Called to Work: stories of African entrepreneurs

Ziwani Called to Work: stories of African entrepreneurs

There’s nothing like the power of storytelling. Stories inspire, and help us envision our lives not just as they are, but as they could be. When someone tells their story, and God is at the centre of it, more often we discover something of our own story too. Africa has always embraced storytelling as a means of tying one generation to the next, a thread connecting culture and wisdom over centuries. Across its rich cultural tapestry are countless stories that give expression to the unique innovation, creativity and dynamic spirit of its people, particularly in the marketplace.

Ziwani’s passion has always been to capture these narratives and bring them to life. That’s why we are thrilled about our latest series ‘Called to Work: Stories of African Entrepreneurs – an 8-part video series documenting the lives of entrepreneurs across the African continent who have walked incredible faith journeys in the African marketplace. Alongside their personal stories, we unpack the biblical principles shaping their journey, providing viewers with theological perspectives to apply in their daily lives and marketplace realities. Says Ziwani’s Sibs Sibanda, ‘This video series follows in the African tradition, as entrepreneurs tell their stories and testify to what God can do through ordinary men and women in business.’

The inspiration behind the ‘Called to Work’ series

When launched in 2021, Ziwani primarily served as a knowledge hub, with dedicated content focussed on the integration of faith and work. Gradually as a strategic community of peers and advisors formed, the team was able to ask more targeted questions around how best to support business leaders in the ‘trenches’ of African entrepreneurship? What do African business leaders need to live out their callings, with excellence, joy and feeling well equipped?

From this question, different focus areas were identified – one of which being the need to present relatable and authentic stories of Africans, for Africans. ‘There was an evident gap in representation and relevance when it came to Christian business content,’ says Ziwani head Keri-Leigh Paschal. ‘Africa is unique in its marketplace contexts, and we wanted to capture some of the stories that give expression to this uniqueness; stories that mirror the lived reality of our dynamic and distinctive continent.’

With this end in mind, Ziwani collaborated with ecosystem partner, Faith Driven Entrepreneur – adapting their existing foundation series to suit the an African context. After three years of travel and filming across the continent, Called to Work came to life. A project that champions the power of partnership, the Called to Work series aims to resonate with leaders across sub-Saharan Africa, passionate about faith and business, and eager to learn from peers who understand the realities and roads they navigate.

‘Over time it’s become clear that these videos were created, not just to ‘fill a gap’ in our content,’ said Ziwani’s producer of the series, Lise-Marie Keyser. ‘These rich stories allow other African entrepreneurs to see their own story inside them – the shared challenges, fears, faith and aspirations. Being part of the production team, spending time in homes and around tables filming these inspiring stories, was an incredible privilege. The fact that each person gave us access, not only to their expertise and insights but to their very lives, speaks to their heart of generosity and true partnership.’

What the Called to Work series entails

Each session consists of two videos – one teaching session and one testimony video. The teaching sessions, hosted by Sibs Sibanda and Roedolf Botha, delve into the theology and fundamental principles underpinning entrepreneurship. At the same time, the testimony videos breathe life into these very principles through the authentic experiences of entrepreneurs in various African contexts, from South, East and West Africa.

Accompanying the video series is a thoughtfully designed resource guide to navigate through the sessions. This guide, packed with reflective questions, invites participants to reflect on the core principles discussed and envision how these insights can be integrated into their business practices and industry landscapes.

‘The series caters to various audiences, including the church community,’ adds Keri-Leigh. ‘Our hope is that it can serve as a valuable resource for small group discussions. The accessibility of the series also makes it an ideal platform for fellow congregants and peers to go through the material together, exploring what it means to be called to the marketplace. We believe these videos, along with the accompanying biblical teaching, will equip every Christian to take steps towards living out what you feel God has called you specifically to do from Monday to Saturday.’

The stories inside the series

The series spans diverse landscapes, encompassing not only different geographical regions but also a broad spectrum of industries. Topics are clear and applicable, filled with faith lessons that have been forged in the furnace of life experience.

Nelson Ashitiva, for example, speaks to the concept of loving your neighbour through business. Rising from a one-man band in a notorious Nairobi slum, to an award-winning advocate and founder of a Top Ten law firm in Kenya, he shares on the importance of creating entrepreneurial opportunities for others.

Co-founder of the African Council for Accreditation & Accountability, Valentine Gitoho, and James Gitoho, award-winning architect, speak to the art of doing excellent work, without becoming slaves to it. ‘Don’t worship work’, their message entails, emphasising the significance of knowing your identity in Christ as you lead in the marketplace.

‘Called to Create’- the story of three trailblazers, Sandy Barlow and Pete Howie, co-founders of Seattle Coffee Co., and contemporary artist Philip Barlow, recalls their 20-year journeys of highs and lows in business. It highlights the incredible testimony of finding beauty in the mundane, rooted in the enduring ‘call to create’ in the marketplace.

Each of the eight videos are short, inspirational documentaries, aimed to inspire business leaders how they, by faith, can make a meaningful impact in the African marketplace.

Watch the trailer here:

Click here to view the sessions and learn more about the series.

Going further together, Nation Builder’s new era of impact

Going further together, Nation’s Builder’s new era of impact | Mergon

When people come together to serve a vision that is bigger than their own, extraordinary things can happen. At Nation Builder, we’ve seen this to be true.

A social development initiative aimed to strengthen South Africa’s social impact, Nation Builder has worked to bridge the gap between the business and non profit sectors for over 16 years. Our philosophy centres on the idea that partnerships have the power to unlock disproportionate impact, echoing the wisdom of the saying, ‘if you want to go further, [you need to] go together’.

More recently, we have put this idea to action, embarking on a new era of impact with NPO and social impact fund manager, Valcare. As of February 1, Valcare has taken on the strategic and operational mandate of Nation Builder and is now operating under its name. This leadership transition marks a new chapter for Nation Builder, one in which the new team (supported by some members of the original Nation Builder board) can leverage their collective strengths to take their reach and impact further.

Why do we believe this leadership transition will further benefit the social impact sector, connecting and strengthening even more organisations nationwide? We spoke to Mergon’s (and former Nation Builder head) Keri-Leigh Paschal to find out more. Drawing insights from a Stanford University review on the essentials of social innovation, Keri highlights five aspects that she sees in this collaboration and believes are critical for fostering collective impact.

1. A common agenda

‘To make collective impact work, everyone needs to share a vision for change,’ Keri shares. ‘This means agreeing on the problem and working together on a common approach through decided actions.’ She explained that both Nation Builder and Valcare over the years have served as ‘bridge builders’ between the business and non-profit sectors – sharing knowledge, fostering understanding, and encouraging collaboration that leads to measurable social impact. ‘Although we bring different strengths to the table, we have the same purpose in mind to strengthen South Africa’s social impact sector. Of all the things to have in common, this is by far the most important.’

2. Shared measurement systems

Referring to the abovementioned Stanford review, Keri notes: ‘Research has found that establishing a shared measurement system is crucial for collective impact. It’s not enough to just agree on common goals; we need to be on the same page about how we measure and report success. Consistently collecting and measuring results across all participating organisations, using a few key indicators at the community level, not only keeps everyone on track but also fosters accountability. This way, we can learn from both successes and failures and continuously improve our collective efforts.’

‘Going forward, what excites us in this new season of Nation Builder is the intended focus on professionalisation and standardisation in the sector. Clearer goal setting and reporting systems will not only foster trust and accountability between the private sector and NPO beneficiaries; it will cultivate investor confidence and a deeper understanding of the on-the-ground realities in South Africa. This excites us and makes us hugely optimistic about the future,’ says Keri.

3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities

‘In successful partnerships, the focus isn’t on everyone doing the same thing,’ says Keri. ‘It’s rather about creating space for each participant to operate in their unique skills and abilities. This diversity brings a richness to the collaboration, where the diversity of strengths is complementary and enriches the outcomes.’

‘In the case of Nation Builder and Valcare,’ she continues, ‘both organisations have had complementary offerings that, when combined, can multiply impact and benefit the sector. Nation Builder provides a diverse, cross-sector community with a nationwide footprint. Valcare has excelled in capacity building, offering a range of resources that effectively equip and connect social investors and NPOs to drive social impact. By combining these strengths, Nation Builder is now able to extend its reach and enrich impact, providing more organisations with the tools and training to strengthen the sector.’

4. Continuous Communication

‘Over these past 15 years at Nation Builder, we’ve recognised the power of dialogue – simply getting all the stakeholders in the room and creating a space where every voice is heard, seen, and valued,’ Keri says. ‘Working in the development sector can often be a lonely and a weight responsibility – so it was important for us to create environments where people could openly share their challenges, be real with one another and engage in collective and constructive learning. As we were never the experts in the room, rather the people that brought the experts around the table, open and ongoing communication was, and still is, at the heart of Nation Builder.’

She continues, ‘This dedication to fostering dialogue continues under new leadership. Going forward, one of the primary focuses is ‘building capacity through collaborations’ – combining knowledge and resources to achieve more within the sector. Trust-based, on-the-ground engagements will be central to realising this goal.’

5. Backbone Support Organisations

‘One thing we’ve seen over the years is that good collaboration takes time – and time is a precious commodity in the development world,’ Keri says. ‘Being able to come alongside sector stakeholders and support them with a backbone infrastructure, one with dedicated staff and resources, has proven incredibly valuable. With a bird’s eye view on the sector, we have been able to serve as a knowledge transfer, bridging the gap between the business and NPO worlds, and leveraging perspectives that incorporate every stakeholder’s view and respective needs. From there, Nation Builder has been able to leverage these insights and create sector resources that directly address these needs and add value to the process.’

Keri concludes, ‘Serving Nation Builder for the past 15 years through Mergon has been one of life’s greatest privileges. It’s been inspiring working alongside such passionate and dedicated individuals, deeply committed and devoted to seeing South Africa’s social fabric strengthened. We are confident that this next season of Nation Builder will bring with it, even greater impact, collaboration, and positive change for South Africa’s social development sector.

This article was written as tribute to the rich 15-year history of Nation Builder under Mergon’s leadership. Stay updated with the latest developments in this new season by visiting the new website or reaching out to the team at [email protected].

Dancing with porcupines: the art of skilful conflict handling

Dancing with porcupines: the art of skilful conflict handling

In any aspect of life, especially in leadership, conflict is inevitable. The key lies not in avoiding it but in addressing it wisely and constructively. This online workshop, hosted on the FiftyFour platform, features John Yip discussing the nuances of conflict, different approaches to handling it, and the potential conflict holds for fostering enhanced collaboration and outcomes.

The gift of conflict

‘We can look at conflict from two very different vantage points,’ explains John. ‘On one hand, it can be demotivating and hinder risk-taking. Confrontational people are often viewed as troublemakers, especially if you’re trying to lead people in a certain direction.’

‘While this can be true,’ John adds, ‘there is another way we can look at conflict – and this is to see it as something positive and productive, a tool that can be leveraged for the organisation’s good. It’s in the chaffing of differing opinions that we’re sharpened and honed, in the friction of opposing perspectives that we discover fresh energy and ideas, flag underlying emotions, unearth potentialities.’

The benefits of storming

Bruce Tuckman, in his Team Development Model, emphasises the importance of constructive conflict for cultivating high-performing teams. In this model, he identifies five stages that he believes are essential to achieving effectiveness and unity as a team. One of the early stages along this developmental journey, he notes, is the ‘storming’ stage.

‘Until now, the team has been getting to know each other,’ he explains. ‘People are generally excited, and conflicts have been minimal. But as time goes on, we might see some disagreements popping up. Personal agendas and power struggles may come to the surface, leading to divisions like cliques or splinter groups.’

This, he suggests, is not something to shy away from but to leverage as a helpful diagnostic tool. ‘It’s here’, he says, ‘that you can start to observe how people are experiencing your leadership. Are they jockeying for roles or power, and if so, why? Is there a sense buy-in to the vision, and if not, why not? You can begin to discuss these matters and address core issues, while facilitating opportunities for the team to grow their communication and interpersonal skills,’ explains John. ‘The key lies in recognising the root causes of conflict and harnessing this tension to not only promote more authentic work but also cultivate more authentic teams.’

Five styles of conflict management

While circumstances and leadership contexts can influence it, explains John, leaders typically have a default approach to handling conflict. According to the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Management model, this behaviour can be summed up in five main responses, which can be seen below.

Each of these responses, he says, is shaped by the unique interplay between assertiveness and cooperativeness. Assertiveness is the extent to which you pursue your own interests to satisfy your concern. Cooperativeness, on the other hand, is the extent to which you consider others’ interests. ‘Depending on the unique combination of these characteristics’, he explains, ‘we find ourselves responding to conflict in one of the following ways.’

1. Competing

As Kilmann suggests, this is a ‘winner takes all’ approach to conflict management.  While effective in the short run, this style can cause damage in the long run, especially when a leadership transition is needed. ‘It’s difficult for a highly assertive leader to step down or step sideways in the organisation,’ says John. ‘Learning to be number two requires embracing a different mindset, where your win is not at the expense of someone else’s loss.’

2. Accommodating

Accommodating, on the other hand, is the opposite of competing. ‘This conflict style,’ says John, ‘is all about sacrificing your interests to satisfy the other party. It requires selflessness, aiming to maintain harmony and preserve relationships.’ However, he notes, overusing accommodation can be unhelpful, leading to a sort of ‘lose-win’ situation. He says, ‘There’s an element of self-sacrifice involved, which can be mistaken with a selfless generosity. But staying quiet, complying for the sake of ‘peace’, ultimately undermines the team developmental process. It risks never going through the storming stage, creating a false harmony in the team.’

3. Avoiding

For many, avoiding is the easiest and most instinctive response to conflict handling. While John acknowledges that avoidance can be beneficial for creating a pause to cool down and revisit the issue later, it’s not advisable to make it the default approach to addressing issues. Ultimately, neglecting to tackle the underlying problem allows it to persist and hinder overall the team’s potential.

4. Collaborating

Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative—the complete opposite of avoiding. ‘It emphasises finding mutually satisfactory solutions,’ says John. ‘Collaborating is forged through open communication, active listening, and a high willingness to explore different perspectives to reach consensus. Collaborating requires patience, because laying your own preferences down and seeking a mutual win – a third way – takes time and humility. Collaborating always involves sacrifice, because it’s no longer about what’s solely best for me or for you, but what is best for us.’

5. Compromising

The ‘compromising approach,’ as per Kilmann’s model, falls in the middle ground, exhibiting moderate levels of both assertiveness and cooperativeness, a balance of giving and taking. In compromising, you partially address the issue, but you don’t delve into it as deeply as you would when collaborating. Explains John, ‘Compromise is all about concessions, seeking a mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties—a half-win scenario. Compromising can have you feeling like both parties lose in the end. It’s okay for the short term but it’s not sustainable in the long run.’

‘Kilmann’s model has been helpful for me in team settings, providing language and a framework to understand different conflict resolution approaches,’ says John. ‘The best conflict handling style is situational, depending on the specific conflict, the people involved, and what the moment requires. Everyone is capable of using all five styles; none should use a single one exclusively. Even Jesus Himself leaned into all five styles of addressing conflict.’

‘It’s important to remember’, John concluded, ‘that conflict is not bad; it’s merely a symptom of a problem to be solved, rather than a battle to be won. You’re not fighting each other; you’re actually looking to find a way forward together. If well navigated, conflict can strengthen and enrich relationships, moving them from pseudo to high-performing teams that leave a lasting impact for generations to come.’

More on FiftyFour

FiftyFour is an online learning and capacity-building platform designed to guide leaders towards growing healthy organisations. The platform centres on four pillars: assessment tools, impactful courses, connection with other leaders, and data & research. These benefits provide leaders the opportunity to assess their needs, access applicable learning, learn from peers and understand data from their region that can inform their growth.

As part of the learning journey, leaders are invited to attend online workshops where they can learn, connect and engage with specialists over topics relevant to organisational health. This event, hosted in late 2023, marked FiftyFour’s inaugural workshop. All of these workshops are free and will be hosted on a monthly basis throughout 2024.

FiftyFour was launched as a free resource, available to all non-profit leaders. If you’re interested in learning more about the platform and joining this journey, along with participating in events like this one, register here: http://www.fiftyfourcollective.com/.

The value of being on the ground

The value of being on the ground - Mergon Foundation

In this blog post, Mergon Foundation’s regional manager for sub-Saharan Africa, De Wet Spies, shares moments he might have missed, had he not travelled to spend face-to-face time with our ministry partners. He gives us a fresh, personal take on what he sees as ‘the value of being on the ground’.

‘Cabin crew, prepare the cabin for landing…’ rang the pilot’s voice over the intercom as the thatched houses on the outskirts of Antananarivo gradually became more distinct.  As I leaned over the shoulder of my fellow traveller to get a better view of the changing Madagascar landscape, I pondered over the question that had stayed with me since I had stepped onto the aircraft in Johannesburg: ‘Why am I doing this… again?’

Expect the unexpected in Africa

Travelling in Africa is not for the faint-hearted. During the past three years, I’ve visited more than 12 different African countries as part of my role in Mergon Foundation’s sub-Saharan Africa team. In most cases, reaching your destination involves an overnight transit, a red-eye boarding time, a multi-hour layover, or spending almost the same time getting from the airport to the hotel as the number of hours spent in the aircraft.

Some of the trips and destinations have been more comfortable than others – sometimes sleeping on a down pillow, and sometimes not. Sometimes receiving what you ordered for lunch, and other times simply graciously smiling and eating whatever was served to you. Sometimes you are gasping for breath at the serenity and untouched wonder of the African landscape, and other times you are gasping at the cold water from the bucket shower that washes off the dust and sweat after a long, humid day. Hours can feel like minutes as you hang on the lips of the storytelling masters, or minutes can feel like hours as you get stuck in traffic or bounce between potholes at the mercy of a taxi driver.

On this particular trip, sitting on a plane heading to Madagascar, some might think that I was indifferent. After all, the country isn’t quite at the top of the global development index. Ground transport can be arduous – especially outside the capital – and communication is either in a fragmented English or in a translated dialect of French or Malagasy. Instead, a sense of gratitude and anticipation welled up in me as the airplane approached the ground: ‘I need to do these trips.’

As Mergon Foundation, we want our primary vehicle of giving to be through partnership because we believe that the DNA of the Kingdom is relationships. Jesus came for us because he loved us, and we want to be funders who consider relationships in the same way. For this reason, we aim to be resource partners to those who are doing God’s work across the nations of Africa and the Middle East. This means funding on the one hand, but also means visiting, building relationships, equipping, connecting, encouraging and praying with and for these partners. As a result, I’ve come to realise how deeply impactful these trips have been on my personal life too.

Had we not gone…

Had I not been on the ground in Burkina Faso, I would not have understood the tremendous witness that an act of love from a voluntary doctor would have on a community where Christians make up a minority. I would also not to have seen the deep encouragement new converts would experience by simply being around fellow believers in this highly persecuted country.

It was on this same trip that I witnessed hundreds of vibrant churches in an area where the church was non-existent 30 years ago. The community had been gripped for decades in strongholds of animism and witchcraft, but started to change after one student radically came to faith whilst sitting under a tree overhearing a foreign missionary speak to a tiny group of people. Truly God’s word is confirmed in Isaiah 55:11: ‘So will my word be which goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.’

Had I not travelled to Nigeria with my team, we would have missed out on the opportunity to fast and pray with 120 church planters from Northern Nigeria and surrounding countries to overcome the barriers that are preventing the multiplication of the gospel amongst the unreached people groups in this extremely volatile region. What made this even more poignant was knowing that an estimated 10,000 believers have been killed for their faith in this area alone since 2015! Praying with believers who are facing this reality on a day-to-day basis moves something in you. It challenges your own view of God and your commitment to His calling on your life. It confronts the obsession we often have in the West with materialism and comfort, or our lack of faith and perseverance when prayers are not immediately answered. It inspires me to go deeper with God, to listen more to His voice, and to respond in simple obedience whenever He speaks.

Whilst travelling in DRC, we started to understand the disheartening reality of girls and women in this country. Often kept out of school because it’s deemed unnecessary for them to be educated, girls become extremely vulnerable and often end up in prostitution to earn an income. If not for our in-person visit, we would have missed out on hearing countless real-life stories, but also on the opportunity to see the incredible work of a partner ministry who have started more than 200 centres providing basic literacy and skills training for young women. Through these centres, hundreds of women have now met Jesus and have been equipped to earn their own income.

The gift of going to the nations

The list could go on and on… Every trip has shaped the way I experience God and conduct myself in my work. Witnessing our partners’ tenacity, love and servant hearts to traverse arduous terrains to bring the Good News of Jesus, or hearing the stories of countless, daily miracles humbles me and often radically shifts the lens through which I view the world.

Often, the people our partners serve in these regions have no plan B – if God doesn’t intervene, there is no alternative medical provider to go to, there is no security company that will protect, there is no grocery store to deliver food. For many who choose to follow Christ it means deserting their families and livelihoods with the possibility of never being allowed to return. I am moved by people’s selfless acts of kindness and generosity towards others, often at a great personal expense.

Yes, Africa has a lot of challenges, but behind every person is a fascinating story waiting to be told, a community that is interwoven throughout the daily life, and a nation beaming with potential, inspiration and hope. Witnessing how God uses ordinary, ‘unknown’ people of this world to radically expand His Kingdom has truly been a tremendous privilege.

As the aircraft doors open, I can’t wait to see what God has waiting on the other side… I am reminded that we don’t have to do this. We choose to do this. I am grateful for Mergon’s approach to partner with ministries in Kingdom work – to regularly be on the ground with our partners to build relationship, talk, dream and strategise. By doing this I believe we are given the opportunity to witness and partner with God in ‘those good works which He planned beforehand for us, that we should walk in them.’ (Eph. 2:10-13)

Abiding in Christ

Abiding in Christ - Mergon Foundation

The call to abide in Christ found in John 15 stands as a profound and transformative invitation for each one of us. But it is harder than it looks on the surface. In this blog post, Mergon Foundation’s Neil Hart delves into the intricate journey of abiding in Christ. He writes:

My relationship with John 15 began several years ago after feeling a distinct prompting from the Lord one morning to read it. Little did I realise that He would prompt me for the next month to read it every day! Abiding in Christ proved to be a more complex concept than I thought. Understanding the depth of abiding became a challenging quest for me and after 30 days of daily immersion in John 15, I admitted that I don’t have a clue what it means to abide in Jesus. 

Frustration lingered as I grappled with the desire for a quick guide to mastering the art of abiding. However, God’s response was clear – abiding wasn’t a quick-fix solution. About a year later, feeling a divine nudge, I returned to John 15. This time, the journey included a more profound understanding, and I want to share some key insights I gained from the Father.

Understanding the context of John 15

The context of John 15 is important. Placed within the larger narrative of Jesus entering Jerusalem, the events unfold with a sense of anticipation. The triumphant entry, the preparation for the Passover, and the shocking act of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet – all these events set the stage for the profound teachings of this portion of scripture. 

As Jesus breaks bread with his disciples, revealing that one of them will betray him, a sense of disquiet permeates the room. Peter, fervently declaring his loyalty, is met with a sobering response from Jesus, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’ This statement foreshadows the core message of John 15 – the necessity of abiding in Christ. 

In John 15:1-6, Jesus presents three characters – Himself as the True Vine, the Father as the Vinedresser, and us as the branches. The analogy of the vineyard serves as a metaphor for our relationship with Christ and the process of pruning and bearing fruit unfolds as a crucial theme. 

Jesus declares, ‘I am the True Vine, and my Father is the Vinedresser.’ Here, the Vinedresser symbolises the intentional care and cultivation of our lives by God. Concerning the branches, representing us, He says: ‘Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that continues to bear fruit, He [repeatedly] prunes, so that it will bear more fruit [even richer and finer fruit].’

The process of abiding: discipline and pruning

One hurdle in understanding John 15 is the fear-inducing concept of being ‘cut off’ if we fail to produce fruit. This is something I wrestled with a lot because there are so many Christians who don’t bear fruit. Even in my own life, there have been fruitless seasons. Perhaps you can relate. Delving deeper, however, I discovered a nuanced perspective from author Bruce Wilkinson who says we need to look a bit closer at the language used in this portion of scripture.  

When Jesus says ‘cuts off’, the original word is actually ‘airo’ which means to ‘lift up’ or ‘raise’ but it’s not always translated like that. Often, circumstances can damage a vine’s branches and it ends up on the ground, in the dirt. If there is still a small part that is connected to the vine however, the farmer will lift it up (‘airo’ it) and tie it tightly to the vine again so that it can grow and produce fruit. The Passion Translation captures this nuance beautifully: ‘He cares for the branches connected to me by lifting and propping up the fruitless branches and pruning every fruitful branch to yield a greater harvest.’ 

This process, far from being a threat of separation, is a demonstration of God’s commitment to our growth. The image of a broken branch, still slightly connected to the vine, being lifted up and secured, mirrors God’s desire to restore and nurture us. This ‘lifting up’, I realised, speaks more of discipline than pruning. When we are down on the ground, covered with bits of dirt (sinfulness) and we’re not producing fruit, He picks us up and brings us back into relationship with Him. He ties us tightly to Himself onto the vine and to Jesus and allows us to continue to grow.  

What helped me here is Hebrews 12:11 which also speaks about producing fruit: ‘For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those that have been trained by it.’ The Father brings the process of cleaning us up (which is often discipline). I wanted to jump straight to abiding, but I didn’t realise there was a process where some sinfulness had to be removed from of my life. And even though I’ve been following Him for decades, there’s still sinfulness that needs to be cleaned up from my life from time to time. I thank the Lord for His ability to clean me up and reveal to me the things that keep dirt on the leaves and stop me from producing fruit! 

Hebrews 12:5-6 says ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives.’ This is the best news that we never want to hear, but God takes necessary measures to correct those that he loves. The Vinedresser corrects the wayward branches that are not producing fruit.  

The second part is pruning: ‘Every branch that bears fruit, He repeatedly prunes.’ If your life is bearing fruit, know that He is going to prune you. Both discipline and pruning are painful, but it’s necessary. Part of the process of abiding in Christ, which is central to our lives as followers of Jesus, is discipline and pruning. God wants us to trust Him as a child trusts a father.

Four areas God often prunes in our lives

Over the years, I’ve noticed four areas that God often prunes in our lives. These include:

      1. Our right to know why God does what He does
      2. Our love for possessions and comfort
      3. Our sources of significance
      4. Our closest relationships (if they become more important than Christ to us) 

A grapevine needs more pruning with age, not less. If left unpruned, it grows a very large canopy of leaves which doesn’t allow any sunlight onto the vine. Without sunlight, the vine is unable to produce fruit. The longer we grow in the Lord, the stronger we become in Him, the more we grow in knowledge – but if left unpruned, that abundance doesn’t produce fruit. We might have a lot of head knowledge, be able to quote a lot more scriptures than before, and navigate our way through most ministry leader-type environments… but God’s not really interested in all that. If being disciplined is about removing sin, then pruning is about removing the self, the flesh.

We need to be able to distinguish between pruning and discipline – is God taking sin out of your life or is He pruning the flesh out of your life? We shouldn’t confuse those two. Discipline is if we’re doing something wrong, and pruning is if we’re doing something right. But pruning, though painful and uncomfortable, is something that God will do if we produce fruit – He promises this in John 15. 

The invitation to abide

‘Abide in me, and I in you.’ This invitation, echoing throughout the verses of John 15, wasn’t a command but a beckoning into a life-encompassing union with Christ. May we experience a deepened understanding of abiding, saying, ‘We want more, not because we lack, but because You have promised abundance.’ 

The revelation here is that the call to abide in Christ is an intimate invitation. Come and experience a life intertwined with the True Vine…Abiding is simply this: take up more space on me, says Jesus. Increase the circumference of the branch on the vine. The greater the circumference, the greater the ‘lifeblood’ and nutrients that flow into the branch to produce abundantly. This is the great joy of John 15.

Faith in the Digital Age: Understanding Gen Z

‘Like Jesus with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, so the church must become the travelling companions of young people.’

Since a young age, these powerful words of Pope John Paul II have shaped Nqobile Ngcobo’s journey, discipling and inspiring a generation of young people to serve God, love others, and change the world around them. Before joining the Mergon Foundation team as the SA relationship manager, Nqobile served as the director of strategy & product for the sub-Saharan Africa region of Alpha International, a ministry partner of Mergon Foundation. In this capacity, she traversed Africa, engaging with diverse audiences and cultures, sharing on the importance and joy of investing in today’s youth.

These experiences provided Nqobile with profound insights into the unique characteristics of Gen Z – the generation born between the mid-1990s and the early 2010s. Through this candid conversation, she shares her perspectives on what sets this generation apart and how they are not only poised to express the gospel through their distinctive lens but also to take it further in Africa.

Nqobile, you mentioned that since the age of 22, when you started volunteering at your church for youth ministry, this idea of being a ‘travelling companion to young people’ has deeply resonated with you. Can you tell us more about this?

For me, it speaks to the importance of relational ministry – journeying alongside young people, committed to walk the long road, no matter how long and hard the road is. When they stray, we as leaders model consistency. When they doubt or disagree, we create a safe environment to wrestle through those differences. Relational ministry is understanding we can’t open people’s spiritual eyes, but we can walk alongside them, sharing truth and scripture like Jesus did on the Emmaus road, until they recognise Him for themselves.

With this in mind, are there unique realities we need to consider when relating to Gen Z?

‘I’ve heard it said that the difference between millennials and Gen Z can be likened to the contrast between Harry Potter and the Hunger Games. Millennials grew up being told that they were, like Harry Potter, the heroes of their own story. To a degree and for a certain amount of time, their world supported this narrative. Then 9/11 and a global recession happened, and their world began to crumble – leaving them with a sense of disillusionment.

Gen Z, on the other hand, was born into a digital and global world, with a constant window into the brokenness and injustice of this world. Their formative years included a global pandemic and lockdown, which exposed our economic fragility and human vulnerability. They see the world for what it is. And yet, they have a deep sense of responsibility to address these wrongs, believing that it’s up to them to bring about the change they want to see.

In this way, they can connect with the idea of Jesus as a disruptor. Throughout the scriptures, Jesus constantly challenged the status quo, going to the margins and breaking religious molds. The authentic, unpolished, and bold depiction of Jesus aligns with a generation hungry for truth and genuine experiences. It’s exciting to think what appeals most to this generation is not a refined or sugar-coated gospel, but rather the honest and unfiltered person of Christ – actively involved in the world, genuine, relevant, and meeting people right where they truly need it.

As we know, Gen Z is the first ‘digital native’ generation. How has this changed the way we relate to young people and build true community?

For young people today, there’s very little difference between online and in-person communities. The relationships they form in digital spaces, be it through WhatsApp groups or gaming apps, are just as significant as those forged face-to-face. In discipling them, we need to be open to various approaches, understanding that discipleship can take diverse forms, even including online.

Take, for example, a local church congregant who came to faith through Alpha online and later invited his ‘friend’ in Lebanon to join the course, solely through a gaming app. These connections are real, challenging our traditional views – not only of sharing the gospel but of building community.

We have the opportunity to reshape discipleship, not just through big broadcast messages on social media, but by creating smaller, tailored spaces where young people in our ministry can engage authentically. What’s better than having 2000 followers is 30 engaged followers, ministered to and actively discipled through content that directly addresses what they’re curious about or wrestling through.

In a world where young people are digitally linked but paradoxically distant, these platforms serve as powerful tools to meet their deep need for belonging. Not by relying solely on them but by leveraging them, we can guide young people towards the ultimate goal – drawing young people into faith communities where they can grow in Christ and with one another.

What excites you about this generation and particularly in Africa?

We must never underestimate the youth’s power to change the status quo and be used by God. Daniel was 17 when called, Joseph was 18, Mary 14. The list goes on. Imagine the impact we could have if we truly sowed into the lives of a few – especially when considering the strengths of this generation.

Gen Z brings a kind of pragmatism and realism to the table, due to their early exposure to information and life’s challenges. But this also translates into a hunger for something real and enduring which, when found, they will embrace wholeheartedly. They are smart and independent, able to navigate digital spaces confidently, that has produced a kind of ‘pioneering spirit’ that the gospel has always thrived on. And they are fun and creative, inviting new, diverse and innovative forms of gospel expression across the world.

Considering Africa, being the youngest continent, there’s a lot to be excited about. Economists talk about the ‘economic dividend’ in Africa, anticipating the continent’s future youth bulge, and the potential challenges this bears on employment. What if we saw it as a ‘faith dividend’? Imagine investing in young people so deeply that, as this bulge happens, a groundswell of people emerges who know Jesus, have real faith, and are actively shaping society towards its flourishing. Imagine a generation so grounded in Jesus that they tip the scales from hopelessness to hopefulness.

Imagine that. A hope-full generation. I think it’s nothing short of what God has in store for Gen Z – in Africa and beyond.

Alpha is a series of interactive sessions designed to start an open and honest conversation around some of the big questions of life. The Alpha Youth series, a core part of this ministry, invites young people to explore together timeless questions about life, faith and God for their generation.