Finishing up (to the best of my knowledge) a whirlwind tour around the world from England to Belgium to Australia, we’ve now got Norman Clack from the Republic of South Africa to tell us a little more about church marketing in Africa. It’s one of our longer interviews, but it’s super interesting and insightful to hear the stories and challenges of life and church marketing in South Africa.
Norman, tell us a little about yourself and your church.
Norman: I’m a licensed pastor with the International Federation of Christian Churches in South Africa. I have been in full-time ministry for 9 years. I have had the privilege to be on staff and involved in a leadership capacity with a spectrum of denominational as well as some non-denominational churches in South Africa over the past 17 years.
A month ago my wife Gerda and I launched a church plant called Cedarhill Christian Church in the least churched area in Johannesburg called Westcliffe. It is a very affluent area in Johannesburg and borders the famous suburb called Houghton where Nelson Mandela lives. The area is made up of intellectuals and highly professional corporate leaders. Most of them don’t belong to a church and are either Jewish, Church of Science, Islamic, agnostic or atheist. We have had high-powered corporate leaders to domestic workers visit our services. They are the people we believe God has called us to serve.
Sounds like a pretty exciting place to be serving. South Africa has always been interesting to me, it seems strongly British and African at once. Tell us a little more about the culture there.
Norman: We have 11 official languages! That should give you an idea of how diverse our cultures are. Johannesburg is a huge cosmopolitan city and the economic capital for South Africa (and a big part of Africa). This means that we have all these wonderful diverse cultures thrown into one steaming pot.
Within Jozi (That’s what we like to call our city.) we have different regions which also dictate which cultures are more dominant. Culture strongly follows language. You mention British culture, but actually the American culture is strongly followed currently due to television programmes and movies from the U.S. flooding our market. Americans visiting our country feel very at home in our malls and shopping centres–everything from the music to the clothing fashion mimics America.
As much as I would like to answer this question thoroughly, our country is just too complex. Books have been written about South Africa’s culture. I will not be able to give you even an overview in an interview like this one–except to say: don’t believe everything you see in the media. We are a young democracy and we are still working out all the glitches. I think South Africa’s culture is still evolving to a large extent.
My two children will grow up way different to how I grew up, because of the schooling system that changed and because of the fact that our church is not a “whites only” church. We have house friends that are coloured (something that would not even be considered as I grew up). There is a whole different culture that is defining itself daily out there. And the beauty is that we don’t have just one culture everyone expresses. We consist of a diversity of cultural expressions. It is actually quite awesome to be part of something so special.
What challenges have you faced in sharing the gospel that you think are unique to South Africa and Johannesburg?
Norman: Taking that we are living in the crime capital of South Africa, most of these people live behind eight foot high walls with cameras, electric fencing and 24 hour security guards. So taking a poll and “meeting the neighbours” isn’t exactly that easy unless you’re trained in military tactics! So I’d rather prefer the marketing route. We are privileged to meet in a hall in an old mansion in Westcliffe. The house was built in the late 1890s and the hall has had several uses–ranging from billiards room, private ballroom and now a fully operational marionette theatre.
Obviously unchurched people in our community are not running around and quoting Scriptures like, “in Christ there are neither Jew nor Greek …” so finding a middle ground to reach everyone in our community usually entails holding our services in English. Culture gaps are our biggest challenge! If we had one official language that would have been awesome from a church growth perspective. So we have to find common ground to be relevant in our community and for us that is English.
But our culture and social-economic gaps is also the thing that makes us unique. It gives us a tremendous opportunity. It reminds me of the Day of Pentecost when Peter preached and 3,000 were added unto the church (Acts 2:41). Can you imagine the complexities that congregation were faced with on that day? All those different ethnic groups coming on your membership list in one day! So much for holding on to your favourite seat in the Upper Room.
Some other challenges include: the fact that people are more sceptical about faith as they rely on themselves and their money; pagan religions becoming fashionable; people’s disillusionment with organised religion; and people’s general suspicion of each other because of crime and corruption–the list can go on, but I don’t want you to jump out of your window after reading this!
That’s pretty neat that you’re meeting in the old mansion. We’ve talked about building design before, and Mark Batterson talks about “the spirituality of space.” What advantages have you seen from having such a unique location?
Norman: It is still a bit early to tell, but since we feel called to reach the unchurched, it helps to be able to invite them to the theatre and not a traditional church building. We have some professional musicians that played for a well-known South African rock band, and they immediately felt at home in this creative environment. That makes it easy for people to invite their friends that might be sceptical about church and organised religion. It definitely raises curiosity for some people.
Obviously, things there are different. What’s something you see working in the U.S. that wouldn’t translate to South Africa?
Norman: I don’t believe there is a simple, clear-cut answer, but here’s my opinion: You will find a lot of the “American church flavour” in South Africa when it comes to church models. We have learned a lot from our brothers and sisters in the USA. Many of the church models that originated from the States are being implemented here and it works to a certain extent.
But on the other hand in some of the churches where I have been involved it flopped terribly. I don’t think it is the church model’s fault as much as it is the church leadership’s fault. I honestly believe that God has got a unique plan for every community. What might work in one suburb will not work in the next. What might work in one established denominational church will not work in a non-denominational church and vice versa.
As I’ve said before, South Africa is extremely diverse culturally. It is amazing when you see a church that has captured that culture that truly reflects their community. Then on the other hand I believe the bigger Church is a family regardless of geographical differences. We all have something to offer to our neighbours. Some of the principles we find in the Apostles’ letters are universal and timeless.
The congregations in the New Testament faced a lot of the same challenges we are facing today. It is all a matter of common sense and balance as we implement ideas, models and principles I believe.
To be honest I actually wish some American pastors would invest in visiting South African churches to learn and not to come and “rescue” them (Please know that I say this with the utmost respect and don’t want to over-generalize.). I really believe that the Church in South Africa has a lot to offer the world because of what we have learned about church leadership the past 13 years. I believe there is a wealth of wisdom in South Africa waiting to be discovered by the rest of the church world.
That’s really interesting to hear, Norman. I hope some pastors will take you up on your challenge. To finish lightly, give us an interesting fact or funny story that us here in the West probably didn’t know about South Africa?
Norman: I actually have had people ask me during a trip to the States “do you know so and so from Nigeria” when they hear I’m from South Africa. We don’t have wild animals roaming freely in our streets. So you won’t get mauled by a lion in the reception
area of the international airport! Charlize Theron grew up Afrikaans (one of our 11 official languages that originated from Dutch) and was not born with an American accent. The guy who played the mummy in the movie The Mummy (with Brendan Fraser) is called Arnold Vosloo and he also is a South African who grew up Afrikaans. The actress Embeth Davidtz is also a South African. We are very proud of them!