After labouring for eight years to establish Chisomo Baptist Church from scratch, Pastor Lichawa Thole was overjoyed to witness the appointment of the first elders of the church in May 2008. The eight years have not been easy as the first independent Reformed Baptist church in the vernacular world was in the womb. Reformation Zambia interviews Pastor Thole to hear from him what challenges are peculiar to planting a Reformed Baptist church in the vernacular-speaking world.

Tell us a little about yourself – your family, academic and working background prior to your entry into the ministry.

I am the third born and the first son in a family of seven children. I am married to Mirriam and we have two daughters namely Lusungu (16) and Ndabase (10) and one son, Maskalela (7). I attended Grade 1 at Lusaka Boys Primary School in 1979 before moving to Chelstone Primary School in 1980 where I completed my Grade 7 in 1985. I was selected to go to Libala Boys Secondary School in 1986 and I completed my grade 12 there in 1990. Some of my teachers at Libala were Mr Eric Sinyangwe, an elder at Kabwata Baptist Church and Mrs Emily Mumba, an elder’s wife at Lusaka Baptist Church. That the two were good teachers is evident from the distinctions I had in the subjects they taught. Without any college training, I started work with Barclays Bank in 1992 after doing some part-time work with Match Company in 1991. I then lost my job with Barclays Bank in 1997 and stayed out of employment for two years.

And what about your spiritual background? How did you get converted?

I was raised a Presbyterian from childhood, having been “baptised” in my infancy. One thing I appreciate about my upbringing is that I memorised many portions of the Westminster Shorter Catechism in Tumbuka, my mother tongue, though I never really understood the meaning of all that I memorised. With this kind of upbringing, coupled with all the church activities I was involved in, I always assumed that I was a Christian from birth. Quite often some visiting preachers would faithfully preach the gospel to the congregation I used to attend but I never thought it was for meant me. I thought it was for some bad people out there!

I first began to question whether I was really a Christian when one day a senior at school, Allan Mweemba, took an interest in me and my other friends on our way to school. He challenged me about my profession of Christianity and later invited me to a Scripture Union (SU) meeting. What surprised me most at this meeting was the life in the singing, and that young people could actually pray passionately and even preach. I’m grateful to God that through the efforts and preaching of Allan Mweemba in 1987 I realised my sin and prayed to the Lord Jesus for mercy. My life completely changed. I had never prayed before, except to say memorised prayers. Before this I could read the Bible but only as a story-book but now I hungered for God’s Word. My relationship with Christ came alive. I came across the Great Commission passage (Matthew 28:19-20) and began to feel that I was sinning if I did not go out to share the gospel with anyone at school or at home.

How did you come to the doctrines of grace?

It was through Scripture Union again that I first came to hear about the doctrines of grace. The SU at school was full of over-zealous young men with strong theological opinions and this often sparked debates. Notable among these young men were Moses Banda of the Reformed Church in Zambia (now gone to be with the Lord) and Emmanuel Matafwali of Kabwata Baptist Church. The two were held in very high suspicion among brethren in the SU as those who believed and taught that God made some people—in fact many people—with the express purpose of sending them to eternal damnation and that these could not be saved no matter how much they cried out to the Lord Jesus for mercy in this life. It was also believed that these two individuals did not believe in evangelism since God had already chosen who should be saved and that the chosen ones, once saved, could sin as much as they wanted and still go to heaven.

As a young Christian I wondered how any true believer could believe such teachings. Upon enquiry, I learnt that this caricatured teaching was known as Calvinism. I also realised that the list of Calvinists was longer than I thought and that it included many great preachers and hymn-writers of past centuries. Then my greatest shock came when Allan included my own denomination—the Presbyterian Church—on the list of Calvinistic churches. I protested vehemently. When I went to enquire at church concerning this wild accusation, no one among the church leaders had even heard of Calvinism before! But Allan insisted that I check in a document called the Westminster Confession. I searched for this book but could not find it.

The answers to the questions I had finally came in 1988 at an SU camp at which Pastor Conrad Mbewe ably but simply handled the theme, “The Offices of Christ.” What deeply impressed me about his preaching is that he taught all the sessions from one text, 1 Timothy 2:1-7. From this text he taught Calvinistic doctrine without using any Calvinistic terminology. These sessions were so enriching especially to those of us who were used to “how to” sermons. At the end of the camp I realised that the two brothers and the system known as Calvinism had been grossly misrepresented by the opponents who I later came to know as Arminians. Kunda Kalifungwa, then of Lusaka Baptist Church, helped me to answer some of the questions I had about the doctrines of grace. Soon I discovered that there was a library at Kabwata Baptist Church where I could borrow books.

Finally it was in this library that I bumped into a copy of the Westminster Confession and what a joy it was to discover that in it was the Shorter Catechism I was made to memorise as a child in my own mother tongue. Now the meaning of what I memorised came alive! But with this document in my hands I quickly became a convinced paedo-baptist (i.e. a believer in infant baptism). With the passing of time my scope of the doctrines of grace developed beyond the Five Points of Calvinism. I became very zealous for Calvinistic doctrine, wanting to challenge anyone who held onto any other view. With time, however, my fiery zeal for Calvinism, which often scorched anyone who stood in my way, cooled down and I became more charitable to brethren of different views, especially Arminians.

How did you find yourself in the work of missions among Reformed Baptists?

My acquaintance with Reformed Baptists goes as far back as the late 1980s, but it was in 1999 that I had a more serious and formal relationship with Kabwata Baptist Church when I enrolled as a student in the Preachers’ College. I felt the call to the ministry as early as 1992 but I kept brushing it aside, perhaps because I was comfortable in my job at Barclays. The two years that I subsequently stayed out of employment made me reflect deeply about my life and I soon realised that I had failed the Lord in many ways. Looking back to that period, I think it was a good retreat for me. I was spiritually renewed and my burden for the ministry grew, especially as I served the Lord as an elder at Matero Presbyterian Church.

Pastor Mbewe was not only a lecturer but also a mentor to students in Preachers’ College. I sought counsel with him on three issues. First, I was ashamed that I would be seen as an opportunist if I entered the ministry after losing my job. Secondly, I wished to enter the Presbyterian ministry but I wondered how I would fit in a system that had by this time largely departed from the Westminster standards which I so cherished. Lastly, I felt that joining Reformed Baptists would be more fulfilling and fruitful, but could I be allowed to join any Baptist church without being “re-baptised”? Our discussions lasted for about 8 months and, finally, I painfully bade farewell to the Matero congregation of the Presbyterian Church in an emotional farewell service in November 1999 to go and join Kabwata Baptist Church. I was later baptised in 2000. On 2 April 2000, I preached my first sermon at the first service of Chisomo Baptist Church in Matero as their new missionary pastor.

What are some of the greatest challenges you have experienced in the work of church-planting in the vernacular-speaking world?

The challenges are many. Poverty levels in the low-income residential areas abound and some long-established denominations have some community programs among the needy which an infant church can’t afford to sponsor. Yet in many of these denominations the preaching and teaching ministry is very poor. People are content to stay there rather than attend churches that meet in classrooms, which are often ridiculed as “tu nthemba” (make-shift) churches.

Another challenge in the low-income residential areas is that people are not accustomed to expository preaching but are used to preaching that directly addresses their needs. One has to learn to address the needs of the hearers without compromising or watering down faithful biblical exposition and application of the text. On one occasion we had a regular visitor who could not read and so she could neither follow the flow of the text nor participate in singing hymns. She could only participate in singing when we sang a popular vernacular chorus and many of these choruses in vernacular are not rich in biblical content. (They are usually just a repetition of one or two sentences where one takes the lead and the others respond with “Hallelujah, Amen!”). She felt so frustrated about this that she finally left us. Thankfully, she has recently returned after more than three years in the wilderness and she is working hard at learning how to read. The biggest challenge, however, is that although people in the low-income residential areas are more open to the gospel than in the middle-to-high-income areas, they require regular and consistent one-to-one Bible study in their homes for many months before things begin to sink. If a missionary pastor took this path he would cover very little ground. This calls for more ground troops on a more regular basis from the sending church to double his efforts.

Chisomo Baptist Church was constituted as an independent Reformed Baptist church, with its own elders, on Sunday, 25th May 2008. Do you think it was really ready to become an independent church?

I believe Chisomo Baptist is ready for autonomy but this does not mean that it has arrived at being a fully-fledged Reformed Baptist church like the other independent sister churches in the country. In my opinion it has just entered a second phase of its development. Our two new elders, Francis Ngoma and Edwin Mwale, are convinced Reformed Baptists and by God’s grace are able to take the church through this new phase of its life. I have been working with them for not less than six years and their contribution to the work is clearly evident.

As you look back over the last eight years of planting Chisomo Baptist Church, what are some of the high-points of your ministry there?

I cannot immediately think of any high points in my last eight years at Chisomo Baptist Church. There were times when things were so hard that I almost quit but by God’s grace, and through the godly encouragement of brethren, I continued with my feeble efforts. When I look back over the eight years of my ministry, there are two things I am grateful to God for. Firstly, I am thankful to God that he converted a few souls under my ministry and that these have developed and become eldership material. So, we have not had to import eldership material from other churches. Secondly, I am grateful to God that he has used me to influence non-Reformed brethren to embrace Reformed views. Some of them are now serving the Lord in Reformed Baptist circles.

Do you foresee any major challenges for Chisomo Baptist Church as it enters into the next phase of its development as a church?

Yes. Chisomo Baptist Church still meets in a classroom. We have just acquired a piece of land after years of trying to get one. We are now faced with the challenge of construction work on the site. The biggest challenge, however, is the ongoing missions work in the surrounding low-income residential areas of Matero constituency. We strongly feel that the burden lies more on the vernacular churches to plant more churches in their immediate constituencies rather than expecting English-speaking churches to go into every low-income residential areas, where the vernacular language is the language on the streets. We need both man-power and money-power to achieve this. Pray to the Lord of the harvest that he might raise more labourers for the vernacular churches. We have to give sacrificially to this work ourselves as a church but we will also look to sister churches for financial support.

Recently, you expressed a lot of excitement about the Reformed Baptist work in Eastern Province. What exactly excites you about what is happening there?

What excites me about the Reformed Baptist work in the Eastern Province is that, first of all, it is my homeland and I have a burden for my people in the spirit of Paul’s burden for Israel in Romans 10:1. The Eastern Province received the Reformed heritage more than a century ago through the Dutch Reformed Mission and Scottish Mission and it is only natural to be excited that the heritage is coming back to life through the Reformed Baptist movement. But, secondly, the presence and influence of Covenant College in Petauke is exciting. In my view the college is actually a Reformed Baptist nest and many students there are expressing interest in our work. All the five Reformed Baptist pastors in the province are Covenant College graduates!

Chipata Calvary Baptist Church and Petauke Grace Reformed Baptist Church are strategic churches in the province. But also the Eastern Province Annual Reformed Conference, which has now been running for three years, reveals that there is growing interest in Reformed work in many parts of the province. What can we say but to conclude that God is at work in that region! Surely we cannot sit back and watch such opportunity slip through our fingers. To this end I undertook a tour of the Eastern Province from June to August last year (2008) to contribute to the work.

Do you foresee what has happened in Eastern Province happening in other provinces as well, so that we can have Reformed Baptist churches in Tonga, Lozi, Bemba, etc?

I believe that sooner rather than later there will be Reformed Baptist churches in all the seven major languages of Zambia. But we need to realise that we cannot achieve this with our human efforts. God works when, where and how he pleases. It is him who has set the stage for what is happening in the Eastern Province and we can only look to him in faith that he will do the same countrywide as we do our part of church-planting and praying.

Having established the very first independent vernacular speaking Reformed Baptist church, what are your future plans and how best can we pray for you?

In the next three to four years I would like to be part of the second phase of the development of Chisomo Baptist Church. Thereafter, I would like to engage in rural missions in the Eastern Province. These are just my plans but the Lord may have other plans for me. Pray for me in this respect.

What advice would you give English-speaking Reformed Baptist churches in Zambia as they engage in vernacular-speaking church-planting work, in order for them to do so more effectively?

Firstly, all missions work is very costly not only in monetary terms but also in terms of demands it makes upon the time and commitment of our members. Our missionary pastors need a sizeable support-team from the sending church who will give themselves to new works until the new work is stable. This may sound controversial, but where possible some families must consider relocating to the town where the new church is being planted if the sending church is far away. Such families would provide the fellowship needed by the lonely missionary pastor and also double his efforts. Our members have to learn to move out of their comfort zones for the gospel’s sake!

Secondly, English-speaking churches need to have deliberate plans to plant churches in low-income residential areas in their towns and in strategic towns in other provinces across the country. Let me state here that many of the low-income residential areas in our towns are running out of land. By the time we get there, there will be no land for our future churches to purchase!

Thirdly, we also need Reformed literature in our local languages. I think we need to invest in a translation committee if we are to do this on a large scale. Perhaps there is need to employ a skilled scribe to co-ordinate such work.

Finally, let us be on our knees praying that God will bless missions work in the vernacular world.

Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

I urge all those reading this interview to pray that the Lord of the harvest will raise more labourers. Our excitement for the spread of Reformed Baptist work should be coupled with a willingness to throw in our lot into the work.