Influencing training in the Zambezi Evangelical Church of Malawi

Myles MacBean (businessman, mission-partner, church leader) developed a preacher training programme and leadership development seminars for Malawi’s Zambezi Evangelical Church. Both programmes drew on aspects of the BUILD approach. Jem Hovil interviews Myles about one element of that, BUILD’s ‘ERA’ model of reflection.

Q: Myles, can you give us a thumbnail picture of ZEC and the programmes you developed?

A: Zambezi Evangelical Church was formed in 1892. It is the largest explicitly evangelical church in Malawi, Presbyterian in its governance, and credo-Baptist in its practice. With some 700 preaching points, the church identified the strategic need to develop biblically mature servant leaders as – in this typical sub-Saharan context – there is a core of college trained pastors but the vast majority of preachers and leaders are untrained.

Q: One element of BUILD that you adapted and adopted for leader training is the ‘ERA’ (encounter-reflection-action) model of reflection. Why did you include that?

A: A concern of the church was that doctrine, policy and decisions were typically being made based on church tradition, cultural norms or expedient intra-church politics rather than the application of biblical principles. Having encountered and applied ‘practical theological cycles’ during my masters degree in the UK, I realised this appropriately simple version could be a way of encouraging leaders to slow down and reflect more deeply and biblically on a situation.

Q: Were there ways in which you modified the ERA model, or lessons you learned from using it?

A: I tweaked the model to be “explore-reflect-act”. Partly this was a semantic change to encourage an active approach. It also clarified that we would start by pausing and exploring in depth the situation under review and its root causes, before moving on to reflect on what the Bible had to say about the topic, and then agree how we could concretely act to improve the situation. We learned that the process was best done in small groups, where different perspectives on the topic and a shared understanding of Scripture could be brought to bear.

Q: Can you give an example of the sort of issue you applied that to, and the outcomes?

A: We applied the method to many common pastoral issues in Malawi from the appropriateness of contraception to traditional marriage practices. However, one issue that came up repeatedly was what the church’s attitude should be to the so called ‘prosperity gospel.’ Most preachers recognised they lacked a clear, biblical, theology for suffering, poverty and prosperity with which to counter this false gospel. The typical result from the application of the ERA process was the rediscovery of Bible texts and themes emphasising that the gospel is about a supreme God giving us a far greater gift than wealth, health and prosperity: himself. That the most perfect of men, Christ himself, had to suffer to enable that gift. That Bible history showed that God’s blessed so often suffer. That Christ himself did not link suffering to a lack of faith or to sin. And, that ultimately the ‘prosperity gospel’ is another manifestation of false human religion where mankind vainly tries to control God. The preachers left encouraged to preach more confidently on the subject, and it is expected that this ERA approach will now be used to establish ZEC-wide pastoral guidance on this and other key doctrinal topics.

Q: How does that engagement with God’s word and God’s world strengthen the preaching programme, and the leaders and churches as a result?

A: In practice I saw Malawian church leaders wholeheartedly embrace the tool, recognising the improvement it brought to their decision making, and giving them confidence to go back to biblical first principles when reviewing the major pastoral challenges the church faces. It was also a good introduction for the ‘Preach the Word’ program which gave the leaders the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of hermeneutic principles that would help their future decision making as well as their preaching. Also, a sermon series on the topic was almost always one of the actions resulting from an ERA reflection, again emphasising the complimentary nature of these different elements of church leadership.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers on this particular topic?

A: Western readers might want to consider using this model within their churches. During my masters studies the eldership team of my home churches successfully used theological reflection when two churches entering into partnership had different traditions concerning Holy Communion. Reflecting together on the situation not only resulted in a renewed and common view among the leaders but was also an excellent team building exercise.

Thank you Myles. It would be good to interview you again in the future about an aspect of the preaching programme you developed.

I also want to thoroughly recommend your recent book, Preach the Word (London: Apostolos Publishing 2017). It is an invaluable resource for those who are developing training programmes in context. I have written a review of the book here.