Ross Lester from South Africa on Racial Integration and Birthing Gospel-Centered Multi-Cultural Churches


ross_lester_podcastThanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us today. I’m excited to have Ross Lester with us all the way from Johannesburg, South Africa. He’s the pastor at Bryanston Bible Church.

South Africa is full of opportunity and challenges as far as ministry goes. There is a lot of poverty in the country, along with the highest HIV infection rates in the world. In South Africa alone there are over 5 million orphaned children, and major racial and social gaps still exist despite the end of apartheid. But there is also a lot of opportunity to spread the gospel. It’s expected that ten years from now, South Africa may have the most Christians in the world. The median age of a Christian in South Africa is 19 and Ross and his team are working to sow into the next generation of black South African leaders to carry the gospel message forward.

  • Find the long term solution, not the quick fix. // Bryanston Bible Church is about 45 years old and is in the most affluent neighborhood in the continent of Africa, which can cause some problems with bringing in people from outside the walls. The church now has over a thousand people and is growing toward multi-culturalism and racial integration. Their aim is to be a church that plants other churches and encourages multi-culturalism and integration across South Africa. Apartheid put white South Africans in a place of privilege among an illegitimate system. At Bryanston Bible Church, they ask themselves, “How do we own that, repent of that, and then pay it back?” One way they do that is by using the resources given to them to raise up black African leaders who will take charge within the churches into the next generation through training within the gospel, appointing them as elders when they’re ready, then leading them into the world as teachers. It may be a slower path to take, but Ross believes it will yield more fruit than just quickly painting over the previous wrongs of life within South Africa.
  • Acknowledge the various cultures within your community. // Bryanston Bible Church was purely white during apartheid and they still are very Western in their style, but they are trying to integrate change. The typical black South African worship service would be a few hours long, however the church has to work with the issue of having a very small place of worship with four services each Sunday. So having four services back-to-back doesn’t allow for long services. In order to still integrate the widely varied African culture into their services, they are trying to incorporate multilingualism and more multicultural representation with their western style. South Africa has eleven official languages, so some ways they incorporate multilingualism within the church is through the greetings at the start of services and singing worship songs in more than one language.
  • Work within the needs of your community. // Bryanston Bible Church spends about 30-35% of their offerings on justice and mercy projects outside of the walls of their area. They see this as part of the repentance and paying back of the atrocities of apartheid. They align with meaningful justice and mercy projects that spread the gospel and also run some programs themselves. Nearby there is a river where homeless men live and so the church has a feeding program and works to bring those men into the life of the church by giving them respect and an identity they don’t have as homeless men. The church also works with homeless kids who aren’t being looked after because their parents are off looking for work.

You can connect with Bryanston Bible Church at their website bbc.org.za and you can connect with Ross through Twitter @RossLester.


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Episode Highlights

00:07 // Rich introduces Ross Lester and welcomes him to the show.

00:34 // Ross talks about the cultural and spiritual position in South Africa post-apartheid.

01:31 // Ross talks about the next generation of Christians.

02:52 // Ross introduces us to BBC, Bryanston Bible Church.

04:22 // Ross tells us how BBC is changing their demographics.

06:37 // Ross talks about their worship gatherings.

07:43 // Ross tells how they plan to incorporate multilingualism into their worship.

08:58 // Ross talks about privileges and how the church is paying back.

11:31 // Ross explains how the church are supporting the aids pandemic in South Africa.

13:19 // Ross highlights the spiritual differences between South Africa and the US.

16:07 // Ross reiterates the impact when people understand the privileges that come with being white.

17:17 // Ross advises church leaders to just continue to disciple people to maturity.

17:48 // Ross offers his contact information.

Episode Transcript

Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. I’m super excited that you’ve decided to spend some time with us today and I’m even more excited that we’ve got Ross Lester with us, all the way from Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the Pastor at Bryanston Bible Church, a great church and I’m really looking forward to learning from you today Ross, welcome to the show.

Ross – Hey, thanks Rich, thanks for having me.

Rich – I’m so glad that you’ve taken some time out with us. I’d love to hear more about South Africa, give us a sense of kind of the spiritual climate, is the history of your country impacting the gospel? Give us a sense of South Africa.

Ross – I think South Africa is a land of tremendous opportunity and a land of tremendous obstacles at the same time, in terms of church work and the gospel. It was kind of the darling of the world 20 years ago with the end of apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s and Desmond Tutu’s vision of a rainbow nation and I think what we’re seeing now is just how naïve some of that vision was, in terms of implementation. So the realities of post-colonial and still a very racially divided society are really coming home to roost and so there’s major obstacles; there’s rampant poverty, highest HIV infection rates in the world. In South Africa alone there’s over 5 million orphan or vulnerable children.

Rich – Right.

Ross – So a massive gap between rich and poor. So major obstacles, major racial gaps and inequalities there as well.

The major opportunities, because God is doing something in Sub-Saharan in Africa and in South Africa. Sub-Saharan in Africa is where Christianity is growing the fastest than anywhere in the work. Ten years from now Africa will have the most Christians of any continent in the world and the medium age of a Christian in Sub-Saharan Africa is 19.

Rich – Amazing.

Ross – So there’s massive opportunity for the gospel if you can get this gospel narrative really into the hearts of people in what looks like a place full of obstacles, you can also create a great deal of opportunity for the next generation of Christians in this part of the world and believers in this part of the world to experience the hope of the gospel.

So it’s an exciting place to be, exciting place to minister, no shortage of difficulties but plenty of opportunity.

Rich – Now did you grow up in Johannesburg in the part of the country that you’re serving in today?

Ross – Yeah I did, I was born and raised, kind of 4th generation South African. So grew up right through the fall of apartheid and spent some time in the US living there but most of my time has been in Johannesburg.

Rich – Amazing, well why don’t you give us a sense of your church, your community, how is what you’re leading impacting your community with the gospel? It’s incredible to hear the growth of the kingdom and how many people are becoming Christ followers in South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, but tell us about what’s going on at your church.

Ross – So yeah, I’m at a church called BBC, Bryanston Bible Church. It’s about 45 years old and so it was part of quite a conservative denomination knows as the Christian Brethren and then moved away from that about 20 years ago and has kind of been trying to discover its own identity and its own place in the world. It’s in probably the most effluent neighborhood on the continent, which again has its challenges because you’ve got the poorest of the poor living a couple of miles away and then really effluent people living behind massive walls, trying to not let that tension just overwhelm them all the time.

Rich – Interesting, interesting.

Ross – Yeah, so we’re a couple of thousand people now, just trying to figure it out. Lots of kids, lots of young families. Growing towards multiculturalism, growing towards racial integration because you don’t see much of that in churches in South Africa.

Rich – Wow.

Ross – And trying to be a faithful church that plants other churches and mainly births a movement of gospel centered multicultural church in South Africa.

Rich – Wow, there’s a lot to unpack there. I’d love to, if I’m not stepping on toes, I’d love to hear more about the multiracial thing and how you’re making steps in that direction. Obviously I think a lot of our listeners from the States can identify with the segregation that just naturally happens, but obviously that takes on a different complexion in your community. How are you making steps towards that at your church?

Ross – Yeah, it is different here because the oppressor was the minority and so that’s got its own complexities. So we’re a majority white church but that makes us a majority minority church.

Rich – It’s so interesting.

Ross – In the rest of the world it is like, I don’t know, seen as more acceptable but here it’s really not. So there’s interesting dynamics at play there. So what’s we’ve tried to do is just say, “Okay, apartheid put us, white South Africans, in a positions of privilege, there’s no denying that, we benefited off of an illegitimate system, how do we own that, repent of that and then pay it back? How do we pay back, how do we take the position that we’re in, the education that we’ve received, the wealth that we have available to us, because of the wickedness of that system and how do we pay that back? And the best way we can see us paying that back is through raising black African leaders who will replace us and sowing the riches of the resources that were sown into us, sowing into young black African leaders, so that they can really take the charge into the next generation.

So we haven’t really tried to put band aids on a cancer but just window dressing in terms of music styles, that kind of stuff, that will come. Our heart has really been to change the demographic of the church from the leadership down. So really trying to sow into young black Africans, raising them up to maturity, appointing them as elders when they’re ready, sending them out as church [Inaudible 00:05:52] because then leadership is viewed as diverse and the congregation shifts from there.

So it’s the slower route by far but we think it’s going to yield more fruit than just trying to make some quick fix changes, to try and get a more diverse group of people in the room.

Rich – I appreciate that, I think that’s a great thing for people to lean in on. What you’re pursuing there is a long term solution but you’re really trying to address the hard issue, rather than let’s just window dress and let’s kind of paint over an issue. I appreciate that, that’s amazing.

What do weekends look like, what is the style of your ministry and what does the approach look like and how does that connect with the culture you’re trying to reach?

Ross – Yeah, so because we’re a church that was purely white during apartheid, so there’s some throw over legacy from that and so we’re still kind of Western in our worship styles but are trying to integrate and change that. We don’t have a very big room, we’ve got a 450 seater room, so we’ve got to do four gatherings on a Sunday.

Rich – Wow.

Ross – So your typical black African gathering would be long and kind of left with lots of flow but we can’t go there because we’ve got to get people in and out four times on a Sunday. So what we’re trying to do is… So our services would look very similar, I think, so someone in the US. We’re an Acts 29 church, so if you know what Acts 29 church services look like, a lot like that, but what we’re trying to do is bring multilingualism in and some more multicultural representation, still contained in kind of our Western worship style, which is just where we find ourselves.

Rich – Talk about the multilingualism, how are you doing that, how are you achieving that?

Ross – Yeah, South Africa has 11 official languages.

Rich – That’s amazing.

Ross – It’s complex so we find just little things, we’re just starting to do this now, just acknowledging that you would have that many languages in the room is a good thing. So just in terms of greetings, you know, your announcer when he’s greeting the congregation; greet in more than one language. We’re starting to try and sing in more than one language in a way that we hope isn’t patronizing.

So just those little nods, those subtle things to just say, “We acknowledge this as a value, that there’s a tapestry of language and culture in the room and we want to acknowledge that.”

Rich – I wonder if you could talk about, I’d love to hear more about the, and you acknowledge that your suburb is obviously at the top of the scale economically for your community, maybe the entire continent, which is amazing, and obviously a part of the gospel is reaching out to the poor among us, you have a unique, an extreme example of that, that it’s literally right at your doorstep, or right outside the wall, give us a sense of how your church is dealing with that reality.

Ross – So a couple of things. We spend 30% to 35% of our budget on Justice and Mercy project.

Rich – Wow, just wait a second, we need to back up here, we need to back this one up. 30% to 35% of your offering ends up in justice or outreach ministries?

Ross – Yeah.

Rich – Wow.

Ross – It’s outside of the walls, usually on the poorest of the poor, widows and orphans and again that’s just that paying back privilege thing. Okay, you’re privileged and you’ve got to pay this back.

Rich – Wow.

Ross – So that’s a value of ours, something we hope to defend.

Rich – What does that look like, how are you giving that, is it programs, are there other ministries that you’re supporting, are you doing direct kind of work, what does that look like?

Ross – Yeah a combo of both. So we align with Justice and Mercy projects that really meet the end of helping the vulnerable and preaching the gospel, so we want to see those two things colliding. So if we can find meaningful partners that do both of those things, then we want to fund and partake and participate in their work. But then we’ve got some really good projects that we run ourselves.

So just down the road from this neighborhood is a river that runs and there’s a whole bunch of homeless men that live in that river and so we’ve got a feeding and discipleship scheme that runs from the church building, which the neighborhood has by and large hated because…

Rich – Well that’s a global reality, every neighborhood doesn’t like when the church actually does what the church is supposed to do.

Ross – Yeah and trying to incorporate those men into the life of the church, so not just making a feeding scheme but trying to give them a respect and identity, welcome them with warmth into the life and the rhythms of the congregation and pull them in that way.

So we do that, we’re working in an informal settlement called Kya Sands, which is a few kilometers away from us as well, where you’ve got hundreds of kids who, their parents are off looking for work, so they’re not at preschool, they’re not being looked after and so we’ve got a number of projects reaching out to those kids and their mothers as well.

Rich – Some listeners might be interested in how your church is impacted by or aiding the HIV pandemic. For folks that don’t know at one-point South Africa really wasn’t acknowledging the HIV issue within its own borders but now that has turned around, you talked about it earlier. You don’t want to be at the top of that list but unfortunately it is the highest percentage of infections in the world. How does that impact your church, what does that look like, how are you aiding that issue?

Ross – Yeah, so again, mainly in our Justice and Mercy projects, education is a massive angle that you’ve got to take on and understanding… I mean I hope I don’t offend your US viewers.

Rich – No, carry on.

Ross – Understanding the African context as well and just having some empathy and sympathy towards that and starting to understand that maybe a Westerner with a bible in his hand, who isn’t abstaining from sex, arriving to tell a 14-year-old girl that she has to abstain doesn’t always work, okay? So it’s trying to educate people in other ways that they can prevent infection as well.

So we don’t see that as a dilution of the gospel message, we want to call people to sexual purity but we also only really expect Christians to act like Christians and calling non-Christians to act like Christians doesn’t work. So we’ve seen those campaigns coming from the West and they haven’t yielded fruit in this part of the world.

So just trying to get an understanding with that and really pushing towards education, both in our congregation and then also in the projects that we partner with. And then, helping to clean up the mess, so really pushing towards caring for aids orphans, because there’s millions of them, so we’ve really got to push to that.

Rich – Amazing. This has been super encouraging to hear and just learn a little bit more about your church. When you think about, I’m asking you to kind of speak to our US listeners, the vast majority of people that listen to this podcast are church leaders and from the States, how would you say, kind of looking into our culture and you studied here for a while so you have a good sense of what’s happening here, what are some of those lessons that you can apply from your experience to us and what are some things we should be thinking about?

Ross – Yeah so a few things. I think what I see happening in the US at the moment is evangelical Christianity being pushed to the fringes and there’s a lot of panic about that in society and I understand that because it’s been right at the center of kind of the last [Inaudible 00:13:32] of American identity for a long time, but that’s where Christianity flourishes, is on the fringes, where you’re sojourners and aliens and exiles in a strange land. US Christians are going to have to get used to being those things and living like those things, exiles in their own land and sojourners and aliens.

So I think, some energy is going to need to go to kind of just owning that identity and then living that identity as good news. When I look at the book of Acts people love the actions of the early church and hated the doctrine and that’s where I think US Christians are being pushed towards, but they’re only going to love your actions if your actions are evidence.

So the days of cultural Christianity, I think are over, but I think the days of being real Christ followers is exciting, if people can own it. It will be hard, there’ll be persecution, that’s a given, but I think you’ll get a true core of Christianity starting to emerge.

So that would be the one thing. I mean, in line with that a little bit is, a lot of the arguments that I see coming out of the West like, “You’ve got to be careful not to engage in a social gospel,” no one has those arguments in the developing world. When you’ve got starving kids you’re going, “The gospel mandate is I must feed this kids and I’m not too worried about doing that in a way that might accuse me of being part of the social gospel, I’m doing it because of Jesus Christ and he’ll own his garden. He died for me and he died for these kids and he breathed his image and likeness into these children. So I’m not going to sit around and pontificate about, ‘Hum, is this blurring a line of the true gospel?’ It’s like no, it’s a natural outworking of my love and affection for Christ.”

So there’s a lot of debate that happens in the West that doesn’t happen in the rest of the world because the need is too great. I’m a doctrine guy, so defend good doctrine, but live this thing out.

Rich – No, absolutely. I appreciate that, I think that’s a good word, I hope people listened in and leaned in there. Another issue, kind of related, I think there continues to be an awakening, a concern about racial reconciliation in our country, do you have anything to speak to that? Obviously the process that your homeland has been through has been amazing, anything from that perspective that you could kind of speak into to our experience here in the States?

Ross – Yeah I think people have got to be prepared to have uncomfortable conversations and this kind of notion of colorblindness doesn’t work, so if we just say we’re colored blind we’re in denial. So I think we’ve got to get into some conversations where we’re empathetic listeners to start with instead of just guys shutting down another people group.

I this is particularly dangerous for white Americans, because you’re a vast majority there and so you can’t shut down descending voices. I think the gospel, which has removed the wall of hostility between people of different ethnic groups, to Ephesians 2, really needs to be driving us to be listeners and to be compassionate listeners and then to be agents of change.

So the big thing that I’ve seen here is people owning and understanding whiteness and the privilege that comes with that, not defending against that, just going, “Yep, yep, I’ve benefited from my pigmentation a great deal, now what do I do?” If people can get to that point, I see a lot of barriers coming down.

Rich – Absolutely, this has been fantastic. Anything you want to share before we wrap up today?

Ross – Yeah man, I just think church leaders out there, just do what Christ wants you to do, which is to make disciples. Don’t buy into the hype of selling religious goods and services. Win people to Christ, disciple them to maturity and just do it again and again and again. If God gives you lots of people, praise him, if he gives you a few people, stay faithful with them, but simplify it, just make disciples, just honor Christ that way, that’s what we’re called to do.

Rich – Very cool. Ross if people want to get in touch with you or with the church, how can they do that?

Ross – The website for the church is bbc.org.za and my Twitter handle is @rosslester.

Rich – Fantastic, thanks so much for being on the show today.

Ross – Rich, thanks for having me brother.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.