Bishop Zablon was presiding bishop for the Methodist church in Kenya from 1992 until 2004, and is now vice president for development of Kenya University. This spring and summer he has been serving as a visiting scholar at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.
I often find I learn much about God, the work of the church, the ministry of clergy and laity, and the opportunity for ministry when I am part of international mission or ministry conversations enriched by a variety of voices from across the globe. I'm intrigued by the wisdom of the bishop's words below as he speaks rather unintentionally to U.S. denominational conversations by addressing the needs of the churches he knows so well. I've bolded a few thoughts that caught my attention, and bet you'll find other worthy phrases and concepts as well. Note that Zablon finds a theological issue at work, and presses for a dependence upon God and a local expression of faith realizing the necessary resources are present. I wonder if a call for congregational self reliance might take root in the United States as well as in Africa?!
Learning From African Church Leaders
The Self-Reliance of the Church in Africa
Professor Zablon Nthamburi, Presiding Bishop,
Methodist Churches In Kenya
The Church in Africa which has experienced a dramatic growth in the last 30 years is faced with a resource crisis. Many churches would like to have adequate trained personnel (evangelists, pastors, deacons etc.) but are not able to generate enough local resources to undertake this very important task. There is a need to build churches, clinics, and resource centers as well as to equip lay people for their role in the ministry. Unfortunately churches in Africa are made to believe that they must go to the churches in the West to beg for these resources in order to take advantage of the many emerging opportunities before them.
What can the churches in Africa do in the midst of all the problems that face the church and threaten the well being of the communities? The Church in Africa must subscribe to the understanding of God who is always present in the world and who is willing to transform it. Our God calls us to work with Him in order that he can transform the world through us. Our mission frontier is where the needs of the people are met in the name of Jesus. It is where displaced persons find new hope, where victims of ethnic hatred see the one who is a friend to all people. The hungry see Jesus as the person who gives them bread, the sick see him as the Great Physician, while the sinner sees Jesus as the one who pardons and restores wholeness. The Church in Africa must, more than ever before, begin to bear the imprint "made in Africa".
The Christian faith must articulate African symbols and metaphors in order for it to be real. In the same vein, the African Church will not grow into maturity if it continues to be fed by western partners. It will ever remain an infant who has not learned to walk on his or her own feet. A child who depends on parental support even during teen-age years may never be able to walk with dignity. We must challenge the churches in Africa to be self-reliant as a way of proving that the Church has taken root and has developed an African character.
Indigenous or independent African churches have demonstrated beyond doubt that the Church in Africa can be self-reliant. Many of these churches started without any visible support from the outside and have continued to grow and expand their mission strategies. They have localized their ministries and indigenized their polity to the extent that they have become in real terms "a place to feel at home". They proved that there are enough local resources to support their work. They have shown us that it is when people feel a sense of "ownership" that they are willing to give themselves to the task ahead, including full support of the Church's ministries. In Kenya a few of these successful churches are the African Brotherhood Church, African Christian Church and Schools, African Interior Church and the National Independent Church of Africa.
There are also missionary founded churches which have realized that they would never come of age if they hold on to their "swaddling clothes". One way of establishing their identity and recognizing their strength is to strive to do things in their own way. In this way churches identify their areas of concern and raise resources to meet those felt needs. The self-hood of the church in Africa will depend largely on an adequate strategy for self-reliance. For when people truly own their own process they support it fully with all their resources.
There are many examples showing how the church can be self-reliant. Some local believers told an incident of how their church was for a long time seeking support from overseas partners for a medical clinic. They had written many project proposals and only received about $2000 which could hardly build even a one-roomed clinic. It dawned upon them that, if they really wanted it, they had to do it themselves. The committee sat down, drew a program for fund raising and then conscientized the church members on the need to support this ministry. They asked people to bring things in kind such as chickens, farm produce, goats, cows etc. Within one single day they were able to raise the equivalent of US$20,000, enough to build and equip the clinic. What was more important, they discovered that they could do it. This convinced them of their own their strength on which they can now build to support other church ministries.
I believe that the church in Africa is endowed with the resources to support its own ministry. The challenge is to realize this fact and to know how to tap these rich resources. The spiritual resource of the church should be able to propel it to realize many other opportunities in ministry. Let our friends and partners help us to realize our potential by letting us "walk on our own feet."