schools for the education of God’s covenant children. Yet the principle requiring God-centered education is as valid for the indigenous congregations as it is for the white congregations. The church in Soshanguve has for many years already (while it was still a mission post) operated a school for the children of the congregation. This school, as I once saw, consists of two freight containers set side-by-side, with a door and a window cut into the steal, and the whole thing painted a nice bright white. No such luxury as heating or cooling! The whiteboards, the desks, the cupboards were all there, and so was a classroom of smiling, eager children singing their psalms in Sotho and trying to learn the letters of the English alphabet. A very touching experience.
Given the unemployment, the congregation cannot maintain the school financially, and so over the years support has been received from the Netherlands. Rev Kleyn now writes that “at present they seem to be getting reasonable support from the Netherlands but … the teachers are not yet paid what they should be paid. Besides the support from the Netherlands is not all too secure. Any additional support would therefore be most welcome.”
These particular needs have caught the eye of our deacons, and they intend to initiate collections in Yarrow to assist the Fund for Needy Churches in South Africa as well as this school. With all the abundance the Lord has given us, we now receive opportunity to assist the brothers and sisters far away in maintaining the preaching of the gospel in their land, and supporting God-centered education amongst the mission churches. It’s a privilege!
14 December 2007