Planting churches in Cape Town, South Africa
Merle and Cheree Shenk

Cheree and I, with our 9-month-old daughter, moved from the USA to Cape Town in 2004 to plant a church. Although we had helped plant churches in other areas of the world, we were unprepared for the steep learning curve we faced in the developing nation of South Africa.

We had difficulty making personal contact with people. Frustrated, I started conversing with the security personnel at the development complex where we lived. One man was having marriage trouble. I prayed with him and shared some impressions that I sensed God showed me. A few days later, the man ran up to tell me that his wife had come back just like I had prayed.

“I am waiting for you to start a church so that I can come,” he said.

I asked, “Are you willing to have us come to your house and start a prayer meeting”? Our first small group started in a cramped apartment where four families were living in what was one of the roughest areas of inner city Cape Town.

We experienced God doing amazing things! We saw major answers to prayer! From that first house group, the church was birthed. We moved to a public hall when the apartment could no longer hold us. From there we launched seven cell groups.

About eighty people attend the church and we are planting a new church in Athlone. We have started a Bible school called Jeremiah Training Center and REACH School of Supernatural Ministry, which focuses on training believers in supernatural outreach and planting small groups that potentially become churches. We have seen God open amazing ministry opportunities as we reach out and He heals people who have been deaf and blind, those who have been in car accidents or suffer from pain and sickness.

Although we have made many mistakes, I will share some of those that turned into helpful learning experiences for us.

  1. As a western missionary in a developing nation, people deferred leadership to us almost automatically. Allowing this was a huge mistake. At one point I was personally leading seven small group meetings a week. It fulfilled my need as a missionary to do something but stifled multiplication and growth. When the responsibility became too much for me, I handed over the leadership of each small group to those in the group. Not one of those small groups existed six months later! With some exceptions, we have found that gathering in small groups must be the initiative of those who will lead them long term. We now mentor those with this initiative.
  2. We made the mistake of trusting gifted people who had not led small groups. We thought if we treated people like leaders they would rise to that standard. They didn’t. It actually had the adverse affect of concreting their current character weaknesses instead of encouraging character growth. This caused a lot of pain to us, to them and to others.
  3. Our knee-jerk reaction to mistake number 2 caused us to swing from one side of the pendulum to the other. We made a requirement for potential leaders to fulfill two years of ministry training before they could become department heads or elders. Although we deeply believe in the value of theological training, we found that people who committed to this level of training seemed more interested in being good students than good leaders in the local church. Again, their character wasn’t being developed, and they were getting head knowledge but not experience. Leading small groups is a good way to verify a potential leader. We have seen God build character in those who are gifted and knowledgeable. We have also seen Him developing the gifting and knowledge of those who don’t feel they could ever be leaders. We have learned to not promote someone beyond where God has developed his or her character. Our current process is intentionally training potential leaders and mentoring them through the challenges of their own life, as God builds their character, while having them start and/or lead small groups.
  4. Pouring hours and hours into people who did not pour life into other people was a huge emotional drain, as well as wasting time and energy. We have learned to invest our energy into people who are sons of peace, described by Jesus in Luke 10:6. Sons of peace are open (willing to talk to us about spiritual things), hungry (wanting to learn more of God) and sharing (willing to share in his circle of influence what God has done). In the REACH School of Supernatural Outreach and Ministry, we teach those principles in depth. In the beginning, I confused those people wanting to tell me their problems with those who were actually hungry. Many times problems can make people hungry enough to change their ways, but our experience is that it is not until they are truly sick and tired of the way things are that they are truly hungry to follow God’s Word.
  5. Another mistake is assuming that teaching biblical knowledge and principles is the same as discipling people. Merely teaching discipleship courses allows people to become inactive Christians. Now our discipleship programs focus on the central theme of obedience to the commands of Christ. Our small groups emphasize practical goal setting and how to practically and measurably obey Christ’s commands every week. This emphasis has resulted in God doing more ministry through more people than in previous years of us “working hard.”

We excitedly look forward to see more churches planted through disciple making movements and to train and help others do the same.

Read Chapter 9. Not Pottstown! here

The Invitation book