The Reformed Church in Zambia (RCZ)

An ordination ceremony of RCZ ministers

The Reformed Church in Zambia (RCZ) is one of the larger sister churches in the DRC Family. Although the Church was founded among Chichewa-speakers in the Eastern Province, it has spread right across Zambia and today one can hear several of the 70 different languages and dialects of the country spoken during the church services. It has become one of the major churches in Zambia.

Zambia, the land of copper

Zambia is in the central part of Southern Africa and it shares borders with the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the north, Tanzania to the northeast, Malawi to the east, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia to the south and Angola to the west. Lusaka is the capital and largest city of the country while cities such as Kitwe, Ndola, Livingstone, Kabwe and Chipata are also rapidly expanding. English is the only the official language, but among the multitude of local languages and dialects Bemba is spoken by about 33%, Nyanja by about 15%, Tonga by about 11% and Lozi by about 5.5% of the population.

The territory of Northern Rhodesia was administered by the British South Africa Company (BSAC) from 1891 until its takeover by the United Kingdom in 1923. During the 1920s and 1930s, advances in mining spurred development and immigration. Upon independence in 1964 the name of the country was changed to Zambia. Major industries include copper mining and processing, emerald mining, food and beverages, textiles, the manufacture of chemicals and fertilisers, agriculture and tourism. The Victoria Falls near Livingstone and the South Luangwa Game Park are well-known tourist destinations. The Zambian Kwacha is a fairly strong currency. Growing trade relations with China have seen an increase in the Chinese population in the country. Economically and politically, Zambia is a stable and peaceful country.

History of the mission work

Paramount Chief Mpezeni was the eldest son of the great Ngoni leader, Zongendaba, who led his people out of the South African region in order to escape the warring Zulu King Chaka in 1835. The Ngoni tribe settled in the northeast of Zambia where they came into conflict with the Chewa tribe of the region. When Cecil John Rhodes and his British South Africa Company came on the scene, the Chewa chiefs saw their presence as a way of protecting themselves against Chief Mpezeni. Early in 1898 a revolt against the BSAC was suppressed and Chief Mpezeni was imprisoned for one year in Fort Manning, now Mchinji, just inside Malawi. From there Chief Mpezeni sent a message to the DRC missionaries at Mvera in Malawi, requesting missionaries to be sent to eastern Zambia as he had realised the benefits missionaries could bring to a community. A first envoy of Malawian missionaries to Chief Mpezeni’s people included the well-known evangelist Lukasi Chingondo of Mvera.

The Cape DRC Synod was unable to support this new mission field and Chief Mpezeni’s request was forwarded to the Orange Free State Synod in 1898. They immediately accepted the proposal by the young minister of Zastron, Rev. Johannes du Plessis, in later years a well-known professor in missiology, to start work there. In 1899 the first two missionaries were sent to Zambia.

What is quite remarkable is that the Free State missionary work in Zambia started in the middle of the Second Anglo-Boer War, a dark and gloomy time for the Free State church itself. Despite the devastation of the war, the mission work started because it was the Church’s belief to be ‘a light in the darkness’ as symbolised also in its logo depicting a burning torch. The outcome of the war further stimulated missionary involvement; many young soldiers coming back home after the trauma of war and being prisoners of war in exile, experienced a calling to mission.

On 5 July 1899 Revs. P. J. Smit and J. M. Hofmeyr, the first two missionaries sent by the Free State DRC, conducted the first church service in Zambia under a tree just outside the village of Magwero. From then on, the mission work grew. Mission stations were established at Magwero, Madzimoyo, Chipata, Nyanje, Nsatzu, Hofmeyr, Merwe, Tamanda, Kamoto, Katete, and later also in Lusaka, in the south, in the Copper Belt, and so on. Churches, schools, hospitals and clinics were built and agricultural projects started. The scope of the mission work was ambitious; the approach to it was comprehensive and included spiritual work, education, medical care and agricultural development. At the mission station of Mazimoyo, a monument has been erected to commemorate this fourfold approach.

More missionaries were sent to Zambia and, at the peak of missionary involvement in this country, there were as many as 69 workers from the Free State and they were supported by congregations and branches of the Women’s Missionary Association. There are wonderful stories about dedication and sacrifice, and across Zambia, the names on tombstones bear witness to this.

There is, for example, the inspiring story of ‘Botie of Magwero’, Miss Ella Botes, who went to Zambia as a young girl. She covered hundreds of miles on foot and was responsible for establishing a children’s home, a school for the deaf and a school for the blind. She later received the Order of the British Empire as well as an honorary doctorate from the University of the Free State for 53 years of service in Zambia.

Then there is the story of the Pauw family who worked in Zambia for three generations of whom the last to have worked there was the well-known Prof. Martin Pauw. Not to forget is the account of the brave Donna Stoffie, Miss J. M. Stofberg, who was instrumental in establishing a community for lepers. The story of Dr J. M. Cronjé is equally remarkable. He started theological training in Zambia, later to become the chairperson of the Mission Board. Dr. Cronjé served for 30 years in Zambia and he was buried at his beloved mission station, Madzimoyo. His funeral was almost a state funeral. The president of Zambia, Mr Rupia Banda (then vice-president and also a former student at a mission school), delivered an emotional word of thanks for the work of the DRC Free State over many years in the country. These are only some of the many missionaries who have worked with great commitment in Zambia. And even today you will find towns with names such as Merwe or Hofmeyr, or schools with a name such as J. M. Cronjé Primary School.

The local ministers and evangelists played just as important a role, if not much more, in building the church. In 1916 Jesefe Banda and Paulo Banda were inducted as the first two evangelists. Rev. Justo Mwale was the first ordained local minister. Rev. Petro Phiri also bears mentioning as someone who faithfully served the church for 66 years as teacher, evangelist and later minister.

Autonomy

A council of the congregations established by the DRC was formed in 1916. Originally, the young church in Zambia would unite with the churches in Malawi and Mozambique to form the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), but the Orange Free State Synod decided against this in 1931. And so, in 1943, the DRC Mission Church of the Orange Free State in Rhodesia came into existence. In 1957, the name changed to the African Reformed Church. Finally, when the Church received ownership and autonomy or umwini in 1966 it took the new name of the Reformed Church in Zambia. The church has gone from strength to strength. In April 2016 the church celebrated its 50 years of independence in spectacular fashion in the Heroes Stadium in Lusaka. The State President, Mr Edgar Lunge, addressed a huge crowd of mostly young, but certainly enthusiastic, members. The strength of the youth and their involvement bring hope for the future.

The RCA today and its impact

Fifty years since the Church received umwini, it has grown from 20 000 members to more than 1 200 000. It has 200 congregations and
17 presbyteries that have to minister to about 500 preaching points or prayer houses. The congregations, each with a few outposts, are bursting at the seams. 180 well-trained ministers serve the congregations and about 42 evangelists focus on evangelism, while there are also elders providing assistance to the ministry in congregations and at outposts.

The church still manages and maintains two hospitals and several schools, of whom the Katete Girls Secondary School is perhaps the
most famous. The Justo Mwale Theological College, named after the first local minister in the Church, has become the Justo Mwale University where ministers are trained for different churches in Africa. The Church also manages a country-wide radio station as well as several community projects.

The church leaders are respected and play an important part in Zambia. Rev. Foston Sakala, for many years the moderator of the RCZ and the chairperson of the Zambia Council of Churches, for example, played a very important part in the establishment of the Zambian democracy under President Kenneth Kaunda. He was also instrumental in launching discussions between the African National Congress, South African church leaders, and the South African government in Lusaka in the 1980s, helping to open the way for democracy in South Africa. Rev. Foston Sakala also served as the moderator of the Federal Council of the Dutch Reformed Churches, a body that in the 1970s and 1980s served as an expression of the unity between the broader DRC Family.

Apart from enjoying numerical growth of the congregations and membership, the Reformed Church in Zambia has also formed
12 specialized ministries which include the following:

  • The Diaconia Department – a service ministry of the RCZ to vulnerable communities.
  • Reformed Open Community Schools – which provides basic education through community schools throughout the country.
  • The Education Department – oversees the operation of all the mission schools which are in the custody of the church.
  • Women’s, Men’s and Youth fellowships – that work to enhance spirituality among the fellowships of the church.
  • Lay training and empowerment – provide skills training to the laity in all the congregations.
  • Justo Mwale University – trains ministers for service in the church and it also offers diplomas and degrees in other fields. The University is growing steadily and is becoming an international institution.
  • Health Department – supervises the two hospitals the church is currently running.
  • Youth Skills Training Centre and Madzimoyo Business Centre – both of these wings of the church offer traini
  • ng in entrepreneurship to church members and communities.
  • Witnessing Desk – this department is responsible for evangelism and mission work across the country.

The RCZ is also enjoying cordial relationships with many ecumenical bodies globally and locally within Zambia. The RCZ is one of the
founder members of the Council of Churches in Zambia (CCZ). It is also a member of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia. As a member of these mother bodies, the RCZ through the CCZ plays a role of regulating the establishment of churches in Zambia and provides legal protection to operate within their mandate. The RCZ is also a member of the Churches Health Association of Zambia (CHAZ) which regulates the operation of the mission hospitals in Zambia. The Reformed Church in Zambia is at international level a member of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC).

Challenges

Like other Southern African churches, the Reformed Church in Zambia also faces the challenge of financial independence, staying
contextually relevant and finding and living a credible and relevant Reformed identity amidst the rapid growth of independent, neo-pentecostal and charismatic churches.

The Church is growing strongly and has very able leaders. Currently, Prof. Edwin Zulu is the rector of Justo Mwale University and he is
the moderator of the Church. Several Zambian lecturers teaching at Justo Mwale University obtained their PhD degrees and many others are enrolled for their PhD degrees or have completed other post-graduate degrees.

At the moment there is a deep and heartfelt partnership between the DRC Free State and the RCZ. The RCZ still has as its logo the burning torch, the same logo as that of the DRC Free State and the DRCA. And the tree at Magwero is still standing, with deep roots and huge branches that cast their shade widely overhead.

Contact

Dr William Zulu (General Secretary: RCZ General Synod)
mbusazulu@gmail.com