DIPHAGANE, South Africa (BP) –Early one Saturday morning, a mission group from two Baptist churches in Virginia attended a funeral in the yard of a deceased South African’s home.
Hundreds of Pedi villagers poured in for the funeral. Some were close friends or family members, while others barely knew her, but because of their sense of community they all felt compelled to go. A procession of family, friends, other villagers and the Americans made their way to the gravesite. Later that day, the family of the deceased slaughtered a cow to feed the village, and all who attended the funeral ate and spent time with the family.
While many would admire the Pedi people’s commitment to community, this commitment also can present challenges in sharing the Gospel. Pastor Matthew Malebogo* said his people do things “for the sake of belonging, not believing.”
They go to religious services, sing worship songs, and support one another in difficult times – but they do not know Christ personally. Much of what they do is for the sake of community, he notes.
When following the teachings of Christ means turning away from accepted community activities – for example, ancestral worship, sacrifices and witch doctors – it becomes difficult for an individual to accept Christ over community practices.
“The one who is resisting is [considered] anti-social,” Malebogo said. “People [shy] away from the Gospel because they fear that they may be victimized. They are doing something which is different to the rest [of the village].”
Mission team leader Pete Hypes, pastor of Bermuda Baptist Church in Chester, Va., is partnering with Malebogo to bring the Gospel to a sub-set of the Pedi known as the Sekhukhune Pedi. About 4.6 million live in South Africa, most in an area called Sekhukhuneland.
“[We] really had no idea what we were doing,” Hypes said of their first mission trip to Sekhukhuneland. “We came. We preached. We prayerwalked the streets.”
The more Hypes returned and worked with Malebogo, the more he realized discipleship would be key to their strategy – and the best way to reach the Pedi would be through the Pedi reaching themselves.
In an effort to implement their strategy, the mission teams go village-to-village and house-to-house sharing the Gospel with the Pedi people. They take some of the local Pedi believers with them.
“There is so much confusion and distortion of the Gospel…. A lot of people I’ve talked to know Jesus, know God, and know a lot about the Bible,” Toria Tomlinson, member of Bermuda Baptist Church, said. “For people who are supposed to be unreached they know a lot … [but] there’s syncretism in that.”
On Tomlinson’s two trips to South Africa she observed the mixture of African traditional religion and the neo-Pentecostal movement muddles the Pedis’ beliefs. Throughout Sekhukhuneland, the two belief systems have syncretized as one accepted and shared belief.
Hypes recalled meeting two women who struggled with the local religious beliefs. They seemed deeply depressed and lost.
“There was such an emptiness in their eyes [and] in their life,” Hypes said.
The women told Malebogo and Hypes of the oppression they suffered as females in their culture. Malebogo and Hypes shared the Gospel and the women accepted Christ. Hypes recalled seeing one of the lady’s eyes glisten with hope as she began to smile.
Malebogo cautioned that living for Christ there is an uphill battle, working through culture, community and the temptation of living to belong.
“We must pray that each individual can stand for … himself when coming to the Gospel,” he said. “They will come to Him as individuals, not as a group. But thank God, because although it is our main obstacle … we have people, one by one, coming to the Lord and with genuine repentance.”