Published by “Le Christianisme”, May 28-June 2 2000
Interview by Mireille Legait-Verbregghe
Erlo Stegen, founder of the Mission among the Zulu, was recently in Paris (see issue #738, page 5). A witness of the revival in South Africa, he looks back on the past century and draws the conclusion that atheistic countries, such as the USSR, have all undergone economic decline. In his country, the Revival has resulted in the development of a local economy stemming from a missionary station designed to welcome some 10,000 persons.
After experiencing such a revival among the Zulu, Doesn’t France appear to you more resistant to the Gospel ?
We pray so that the work of God grows here. In South Africa, we are not insensitive to what is happening in France, because we still have many whites with a Huguenot background. This is a privilege for us to come and visit the French churches and to help them in their spiritual walk. Each nation has its own mindset and needs to be approached in a specific manner. One does not speak of salvation to an African, like one would to a European. One day, I had to perform a burial service in a countryside village in South Africa. I thought that my sermon had been good, but was surprised that my listeners were not touched. Then they brought the deceased to lower him in the grave. Zulu believe that a corpse is impure and that anyone touching it becomes impure. I felt that I had to go down into the grave to prepare the body to be buried. They were touched. They told themselves: “This man is ready to touch our dead, ready to be contaminated to help us.” And they open their hearts to the Word. Many became Christians. Sometimes it is what one does more than what one says that opens the way. I think that we often speak too much and in some way, we preach too much, and are not heard. We ought to live the Gospel and show our love in a practical manner. Then people will think that what you live speak louder than what you say. Even the French appreciates this approach. This raises the question of the way we witness; generosity, balance in family relationship, this draws people attention.
Does this conviction that the Gospel is to be lived before it is said, encouraged you to create many social outreach ?
It is clear that where the Gospel is absent, economic progress is lacking. In South Africa, before the revival, many people thought that to be a real man, you had to have many wives, able to fight well and drink heavily. How can such a man contribute to progress, economic growth, as their main concerns are woman, fights and drinking ? Some own however very nice properties, but these were not well managed. Forgiving debt and giving away subsidies are not sufficient in this case. When we started to preach the Gospel, they stopped drinking, fighting and renounced immorality. Such an empty life had to be filled: we taught them some constructive things, plowing, sawing, etc. Even though there were not great businessman, they learnt to avoid waste, to sell what they did not need, and this resulted in economic growth. There is nothing better for a community than the Gospel. This is precisely what Africa needs, every country needs this, even those who know a relative economic prosperity. If things go well and that people live for God, it will go even better. The twentieth century has proven that atheistic countries have not enjoyed growth. Look at the 1917 Russian revolution. On their tractors they had written, We plant, we harvest without God.” What is left 80 years later ?
When one speaks about Revival, one often means a charismatic experience. Among the Zulu, this Revival has not taken this direction. Are you opposed to such an experience ?
In the old days, to make a fire, one used a stove. Everyday, the ashes had to be removed, otherwise they would rapidly stifle the fire. Whatever the place of the fire, there are ashes. Spiritually, it is the same thing. A Revival may be experienced, but the ashes have to be removed. Discernment and wisdom is needed to distinguish between what pertains to fire and what pertains to ashes. I believe that sanctification is of great importance. In the epistle to the Hebrews, Paul says: “Pursue the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.” This is really important. Then, I believe one must live in peace with all, pursue unity around Christ. There is no unity possible if Christ is not in the center. The message of the cross is a centric message: the closer we get the more unity there is. We have to learn that although certain things are not right (editor’s note: with others) these are not necessarily bad, as stated in the letters to the Churches of Revelation. We need to strive to help others, exhibit tolerance. God is patient with us, we have not reached the point where we stand in a single day: we have to be patient with our brothers too. If I visit Hindus or Muslims and preach them about hell, nobody will be converted ! When we work with Hindus we are careful not to visit them in their own house, otherwise other Hindus would come and tell them: “Be careful they want to convert you.” We meet them with discretion. When fishing, you avoid making noise, otherwise the fish swims away. It is the same with our human contacts. Christians or non-Christian, it is the same: God wants to teach us to avoid quarrels, to accept the church style of the other. We need to go in our witnessing as far as God shows us because he expects us to be an example for others. If someone fails, it is not enough to tell him that he is wrong, it is important to tell him what is right.
After so many years of apartheid, how do you live reconciliation between white and blacks ?
For us, evangelists, before the Revival of 1966, preaching the Gospel was not easy because Christianity, as seen by the black community, was the religion of the White. Since the Revival, this a priori has gone away and we are happy. Today we have a new South Africa. What is unfortunate is that many have entered this new South Africa without a new heart. However, many things have significantly changed for which we are very grateful. We know that through the Revival we are experiencing, many lives and mindset will change.