We took time this week to interview David Larsen, founder of Africa Media Online, Chairperson of Scripture Union Pietermaritzburg and father of three. We chatted with him about the impact of Scripture Union South Africa (SUSA) on him as a teenager, SUSA’s role in the Independent Schools and the importance of discipling young people.

David, as a teenager you were impacted by the ministry of Scripture Union Independent Schools (SUIS). Give our readers a brief overview of your spiritual journey and the impact of SUIS.

It was not just SUIS, but SU too. I grew up in a Christian home at a mission hospital in rural Zululand, but then went to a Catholic boarding school in Vryheid before we moved to Durban halfway through my first year in school where I became a day boy. It was there in Durban that a friend invited me on a SU camp at Camp Jonathan. He had been the previous year. It seemed he had had an encounter with God that year and spoke about seeing angels.

I went full of anticipation and indeed was powerfully impacted by a talk given by one of the leaders about what Christ endured on the cross and that he did it for me. I responded to the Gospel that day and that evening I was prayed for, for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. After being prayed for I remember going into my dorm room, lying on my bed and having an incredible encounter with the presence of God and an intense conviction of sin. For about two hours I lay on my bed and the Holy Spirit brought to mind one sin after another for me to confess. At the end an incredible peace came upon me and I felt overwhelming joy.

I can remember it to this day.

I reconnected with SU through SUIS in my high school years. Through our Christian Union at my boarding school I was invited to go on a SUIS camp at Skogheim in my grade 10 year. It was amazingly fun. I was so encouraged that leaders slightly older than me really paid attention to me. I was blown away by it and went back every year thereafter. My matric year was a real time of ‘backsliding’ for me, but it was many of my SUIS friends who helped me through and got hold of me again at University.

In my university years I continued to go as a leader. As a student at UCT a bunch of us got involved in the Independent schools in the Western Cape and a number of our crowd became stooges in the schools. I went on to work for SUIS for a year as a worker in the province post my undergraduate degree. Those friendships survive until today and I am so grateful.

Of late, the historic private church schools in South Africa have been accused by past learners of institutionalised racism, citing numerous examples of personal injustice. What part do you believe SUIS has in the ongoing dialogue on #blacklivesmatter?

I think we have a significant part to play in helping school communities navigate this area. As a young person, SUIS camps were an amazing island of non-racial and multicultural interaction in a society so bent by apartheid. With the #BlackLivesMatter protests in the schools, a friend of mine, Kopano Malebo and I have pioneered a programme we are calling #RealRevolutionaries. We have run it twice now (both on Zoom). The workshops seek to work with young people and with teachers to enable a sustained revolution of equality. And we do that by enabling understanding at the level of worldviews which is more instructive of identity than race or culture.

Many young people who have not grown up in families that are modern western in their worldview, come into Independent schools and find that they are inhospitable environments. Their own background and worldview is not acknowledged at all. This is because these schools have a long history and tradition that is thoroughly modern western and partly religious. Because the modern western worldview is the dominant worldview in the media and in the marketplace, most at these schools are not even aware that they have a particular worldview that is inhospitable to others. And so we are helping to workshop the discovery of a range of worldviews that operate alongside each other in South African society, helping these communities to be aware of the various worldviews that are at play and to make space for one another towards creating a more hospitable environment.

Of course one of the worldviews we speak about is the Trinitarian Christian worldview that has amazing resources to enable true hospitality to all because ultimately we are all “created in the image of God”, we have all “fallen short of the glory of God”, and we are all the objects of God’s grace in Christ Jesus for “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Traditionally SUIS has fulfilled its founding vision through hosting holiday and confirmation camps, school mission trips,  the training of the leaders of School Christian Association committees (S.C.A’s) and partnering with School Chaplains in a variety of other ways. What shape do you see the ministry taking in a world so drastically influenced by Covid-19?

I think that the mission of SUIS is fundamentally the same as it always was, to introduce this generation to the good news of what God has done through Jesus Christ and to raise enduring disciples of Jesus. SUIS in particular was called to do that in the private schools that had a British public school ethos. It was a somewhat separate ministry within SU simply because it was reaching a community that was quite closed to anyone coming in who did not understand their ethos.

I think that has changed though.

The culture has become more relaxed. Many of the chaplains are now no longer from the mainline churches and are from the new churches that have become mainstream. Also the number of Independent schools has exploded to over 1,000. At the same time many of the historic government schools have also shifted to become organisations that operate more and more as Independent schools with significant influence from past pupils. So while the mission of SUIS stays the same, the mission field is very different – it has expanded dramatically. I don’t believe we can reach this mission field just with the old methodology of a fieldworker in a province, missions and camps. I think those are still important elements, but I believe we need to be employing strategies that are as scalable as possible.

Like good missionaries, our starting point with any school is to assume that God is already at work in the school even before we start to engage with it. What we want to do is to be part of fanning into flame what God has already been up to. So what are we finding is:

  • Among students we are finding SCA groups or cells. Our strategy in KwaZulu-Natal has been to empower the leaders of these groups through a ministry called “Unity” that seeks to connect leaders with one another across the schools and run events and training from time to time. Short Unity Camps have been key times for such input. We want to empower the students themselves to make disciples in their schools.
  • Among parents we are finding that many schools have “mum’s/dad’s that pray” and our plan is to connect with and support these groups in whatever way we can.
  • Among staff there is, at times, a prayer meeting, that again we seek to connect with. Often in the schools we serve, there is also a chaplain who is responsible for the spiritual life of the school. Where possible building strong relationships of trust with chaplains, I believe, is key. And where there isn’t a chaplain, we want to be part of motivating for one to be appointed.
  • Alongside that we often find that there are churches and youth groups that have involvement in or have a heart for a particular school. Again, where possible, joining hands with them in furthering the advance of the Kingdom I believe, is key to leveraging all the resources that God is bringing to bear upon that school community. This also goes for other Christian evangelistic organisations such as African Enterprise, RZIM or Ratio Christi.
  • Particularly in the schools we work with, networking with past pupils and involving them in the mission to a particular school is critical.
  • Wherever possible, it is also wonderful when we have the opportunity to have someone from the SUIS family sit on the Board or take up a position of leadership on the Management of a school.

We see ourselves as part of the invading force, linking arms with others to bring the benefits of God’s rule and reign into the school in as holistic a way as possible. And in that we believe we have a significant part to play. Our camps are an amazing context for young people to meet Jesus and grow to be a disciple. And SU’s publication arm provides amazing resources to enable continued discipleship and growth day by day. In addition, I believe mission weeks in particular schools, in partnership with other ministries, can have a massive impact.

The Covid-19 pandemic has obviously pushed more of our work online and the team have been innovative with new technologies with Zoom meetings, vlogs and online resources. I think that presents a wonderful opportunity to reach out to a far broader audience, particularly as our mission field has grown so dramatically. However, that can never replace personal engagement.

SUIS has an acute focus on ‘raising Christian leaders’. For you, what are the characteristics of such a leader and why does South Africa need such leadership now and in the future?

I believe that raising leaders needs to be seen in the context of raising disciples. One has to become first and foremost a follower, servant and child of God and then as that process matures, the right kind of leaders emerge.

SUIS does tend to work with young people who have a wealth of opportunities and therefore they tend to be upstream in terms of culture formation. Because of the opportunities available to them, they often become influencers in every area of life in our nation. It was in recognition of that and the potential impact on the nation that ministries like SUIS were birthed. For some decades, in the political sphere, that scenario fundamentally shifted with the middle classes no longer holding the political sway. That, however, is changing again and there is an emerging elite that frequents Independent schools that is growing in political influence. In all other sectors, business, NGO, health and so on, young people graduating from Independent schools are likely to hold a disproportionate influence over the fortunes of the nation, and that is not just the fortunes of the rich, but also those of the masses too.

Even as our nation is facing massive challenges, without neglecting the poor in any way, we do need to intentionally create disciples of Christ among those who will be, for better or worse, handed the leadership of our nation in every sector. The characteristics of those leaders should be the characteristics of a disciple – those who know how to hear from the Captain of the hosts of heaven and to obey him. We need leaders who know at the most fundamental level that they are not the answer to the nation’s problems, but that they are the hand servants of One who is very much the answer to the nation’s challenges.

As a father of three, you know first-hand many of the challenges teens face. What are some of those challenges and what difference can a relationship with Jesus make when navigating the teen years?

I think at a fundamental level the challenges of the teen years are the challenges we tend to face from that point on for the rest of life – identity, belonging and purpose. Apart from all the issues with hormonal changes and a body that is transforming from a child into an adult, teens are going through a fundamental shift in their identity in separating from their parents who for their whole lives up to that point determined their belonging and gave them their purpose. That process is very much more difficult to navigate if the family they find themselves in is broken in some way or if there has been or is abuse of any kind, particularly in the context of the pandemic of fatherlessness.

In the 1990s I was working with young men on the Cape Flats when I heard criminologist, Don Pinnock, speaking on the radio about the gang problem on the Flats having its roots in the fatherlessness of the communities because the fathers are “dead, absent or drunk”. He said mothers are great at growing babies into children, but fathers have a special place in growing children into young men and young women, and when fathers are missing young people often turn elsewhere to fill the void.

For young men belonging and purpose is found in gangs and for young women it is in the arms of a man who will give attention and support. I could see the outcome of that in the lives of both young women and young men around me. My wife was teaching in Gugulethu township at the time. Of her class of 30 only 5 lived with their dads.

Addictive lifestyles that more often than not are a feature of fatherlessness, are not only found in the poorer communities, but in any socio-economic strata. And the addictions are not always seen to be destructive, sometime they are rewarded – work and fitness and beautification can be just as addictive alongside drugs and alcohol and porn. Ultimately, however, all are idolatory, an attempt to fill the void that only the attention of the Father can fill.

And so I am passionate about introducing this generation to the Father from whom all fatherhood derives its name, because he alone is able to call each person into their true belonging, true purpose and ultimately true identity. With my own children, while I try to father them as best I can, my main goal has been to point them beyond myself to the true Father who is wholly able to fill the longing of their hearts.

As a lover of and believer in the power of story, tell us about your favourite bible story and why it holds this status for you?

Luke 7:36-49 the story of Jesus in the home of Simon the Pharisee and a sinful woman comes in to weep at his feet.

I find this story overwhelmingly challenging.

How can Jesus, in the midst of polite religious company give such tender attention to a prostitute who was being so publicly intimate? My tendency would have been to shrink away from her or leap up and put distance between myself and her denying that I know her to all present. Yet Jesus was so not that guy. He was so un-swayed by the opinion of powerful men, so unconcerned with people’s perception of him and the gossip it would generate. He was so completely himself and so tender toward her. I love verse 44, “He turned toward the woman and said to Simon…”. Who does that? Who gives such attention to the outcast and is almost rude to those in power? Jesus does. He is so undissuadedly himself, so solid, so dense, so offensive!

This is what holiness looks like. I want to be like that!

When it comes to studying the stories of the bible what have you found helpful?

As a child I found SU Bible reading notes so helpful. As an adult I have found reading notes and apps helpful too. Right now I am doing a “Bible in One Year” with Nicky Gumble through the YouVersion Bible app. I have also found the Lectio 365 app helpful. Overall, however, what is most helpful to me has been journaling. Writing out a passage and then asking questions of it, unpacking it in prayer and in research.

I do tend to pray my reflections on Scripture passages, engaging with it in conversation with God. As one of my professors are Regent College, JI Packer, said to our class once, Scripture points beyond itself to a living God. I have found such richness in realising that Scripture is not an end in itself, not primarily a means to gain understanding and control of the truth, rather it is a faithful guide wooing me to engage with him who is Truth and to submit to his way.

In closing, what encouragement do you have to offer to your ‘fellow South Africans’?

South Africa is extraordinary place, not only for its natural diversity and beauty, but also for the beauty and diversity of its people. We truly are a world in one country with large communities that come from Africa, the East and the West, and they are communities that have largely retained their languages and cultural diversity. Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu, called us the “Rainbow People of God” and there is so much to celebrate in that.

There are, however, significant challenges that can’t be ignored. The gathering of the South African church at SACLA II defined them well when they spoke of the seven giants of: HIV/AIDS, poverty and unemployment, sexism, racism, crime and corruption, violence and the breakdown of the family.

So in the midst of this, what are the secrets to living well in South Africa?

I would encourage all of us to:

Continually remember what God has done.

Remember the repeated miraculous interventions of our gracious Father in our national and personal history, how he has heard us, preserved us and sustained us. That will keep us from what has become too characteristic of us as a nation, as it did of the Israelites in their pilgrimage to the Promised Land, grumbling, complaining and expecting the worst. God has heard us in the past, he will hear us again in the future.

Notice what God is up to in the present.

So often what is really happening in the nation is not in the media. Just a few years ago I knelt in the dust in a farmer’s field outside Bloemfontein together with over a million South Africans alongside brothers and sisters of other colours and repented of apartheid – if you know our history that is nothing short of miraculous! And so too is the extraordinary openness to God that I experience among rural and peri-urban communities. God is at work right across our nation. I suspect we may look back one day and say we lived in a time of revival.

Work hard to lay down what we want for the future of our nation and get in on God’s plans for the future.

I suspect that has little to do with our comfort and whether our society is neat and tidy and orderly and prosperous. I suspect God has his eye more on eternal outcomes than immediate fixes.

So let’s do the hard work of crossing the divides. Pursue a Christian friend from a different culture or socio-economic group. Go to their home and have them in your home. If you are rich or wealthy or powerful, you particularly have work to do. Make such friends in humility, not thinking how much you can teach them, but how much you can learn. Listen a lot and talk very little.

I once interviewed the Christian sociologist, Tony Campolo, and he said:

“The Church in South Africa, black and white together, have to develop a theology that makes them very aware, that the Jesus who died on the cross and is resurrected, is waiting to be encountered in the poor, and the oppressed and the sick… What you need to do is to come to the poor and to the oppressed with a sense of awe and reverence asking, am I worthy to help you. And you won’t ask, am I worthy to help you, unless you are able to sense Jesus in the other person. And if you do, it will humble you as you seek to serve, rather than make you into a superior person who is reaching down to an unfortunate victim… You have got to define people as sacramental creatures in whom Christ is waiting to be loved.”