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The Spurgeon of Africa

"The Spurgeon of Africa" Continued...

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

In that time the pastor has guided a steady treadmill of additions. Ceiling and paint were added to the sanctuary in 1997 so the congregation wasn't worshipping under naked steel roof sheets. An elementary school began in 1998. A printing press began in the garage in 2000.

The growth proved to be the pastor's hardest test. Twenty members left over changes he instituted. When he arrived at Kabwata, he found a team of deacons and one elder heading the church. Within two years he created an eldership and divided the duties, which left the deacons out of some decision making. He also introduced Reformed theology.

Church members accused him of singling them out in sermons and said he was unfit to be a pastor. Dapson Mwendafilumba, a member who disagreed with Mr. Mbewe, argued in the pastor's book-lined study that Mr. Mbewe wasn't practicing what he preached. "He was not being more of a caring pastor in terms of visiting when he left the pulpit," he said. "I called him an actor. I said, 'Look here, you don't seem to marry the two.'" Mr. Mbewe described the period as the "worst in his ministerial life."

He used to joke, "If I coughed, people would say 'He's coughing too much,' or if I didn't cough they'd say, 'Why isn't he coughing? Isn't he human?'"

So five years into his pastorate, the congregation had to vote on whether it wanted him to stay or go. In the end, 92 percent of the congregation voted for Mr. Mbewe to stay. Mr. Mwendafilumba, who joined another church, said they are on good terms now. He maintains that Mr. Mbewe could have gone slower on the reforms. Mr. Mbewe agrees. "He is very headstrong and likes to lead, likes to push," said Mr. Bota. "He's rarely in a position where there's another guy that's better than him. He tends to get what he wants done, done."

Mr. Mbewe's wife, Felistas, recalls his patience when dealing with church members who opposed him. "You can't see my husband lose his temper," she said. "If he's upset about something, usually he withdraws. He was having sleepless nights, wanting to write everything that happened."

Today, Mr. Mbewe's reputation extends beyond Zambia. He has preached at Reformed and Baptist conferences in the United States, England, South Africa, and Brazil. Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla., first met Mr. Mbewe at a conference in South Africa in 1995. "Conrad has been gifted by God to preach to the consciences of people," he said. "He is a devoted student of Scripture and human nature, as well as a ravenous reader of theology. All of this he shares in common with Spurgeon. Also, like Spurgeon, though he is multitalented, he is first and foremost a preacher and loves to have it that way."

Even when Mr. Mbewe winds down on a Monday evening, his day off, church workers scuttle in and out of his front door. Several members of the college group slip into his study to borrow a book. "This is what it gets like at this time," he says, grinning from his living-room armchair. He doesn't know about being the Spurgeon of Africa. But he does like being a pastor.

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