The ACR speaks with Ryan van der Avoort about the great opportunities and challenges of university ministry in Durban, South Africa.
Ryan, what is your official role?
I work full-time for a university ministry in Durban called ‘The Bible Talks’ (TBT). I’ve been a TBT Campus Director since mid-2014 and have also been recently appointed Regional Director for TBT as we seek to plant on new campuses in our province. Since 2014 we’ve had 4 apprentices come through. We have one 1st year, and one 2nd year apprentice at the moment – and I get to be involved in their training within our 2-year apprenticeship program.
What do you love about ministry in Durban?
Firstly, I love the abundant opportunities. Campus is full of young men and women who generally will engage in some sort of conversation about God or Jesus since most South Africans would consider themselves nominally Christian.
Secondly, I love who I get to relate to on my campus. The overwhelming majority of my students are black Africans. We are not a particularly ritzy university and many students come from rural parts of South Africa or townships. I love that I get to engage with the next generation of social, cultural and moral leaders for a troubled South Africa – to potentially see them shaped by the good news. I love the thought of converted men and women going back out into the world as workers, and husbands, and moms, and whatever else – and living for the King and his return.
What are some of the challenges?
One challenge of the Christianised culture of South Africa is that for many, the good news can be reduced to old news. They think they ‘know’ Jesus when they don’t.
Another challenge is that the teaching in many South African churches ranges from simply poor to downright false. Some diluted form of the gospel may rattle around but without a real understanding of the beauty of how Scripture fits together and how central Jesus really is. Scripture is often (sometimes unknowingly) abused, cajoled to take a line of moralistic application for people’s lives it doesn’t actually make. Then there is the well-known Health, Wealth and Prosperity ‘gospel’, which really is quite extensive – most of the committed Christians we come across have this as their background. It is an impoverished version of the true gospel, promising dollar bling but delivers nothing of worth as it masks the God of true value.
Of course, we also have the normal addiction towards spirituality and spiritual gifting and miracles – distorted understandings of the Holy Spirit, his personhood and work. And then we have the bizarre: at the moment one of our biggest challenges is a cult from South Korea, with three full-time evangelists on my campus telling people what the bible says about… God the Mother!?!
Lastly, we have significant societal issues. For instance: I think of the high percentage of rape and violence especially towards women in South Africa, which I’m certain marks my campus – women broken by men who are themselves broken.
Another issue especially prominent last year saw most university campuses across South Africa erupt into protests, some of which were peaceful, but a number of which were destructive. These revolved around affordable access to education. On our university, the protests resulted in a 4-week extension of term and damages of around 82 million Rand (over $8 million Australian). Multiple times we canceled our bible talks, bible studies and 121s because it was unsafe or unwise to be on campus. It drove home Paul’s encouragement in 1 Timothy 2: pray for our leaders and others so that we can get on with speaking about Jesus. We were severely hampered in doing that last year.
These challenges raise questions – how do we encourage our students to stand up for just causes, yet in a God-honoring way? How do we as staff support them in that and do it ourselves?
Looking back at your time at Moore College – what are you are thankful for?
Relationships readily come to mind. Even now, four years later, these people still greatly encourage my wife (Jo) and I in so many ways. They are people from Moore of course but also brothers and sisters we churched with (me at St George North Anglican Church, and Jo ending at St Marks Anglican Church Northbridge). So many people I am deeply grateful to God for – men and women God continues to use to sustain us, as deep friends and partners in the gospel cause.
The second relates to the theological direction God gave me at Moore. God used MTC to clarify my thinking and enlarge my love for him and his ways. It also fitted me to continue post College – this is what I mean by ‘theological direction.’ I still have rows of books from my time at Moore which continue to shape and mold me. It opened up a future of resources – authors or particular books I’ll track down to continue growing. I’m thankful to God for the theological trajectory he set me on from Moore which I pray helps me to grow in affection for Him, and better equips me to love, serve and train others.
What excites you most about TBT’s ministry apprenticeship program?
The apprenticeship program is easily a win-win situation. If we get someone in our apprenticeship program and they then decide from their time as an apprentice that they really can and should pursue full-time paid Christian ministry – wonderful! If they decide not to, the win here is that, God-willing, they are better equipped to serve in a local church and in the working world.
In terms of individual apprentices what excites me, and sobers me, is the real cost that many face to do an apprenticeship. Most of them are sent to university with heavy family expectations that they will get a degree, and then a job, and then support their family. Often their families have sacrificed much to get them through university, or have aspirations of changing their social position tied up with this process. For someone to decide to pursue full-time paid Christian ministry which doesn’t have a great salary package – there is a real cost to consider, and sometimes a backlash from their family. And yet, I see men and women counting the cost and continuing joyfully in faith – that excites me!
In our next post we’ll meet one of your apprentices, Kwazi, but for now – how can we pray for you and your ministry?
Please pray TBT grows as an organization in order to grasp with both hands the myriad of gospel opportunities present on the Kwa-Zulu Natal university campuses.
On campus: Pray for conversions and pray that the TBT staff equip Christian students to actively be Christian on campus. Pray that some students may consider full-time paid Christian ministry. And then pray for money so that we can actually apprentice these people, send them off to College and then offer them salaries when they come back.
Personally: I certainly need wisdom to lead other staff in a way that releases them to serve God faithfully and creatively within their roles.
Ryan van der Avoort with TBT ministry apprentice Kwazi Buthelezi.
If you’d like to partner with the ministry of TBT then you can join their newsletter or receive giving details by emailing TBTukzn@gmail.