Nicholas Bhengu – The Church Planter

by Dr Kelebogile Thomas Resane (Research Fellow, University of the Free State).

Bhengu was clearly a church planter and a missional leader. He believed in the autonomy of the local assembly. Through Back to God Crusade, formed in 1950, he envisaged an evangelistic arm of the Assemblies of God.

According to Lephoko (2018:135), Bhengu was determined to build ‘a movement that would be a vehicle to reach out to the continent of Africa by building momentum and multiplication processes through his churches and managing the results.’ Anderson (1992:46) agrees that ‘The Back to God Crusade was the name given to Bhengu’s evangelistic organisation whose main activity was evangelism and the planting of Assemblies of God churches.’

The vision of ‘Cape to Cairo’ and the rallying call of ‘Back to God’ is in its character missional. ‘Bhengu used Back to God Crusade to plant missional churches. Multiplication was achieved when new churches were planted. These churches became the source of support for future mission and evangelistic outreach’ (Lephoko 2018:136).

The Back to God Crusade was an evangelistic tool used to give birth to new churches across the sub-continent especially in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique and lately Namibia. It was ‘the means of bringing many thousands of Africans into the church’ (Anderson 2006:109; 2000:89-109). In other words, Bhengu believed that after mass evangelism, through tent crusades, the new local church should reproduce itself.

From this initial stage, evangelism should be done through the local church. This resonated with American evangelical missiologist Kane that ‘the growth of any movement is in direct proportion to the success it obtains in the mobilisation of the totality of its membership for the constant propagation of its beliefs’ (1988:169).

This mobilisation, according to Kane, involves four principles:

1) Mobilisation of every Christian in witness,

2) Mobilisation within the framework of the church,

3) Mobilisation by local leadership,

4) Mobilisation with global objectives.

One can sense Bhengu’s heartbeat reverberating through these principles. It looks like Bhengu was aware that the methods of evangelism will change, but that change must be prepared for. He did not see mass evangelism as an everlasting tool, but at the end the local church to own a full responsibility of evangelising communities.

He had in mind the churches that were autonomous, and their autonomy driven by what has come to be known as the Three Selves: Self-supporting, Self-governing, and Self-propagating.

These three ‘selves’ were popularised by two nineteenth century missiologists: Rufus Anderson of Congregational Church’s American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM), and Henry Venn of Church Missionary Society (Anglicans). The two were the General Secretaries of their respective missions respectively – Anderson (1832-1866), and Venn (1841-1872). Bhengu had in mind churches that are totally indigenous, existing independently from any foreign missionary paternalism.

From as early as 1955, Bhengu embarked on promoting the idea of self-supporting churches. Lephoko (2018:300) mentions that on the 10th October 1955, Bhengu said ‘I want to teach our men to raise funds and finance every programme themselves.’ His vision was clearly the self-supporting churches.

With self-governing churches, Bhengu’s churches were set up with elders and deacons. In places where elders and deacons were non-existent, the church committees ‘who oversaw the work of the church’ (Lephoko 2018:300) were set in place. In this church polity, the local church would be both self-governing and self-propagating

By self-propagating churches, Bhengu envisaged churches that are autonomous, taking full responsibility of evangelising communities through their own elected church councils in the local churches (Venn 1988:16-20; Anderson 1988:19).

His church structure was designed to reach all people (men, women, youth, children). From the late seventies, Bhengu ‘started to organise his Back to God churches, generally known as Assemblies of God Movement’ (Resane 2022:4).  In 1990, this section adopted the name Assemblies of God – Back to God ‘in recognition of its Back to God Crusade genesis’ (Nkomonde 2021:125). Resane (2022:4) continues that ‘it is organisationally structured along the local and district structures, and age group regimentally. There were and still are women or mothers, men or fathers, youth, girls and children operational structures within the church.

References Cited

  1. Anderson, R. 1988. ‘Principles and Methods of Modern Missions’ in Church and Mission. A Reader. Pretoria: UNISA
  2. Anderson, A. 2000. Zion and Pentecost: The Spirituality and Experience of Pentecostal and Zionist/Apostolic Churches in South Africa. Pretoria: University of South Africa Press.
  3. Anderson, A. 2006. An introduction to Pentecostalism. Cambridge University Press.
  4. Kane, J.H. Understanding Christian Missions, 4th Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
  5. Lephoko, D.S.B., 2018, Nicholas Bhekinkosi Hepworth Bhengu’s legacy: World’s best black soul crusader (HTS Religion & Society Series Volume 4) Cape Town: AOSIS.
  6. Nkomonde, L., 2021, Mandla Nkomonde: The authorised biography, Pietermaritzburg: Inhouse Publication, ODNIL
  7. Resane, K.T., 2022, ‘From small country churches to explosion into megachurches: A modern Pentecostal cultural fit for the Assemblies of God in South Africa’, Verbum et Ecclesia 43(1), a2460. ve.v43i1.2460
  8. Venn, H. 1988. ‘On Steps Towards Helping a Native Church to Become Self-Supporting, Self-Governing and Self-Extending’ in Church and Mission. A Reader. Pretoria: UNISA.



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