Four (un)common ways of exiting

Four (un)common ways of exiting | The Magnificent Exit by Neil Hart

‘Have you ever thought about preparing for your future leadership handoff?’ writes head of Mergon Foundation’s Neil Hart in his book, ‘The Magnificent Exit: Mastering the Art of Leadership Transitions’.

Over 11 succinct chapters, he examines the art of leadership handovers: the transition from one senior leader to an upcoming leader or team. A critical juncture in the organisation’s journey, which ideally should be invigorating and propulsive, he argues, is all too often marked by inertia, stagnation, or lack of vision on the part of senior leadership. ‘How can we do this better?’, he asks of us.

Drawing from the scriptures, Neil proposes a biblical pattern for raising leaders, rooted in the example that Christ left for us to follow. Working alongside global leaders across several continents, Neil also gleans insights from their journeys, recognising the individual path each leader takes. ‘There is no one-size-fits-all approach and no instruction manual to leadership transitions,’ he writes, emphasising that leadership is ’more an art than a science.’

With these insights and his own experiences at hand, Neil identifies four core attributes of leaders who have learnt how to foster vision in others and ensure organisational continuity beyond their tenure. Below is a condensed overview of what Neil considers to be:

Four (un)common ways of exiting

1. A vision for the greater good

‘The first uncommon approach I observed in leaders who transition well comes from having a clear vision beyond themselves for leading the organization,’ Neil writes. ‘It’s a vision above the norm of leaders who are generally gifted to see into the growth path of the organization. Critically, these leaders see the organization thriving without themselves in the picture.’

‘Healthy leaders know their role in an organization as part of its ongoing lifespan, with a clear beginning and ending to their involvement. It’s almost as if they’re able to detach their personal value and involvement from the organization’s value and lifespan, seeing themselves as an actor playing an important scene on stage and knowing when to exit so the other actors can carry on without them.’

‘Perhaps your role is to pioneer so that another can come in to settle. Maybe you carry the baton for a season, but you hold it lightly enough to easily pass it to the next leader. Maybe your leadership role is to come in to calm the storms inside and to direct the mission. Once your job is done, do you have another assignment ready? Either way, healthy leaders have a vision beyond themselves for the sake of the organization, its people, and the community.’

2. A prophetic word and timing

‘Wise leaders take time regularly to listen to God,’ Neil continues. ‘They display humility, knowing that the Lord can see from the beginning to the end and is better able to pinpoint the right transitional moment. Many successful transitions are kicked into gear by a prophetic word or a “sense of God’s timing” from a leader who listens to God. Nothing is more effective than a leader hearing from the Lord. God knows how to direct us, and his timing is absolutely perfect.’

He refers to ‘three lights’ that line up when making a big decision. ‘These lights can be likened to a plane coming in to land and needing clear visuals to set down on the runway,’ he explains. They are:

      1. The word of the Lord (prophetic, vision, Scripture, etc.)
      2. The timing of the Lord
      3. The peace of the Lord

‘I’ve found that these three factors may come days or months apart; but to move with just one light missing can mean landing on the edge, or even off the runway, sometimes with disastrous consequences,’ says Neil. ‘I believe that God gives us all three lights when he is ready. I’ve also found that our sense of timing and his are often very different, so we often get this one wrong.

‘Lastly,’ he adds, ‘I’ve learned to rely on the peace of God to rest on a decision before moving, even when the other two lights are already there. Though they come in no particular order, all three are important before action can take place.’

3. A greenhouse for growing people

‘For some rare leaders, growing people is not a means to an end; it is a core focus. These kinds of leaders arrive at a transition mainly because there are so many well-mentored younger leaders around them that it’s impossible to not hand over. And it’s a joy for leaders to do so because of what they’ve invested into the character and competence of others. In an environment where younger leaders are being raised up, the ground for smooth and timely handover is prepared, both in the leader’s heart and mind as well as the team. This is the climate for healthy transitions.’

‘Leaders who grow people speak of the importance of observing possible up-and-coming leaders. They make time for them and open up personal space to be near enough to observe their character rather than just their skill — to watch them in those more subtle moments when they display their humility, or the lack thereof,’ writes Neil.

4. An inbuilt multiplication DNA

‘Those who take this approach are individuals who see leadership as an opportunity to multiply impact,’ he writes. ‘Their position allows for greater facilitation of expansive growth. They take up leadership roles because by doing so they can better foster a philosophy of giving away rather than holding onto power. They create organizations that release power as quickly as most others try to consolidate it. This characteristic of releasing power is highly counterintuitive. In short, multiplication is built into their leadership DNA.’

‘Multiplication DNA leaders think often about when they have to leave, not if they have to leave. They trust that God will send the right people to them who will rise up and exceed their own talents. When they find these people, they put them to work. Intentional about one-on-one leadership training, they pour practical experience into these emerging leaders and cast a vision for a movement rather than an organization.

They seldom go anywhere without taking young leaders with them. They teach by example and make up-and-comings do the work. Often, they’re not leaders you find front and center, but the ones who model, encourage, mentor, equip, and hold others accountable to make the vision practical. Multiplication DNA leaders easily celebrate small victories. They recognize and reward behavior because they know that if they do this, it will be repeated. These leaders are secure in their identities: they know who they are and what they are called to achieve.’

‘You may find yourself in one of these four approaches to transition or a combination of them,’ says Neil. ‘Your outlook is what matters. How you view the transition before you get there will ensure a successful transition.’ He suggests asking yourself some questions:

    1. Can I see the future of this organization without me? Does it look healthy? If not, what do I need to do now to ensure that future health?
    2. Has the Lord spoken to me anything about handing over that I haven’t fully paid attention to? Am I paying careful and regular attention to what the Lord is saying to me about transition?
    3. Am I growing younger leaders around me? Can I envisage them taking over and even doing a better job? What do I need to do to get them to that point?
    4. Am I cultivating an inbuilt DNA of multiplication? Can I see one leader and one organization becoming ten leaders and ten organizations? What will it take to move from addition to multiplication of impact?

‘Wise leaders envisage a future organization without them leading it. They do this near the earliest stages of their leadership and implement whatever is necessary to make it a reality.’

If you would like to read more about raising up leaders and mastering the art of leadership transitions, order your copy here.

For every tribe and tongue: the vital role of Bible translation

For every tribe and tongue: the vital role of Bible translation

About 5.9 billion people now have access to the full Bible in their own language. This is something we can easily take for granted, especially when we realise that there are still more than 1.5 billion people who do not have the full Bible in their heart languages.

Of the 7,000+ languages spoken around the world, more than 3,500 have little to no scripture. In fact, 1,200 people groups (roughly 220 million people) do not have a single verse of the Bible in their heart language, while 51% of the world’s languages still have no scripture at all. These aren’t just numbers; they represent millions of individuals without the word of God.

Challenges and triumphs: navigating the translation journey

The process of Bible translation involves more than just words – it requires patience, time and cultural sensitivity. Each people group and culture is unique and people engage with the Bible in different ways. Many of the people groups that don’t yet have the Bible in their heart language live in oral cultures where history, stories and other information have always been passed down verbally. This means that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to Bible translation.

To navigate this journey successfully, Bible translation organisations must demonstrate agility and creativity in their approach. While the specific processes may vary between organisations, they typically involve assembling and empowering locally led translation teams. These teams are provided with clearly defined time frames, objectives, milestones, and budgets for their work.

Initially, translators analyse a passage for its meaning and then draft it in their language. Subsequently, they collaborate to scrutinise each verse for accuracy and clarity. The translated scripture is then shared with the community for feedback, aiming to enhance both clarity and accuracy. Additionally, the draft undergoes translation ‘back’ into the language of wider communication, enabling non-native consultants to assess its accuracy. The final step would be for translators to carefully proofread and typeset, or record, a final version of the completed scripture.

Stories of transformation

Though the process of Bible translation is cerebral and systematical, the practical outworking is lives and communities being transformed.

There are countless stories of hope and transformation because the word of God is being shared in people’s heart languages. Seed Company shares the story of a woman in Asia named Rehka who for the first time heard about Sarah and Abraham and how they waited on God for a child. As a result of hearing the story in her heart language, she was not only released from shame because she had no children after seven years of marriage, but she realised that her hope was in God, not in whether or not she would ever have children. She began to understand the possibility of a spiritual family and the way in which all who believe in Jesus become descendants of Abraham. Even in the face of mocking neighbours, she clung to the hope that anything is possible for God. She found joy, and she persisted in asking God for a child.

Pray for Zero shares about a man named Berki in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley who took a stand years ago to follow Christ, even as his family threatened his life. Passionate about sharing what he had learnt from God’s word, he would ride his bicycle from village to village, sharing Bible stories one-on-one. Because they knew he was one of them, his fellow Hamer people felt comfortable around him. ‘I know that God called me for his purposes,’ says Berki, who is now helping to translate oral Bible stories and then sharing them in his Hamar language.

Another inspiring story by Seed Company is about a reverend and translation reviewer in Ethiopia who recalled his wife’s reaction when she listened to scripture in her heart language for the first time. She was weeping, asking ‘Why have you never told me how Jesus Christ died?’ Despite hearing the story dozens of times in Amharic and Ge’ez, his wife had never fully comprehended the crucifixion story. ‘Amharic is for the educated,’ he explained. ‘My wife, like most women in our community, is illiterate. Only a few girls go to school, and priority is given to boys. Ge’ez, on the other hand, is for ministers. We have many ancient religious writings, including the scriptures in Ge’ez. Trained ministers are expected to recite these writings, whether we know their meanings or not.’

Like this woman, many Xamtanga speakers have trouble understanding the Bible in Amharic and Ge’ez. They’re desperate for scripture in their own language. Thankfully, in 2019, the first-ever Xamtanga Bible — a full New Testament — was made available.

Engaging in the mission

In the pursuit of ensuring that the word of God reaches every corner of the earth, we have the opportunity to keep going so that ‘every tribe and tongue’ can eventually have access to scripture in their own language. It is something that requires our collective action and commitment. As Brother Andrew of Open Doors said, ‘The word of God needs to saturate our minds if we want to know and follow God’s will.’ But for those who are unable to read or comprehend it because of a language barrier, the path to spiritual growth according to God’s truth remains obstructed.

The establishment of initiatives like LuminAfrica in 2020 represents a significant step forward in this endeavour. Through collaborative efforts between South African Bible translation organisations and local resource partners, LuminAfrica is dedicated to closing the gap between those who have access to the Bible, and those who don’t. By supporting translation projects and facilitating partnerships with organisations such as the Bible Society of South Africa, Biblica, The Word for the World, and Hands with Words, among others, LuminAfrica is driving meaningful change in the landscape of Bible translation.

On a broader scale, as we unite in prayer through initiatives like Pray for Zero, we support Bible translators who often face religious, governmental and spiritual opposition.

As we read and listen to the word of God, let’s remember that Bible translation will always be a goal worth pursuing as there is still a vast number of believers who haven’t yet experienced the joy of having it in their heart languages.

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.

Pursuing solutions for sustainable change

‘Beneath a culture’s surface lies much that shapes it, often unspoken perspectives and mindsets that influence our behaviour. There is an art to understanding how these underlying dynamics give meaning and direction to our lives.’

Charmaine Smith (Mergon Foundation forum member and founding director of Infundo Consulting) spoke to this idea during last month’s gathering with a handful of global peer foundations. Sharing from their own career and ministry experiences, she and others explored the unique nuances of funding within the African context. Charmaine specifically spoke to the value of systems thinking, explaining:

‘I see myself as a generalist working between things, rather than an expert who works within things, which has prompted me to adopt a lifelong learning approach that often asks the question, ‘Why do people think and act the way they do?’’ When we omit to consider the factors that shape behaviour we will assume our strategies will work, only to discover later that nothing has changed or we have created resistance through ineffective management of our intervention.’

‘The understanding of intergenerational trauma transfer and the study of epigenetics sheds light on the difficulties of bringing change when the past shapes not just culture, and perspective, but even the DNA which connects past generations to how people experience life and behave. In the context of Africa with 1500 different languages and with an average age of 19 the considerations of working in Africa must take this all into account.’

In her journey, she discovered systems thinking as a comprehensive and robust way of understanding human behaviour. Systems thinking, she explained, offers a wider range of choices when working with people, because it takes the interdependency of our actions into account: ‘There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution when thinking systemically, because the choices we make will have an impact on the whole system, through its people. We can rather think of our decisions as a set of iterative decision-making points. As systems are impacted and shift through our presence and action, decisions need to be attuned to this shift and adjust accordingly.’

‘Dr Wayne Dyer said, ‘When you change the way you look at things; the things you look at, change.’’

‘What I have come to believe,’ Charmaine continued, ‘is that if we want to develop true partnerships with lasting social impact, we will need to think systemically, going beyond our cultural biases and assumptions to embrace a more holistic perspective on the problems we seek to solve and people we seek to understand.’

Embracing complexity

She referenced author Michael Goodman, emphasising that the discipline of systems thinking is more than just a set of diagnostic tools and methodologies – it is an underlying philosophy:

‘Systems thinking’, writes Goodman, ‘is a sensitivity to the circular nature of the world we live in; an awareness of the role of structure in creating the conditions we face; a recognition that there are powerful laws of systems operating that we are unaware of; a realisation that there are consequences to our actions that we are oblivious to.’

Charmaine explained that when we think in systems, we are comfortable to work at the pace of the system, embracing the complexity that goes hand in hand with growing healthy communities. ‘We think more broadly around our solutions,’ she said, ‘considering the long-term impact of our decisions and the inherent causalities of the events that have gone before us.’

‘When it comes to social impact, this holistic approach enables us to move away from top-down funding models that sustain donor dependence and overlook the intrinsic value and dignity of the communities they serve. Instead, we consider how to learn from one another, and thus reshape the traditional paradigm into a relationship of equal value and partnership,’ said Charmaine.

Working consciously with power dynamics

Charmaine noted that when a community’s system operates differently than ours, the (often unconscious) temptation is to perceive it as dysfunctional. ‘However,’ she shared, ‘I’ve always found that when you stop to consider the system, there is no dysfunction; all systems are in flow.’

‘Through my experience, I’ve learned that coming into a new community requires humility. It’s important not to presume we have all the answers or are starting something brand new. God has been working in that community long before our arrival. As community builders, our role is to figure out where He’s been working and to get behind it. This takes humility – a kind of ruthless curiosity to listen, learn – and un-learn old ways.’

‘When we enter the room, we need to ask ourselves, what comes with us? Do we come with a humble attitude, or do we feel burdened to have all the answers? Do we talk first, or do we speak last? What is most important to us – the relationships or the project deliverables?  How could some of our perspectives be at odds with the system we are working in? How does our entry into the system impact in ways which may not be overtly obvious to us; and what do we need to do, to give up, or shift in us, in order to find a new flow within this system?’

‘As funders and stewards of capital, it’s important to recognise the position of perceived power we inevitably carry – and we need to intentionally posture ourselves for relationship to re-balance these power dynamics.’ She added, ‘In my experience, I’ve found that vulnerability goes far – being honest about my own setbacks and disappointments has often invited others to be real about theirs, which then allows us to address the realities and challenges on the ground with honest and more effective solutions.’

Going deep before going wide

Building authentic relationships takes time, a commodity often scarce in the fast-paced world of funding and project implementation. Charmaine noted, however, that relational integrity is the most critical aspect of any systems thinking worldview: ‘The complexity of people working together on a project, across different sectors and organisations, can be as complex as working with the community itself,’ she said. ‘It’s critical, therefore, to have the right people in the right positions, including those who work ‘between’ the elements of the project and act as ‘catalytic nodes’ that influence and collaborate with other stakeholders.’

‘When you take a systems thinking approach to community development, you let the community lead and move at the speed of trust. When the project emphasises depth, characterised by strong relationships and community ownership, it establishes a unique ‘heartbeat’ that can potentially yield significant impact. Only when there is a new flow at depth, can you consider scaling certain projects over time.’

She concluded: ‘Being a systems thinker demands curiosity, compassion and humility. In the world of social impact, where cross-sector collaboration is essential, it asks all of us to adopt a learning posture—listening, asking questions, and discovering solutions we might have otherwise overlooked, only made possible by viewing things through the lens of another culture or community. Africa is beautiful in all its diversity and complexity. May we continue to serve its people with solutions that are as beautiful, diverse, and complex as Africa itself.’

Through Infundo Consulting, Charmaine works extensively with communities and their leaders, corporate partners, government departments and other relevant bodies, focussing on systems thinking for sustainable change. Infundo has been able to position the confluence of social and business impact within their model of change; where through the interconnectedness of seemingly opposing agendas – that of business and social needs – they have created a new status quo of shared value within a system which can sustain both.