January 2024

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The Unchurched

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About 30 years ago, a young man came to interview me as part of his Master’s degree thesis on ‘The Unchurched’.

His research indicated that over 1.5 million committed Christians in South Africa were not attending church. I don’t know what the situation is today, but my impression is that in post-Covid19 South Africa, it is far worse than three decades ago. I have encountered many believers who either do not attend church or who do so only because their families drag them along. The reasons given tend to cluster around the following:

    • Sports and family activities take priority
    • There are many online alternatives available
    • Don’t see the need for church rather than private spirituality
    • Offence by church leaders or other church members
    • Disagreements over doctrines
    • Finding church services long, boring, and not relevant to modern life

Personal Experience

There could be many other reasons, but everyone has a personal story to tell. I have a story to tell because for the first time in my 46 years as a Jesus-follower I have experienced being part of the large yet invisible ‘Unchurched’. In the past, I have seen this ‘church problem’ from the perspective of a church leader, but now I have experienced it from the other side. I don’t believe there is much to gain from detailing just how I found myself on the ‘dark’ side, but my experiences may well help others who are part of The Unchurched.

The Value of the Local Church

I have always believed that the local church is very important to the Lord Jesus and, therefore, to every one of his followers. My recent experiences have not shaken this belief. Some of the reasons why the church is important are:

  1. Acts 20:28 Once a year for the 28 years that I led a local church I would read this verse to my fellow Elders: ‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. This alone should settle the matter of the worth and importance of the local church.
  2. Hebrews 10:23-25Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching’.
  3. God designed the local church to be more organic than organisational in nature. In some mysterious, but very real way, it is a living manifestation of the Body of Christ in a particular area and culture. Each born-again believer is a cell within this body and can therefore only thrive over time as a functional part of this body.
  4. The church is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the ‘place’ of his presence. When believers come together as a church, they, in a wonderfully mysterious way, constitute this temple.

These are four reasons why the local church is important to God and should be important to all Jesus-followers.

What I Missed

Having spelled out the value and importance of the local church, the place I want to start, in setting out my experiences and observations, is by mentioning what I missed most by being unchurched.

  1. I missed the faces, voices, hugs, and simple presence of other believers. A properly functioning church is one in which the people get to know each other, interact, and over time come to love one another.
  2. Another feature of a properly functioning church is that it provides the opportunity to give and receive, to minister and to receive ministry, and to witness others experiencing this.
  3. I missed the spiritual stimulation of singing out praise and worship together with many others.
  4. I dearly missed the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit moving among his people and animating us all to become more than just solitary parts but co-joined living cells within something greater.
I have used the words ‘properly functioning church’ purposefully because not all churches function as an organic body. Many are self-serving organisations, leader-dominated means to control or self-enrich. Far too many are religious edifices that serve only to perpetuate traditions and superficial expressions of spirituality.

I filtered out these types of churches when I eventually started to look for a church to attend. Instead, I initially did two things – I prayed and I viewed the online services of several churches in the area. I later visited a few. This is what I observed:

  • Most of them had positioned themselves as alternatives to modern secular life. They turned off the main lighting during the worship and even during the preaching, much like a theatre. The leaders sported ‘with it’ clothing, trendy facial hair, and eerily similar styles of speaking. The services minimised worship, sharing, and ministry and maximised notices, offerings, and preaching. The preaching was mainly superficial and self-improvement-oriented.
  • However, I visited a couple of churches where the leaders were genuinely trying to create what they saw as authentic biblical church life. Here other questions rose in me – could I contribute meaningfully to this church? Could I accept the particular rules and doctrines that they thought important enough to insist on? Would they accept me for who and what I am, an elderly past church leader and theologian?

I did not find one that I could join and serve, but I never stopped being open to joining a local church. However, I needed the Lord to guide me because on my own it is so hard to find a place to belong.

What Surprised Me

There were some things that I just did not expect to experience when I left the church that had been my spiritual home for over three decades.

  • I didn’t expect to find myself “cancelled”. I knew of the cancel culture so prevalent in the world, but I did not expect it from Christians. In my case, I do not think it was a strategy, but rather just out-of-sight-out of mind.  In the months after leaving, very few people reached out to me, particularly among the men I had shared leadership with and regarded as genuine friends for so many years. To most, I became generally invisible and irrelevant. Not to all, of course, and most who were ‘house friends’ continued their relationships with me. I also have to note (with a wry smile) that when I was a leader in the church there was an expectation that the missing sheep also had an obligation to reach out to us. I can see how unrealistic this is because someone who is grieving loss just doesn’t know how to re-establish relationships without creating further problems.
  • I also did not expect to experience the severity of the resentment and emotional pain that came with severance from my church family. My wife and I have been married for 55 years and so I have never experienced the negative power of divorce, although I have often observed it. Well, leaving a church body seems similar in many ways to a divorce.
  • Although I had warned people from the pulpit how spiritually lonely it is to be outside of the local church, I did not expect it to take such a toll on personal devotions, prayer, and spiritual passion. It is a truism that a lump of coal cannot remain hot for long when removed from the fire.

What I Needed to Do

I cannot presume to say what other unchurched believers should do; all I can do is mention what I have done in the hope that this may be helpful.

  1. I resolved to continue to grapple with the difficulty of finding an authentic local church where I could belong. I tried to ensure that I was open to the possibility and I constantly asked the Holy Spirit to lead me to one. When I came across a new possibility, then I went there to see if it was ‘the one’. I widened my field of vision to include house churches or Christian fellowship groups that are not necessarily part of an established church.
  2. I continued to try to deal with offence, resentment and hurt. I wanted to respond to these realities in the way Jesus taught and demonstrated, but I found it difficult, complex, and full of lose-lose options. In the past, I might have said “Oh boo hoo, just get over yourself” but I won’t be making that mistake again.
  3. I refrained from bad-mouthing the church leadership to their members or saying and doing anything that could hurt the church. I did not volunteer to others the reasons why I resigned and only gave details if specifically asked.
  4. I continued to value the local church in what I said and wrote and I tried my best to keep my relationship with Jesus and his followers sincere and transparent.

Why I have Written This Article

 

I have shared my experiences transparently in the hope that what I have written will be helpful to both unchurched folks and, perhaps, church leaders. It was a painful experience living on the outside, but it would only have been a worthless experience if I and others could not learn from it.

Over the last year I have learned, and relearned, some important life lessons. One of these was the difficulty in grasping how others might view the things I said and did. For instance, I felt abandoned and did not realise that others might have felt abandoned by me. Another important issue I had to face was the destructive power of unforgiveness, which I knew had to be dealt with if I could but find a satisfactory way to do so.

I have written this article in the past tense because for the last several weeks I have been back at my ‘home’ church. The Lead Elder graciously reached out to me and we were able to forgive and reconcile. Things will probably not be the same as they were ‘back in the day’, but they never are, are they?

The Unchurched Read More »

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TruthTalks: 2024

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How do you feel about 2024?

In this fascinating TruthTalks episode, Dr Christopher Peppler talks us through 2024 and what to expect.

 

If you would prefer to read about it CLICK HERE or otherwise click on the play button below to listen to it now.

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As always, please write, email or send us a note via courier pigeon ;P  we always appreciate hearing from you. Until next time, Admin

TruthTalks: 2024 Read More »

2024 featured

2024

2024

I saw a cartoon the other day depicting a group of people peering fearfully around a corner towards a door marked ‘2024’. One of them was timidly poking the door open with a broomstick. I can’t reproduce it for you without infringing copyright and I was loath to even mention it because of the negative message it conveys. However, I think it puts the situation well because we have to face facts; our global and national situation is predominantly ‘negative’. I want so much to be optimistic as I peer through the slowly opening door of 2024, but I cannot.

It is better to face reality head-on and with open eyes, as we trust God to walk with us into the future.

There is every indication that 2024 could be a pivotal year for the world in general and South Africa in particular. What happens outside of my country will continue to affect us here at the tip of Africa, but it will also affect many of us personally through our family and friends in other parts of the world. However, I will only comment on the global situation in as much as it is likely to affect South Africa.

2024 Globally

It is obvious to anyone even vaguely politically, economically, and environmentally aware that the world is on an accelerating downward escalator.

Global warming, whatever its causes, has passed the critical point where the rate of change moved from rapid to exponential. Last year was, so say the experts, the hottest year in recorded human history, and there is no reason to think that this year will not be even worse. With this change come droughts, extreme weather conditions, and disruption. Food becomes scarcer and more expensive and people die or try to take over someone else’s patch of more productive land. The world population is on the move with emigrants and refugees swamping more stable and prosperous nations than the ones from which they are fleeing. This brings with it huge social and political instability and stress. War borders are expanding outwards threatening to engulf many nations. Ukraine and Russia continue to fight it out in the bloodiest of ways while nearby nations tremble at the negative prospects that threaten them. Israel fights a survival death-battle, while the Arab world tries to convince us that it is the Palestinians who are facing genocide. And, all the while North Korea eyes South Korea waiting for a time to devour it and China eyes the South China Sea territory with equally hungry eyes.

All this casts a huge stress on the rest of the world. Moreover, to top it all off the USA, the world’s last traditional superpower, is facing a contentious presidential election that could even further divide and destabilise. And my poor country, the tarnished rainbow nation, faces its own day of reckoning.

2024 South Africa

South Africa’s only contributions to the world crises seem to be to side publically and noisily with Hamas and the Palestinians, vote for the United Nations condemnation of Israel, and take Israel to the World Court of Justice for committing genocide. This does not help us as a nation in any way that I can see. On the contrary, it antagonises our major trading partners and investors without any noticeable recompense from China, Russia and the Arab nations. So, it looks like we will be facing our own meltdown without international support.

Sociologically, we have over 45% of the population surviving on state aid (social grants), a shrinking tax base unable to maintain this, and an exhausted national debt limit. About 40% of the population earns an income from formal employment, the murder, death, and rape rates are probably the highest in the world, corruption is endemic, and the roads, railways, and harbours are broken! Food prices are through the roof, housing prices slumped in most suburbs, and electricity supply has been cripplingly problematic … and so on.

On the political front, we have a national election that will take place sometime this year where the possible outcomes are all potentially momentous in one way or another. If the ANC retain 40% plus of the vote it is more than likely that they will be able to cobble together a coalition government with a few small parties or the EFF (Horror!) Whatever the constituency of this coalition, they will still be the majority and controlling party … and the slide into a failed state will no doubt continue. If the opposition Multi-Party Charter coalition wins 51% plus then things will at least have a chance of changing for the good, although the first few years will most likely be characterised by power plays between member politicians … but perhaps not. In the first scenario, we will plunge further and more rapidly into social and economic ruin, and in the second scenario, we will stop the plunge to destruction and even slowly turn the graph upwards in a growth trajectory. Both of these possibilities will mean that we the citizens will be facing years of uncertainty, threat, and hardship. Not pleasant to contemplate or accept but probably inevitable.

But, hold on Chris, aren’t you looking at the glass as half-empty rather than half-full? No, I am seeing it as a quarter full at best! We face that reality. OK, but what of the possibility of spiritual revival?

2024 Revival

I am one of those people who believe that we are yet to have the greatest revival in history.

God sends revival not as a reward, but as a response to the desperate spiritual need of the church and society.

The darker the day, the more we should expect the light of Heaven to break through. However, something that history has taught us is that although revivals come suddenly they tend to start locally and then slowly spread to other parts of a nation and then the wider world. Many folks think that if we in South Africa were to experience revival today, then everything would change overnight. This just does not seem to be realistic. John Wesley’s Methodist movement was a revival that some historians hold that it saved England from experiencing a French-revolution-type social uprising. This is probably true, but it did not all happen in a moment. John Wesley was a prolific preacher, addressing crowds twice a day almost every day of every week. In 1739 he preached his first open-air sermon, in 1741 he preached regularly in South Wales, in 1747 he preached (42 times) in Ireland and in 1751 he ministered 27 times in Scotland. That covers a period of about 12 years. It did not happen in a day!

The heart of true revival is that it does not only stir the emotions of crowds, but changes the lives of individuals. Those men and women go on to plant churches, influence business, and participate in government. The combined and accumulated effect of all this is a revival fire that transforms nations.

So, would revival change South Africa and other countries? Yes, but it will most likely take quite a bit of time. That then begs the question, ‘What should we do in 2024?’

2024 Individual Response

I don’t suppose there is much in this article that most of you do not already know, and the same applies to this final section. However, these three practical and personal suggestions bear repeating. We need to know and live out these things if we are to thrive in 2024.

  1. Strengthen relationships with Jesus, family, friends, and church: Strengthening the relationship with the Lord Jesus should always be a priority, but never so much as now. It is he who said: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) In addition Paul wrote: ‘God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6) Then the next most important relationship to strengthen is with spouses, children, parents, and extended family. Friends, true friends, are rare and valuable, and we need to be a friend and receive friendship in these times. Then there is the church, your local church, which could be an extended family for you.
  2. Pray, expect revival, and submit everything to God: Pray alone, in groups, or as part of a congregation. Pray in tongues in the spirit. Expect revival at any time: if we do not expect it then we may not perceive it. I recently heard a church historian saying that we often only recognise revivals in hindsight. That is a little sad because it says a lot about the lack of response to revival when it comes.
  3. Vote: I have written about this recently HERE, but let me repeat this: ‘If we do not democratically remove the current  government from power in the soon-coming general elections, then almost everyone, except them, fears that we will plunge over the edge of the abyss into the horror of a Failed State. All citizens of South Africa, whether Christians or not, need to vote’.

2024 Read More »

About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.