Reflection: A Model for Sustainable Transformation
by Ron and Carolyn Klaus
See additional articles on Community and Societal Development here.
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).
We stumbled into cross-cultural work late in our lives. Our initial efforts were targeted at the AIDS pandemic because of Carolyn’s medical background and experience in treating people with this disease. It seemed clear to us that the Church is the logical institution to lead the way in dealing with this pandemic. We now believe the Church is the best possible agent, in fact, to do development of all sorts. But today’s Church seems far from doing this, except in a token way. We now believe that only a very different kind of Church will accomplish the radical transformation of vulnerable people that God yearns to bring about as part of his kingdom’s coming.
I (Ron) was teaching engineering and computer science at an Ivy League university while Carolyn was working as an internal medicine physician. She and other members of our church community founded Esperanza Health Center in a Latino community that was a center of drug abuse in our city. This experience taught us important lessons we could not have learned otherwise. We came to grips with the fact that God is interested in healing whole persons—body, soul, and spirit. Such ministry is best done by a Christian community, not just by individuals even if they work together.
Such ministry should be directed by those receiving ministry, not just imposed by outsiders. Our most important lesson was that God directs and provides for his work in ways far beyond the capacity of the weak and flawed individuals he chooses to use so that he receives the glory.
This experience also made Carolyn, and all the other staff, experts in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, which was prevalent in that community. One day a number of years later, Carolyn came across a flyer advertising a team going to Ethiopia to teach pastors about AIDS. “What would you think about my going on this trip?” she asked Ron. “Sure, go!” I tossed back, never dreaming of the adventure this would begin for us.
Carolyn arrived in Ethiopia a few days before the rest of the team to get first-hand information about how HIV/AIDS was affecting the country and what was being done to stop its spread. During that time she visited the head of infectious disease at Addis Ababa University Hospital. He had just been notified that the government was soon going to start providing anti-retroviral drugs and that he had been designated to head up this new initiative. None of the doctors there, including him, had any experience with these drugs. For the next two days Carolyn found herself lecturing the medical residents and staff on the use of these drugs. The professor told Carolyn, “God sent you.”
The seminar with pastors was also a success. Two years later the Evangelical Churches Fellowship of Ethiopia (ECFE) asked Carolyn to return and give another training to AIDS workers from all their major denominations. Though the Church had been mostly on the wrong side of this epidemic, stigmatizing and rejecting people living with HIV, it was beginning to become open to change. She would have 40 hours in five days with which to equip these workers.
A day or two into her seminar, Pastor Siyum Gebretsadek, at that time General Secretary of the Evangelical Churches Fellowship of Ethiopia, dropped by to see what she was doing. His organization, which was sponsoring the seminar, encompassed almost all Protestants in Ethiopia. “We Ethiopians are great at evangelism—better than you Americans,” he quipped to me, “but we are not doing well with discipleship.” A few days later we met with his senior staff for an animated discussion. They invited me to return to develop our community-based discipleship model in Ethiopia.
Frequent short trips proved to be cost-effective because they allowed us to keep our Ethiopian overhead low (we didn’t need a long-term home) and we could maintain our income-producing jobs in the USA. The frequent short trips had another advantage: we could not do any projects ourselves, but were forced to work through our Ethiopian colleagues. The fact that we did not have very much money to give away proved an additional blessing in that we quickly learned which Ethiopians really wanted our friendship, experience, and mentoring and which ones only hoped for financial support.
At first, we worked separately. While Ron worked with churches that wanted to improve their disciple-making, I (Carolyn) pursued the many opportunities for AIDS ministry. I helped the university hospital develop protocols for treatment. I gave many seminars on AIDS. I encouraged and mentored workers in numerous AIDS ministries. I was able to facilitate a process through which 16 denominations prepared a unified curriculum on HIV for pastors and Bible school students.
This all reminded me that AIDS is a particularly challenging disease. It is inherently multi-faceted. It involves dysfunctional families and societies, economics, education, relationships, caregivers, legal issues, stigma, transportation, and even food availability. To make progress in one aspect of AIDS work requires simultaneously working on the other areas or forming strong partnerships with others who are doing so.
It seemed clear to Ron and me—and to many others of that era at the International AIDS Conferences I attended—that religious bodies are in a unique position to help control the epidemic for several reasons: they are the most cohesive social structures in the country. They have wide geographical reach and a potentially large volunteer base. They could provide education and social support. They could shape worldview and behavior. Churches have a particular mandate to show compassion and heal the sick.
Unfortunately, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars of donor money intended to help churches do this, and despite all the church leaders who attended my seminars, we saw relatively little action from churches. (The small Ethiopian Catholic Church forms a notable exception to this. Far out of proportion to their numbers, the Sisters of Charity, the order started some years ago by Mother Theresa, has done outstanding and very inspiring work with people living with HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia. The same may be said for the Catholic Relief Services of Ethiopia. We do not here attempt to comment on the HIV ministry of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has some bright spots even though their impact on the AIDS epidemic has not been in proportion to their 47% of the population.)
What we did see was that most churches did not see this as part of their mission and were only peripherally involved at best. Part of this was a narrow view of the gospel; only spiritual things were important—and only those doing spiritual ministry were worthy of financial support. Part was the lack of discipleship that allowed interpersonal conflicts and ethical breaches to tear apart the good efforts that churches did make. And part was the financial dependency that Western organizations had helped create which made many Ethiopians conclude that HIV/AIDS was a problem for Westerners to solve.
In other words, though the Ethiopian Protestant Church was growing numerically, it was as a whole poorly equipped to tackle the big issues of society. It was often not even equipping its members to face their personal challenges in a godly way. We saw that our own HIV/AIDS ministry, in spite of its many activities, was failing to produce long-term results. If we were serious about expecting churches to create social change such as defeating AIDS, we needed a new model of Church—one that produced true disciples in larger numbers.
When we looked at the Christian parachurch organizations working with HIV—including the church-owned “development” organizations, we did not see much better results. Though many had more comprehensive programs, they were forbidden by Ethiopian law to do spiritual care. They often did not work well together. We found in one building two Christian AIDS organizations that did not know about each other. Furthermore, the short-term nature of their funding often kept them from doing long-term follow-up. When one grant was finished they had to scurry for another, and shift gears to whatever activities the new grant would underwrite. Despite much talk about sustainability, CFO’s of two large NGO’s in Ethiopia told us that when grant money expired their projects inevitably stopped. We have strong doubt that the work of most NGO’s in Ethiopia has had great long-term impact. They engage in many activities. But donors are usually unwilling to pay for real data to track long-term results and are satisfied instead with a few heartwarming anecdotes that may not be representative. It began to dawn on us that something was fundamentally wrong not only with the way AIDS work was being done, but with the whole development model as it exists in Ethiopia—and perhaps many other developing countries as well.
The Search for an Alternate Model
By now we had friendships with leaders from a variety of Ethiopian denominations and organizations that had invited us to work with them. They shared our concerns. As we and these Ethiopian colleagues considered these facts, we realized that there would be no quick fixes. Not only would churches need significant re-thinking and re-formulation to become centers of people development, but an entirely different model of transformational discipleship would have to take root. We spent many hours discussing with these brothers whether the decentralized model for discipleship and ministry that we had seen in the USA could work in Ethiopia. How would it need to be contextualized for this country?
The model had several fundamental elements: a theology of the kingdom of God, an emphasis on small interactive discipleship groups, a shepherding network that provides for ongoing supervision and training of everyone leading a group, and the concept that kingdom ministry is holistic ministry.
A Theology of the Kingdom of God
The kingdom of God has become a kind of buzzword that many Christians talk about and claim they are working toward. But there is more to it than many of us realize. The Good News of the kingdom is neither primarily about how to get our sins forgiven in order to go to heaven, nor primarily about solving social problems as many activists advocate. The Good News of the kingdom of God is that through Jesus, God’s reign on earth has begun in a new way. The power of the age to come has entered our present world to bring it back to what God originally intended it to be, a process which will culminate in Jesus’ return as King of Kings.
Most specifically, it means that God is creating a new redemptive community from people of all ethnic groups through which he will establish his kingdom in the midst of this present dark world, otherwise dominated by Satan, the prince of this world. He invites us all to live in this community now under his rule and covenant. It is redemptive to its members because they are learning to obey Jesus’ commands and share their lives and abilities with one another in loving ways. Through their interaction with each other and the power of the Holy Spirit God restores them to the persons they were created to be. It is redemptive in the world because every member is mobilized to bring God’s shalom (his peace and reconciliation) to those around them.
By the witness of this community and the quality of its life together, the presence of God’s kingdom becomes visible to the surrounding world. By its vocation, it changes the world and increasingly brings it under God’s rule and blessing. Those in it are the salt of the earth, the city on a hill that can’t be hidden, whose good works are seen by earth’s people. These good works are what causes others to glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16) and what speeds Jesus’ return (2 Peter 3:12). On the other hand because most people on earth love darkness more than light, those living in the kingdom are also despised and opposed, even by families and by many traditional churches (Matthew 10:34-36). To be in God’s kingdom, therefore, also means to follow Jesus to suffering and death (Matthew 10:37-39), although even this suffering turns out to be life giving (John 12:24-25, 2 Corinthians 1:5- 11).
God’s kingdom in its present manifestation does not come on earth all at once. It is like a mustard seed which, though seemingly insignificant, grows into a large tree which will dominate the landscape, or yeast in a lump of dough that gradually leavens it all (Matthew 13:31- 33). This is because it is not a kingdom imposed by force. It depends on winning the hearts of free people so that they voluntarily submit to God’s rule out of love, not compulsion. This is why it takes time to advance. But from Jesus’ time till now it has been advancing steadily, despite persecution and setbacks, until now those who claim to follow Jesus make up the world’s largest religious block.
We have found four ideas helpful in explaining how the kingdom of God works:
1. First is the idea of reconciliation. At its center, to those who accept it, the atoning work of Jesus on the cross achieves our reconciliation with God. But reconciliation is not limited to that. It works its way out to the restoration of the other three harmonies that were broken in the Genesis fall: harmony with ourselves, with each other, and with the world. The latter includes not only harmony with nature, but also harmony with or an ability to live with and purify even the existing, deeply distorted world systems. We come into this reconciliation through repentance, faith, baptism, and the indwelling, empowering Holy Spirit.
2. The second big idea inherent in God’s kingdom, one that is almost completely neglected in today’s individualistic Western culture and churches, is community. It is into the community of God’s people that we re baptized (I Corinthians 12:13). Churches are not intended to be audiences, but networks of relationships in which we all learn to be reconciled with people including some that are very unlike ourselves. Unfortunately, the “fellowship halls” in our buildings are usually just places for social connection over refreshments—not bad in itself. But they rarely produce New Testament koinonia, a deeper growth- producing sharing of ourselves and our life experiences. That kind of sharing can only take place in small, conversationally-sized groups. True community does not take place unless the “one anothers” of the Bible can actually be lived out and, as in 1 Corinthians 12–14, the gifts of all members can be shared. In fact, visible love between Christians is, in Jesus’ view, the one mark of discipleship (John 13:34, 35).
3. Third, within the context of community, transformation ought to happen (Romans 12:1-2). Only a profound transformation—not merely a minor touch-up of our ethics and ways of thinking—will allow us successfully to live together as the community of God’s people and be empowered to do the work of the kingdom. Many of us underestimate the need for such transformation because we do not see how different the culture of the kingdom of God is from the cultures we have grown up in—including the cultures in many evangelical churches. Though all cultures have elements of richness which can contribute to the expression of the kingdom of God, every earthly culture also has many areas in which God’s rule requires a very different way of thinking and relating—which most of us learn slowly and often painfully. It involves a deep inner breaking of our in-born selfishness that is often hidden from us under a cloak of respectability. Such transformation does not happen primarily through theological study or any kind of academic teaching alone—not that these aren’t useful. Such training informs but does not necessarily change our habits or character. This transformation is spiritual formation that proceeds best—by far—through personal interaction with peers and qualified mentors, those that have gone before us and been deeply transformed themselves.
4. The final dynamic in this summary of the kingdom of God is deployment or finding God’s particular calling for us. We are citizen-soldiers in God’s kingdom, not merely spectators. His kingdom is in a titanic battle with Satan’s, which resists it fiercely. Everyone has a unique contribution to make, and everyone needs to be mobilized. There is no room for slackers or nominal combatants. We are on the front lines and that has great implications for all of our lives. It is not a question of whether we should become involved, but where.
If traditional evangelicals major on the first part of the first aspect—reconciliation with God—social activists often major on this last step. They may therefore wind up deploying individualistic, un-transformed people. They may not see the importance both for them and for the people they are helping of participating in a visible community of God’s people. They may not see their own need for deep inner transformation—nor the same need in those they are helping. Without these, their development activities become essentially secular. In fact, rightly done, the spiritual part of development is the part that changes worldviews and makes progress permanent. Without it, developmental activities are limited in their effectiveness. Furthermore, without roots in a community of faith, such activities tend to be done by small numbers of dedicated but inadequately supported people, resulting in burnout, or by paid professionals, resulting in dependency and results that evaporate when funding is withdrawn.
One further word: the gospel of the kingdom is not a triumphalistic gospel. Though Jesus has really begun to reign, powers exist that do not yet acknowledge his reign, and their battle against his rule is fierce. It will grow fiercer as the day of his return grows closer. To belong to Jesus is to participate in this battle. But finally he will indeed return, defeat those who oppose him, and establish his victorious kingdom forever.
Transformational Small Groups
Built on this theology, the most important structural element of our model is a network of small groups that are interactive transformational kingdom communities, not just small church services or even merely Bible studies. We try to keep these groups no larger than 12 people so that everyone can participate in the conversation. Though we encourage regular larger meetings for teaching (Acts 2: 42), we try to get church leaders to view the weekly small group meetings as the most important events on their church calendar.
These groups have five main activities:
1. Koinonia fellowship as the groups become safe places for sharing and real community is cultivated.
2. Inductive Bible studies (not sermons or long teachings)— teaching people to think for themselves about what the Bible says.
3. Prayer, both listening prayer as well as intercession.
4. Mission, with every small group finding ways to reach out to people in need both spiritually and practically.
5. Accountability for personal growth and ministry.
Not all small groups are transformational, or even healthy. To help them become so we rely on a network of supervisory relationships such as Jethro recommended to his son-in-law Moses early in Moses’ career as a nation-builder (Exodus 18). Jethro recommended that the entire nation be broken down in to units of 10, with each leader of a small group himself being accountable to a fellow leader. We have adopted this model. Each leader at each level receives training, oversight, and accountability for both his personal life and his ministry from some other leader who has more experience and has demonstrated success as a pastor-coach. In turn, these leaders are themselves supervised by more experienced leaders. No one leads alone. No one leads who is not being continually encouraged and further trained. And no one is responsible to provide this kind of intense pastoring for more than 10 people. We have seen this kind of structure produce healthy groups on a large scale, significantly transforming both the individuals in the groups and their communities.
To keep everyone in a group of 12 or less people when a church is growing requires generating at least 1 new leader for every 11 people who join the church—a major challenge. However, ongoing training and mentoring makes it possible to mobilize new leaders quickly. They don’t need to know too much to get started if they are constantly coached. Furthermore, monitoring and evaluation can take place throughout the shepherding network. Problems can be detected early and gifted people who can be developed can be discovered.
The growth of such networks is based on the concept of emerging leadership. Leaders in such a structure do not advance by election or even by academic credentials alone. They advance through proven effectiveness. We don’t imply that leaders who have the gifts of facilitating discipleship growth are the only gifted people in the body. But the most effective disciple-makers are the ones that should be chosen to lead what is essentially a disciple-making network.
From the very beginning of any outreach we and our colleagues teach that salvation involves not just restoration of harmony with God, which is fundamental, but restoration of all four harmonies—with God, with ourselves, with others, and with the world. As a friend said to us, “God doesn’t save souls, he saves people!” We seek to make sure that this view of salvation gets incorporated early into the DNA of any group we work with extensively.
When people grasp this early in their discipleship process they often create their own imaginative holistic ministries, often with no further specific encouragement. We always begin with basic discipleship as a foundation. We do not introduce more organized economic development until after it has become normative for people to be in a discipleship group that is part of a well-functioning shepherding network. If these are not solidly established first, then holistic community development tends to replace this kind of community life and discipleship, rather than build on it. People can only assimilate things at their own pace. We try to do things in the right order, and not teach more than can be integrated into people’s lives and practices without compromising what went before.
What Our Implementation of This Model Looks Like
Our role in Ethiopia has mainly been to work with and mentor the leaders that God has brought into relationship with us over the years. We have established close relationships with ten such men, all but one of whom speaks English. Each is a man of high integrity and significant giftedness who works in a different organization or movement, often supervising large numbers of churches. Each sought us out in one way or another, mostly early in our Ethiopian adventure, because we had done something in the USA that resonated with them and seemed relevant to their own ministries. They liked our teaching but loved our stories, both those about our successes and those about our failures. As we have served their ministry goals, we have become friends.
These men are giving us the opportunity to do something transformational, not just incremental. Our experience with them argues that mission agencies might do well to send seasoned Christian leaders abroad, as well as young people. It also argues for focus on relationships, not just programs or ministry. Together with these colleagues, we have seen God work in the following areas.
The evangelical Church, forced underground by the Communist regime that ruled Ethiopia for 17 years, grew rapidly during that period and continued growing when that regime fell in 1991. In their great joy at being able to worship publicly, most denominations immediately dropped the underground house churches through which persecuted believers had found fellowship, strength, and growth. However, though the large celebration services were exciting, they began to professionalize ministry. Most people who attended such services were essentially passive spectators. Furthermore, as these services were more impersonal, increasing numbers of people became less tied to a particular church through relationships and have felt free to migrate to whatever church is having the most exciting meetings. This trend has accelerated even during the past year, during which many prosperity-gospel churches have sprung up. Without relationships and without accountability for obeying what was preached, more and more people have begun to get their inspiration for the week without making any life-style changes. Even over the time we have been coming to Ethiopia, church leaders have told us that spiritual fervor among Protestants has been sliding badly and shallow Christianity has been expanding. They are very concerned about this. (It is not so different from what happened in the fourth century when Constantine made Christianity legal and started building cathedrals.)
In this context, small and mid-sized churches or groups from perhaps a half-dozen Protestant denominations have asked for our help in “becoming renewed” through small groups. This work has been moderately successful. We have seen that long-term mentoring is important to this because discipleship ministries typically go through various stages, in their development, each with its own opportunities and risks.
After several abortive beginnings, we have also seen four megachurches from three denominations make major changes in their structure in order to implement this model. In one, a small group consisting of 9 top-level pastors gave birth to 9 small groups, each with 7 members, who in turn began to lead 63 small groups of 7 members, many of whom now lead one of over 250 small groups in that church and another. The church no longer will marry anyone or provide recommendations to anyone who does not participate in a small group.
In a second church, the entire congregation is now divided geographically into small groups led by a network of shepherds who are providing personal pastoral care to those immediately beneath them. A third large church is gradually converting their traditional small groups (with meetings like miniature church services) into interactive times in which each person has the opportunity to share his or her ideas, joys, and problems and both give and receive ministry. A fourth church, prepared over years by the relationship one of our colleagues had cultivated with the senior pastor, is now making rapid strides to train enough small group leaders so that each member of the entire 15,000-member congregation can be in a small group. In each case, the senior pastor has been vocally and visibly leading this change, a factor that seems crucial. The importance of these transitions in these churches is not only in the numbers of people that now have a better chance of being more thoroughly discipled, but that these churches are widely known and promise to be models for others.
An even greater joy has been to work with some “people movements,” groups in which many people choose to become followers of Jesus within a short period. We are now working with three such movements, all in areas nominally Orthodox or Protestant but still under the influence of animism (traditional African religion). These movements were already growing when we met them, largely due to local leaders whose passion, persevering prayer, and costly labor deserve our honor. However, unlike most church planters, early on they structured their movements around small groups with shepherding networks. One association of 7 churches 8 years ago now has 65 churches and 695 small groups containing 15,005 members. Another group, started a decade ago by a new convert barely out of his teens, now has 23 churches, around 200 small groups, and above 5000 members. A third group of 40 churches is just beginning on this path with great urgency, aware that once new converts get used to just listening passively to preaching, it will be hard to wean them from that into a more demanding but more fruitful kind of discipleship. We have been invited to work with these movements to help them improve the effectiveness of their groups and to train them to raise up more leaders.
What is significant about these movements are the enormous gains in education and social progress which the small groups are achieving, without outside subsidy or a lot of outside input. The movement cited above that is a decade old consists of very poor farmers. Now all of their children are now in school (and three have Master’s degrees), all their children are wearing shoes, women are being treated with respect, female circumcision and alcoholism have been eliminated, farming methods have improved, and a number of people are saving and starting small businesses from their own savings. Their pagan neighbors even call upon them to mediate conflicts within their villages. This movement is by no means problem-free, but it demonstrates the transformational power of the gospel when ordinary people are helped to discuss God’s Word among themselves. Our challenge in all of these movements is to raise up enough local mentors to train and oversee leaders for the large number of new small groups that are forming.
THE ETHIOPIAN CATHOLIC CHURCH
Fifteen or more years ago, Getachew Yosef, a Catholic high school student, came into a vibrant relationship with Jesus through a Bible study with some Protestants. To their disappointment, he refused to leave the Catholic Church, believing that God had spoken to him to “stay in his house.” Over time he became a catechist, responsible for training priests and other workers. Eventually there were 40 priests throughout southern Ethiopia joyfully bringing their parishioners into living faith. When the official hierarchy heard what had happened, they managed several times to get him jailed.
But they couldn’t stop the little group from telling what they were experiencing. About 7 years ago Pastor Getachew approached a major Protestant ministry in his area. “We are Catholics who love Jesus, but we don’t know the Bible well. Can you help us?” The leader of that ministry referred him to one of our colleagues, who scheduled us to meet with him and his team of 40 leaders. Not quite sure what we had gotten involved in, we asked them to tell us their stories. Only then did it dawn on us why God had selected us, out of all the Protestants in Ethiopia, to meet with them. Forty years previously through some unusual circumstances, we had become involved in the Catholic Pentecostal movement in the USA. When one small group within that movement lost their meeting place, the priests, nuns, and dedicated lay Catholics that were part of it moved into our living room. When I (Ron) told these brothers and sisters our story, they practically gasped. “You understand! You know what we are going through! Are we Catholics? Are we Protestants? What does God want us to do?”
We encouraged them to remain culturally Catholic as much as possible, and to maintain relationships with their Catholic family members and friends. “It is not a sin to make the sign of the cross when you are in church,” I told them, a bit tongue in cheek. “If you become Protestant, you will lose many opportunities to share Good News with other Catholics. God has raised you up to bring light to your families and friends in that Church.” They were elated. We also taught them about small groups as a means of discipling the many people who were coming to them.
A few months later we met with them again. “We have discovered something!” they told us. “We thought small groups were for helping others. But we have found through our small groups that we are sinners too! We also are learning to repent and change!” It did not surprise us to hear that the small groups springing up throughout their movement were transforming the lives of many as they cared for and taught one another, prayed for the sick among them, visited one another, and shared what they had. Many people were becoming evangelists. In one of our meetings I asked them what they considered their biggest challenges. They replied that it was the influx of Protestants who were leaving their dead churches to participate in their groups. However, they have been acting with great integrity about this, discouraging newcomers from leaving their previous churches and informing their pastors when they nevertheless choose to join them.
This movement now consists of 31 prayer houses (called such to minimize competition from official Catholic churches) and about 123 small groups. Though their relationship with the official Catholic Church has improved to the point that Pastor Getachew got married in the same parish church whose leaders had previously jailed him, the renewed group members still experience pressure from the official Church to leave this movement. They are not eligible for jobs within the Catholic establishment, nor for subsidy of a variety of sorts funded by the Vatican. Given their poverty, this has been a serious problem.
After a great deal of discussion, Pastor Getachew made the courageous decision to commit the movement to becoming self-sustaining—if we would help them achieve that. We are currently in an extended process of strengthening their shepherding structure, helping them teach about tithing, and helping them collect the financial and other data that will help them create policies that will lead to sustainability As they complete these stages, we will also help them with economic development as we are able through self-help savings groups and other means.
THE ETHIOPIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which claims as members 47% of the population of Ethiopia, is the second largest Orthodox Church in the world, smaller only than the Russian Orthodox Church. Dating from the third century, it has helped Ethiopia maintain Christian values for over 1700 years and resist the tide of Islam which has swept over much of northern Africa. Unfortunately, many monks and priests are poorly educated (and equally poorly paid), and legends, myths, and honor to saints have often overshadowed the good news of Jesus. This has made much of the Church vulnerable to syncretism or mixing of Christianity and paganism. (In some parts of Ethiopia priests who teach in churches on Sunday serve as witchdoctors on Wednesdays.) Because much of the growth of Protestantism over the last couple of generations has been at the expense of the Orthodox Church, relationships between these two groups have often been tense, even resulting in violence at times. However, we have seen God at work in this Church on several levels.
Thanks to the work of the Ethiopian Bible Society, a joint Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant venture, the official Orthodox Church has recently taken a cautiously positive stance toward Protestants and Bible study. This official Orthodox stance, unfortunately, is not implemented uniformly throughout the country, and persecution of those who advocate Bible study still occurs. We know hundreds of people in many areas of Ethiopia who have felt forced out of the Orthodox Church because of what they have discovered on their own through such Bible study. In some cases they have sought to retain the cultural aspects of Orthodox worship. In other cases they have formed themselves into new church movements and have associated themselves with a Protestant denomination. Several such movements that are rapidly growing have asked for our help in discipling their members and have responded eagerly to our trainings about small groups and shepherding networks as methods for teaching good citizenship in the kingdom of God.
Others have chosen to stay within the Church, despite opposition, in order to try to help seekers there come into a living relationship with Jesus. This can be delicate work, depending on the local situation. In addition, some of these newly ignited believers tend to start by attacking the things they believe are wrong with the Church, rather than building bridges with things held in common. One brother we work with has trained over 600 Orthodox clergy in how to develop their own personal relationship with Jesus and help others do the same. We are trying to help him develop networks of such clergymen within the Church who can encourage and strengthen each other, who can utilize the small group structures already present in the Church for Bible study, and who can allow people to discover what the Bible says for themselves without their having to preach against the teachings of the Church. This has been slow and painstaking work both for him and us, but we are encouraged by some recent progress.
Few pure animists remain in Ethiopia. Those who do are rapidly being reached with the gospel, most often by indigenous missionaries. Anyone able to cast out demons and heal sick people can plant churches quickly among them. What happens to their converts thereafter, however, is an pen question. Often the evangelists are not as well trained in disciple-making as in initial church planting, and many such churches do not survive—or else produce little lifestyle change in their members. When such missionaries are supported by agencies who promise short-term funding, say for only three years, with no plan for the future after that, such churches are often not able to become spiritually mature. We have seen entire movements of rapidly planted churches slide back into their previous belief system when there is inadequate follow-up.
One brother we work with, however, has taught small group discipleship to a large movement of newly converted animists. The 40 indigenous missionaries whom he has overseen (funded by another American agency) has within the past three years started 81 churches, with over 1000 small discipleship groups overseen by 235 coaches. The lifestyle changes among them have been substantial already.
In our many extended times in Ethiopia we have seen God do amazing things. We have seen that the Church can become an important instrument of transformation not only of individuals but of entire communities, affecting major social issues. We have also seen that many evangelical churches are not doing this effectively—and in fact are losing ground numerically and spiritually. But we have begun to see a model of church life rooted in the theology of the kingdom of God— small groups, shepherding networks that oversee all leaders, and holistic ministry—beginning to be implemented in several demographic segments in Ethiopia, with promising results. It has given us hope for the Church in Ethiopia. Perhaps this model could also help the Church elsewhere become more of an agent of transformation as well.
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