In 2020, when Nomphumelelo Mzimela began studying at a university in Durban, South Africa, she didn’t expect to join a church that held to historic orthodox Christian teachings.
Nomphumelelo grew up in the Shembe Church, a traditionalist Zulu cult popular in the region. Along with many others in the group, she grew up believing that their prophet, Isaiah Mdliwamafa Shembe, was sent by God to Africa to preach a message that integrated Christianity and traditional African religious practices. She believed that their leader had divine characteristics and that his ministry was a continuation of the teachings of Moses and Jesus.
“I believed that Shembe was simultaneously my god and leader. I was taught to worship him and to pray to him,” Mzimela said.
This didn’t stop her from asking questions, though. “As a child, I was inquisitive about the Shembes and our practices, but I was discouraged from asking questions because it was seen as disrespectful. Instead, I was encouraged to follow everything I was told without hesitation,” she said.
Many Shembes have a similar experience. They’ve been taught that Christianity is insufficient to save them, but they aren’t given the opportunity to find answers to their questions.
When she went to the University of KwaZulu-Natal, she was invited to visit an event hosted by The Bible Talks, a reformed evangelical campus ministry. She decided to go. When she visited The Bible Talks, she got connected with Yasmine Mamboleo, a staff member with the ministry. On campus, Yasmine regularly shares the gospel with Shembes and has a passion to see them come to saving faith in Christ. Yasmine explained that when she has gospel conversations with Shembes on campus, they usually push back in two primary ways.
The Sufficiency of Christ for All People
First, they claim that Jesus isn’t a sufficient Savior for their sins because he was a white man. Therefore, he cannot be their mediator before God because they are black. They find their hope in Shembe, a black man, who they believe mediates on their behalf. Second, they explain that Jesus was used by colonizers to demonize African religions in order to gain control. They recognize that following Jesus will mean rejecting their traditional Zulu practices, such as performing rituals to their ancestors. Because these practices were deemed evil by colonizers, they are resistant to leaving them.
Clearly, these assumptions are disheartening to any follower of Jesus. Sadly, the Bible was used in South Africa in a way that damaged and harmed non-white South Africans. This was wrong and should not be ignored or pushed to the side. However, Shembes are ignorantly faithful to a group that holds on to a false image of Jesus. Jesus was not a white man with blonde hair and blue eyes who came to save white people. He was a Jewish man, born in Bethlehem, who came to save people of every tribe, tongue, nation, and ethnic group.
Jesus Came to Save Those from Every People Group
While Shembes limit the impact of Jesus’ sacrifice, the Bible presents a different picture. John 3:16, maybe the most well-known verse in the Bible, summarizes the gospel beautifully: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Humanity’s biggest problem is sin, and the Bible presents Jesus as the only solution to this problem. In Acts 4:12, Peter boldly proclaims, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” While Shembes view Jesus as the Savior of white people, the Bible teaches us that Jesus has come to save people from every people group.
While Shembes view Jesus as the Savior of white people, the Bible teaches us that Jesus has come to save people from every people group.
In 2021, Nomphumelelo began to realize that although she grew up reading the Bible, her view of Jesus differed greatly from the way that Yasmine and other Christians presented Jesus. As she talked with Yasmine, she began to see the ways the Shembes failed to see the centrality of Christ in the Scriptures. As she wrestled with these questions, she began to find peace in the gospel. Finally, the questions she had been asking found their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
The Gospel Leads to Transformation
“The gospel of Jesus has completely changed my life. It is hard to describe and to put in words how the clarity and truth of the Bible have helped to put my mind and heart at ease,” she said.
She recognizes the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross for her sin. As Yasmine disciples her, she has begun to find her identity in Christ after she had the courage to leave the Shembe group. After coming to faith, she got connected with Trinity Church Morningside, a local church in Durban, where she has been able to grow under the teaching of God’s Word and be discipled by Yasmine. In the local church, she has found a home where she can grow in her knowledge and love for Jesus.
The world is filled with religious groups who replace, reject, or add to Jesus. Some people completely deny his existence, others degrade him to the level of a prophet, while others claim to be him. The Bible is often taught out of context in order to defend these claims, as in the case of Shembe.
God is Still Working in Our Communities
Nomphumelelo’s story assures us that God is still at work in the world even though it may be hard for us to see this in our communities, churches, or gospel conversations. God continues to transfer people from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of his Son (Colossians 1:13–14).
Our nations and neighborhoods need people that have been saved by Jesus to proclaim the forgiveness and freedom that is offered in the gospel.
Her story highlights the continued need for the gospel to be proclaimed boldly and humbly. While she grew up knowing the name of Jesus and reading the Bible, she had a false view of Jesus. Our nations and neighborhoods need people that have been saved by Jesus to proclaim the forgiveness and freedom that is offered in the gospel.
We proclaim the gospel with urgency, remembering Jesus’ promise to return like a thief in the night. Our conversations should be filled with discernment, compassion, and prayer as we long for them to know the Jesus of the Bible.
Pray for the Gospel to Advance Among the Shembes
As Christians, we should pray for those who are still part of the Shembe Church. These men and women are surrounded by the Word of God, but they have a false view of Jesus in their minds. They may know God’s Word, but they are dead in their sins.
Hamba Vangeli! (which means “advancing the gospel” in the IsiZulu language).