This concludes the series of articles by Brother Ron Hicks on this topic

Visits to ecclesias in the third world are a powerful reminder of the divine origins of Scripture. Why? Well, isn’t it remarkable that the gospel message can appeal, for example, to one from an advanced society and, at the same time, to one who lives in the simplest of villages, and oftentimes surrounded in poverty? Isn’t that evidence in itself that the gospel is for all mankind? Doesn’t it provide a further dimension to the apostle Paul’s comment that we know so well: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The gospel meets the most fundamental needs of all men and women, totally free of class or race. That is a profound truth that we do not always grasp, but it is powerfully brought home when one visits ecclesias in the third world. So different in background, but a priceless truth in common.

Consider for a few moments a typical ecclesia in Malawi in southern Africa. Also consider that we are joining the brothers and sisters there on a Sunday morning for the memorial service. Any Sunday morning at random is bound to be an unforgettable experience. We arrive at the ecclesial hall or a humble home, which can be quite remote. The brothers and sisters either walk to the hall, or catch a bus, and then walk further, perhaps for some distance. I generally need to come by car, but try to arrive as unobtrusively as possible; one doesn’t want to emphasise the economic gap between those living in the developed and underdeveloped worlds. The ecclesial hall is very simple, a modest size, mud walls, thatched roof, and parallel mud ridges across the hall to sit on. There is virtually no furniture, except for a table which seems to appear from nowhere—usually from the house of a kind neighbour.

The brothers and sisters begin to arrive for the service. If the meeting is due to start, say, at 10am, there may be a good number who have arrived by then. However, on other occasions, perhaps few have arrived. But then others gradually come, and the meeting is ready to start. On my first visits to Africa, I remember becoming rather irritated at times about the lack of punctuality. I think that I even made a point about it once or twice. I now regret such insensitivity. When a brother or sister has to take two or three separate bus rides, with the buses frequently breaking down, and often has to walk quite long distances to the ecclesial hall, who am I to criticise when I have come by car? The African brothers and sisters, I have found, are usually so tolerant with their comments to visitors. Overall, I have learned to respect profoundly their devotion to the Lord, and the sacrifices and hardships often involved, even in attending a memorial service.

And so the service begins. What are some of the special features that impress a western visitor?

The brothers are all sitting on one side of the little hall, and the sisters and children sitting on the other. This reflects African custom; a husband and wife would not typically sit together. One notes the large number of hymns; in the case of Malawi, sung from the Christadelphian hymn book in Chichewa, the national language. Not just four hymns, but usually up to six or more, sung unaccompanied. Hands often go up asking for even more hymns. The exhortation itself tends usually to be on the longer side, which means that the meetings can often take quite some time. After all the difficulty getting to the hall, why not enjoy mutual fellowship and encouragement? I also note that many in the audience are taking notes of the talk. In fact, to the point that, if I have been away in Africa for a few weeks, on return to Washington and giving an exhortation there, I think: “Why aren’t the audience taking notes?” Note-taking is an excellent discipline, both to remember the address and to improve concentration in listening to it. Hearing, or giving, a talk through translation is also a great reminder of the cultural diversity of the family of God.

The Memorial Meeting

 And then we come to the breaking of bread itself. I always find this the most moving part of the experience. In many Malawian ecclesias, the unbaptised and children often leave the hall during the partaking of the emblems. If there are curtains in the hall, they could be drawn for this section of the service. This is a sacred moment for those in covenant relationship with the Lord. Of course, it would be unfeeling, even stupid, to suggest changes in these arrangements, even if one felt inclined to do so (which I don’t). This is their feeling about sanctity, so why should I want to change anything? After a prayer of thanksgiving for the emblems, sometimes with the brother on bended knee as he gives it, the bread and wine are then passed around. This is the expression of our unity in Christ, and a powerful exhortation. The service comes to a close, and the announcements given after the meeting is over. I hope that I will always remember the spiritual stimulus of these occasions.

So many practical issues come up in these arrangements which we would never even think about. Just take one example, the wine. Many ecclesias in Africa are so poor that wine can be an unaffordable luxury. And often is just not obtainable. Bread, of course, is no problem, being widely available and cheap. But what about the wine? I have been to services on several occasions where I have found that wine was unavailable—a reminder of John 2, but under different circumstances! The question arises, what will we do? I should hasten to note that our mission organizations do their best to ensure that these needs are met. But, even so, what does one do when the wine is just unavailable or unaffordable? For us in the west, this situation of course would never arise. The brothers and sisters in the ecclesia might not be sure what is the right thing to do in these circumstances . One is asked by them: “Should we have coloured drink to look like wine?” “Should we use the bread only?” We might even be shocked at the first question. But what would you advise them to do, with a special onus on you, because what you recommend—an ecclesial member from the west—would very likely be accepted. Let the reader think what should be said. At the very least, I always comment that the Lord knows our heart and our circumstances, and will accept us if our actions are motivated by faith in Him. If visiting an ecclesia in a more remote area, it is advisable for the visitor to bring some wine.

Baptisms

 A baptism in a Malawian ecclesia is another moving experience. The baptism itself always take place outdoors, of course, and in a pool as close as possible to the ecclesial hall or home. The baptism is usually on a Sunday morning, preceding the memorial service. The members assemble at the ecclesial hall, and walk across the fields to the river or water hole. They sing hymns from memory as they walk. The baptism itself is preceded by a talk, sometimes quite long, about the significance of salvation by water—with historical background, including the spiritual meaning of the flood, and the laver, for example. I stand next to a brother who whispers in my ear the translation of the service as it proceeds. The baptism then takes place, and I think how much closer it must be to the circumstances of the first century than we experience in the developed world. Following the service, we walk back to the ecclesial hall, again singing by memory from the Christadelphian Malawian hymn book (in the Chichewa language) as we go. About one half of the hymns are recognisable to me as tunes from the English books, but with African words. Or the other one half are totally unknown to me, but with words, I am told, adjusted if necessary to ensure doctrinal soundness. The memorial service then follows, including a receiving into fellowship of the newly baptised. Again, this is unforgettable.

Even in these simple arrangements, further problems can arise that are unknown to us. The wa- ter in the water hole, being stagnant, is very likely to be infested with the tiny water snail parasites which can cause bilharzia (a nasty disease, which can be treated if caught quickly). However, where else can the baptism take place with a sufficient amount of water? A running stream is safer, but may not be available. The Malawian brothers and sisters would certainly not be deterred from baptising in a water hole if that was the only option available. “The Lord looks after his children”, I have been told so many times in Africa. A young Welsh brother, who is also employed at the International Monetary Fund in Washington where I work, was infected with bilharzia while baptising a convert in Lake Victoria in Uganda. However, he recovered quickly with treatment. We can take for granted our blessings, while forgetting that some African brothers and sisters take that extra leap of faith, even in the act of baptism itself.

I do not mean to idealise ecclesial life in Africa, which would be misleading. One experiences the same disappointments with lapsed faith, for example, which we suffer in the developed world. It is difficult to know whether the poor attendance which occurs at times reflects a degree of indifference, or genuine difficulties in attending services. I suspect that the problem is very much on a par with our own ecclesial experience. However, we must be eternally grateful that the Lord is our judge and knows all the circumstances.

Dealing With Financial Hardship

 The greatest difficulties for a visitor to African ecclesias, I have found, involves coming to grips with financial hardship. With poverty so widespread, many brothers and sisters seek financial assistance from the visitor. How does one deal with the inevitable requests? Some of the situations are so sad and difficult, that it seems very unfeeling not to help in some way. However, we do not have the resources to deal with all the problems that the world brings. Assistance to one can excite envy from another. In fact, financial assistance can prove very divisive. In these circumstances, I feel that help from the visitor is best given where it can be communally shared (Bibles, literature, something for the hall, and so on). Otherwise, welfare support is best channelled through the Bible mission committees, who can coordinate the assistance and be as equitable as possible. This seems to me to be the best way to handle a huge problem in this impoverished world.

While Africa has provided our greatest ecclesial fruit in recent years, growth is occurring in so many places with their own flavour of ecclesial life. Eastern Europe has drawn a heart-warming response, with numbers expanding in many different areas. Our prayer must be that we utilise the opportunities opening up there to the greatest advantage while we have the time.

Other ecclesial areas are very remote. Consider Mauritius, for example, a tiny and beautiful island in the Indian Ocean, about two-thirds of the way from Perth to South Africa. A delightful ecclesia has developed there over recent years, and is a great joy to visit. The French-speaking ecclesia (but understanding English well, thankfully) now has its own hall, and one feels the warmth of spirit that the members have for each other. They would love to have more visits so that they could feel increasingly a part of the ecclesial world. A visit, or a letter, is a great benefit for all concerned.

The main purpose of these few paragraphs, then, is to increase our awareness of this changing ecclesial world. I feel at times that we are not sufficiently aware of the wonder of what is happening, and the challenges involved. We need to adapt to the new situation, particularly by turning our resources and our time toward helping the ecclesias in these new areas. It is possible to fashion our ecclesial service around what we are used to, and also what tends to interest us more personally. The protection of our standards of comfort can also be a factor inhibiting our response to these new challenges. While we all need to be involved in this great effort, our young people in particular should be encouraged where possible to contribute to and benefit from this mission work. The spiritual satisfaction and rewards can be so great from adventuring into the new ecclesial areas, in particular.

One further point needs to be made. We can often demean our brothers and sisters in the third world by imagining that their knowledge of the Scriptures is minimal, or close to it. The diversity of understanding and interest, of course, varies considerably, as we know from experience in our home ecclesias. But when you see the brothers and sisters in Malawi, for example, pouring over their Bibles during a memorial service, you know that there is something wrong with the notion that their commitment is superficial, supposedly knowing little, and understanding little. This is a very disturbing, indeed dangerous, misconception. I cringe when I hear it said or inferred.

With the fields white to harvest and the labourers few indeed, may we be given strength by our Lord to do His will in these exciting times.