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God’s Design for the Church // Book Review

With this book, God’s Design for the Church, Conrad Mbewe has graced us with a truly significant offering of biblical ecclesiology for the African context and continent.

I am not trying to make the Bible more African; I am trying to get the church in Africa to be more biblical

At the beginning of the book, Mbewe lists a number of pastors and pastoral interns who contributed to the contents of the book. In doing this, he specifically addresses his fellow elders at Kabwata Baptist Church for “their spiritual courage” (p13). This is a testament to what this book is about. For it is written by a church man for other church men and women. It is a call to spiritual orthodoxy and vitality in a day and age when both are desperately needed.

God's Design for the Church: A Guide for African Pastors and Ministry Leaders

God's Design for the Church: A Guide for African Pastors and Ministry Leaders

Crossway. 288 pages.

Structured around twenty commonly asked questions about God’s design for the church, this helpful resource covers topics ranging from the definition of church and the role of church members to the importance of doctrine.

Through this book, Mbewe aims to equip pastors and leaders with biblical principles that will “permeate the landscape of Africa and transform its churches for generations to come.”

Crossway. 288 pages.

A Biblical Church for the African Continent

Mbewe unapologetically writes this book for African church leaders. He deals honestly with issues that have been crippling the church on our continent. The author acknowledges the positive youthfulness, vivacity and relationship-oriented approach of the African church. But at the same time he recognises the hindrances that prevent it from being aligned to the divine intent.

These include the influence of witchcraft on the African mindset, the zeal without knowledge and immaturity observable in many pulpits on the continent, and the erroneous elevation of those in leadership. He sums his intent up in this way, “I am not trying to make the Bible more African; I am trying to get the church in Africa to be more biblical” (p16). This is what makes this book unique—both in its content and communication style.

God’s Good Design For the Church: Outline

Desiring to be Bible-driven, and not denominationally dogmatic, Mbewe addresses the vast topic of ecclesiology under 5 big categories:

Chapters 1-4: The Nature of The Church

Mbewe begins by establishing a clear understanding of the church’s identity, calling and purpose under the headship of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because he is the sole founder of the church he must remain its centre. His glory must always be its goal.

Chapters 5-7: The Constituents of The Church

In these chapters, the author draws our attention to church membership and leadership. He speaks about the selection process of leaders together with the responsibilities of church members towards one another.

Mbewe challenges the image of the “tribal chief,” vivid in the African mind. For it results in many pastors being enshrined as men of God, untouchable, irrevocable (p85). He makes a very convincing case for the alternative: biblically qualified plurality of elders.

Chapters 8-10: The Observances of The Church

In the third section of his book, Mbewe focuses on the church ordinances, liturgy and on the practice of giving. He corrects a prevalent and problematic view of the Lord’s Supper in Africa (p97). He then presents Sunday gatherings as an invitation by the King of the universe to a joyous and solemn assembly. The purpose of these gatherings is: biblical instruction, fellowship, the ordinances and prayer.

One of the greatest strengths of God’s Design for the Church is Mbewe’s first hand experience of the subject matter as well as the African context

Chapters 11-16: Disciple-Making and The Church

These chapters discuss how the church grows numerically and spiritually. Mbewe appeals for African churches to be involved in the work of missions. Thus he disregards continental apprehensions and prejudices towards this movement, both historically and at present.

Importantly, Mbewe rejects the idea that missions are prevented by the lack of financial resources.

Chapters 17-20: The Testimony of The Church

In this final section, Mbewe explores the interaction between the local church and other entities. These may include other local churches, where doctrinal unity exists. But Mbewe also offers thoughts on engaging the state when it comes to upholding moral laws and meeting the needs of the poor.

5 Factors That Set This Book Apart

There are countless books on church, why should you read this one?

One of the greatest strengths of God’s Design for the Church is the author’s first hand experience of the subject matter as well as the African context. He draws from childhood anecdotes and African folklore to illustrate his points. For instance, he recounts how chores were distributed during his time living on a farm after his mother died, to illustrate how church members relate to one another (p71-72).

Mbewe also shares insights about the concept of family in Africa to conclude that, “what you believe really affects the way you live” (p162). He also quotes from the works of an African hymn writer, Emmanuel T. Sibomana to defend his point that congregational singing must be biblical and Christ-exalting in its content (p116-17).

1. Doctrinal humility

It is also palpable that the author has prayerfully sought not to be dogmatic in areas where Scripture is not. At times he is very assertive about his interpretation, where he is convinced that Scripture is clear. Examples of this include: the requirements of church leaders (p89); female eldership (p91); baptism by immersion as a symbol of the spiritual renewal of the believer (p99-101); and even foot washing (p98). But he is not rigid on issues like deaconesses (p93-94), or whether offerings should be collected during the service (p111).

2. Pastoral tone

The book’s tone is sensitively pastoral. Mbewe is speaking, as did the apostle John in his epistles, as a big brother sharing with his fellow runners what he has gleaned over the years. He lovingly instructs, admonishes and rebukes when necessary. His warnings against self-appointed elders or nomination of elders based on the wrong criteria are particularly impactful (p94-96).

Mbewe is speaking as a big brother sharing with his fellow runners what he has gleaned over the years

3. Keeping God’s Purposes Central to God’s Church

He invites his readers to focus on pleasing God by keeping his glory as the goal of everything the church does, maintaining an attitude of “reverent delight” (p214), protecting and proclaiming the truth of God as given to us in holy writ, against the attacks of secular worldviews, hating sin and zealously removing it from our midst, and loving one another. Though it should almost go without saying, Mbewe invites church elders to make changes prayerfully and patiently. Furthermore, in this process, he also places high value on godly counsel and wisdom.

4. From One African Pastor to Others

As I have already noted, this book finds some of its more uniquely impactful points in Mbewe’s wealth of ministry experience. He writes as an African for African church leaders. He does so with the confident hope that, “the church of Christ on the African continent will prove a great blessing to the rest of the global church” (p234). Thus, in addition to being theologically sound and pastorally practical, this work is soaked through with Christian maturity and ministry experience. One of these reasons would be enough to warrant purchasing it. But all of them together make God’s Design for the Church necessary reading.

5. A Book for Everyone

If you are a theological student or prospective church planter make sure you grab a copy of this book. Maybe you are a pastor looking for help to evaluate the health of your church. Then put this on your desk. If you are a lay person in the church seeking to develop your understanding of biblical ecclesiology, in an African context or not, Mbewe’s work is universally applicable.

May Christianity in Africa no longer be known to be one mile wide and one inch deep.

I firmly believe that God’s Design for the Church will be a reference work for African pastors in the years to come. May Christianity in Africa no longer be known to be one mile wide and one inch deep. Rather, let us pray that it may it be rooted in Scripture and thrive through solid, Bible-centred local churches.

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