CHURCH PROFILE: NORTHEASTERN EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH IN SOUTH AFRICA
At its synod in October 2019 ELCSA (N-T) deliberated once again on changing its name. When in 1994 South Africa changed the provincial structures, both Natal and Transvaal no longer existed. At that stage Synod attempted to find a new name, but did not succeed. Subsequently it was decided to just keep the abbreviation (N-T) and discard Natal-Transvaal. However, with time it became clear that people still referred to us as "Natal-Transvaal", often also in official communication. For that reason it was decided once again to embark on a process of finding a new name. The end result, after much discussion and deliberation. was agreed upon as follows:
Northeastern Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa, short NELCSA.
This name shows us as part of the Evangelical Lutheran Family in Southern Africa, whilst defining our region geographically rather than by provincial names.
Historically speaking the ELCSA(N-T) has two basic roots: German immigration to Southern Africa and the missionary engagement in this country from Europe, both during the 19th century.
Immigration of German speaking people in the Cape, many of them Lutherans, goes back into the 17th century. In Natal German settlers arrived in the early 1840s but a German settlement and consequently a Lutheran congregation only came into existence when 35 families emigrated in 1848 from Bramsche, Germany to start a cotton production at New Germany, Natal. A Berlin missionary, W. Posselt, took care of this German speaking congregation besides doing his missionary work amongst the Zulu.
(a) The Berlin Missionary Society came to South Africa in 1834 to start its work in the Cape and then in Natal at New Germany. Besides this one congregation, others were later founded in Cato Ridge, Pietermaritzburg and Bergville. In Transvaal descendants of the Berlin Mission and immigrants from Germany were mainly responsible for the establishment of German speaking congregations. Ten of eleven congregations were served by Berlin missionaries, who were mainly engaged in missionary work amongst the African inhabitants, only Johannesburg had its own pastor.
(b) With the arrival of the Hermannsburg missionaries and missionary lay helpers, ‘colonists’ in 1854, the mission station of Hermannsburg came into existence. After seven years 62 inhabitants from German background lived there and a German school was established in 1864. More congregations came into existence, usually in connection with the ongoing missionary expansion. In Northern Natal new congregations were established mainly because the ‘colonists’ withdrew from the mission and became independent farmers in 1865. In Transvaal Hermannsburg missionaries and their descendants established a German School in 1876.
Until the formation of a synod in 1911 twelve German congregations were established and were dependent on the mission society for their spiritual care. German congregations were established as part of the mission work in South Africa. At first they were spiritually dependent upon the missions and were cared for by a missionary. Congregations became more independent, also by building their own church, parsonage and school and supporting their pastor with own funds and taking the initiative in church life. Congregations were loosely knit together by their confession, the constitution of their respective mission society and a common background. Church and Culture was seen as an integral part and gave these congregations a feeling of security and identity in a foreign country. Close ties were kept with the missions and neighbouring black congregations.
(c) Constitution of Synods
Eleven congregations connected to the Hermannsburg mission constituted the Hermannsburg German Evangelical Lutheran Synod. A constitution was adopted, which laid emphasis on the Lutheran confession and preservation of the German heritage. The synod was to be chaired by a Praeses. The German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Transvaal was constituted by eleven congregations on 18.3.1926. The two pillars of the synod were to be German custom and Lutheran faith. The synod was led by a committee and a chairman.
(d) Initiated by the Lutheran World Federation a Board of Trustees for Lutheran Extension Work in Southern Africa was established in Pretoria in 1958 by the four German speaking churches. This board was to incorporate the English and Afrikaans speaking Lutheran congregations. Only cautiously the official languages, English and Afrikaans were introduced into the churches. Suitable pastors had to be trained in the country, hymns and liturgy had to be translated. The Board was the predecessor of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa.
(e) Constituting Independent Churches
The ‘German Transvaal Synod’ constituted itself on 8.4.1961 as the “Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (Transvaal Church)”, incorporating the Natal congregations of Berlin origin. The church entered into an official agreement with the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) and after 1963 became observer member of the South African Council of Churches. besides the Synod and a Church Council, a Praeses was elected, namely J. Wernecke (1961-1983).
On 11.1.1963 the “Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (Hermannsburg)” was constituted, became a member in the Lutheran World Federation and entered into an agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (EKD). As leader of the new church, Praeses H. Hahne was elected (1963-1973) and after his death he was followed by Praeses L. Müller-Nedebock (from1973-1981, and after the merger until 1990).
(f) With the withdrawal of the Hermannsburg Mission, new forms of cooperation with the black churches of Hermannsburg background were implemented, e.g. 1969 the Mission Committee, a committee on missionary cooperation and mission committees at congregational level were introduced.
(g) Affiliations: Both ELCSA(Hermannsburg) and ELCSA (Transvaal) joined the other two churches of German origin, to constitute the “United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa” (UELCSA) in Pretoria on 3.11.1964. The first General Synod took place from 4-7.3.1965 in Strand Street, Cape Town. UELCSA was the platform:
(h) The cooperation with other Lutheran churches, the so-called Mission Churches, was of great importance in the face of the Apartheid policy and South African social practices of separate development. In 1966 both the Transvaal and Hermannsburg churches joined the “Federation of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Southern Africa” (FELCSA) as two of the eleven participating churches. In 1969 all member churches decided to share in the fellowship of altar and pulpit and in 1975 the Swakopmund-Appeal was accepted by church leaders which rejected alien principles (Apartheid) to rule the churches’ life. FELCSA was restructured in 1991 as LUCSA “Lutheran Communion in Southern Africa.”
2. Present Situation
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (Natal-Transvaal) (ELCSA(N-T) came into being on 3.3.1981, when the Transvaal and Hermannsburg churches merged. She became member of UELCSA and LUCSA . Praeses L. Müller-Nedebock was elected to lead the church. After his sudden death on 11.3.1990 Dean F. Graz became acting Praeses until May 1991, when the South African pastor, D. R. Lilje was elected as Praeses of ELCSA(N-T).
2.1 The ELCSA(N-T) with approximately 10,000 members, comprising 43 congregations with 31 pastors in four circuits, stretching from the Northern Limpopo Province Transvaal to Southern Natal (ca 1000km) and from East to West (ca 500km). Twenty of the pastors were trained at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, a joint venture of ELCSA and UELCSA, which is supported by the LWF.
2.2 The ELCSA(N-T) sees itself as a South African church and therefore uses three official languages, English, German and Afrikaans in church services and church life. Emphasis is being laid on congregational growth, youth work and stewardship, so that the church can be financially independent from overseas. The search for a Lutheran identity in South Africa is seen in the ecumenical encounter with other denominations, also with the SACC. The Church has become multi-cultural, multi racial.
2.3 The Lutheran Church Centre at Bonaero Park, as administrative centre of ELCSA(N-T), ELCSA, UELCSA and LUCSA is a sign of unity. This unity should strengthen the common witness of our Lord in the world.
3. Effect / Impact of the political and socio-economic situation in the country on church life
3.1 The role of the church in the South African Situation became a burning issue in 1976, but especially after the unrest in 1985. With a “Word of Hope” in 1986 the Church Council of ELCSA(N-T) rejected the policy of division (Apartheid) and confessed that it had not listened to the warning calls of the brothers in its sister church. It also pointed out that with the abolition of Apartheid, the problems of South Africa, being a microcosm of the world-wide, North-South tension would not be solved but would still have to be tackled.
The ELCSA (N-T) also submitted a statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
3.2 At the 1984 Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation in Budapest, Praeses L. Mueller-Nedebock withdrew the application of membership due to the call for suspension of two other South African churches . The decision of the synod to apply for membership was never rescinded but confirmed again in 1991. The ELCSA (N-T) was accepted as member of the LWF in 1992.
3.3 Due to the very high crime rate in South Africa, many members of our Church have left the country, especially the young and highly qualified adults.
3.4 There is a lot of insecurity in the rural areas, due to the land reform, causing many members to fear losing their farms.
3.5 Many members of our Church are unemployed (40-50% country wide), some have lost their work due to the Affirmative Action Policy of the Government, making it very difficult for some congregations to make ends meet.
4. Main Priorities and Activities
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (N-T) proclaims, witnesses and shares the Good News of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
The ELCSA(N-T), as a communion of redeemed sinners wants to be an instrument of God’s saving grace. As such she wants to:
5 Bilateral Partners in mission and development
The Lutheran World Federation
The Evangelical Lutheran Mission Society in Lower Saxony (ELM)
6. Ecumenical Relations
The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa
The South African Council of Churches
2 March 2005