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The Spurgeon of Africa

International | Zambia's Conrad Mbewe embraces the Baptist reformer's love of preaching, writing, and controversy

Issue: "Beginning of the end," March 29, 2003

CONRAD MBEWE SLICES THE air with his hands. His booming baritone soars to a frenzied pitch. "I ask, what is your attitude to authority in your home?" he says. "What is your at-ti-tude? If that's what characterizes your life, stop cheating yourself that you're a Christian." The congregation's eyes follow every jab of his finger, every sweep of his hands. They're hearing-and watching-a regular Sunday sermon from their pastor. But he also happens to be the Spurgeon of Africa.

Mr. Mbewe is the pastor of Kabwata Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia-a position he took 15 years ago when he gave up a career as a mining engineer. The service over, he strides down the pew aisle, wiping fingers across his brow. His face collapses in fatigue.

For one month, Mr. Mbewe preached only once a Sunday, instead of his usual two times. After three bouts of malaria and back-to-back preaching conferences in Namibia, South Africa, and Zambia early this year, he was exhausted. "What impresses me is how he manages to get things done," said church office assistant Lumpuma Chitambala. "The question should be, when does he rest?"

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Mr. Mbewe's doctor ordered two months of rest-which he loosely observed. "I would sneak in here-my wife was working so she couldn't police me," he said, sifting through a stack of paper at his office desk. Behind him a regal impala head dominates the wall. Just below, a framed portrait of Charles Haddon Spurgeon rests on a bookshelf, a gift from a pastor in Kansas.

Mr. Mbewe isn't sure why listeners compare him to the British "Prince of Preachers." Perhaps it is because Mr. Spurgeon too toiled to the point of collapse, ministering to a congregation of 4,000, delivering sermons 10 times a week, managing an orphanage, and running a preachers' college-all of which culminated in exhaustion, smallpox, and gout.

Or perhaps it is because Mr. Mbewe shares Spurgeon's love for writing. Spurgeon edited and wrote for his monthly magazine, The Sword and Trowel; Mr. Mbewe has been writing two columns a week for the last 10 years in the country's Daily Chronicle newspaper. One is a sermon, while the other examines popular social questions and is tailored for the ordinary man, similar to Spurgeon's selection of parables, John Ploughman's Talk.

But where the Zambian pastor most resembles Spurgeon is in his challenge to the "mile wide and inch deep" church in Zambia. This year he declined to participate in Operation Sunrise Africa-an evangelical crusade meant to dispense gospel teaching to 50 million people in 50 cities in 50 days in southern and eastern Africa.

The cost to sponsor a city for the July and August campaign and three years of follow-up ministry is $160,000. Most of the funding has come from the United States. In Zambia, hundreds of pastors are taking part. "They were so excited about this," Mr. Mbewe told WORLD. "My question is, what are they doing that I don't already do? You can't win the world in 50 days. Every generation has to be re-evangelized."

This outspokenness in the pulpit and on national television panel discussions has put the spotlight on Mr. Mbewe and his ministry. "People think that he's always serious-a sort of cold-blooded theologian," said Charles Bota, a 20-year friend of Mr. Mbewe. "He's warm. He's funny. He knows a lot about the world."

On a Saturday afternoon, Mr. Mbewe chugs to the church gate in his Toyota Corona, the one with the bumper sticker warning, "Don't let the car fool you-my treasure is in heaven." He's preaching to a youth group at another church. "My poor car is giving up," he says, as it stalls twice before reaching the road. Mr. Mbewe slides the stick shift into gear then rests his left hand on the wheel, poking a casual right elbow out the window.

Inside the church, with the rare intimacy of a small youth group, Mr. Mbewe abandons the rickety wooden lectern and towers a foot away from the front row. For three weeks he has preached from Galatians. Now he fires questions at the group, then stops short as they flutter through notes and Bibles. "It's too late, I'm already complaining," he says, as one young man yells out an answer. "You know I always complain when I come here. You people don't make me feel like I'm in a youth group." His meaty, rippling laugh infects his audience.

Back at Kabwata Baptist Church, Mr. Mbewe chats with church members outside a rectangular building of church offices, school classrooms, library, and sanctuary. None of this existed 10 years ago. In 1987 the 35-member church met in the local community hall. Now the congregation has grown to 200 members.

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