Everywhere we travelled in Zimbabwe (the urban centres, the long drives, the safari, hotels, camping lodge, border crossing, high density areas) we were greeted by a selection of Western brands. It seemed that everyone we met (well every man at least) supported a football team from the English Premier League. Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea appeared to be the most popular, and we used the stadiums as a means of locating ourselves within Britain to those we met who had no idea where we were from. Payments were made by Visa even in apparently the most far flung places that we visited. And, although Spar isn’t the most common shop in the UK, it is reasonably popular across Europe and it seems similarly so in Zimbabwe. Coca Cola is everywhere, from the signs saying “Welcome” to whichever town or city we were entering to the kiosk in the Methodist funded college in Bulawayo with Coca Cola sponsorship. The markets sell all kinds of creative items made from recycled drinks cans and bottles spreading the branding further still. The copious amounts of bottled water we purchased by the crate and drank just as quickly (without a second thought for how much it cost, who produced it and profited or what happened to the plastic bottle when we disposed of it) is produced by Coca Cola. All the advertising and familiar logos and brands from home raised all kinds of questions for me, not least about how Zimbabwe, and more widely Africa, can truly develop when global companies rule and money filters out of the country. Then, on top of the Western brands I heard it said that the Church is the biggest business in Zimbabwe. I don’t know how ‘biggest’ is defined (most employees, finances, people involved, etc.) but the use of the words big and business when referring to the church is problematic to me.
Here we were as visitors from the global north, with the potential to support the local business and invest in the future of Zimbabwe. We had the potential to make a difference for one or two people. Yet, we got excited at the sight of British chocolate and on the whole as a team we weren’t sure about trying local cuisine but opted for the things that made us feel most safe or that we were told to eat so as to avoid stomach bugs. I am not critical of this (and rebelled a little as I’m all for trying something new to me) as it makes sense to eat foods that our bodies are accustomed to, especially as we were only on a short visit of a few weeks. If we were planning to stay for longer I’d have been encouraging much more engagement and immersion into the world of those we met through the sharing of their food and drink.
There are many significant needs in Zimbabwe, not least the need for safety, food and safe drinking water. For anyone who has ever come across Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need, it is the bottom two levels that were apparent – physiological and safety.
I have been reflecting on what I saw and experienced in Zimbabwe, the physiological, political and financial needs, the church, the business, the searching for a saviour and the reflections I see in the UK. My reflections bring me to the theme of water.
There are perhaps 4 different means of accessing water:
- Local collection of water from a spring, stream, river or well.
- Local collection of rain water.
- A regional or national sanitary company (water supply and treatment).
- Bottled water.
Collecting water from a local source carries risks, it could be delightfully fresh or it could be carrying all kinds of unseen yet deadly pathogens. Rain water is perhaps a little safer, but requires the needs of collecting enough water when it rains and relies on the rains actually coming. The regional or national company is arguably the best option, it’s what we are accustomed to in the global north but it requires investment and maintenance to keep the whole system clean and safe. Bottled water was originally laughed at in the UK, I still find it hard to comprehend how much bottled water is consumed when the UK water supply is of such high quality, but it is currently the safest, most expensive and therefore exclusive water supply in much of Africa. Imagine, just for a moment, that instead of investing in the bottled water produced and distributed by Coca Cola, western visitors were in a position to invest in a local water company. If rather than having to rely on the bottles of water we could rely on the safety of the water coming from a tap. I wonder, would we have continued to drink the bottled water or would we have been able to spend our money on other things? Or, would we have just saved the money?
Within the Gospel of John the story is told of Jesus meeting with a Samaritan woman at a well. The story is unusual for all kinds of reasons but Jesus is reported to have said:
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)
Jesus is not referring to actual water but to something spiritual, an offer of hope that lasts for ever. What does the church offer; bottled water, tap water, fresh spring water, stale stored water or contaminated water?
I’d suggest that traditional churches are like the utility company, offering a package of Christianity that is theoretically equally available to all, but the systems are aging and creaking at the seams. Just as London still relies on the infrastructure built by the Victorian’s through the 1800’s much of the traditional church in existence today is of the same era and relies on the same structures (and I don’t just mean the buildings). There have been some attempts at new forms and structures of church, modernising the traditional, a new means of delivery but essentially the same product. Like bottled water there is commercialisation, it is most readily available to those who can afford it, directed at a predominantly middle class, professional demographic.
What concerns me is the church has become reliant on models of delivering sanitised spirituality through a Victorian system or a bottled version with exaggerated promises. As the church in the West continues to decline it is looking backwards to models that worked in the relatively recent past but is not tapping into the fresh springs that reflects the water and spiritual life Jesus refers to. The problem facing the church is that we have paved over the streams and filled in the wells, redirected the spiritual water through filters and down pipes to ensure it all comes out of the taps or fills the bottles with the bacteria’s and microorganisms of the production companies choosing.
There is of course a risk of contamination. I heard a lot about false prophets (those making promises about blessings in return for financial giving) in Zimbabwe and their influence throughout Africa. Certain ‘pastors’, ‘prophets’ and ‘apostles’ are living in extreme luxury, with private jets and the like, exploiting congregations who are struggling to buy food and educate their children. There is plenty of contamination in the Western church too. Some will say contamination comes in the form of liberal/ progressive theology whilst others will point the finger towards the conservative/ traditional wing of the church without realising there are faults at both ends of spectrum and all the way through the middle.
The utility company church and the bottled water church are not all bad. There are some really good elements. Much of what they supply is truly needed. Yet due to the burden and costs of maintenance requirements the structures of the church are often either buckling under the pressure and the bottle water church is exclusive and not accessible to all who need it. The church faces the challenge of rediscovering the joy, refreshing, taste and hope that comes with water from the fresh stream. As pastors and church leaders we have a responsibility to rediscover this for ourselves, to move away from church as a business to church as a means of access to the living water. This means not sticking with the learned structures and behaviours but bravely going out into the wilderness to locate the streams.