Thursday, August 13, 2015

Unexpected Blessing

He really wanted me to see his brand new training center, but I didn't know why. I thought perhaps it might be another case of an African ministry leader wanting to show me his dream project and then hoping I would help him fund the completion of it.

But I couldn't have been more wrong. Pastor Selenga was not your typical ministry leader. Besides having been the legal rep for his own denomination, he was now the director of ReachAfrica—the regional division of ReachGlobal formerly known as the Evangelical Free Church Mission. It's not every day that an African, let alone a Congolese, is a senior executive of an American mission.

Thirty minutes later, we had navigated the traffic jams of Kinshasa and rolled into the small courtyard of CEMIER—Centre d’Equipement en Mission et Leadership de ReachAfrica. As I was shown around, I couldn't believe this entire facility had been modified, prepped for operation and that already over one hundred pastors and layman were enrolled in courses. That doesn't include the two dozen women at risk being helped at a vocational center behind the main building.

When we got to Selenga’s office, he smiled and said, “All this is here because of you.” My puzzled look prompted his explanation. Last year, During another trip to Kinshasa in order to accompany and translate for two representatives of a mission-minded philanthropic foundation. Among some 40 national church leaders I had introduced them to, was Selenga. What I never knew is that my two friends had maintained dialog with him resulting in a grant that allowed Selenga to acquire, remodel and launch this center all in a few short months.

There is nothing more rewarding for me than to be a network connector that results in a positive advancement for God’s Kingdom. And when it happens as an unexpected blessing, it's the most rewarding of all!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Congress is in Session

They are calling it the 5th Congress on National Evangelism. Held in a big meeting room at the Shaumba high school in Kinshasa, this is a significant event for the leaders of Protestant churches here in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since this event is hosted by my friend, Bishop Nyamuke, head of the ECC  department of evangelism, I received an invitation some time ago to participate and help out with some of the planning for it.

The central objective of the Congress is to breathe new life into a five-year-old plan that has five key strategies for advancing God’s Kingdom in DRC:
1. Plant new churches where they are needed,
2. Encourage mature discipleship amount church members,
3. Help children aged 4 to 18 develop a Christian world view
4. Teach families how to become centers of Christian education
5. Reach the least, poorly and unreached populations of the country.

Jon & Bishop Nyamuke
Two themes have particularly impressed me from the many presentations given during our sessions. The first one is a deep concern over the perception that DRC is facing increased pressure from the West to adopt a liberal social agenda that includes inclusion of gay rights into the mainstream of its culture. The examples given of how this agenda is already being pushed by conditions put on aid grants from the U.S. is startling and discouraging.

The second theme, which is much more encouraging, has to do with the amazing number of resources already available for the ECC and its member churches. Dozens of national and expat organizations exist now in the DRC with great curricula, books, training courses, etc. in French but the problem is that most churches don't even know they exist. This Congress has been good for exposure of these resources, but much more needs to happen for full national access.

As Bishop Nyamuke and I, plus a small team of four, discuss this, we agree to launch a new, concerted thrust  to help promote this national plan of evangelism during the next two years. We've even given it a name: MissioCongo. Besides replicating this Congress in some regional mini events during the next few months, MissioCongo will also involve a new prayer strategy for evangelism, new communication strategy using text messaging and newsletters and a new evangelism resource website.

When I was invited to this event, I knew I might be asked  to share something sometime. I didn't expect I would be giving the opening devotional, a plenary session on stewardship and host the open mike sharing period at the end of each day. But I am thrilled to see the positive impact that seems to be happening here and pray that this MissioCongo follow-up plan truly keeps the churches in DRC pressing forward in advancing the cause of Christ in this huge country.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

WE can overcome!

Bible translation is getting a new boost in Ethiopia!

For several decades, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) people have worked on Bible translations for Ethiopia’s primary languages. But this country has over 80 different languages and dialects that need Bible translation. Approaching the task the traditional way would, no doubt, take multiple decades more.

Enter Wycliffe Ethiopia, fondly referred to as WE!

A couple years ago, a handful of the national Ethiopian staff working with SIL decided to form their own registered organization that would work alongside SIL, but tackle the challenge with some new approaches intended to speed up the translation process. In particular, they wanted to create stronger partnership with national church denominations to encourage greater participation in translation at the grass-roots level.

Leading the WE in a management workshop (above)
Tefera receiving the 11th translation of OBS (below)
For four full days during this trip of mine to Ethiopia, I’ve had the privilege of working with the WE director, Tefera, and his leadership team in crafting a new strategic plan and discussing how to develop organizationally into a strong, successful ministry. It’s always fun working with emerging African ministry leaders, but this experience of helping to crystalize the dreams and aspirations of these WE brothers and sisters has been especially rewarding. What has surprised me is that their vision is not only to be a catalyst to Ethiopian churches for Bible translation, but they believe their influence and resource help should spread beyond the borders to the other countries of Africa as well.

It’s one thing to sit in a room for a several days talking about strategy, but during this time, I’ve also had a chance to witness WE already at work at tackling those 80 national languages that need God’s Word. Using a brand new approach to an initial Bible resource called Open Bible Stories (supplied by Wycliffe Associates) WE has challenged national churches to translate the labels of the fifty picture-stories into local languages as quickly as possible. WE’s goal is to have OBS available in all of Ethiopia’s languages done by the end of this year! If you think they’re dreaming, get this: WE completed the first Amharic version of OBS on March 10 and while I was here in the office, a key church leader showed up to deliver the eleventh language translation already completed! That means in just seven weeks, twelve Ethiopian language groups now have access to the story of the Bible that didn’t have it before!

Introducing Tefera and Shimeles at a coffeeshop (above)
Sharing about OBS with church-planting ministries (below)
 Even more personally exciting for me was a chance to introduce WE and this OBS project to a couple of the church-planting organizations I was visiting with during the first part of my trip here. Pastor Shimeles, director of the Horn of Africa Mission, had never met Tefera before but was overjoyed to hear that resources would soon be available that would open the door for his church-planters to reach new tribal areas of the country. We quickly arranged for some of his colleagues to come over and meet the whole WE team. One of the men called it an “historic meeting” as they all began to realize how they could help each other reach their mission objectives and ultimately speed the Gospel to the people of Ethiopia.

God has certainly done much through the faithful Western missionaries in Africa during the past hundred years. But I can’t wait to see what happens when He fully empowers this new generation of African ministry leaders to fulfill their dreams and visions for reaching the world for Christ. If this past week and a half in Ethiopia is any example of that, we’re in for some exciting days ahead!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Woman Power

“If I had to choose, I would take a woman any day over a man as a church-planter.”

I was somewhat startled to hear Pastor Shimeles, Director of Horn of Africa mission, make a statement like that. In an African culture where wives are normally extremely submissive to their husbands not to mention the strong male-dominated Islamic culture, I was surprised that women would even be seen as acceptable in the context of church planting. Nevertheless, Shimeles, was unequivocal in his praise for the women who are having tremendous success in starting up small, house-churches all across Ethiopia.

Tigest and Tsedash
On this day, I had a chance to meet a couple of them and also witness first hand some of the fruit of their labor. Pulling off the main asphalt road at the town of Alem T’ena, our 4 x 4 Toyota HiLux headed east across a very dry  countryside dotted with small, round farmer’s huts. We had loaded up the rear seat with three more passengers including two who were leading church planters now mentoring dozens of other women. Tsedash is the national women’s coordinator for HOA and Tigest is so far, her most productive mentoree. Together they gave our driver explicit directions how to navigate the difficult, barren terrain.

Every few minutes we encountered large flocks of cows and goats being driven to market interspersed with heavily laden donkeys carrying charcoal and fire wood for sale. “Normally, we travel this road in the back of a donkey cart,” they explained. “It usually takes us two to three hours instead of 45 minutes with a car.”

When we arrived at the church, the “congregation” of 25 were out in force singing choruses of worship and welcome. That was followed by multiple testimonies from mostly women telling how miraculous healings and deliverance from demonic spirits were part of the inspiration for forming this home house-church. These simple, yet passionate and authentic expressions of faith were decidedly impressive and touching. When they asked me to share some sort of devotional thought, I obliged, but would rather have listened to more of their stories.

Here's the house-church planted by these two women and a
shot of a challenging bridge-crossing along the way.
One the way back, Tsedash told me there are now more than fifty-five women in the HOA who have been trained as church planters, only ten of whom receive any sort of remuneration for their effort as coordinators. Together, they have planted over 500 churches in just the past three years. Forty-three of them have been just since January! Those churches include more than 4000 baptized believers. When I asked why women seem to be so successful in this endeavor, Tsedash explained that it is a direct result of hearing about a Gospel message that gives women dignity and respect for their giftedness. “Their normal life is so difficult and meaningless, any hope of change is attractive to them. It doesn't take long for our workers to find a woman of peace in their villages—someone already open to spiritual things and asking questions to know more. These first contact ladies then invite family and friends to join them for a Discovery Bible Study and before you know it, three to five families will be meeting together.”

 What a privilege it has been to experience all this first hand and to see such a living example of how the Gospel message brings transformation and hope – especially to the lives of women here in Ethiopia.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

You're Dreaming!

He said he would never forget the scene from that dream. It was a big room, like a hall filled with bunk beds reminiscent of a dormitory. But as he watched, the beds turned into gravestones—all except his own bed. And then, a framed picture on the wall, which he recognized as one of familiar paintings of Christ, slowly came to life. The figure beckoned him to follow and then said out loud, “You need to leave this place.”
Abdulaziz (left) with his mentor, Shimeles

I was interviewing Abdulaziz, one of the foremost church planting trainers in southern Ethiopia. Moments earlier, I had been watching this former Muslim Imam instruct a team of thirty-five men and women how to sensitively engage Islamic communities with the Gospel. Believe it or not, he was showing them how to start out by using key verses in the Koran that validate the authority and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The dream was only the beginning of Abdulaziz’s conversion story, however. As he began to question his Muslim faith, he was ostracized by his friends and family who eventually got him thrown in jail without any specified charge. He was there for nine months and never once was given a trial. But, this breech of justice turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It was there that he met Shimeles, a Christian brother who came every week sharing Christ with Abdulaziz and eventually discipling him in his new-found faith.  After he was released, he soon learned how to plant churches among other Muslim communities. Today, Abdulaziz tells me, he has trained close to 4,000 other men and women to do the same.

Big brother, Hussien, with Yusuf
We walk together past an outdoor kitchen to where some injera wat is waiting for us for lunch. Sitting across the table from me is Yusuf, a young church leader of 27 ready to tell me another dream story. “It was actually fifteen years ago that my brother, Hussien, had a dream about me,” he explains. “I was very young then, but he saw me in his dream running toward a very bright light that was coming from a Christian cemetery. He tried to run after me, but couldn’t keep up. For years, he suspected that the dream meant I would become a Christian, so he was afraid to tell me about it. Praise God, we have now both given our hearts to Christ and are serving Him by planting more churches.”

As amazing as these stories may be, I soon learn that somewhere around 35% of all the people in this predominantly Muslim region who become Christians, do so because of experiencing dreams similar to these. Without question, God has chosen this particular method to transmit His truth into the hearts and minds of these Ethiopians he has called to be His own. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Superhighways and The Queen of Sheba

Since 1982, I've had the chance to visit more than 25 countries in Africa but until now, Ethiopia was not one of them. That’s why this visit has been such an eye-opener for me and is totally altering my preconceived expectations about this country.

For the past few days, I've been involved in interviewing church leaders as a means of gathering “success stories” of African ministries and churches involved in successful, sustainable outreach projects. This endeavor even landed me the privilege of a two day road trip with the Executive Director of the Horn of Africa Mission (HOA), one of the premier church-planting institutions in the country, if not the whole continent.

Adopting the very successful strategy called DMM (Disciple Making Movements, also known as CPM or Church Planting Movements), HOA is reporting unbelievable statistics in the advancement of the Gospel.  Altogether during the past 12 years, they have trained over 15,000 lay-church planters, documented over 10,000 new churches planted and validated that 200,000 new believers have been baptized. When I first heard these numbers while sitting in the director’s office, I found them a bit hard to believe. Nowhere in the rest of Africa am I aware of such successes. But after traveling for two days with the man himself and interviewing a half dozen of his grass-roots church planters, I am now a confirmed believer!

I hope to share in subsequent blogs some of the amazing stories I've heard along the way, but for now, here are two reasons why I think Ethiopia seems different than other African countries and therefore positioned as a missional pace-setter for Africa. 
  1. It’s never been under colonial domination. Everywhere I sense a very different mindset than elsewhere on the continent since folks have never developed the same mindset of dependency. There is a “can do” attitude here that results in superhighways, large flocks of cows and goats and thousands donkey or horse carts that do the transporting of goods instead of women with baskets on their heads.
  2. It has an unbroken influence of Christianity dating back to the third century, not to mention a claim to the Queen of Sheba from the reign of King Solomon. Regardless of the rise and impact of Islam over the years, it is clear that a Judeo-Christian value system is deeply rooted in the social consciousness. I believe this has impacted everything from the way women are valued to the normal accepted work ethic.

As a result, Ethiopia seems to be the place in Africa where remarkable advances are taking place in church planting and discipleship movements all fueled by the national churches themselves. So much so, that other African leaders are inviting themselves to come for visits to see how they do it.

So, stay tuned. I hope to find out some of those answers myself!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

When Helping Still Hurts

The book, When Helping Hurts, is an excellent description of what happens when good intentioned Western aid can actually hurt more than it helps if it is administered without a good understanding of the cultural context. This past week while attending a leadership team meeting of MANI (Movement of African National Initiatives,) in Nairobi, Kenya, I've been impressed by how the legacy of some old well-intentioned help is still hurting.
MANI is all about catalyzing a mission movement in every country of Africa. For the past fifteen years, since the AD2000 & Beyond Movement, MANI has been working hard at inspiring efforts to reach the remaining unreached people groups across the continent as well as preparing Africans for ministry in global missions.

But today, MANI is recognizing that the greatest stumbling block to success is the lack of commitment on the part of local African churches to support mission outreach. The problem is not that they don’t think it should happen, but that church leaders continue to see mission work as something led and funded by Westerners. It all has to do with the way churches were originally planted in Africa 50 to 100 years ago. Most expat mission organizations modeled church-planting as something independent of mission outreach, especially to other tribes, nations or people groups. So today, the idea that a national church should prepare and financially support young missionaries for cross-cultural outreach simply doesn’t exit. Most churches still think the West will provide resources for that.

Reuben Ezemadu, continental coordinator for MANI, stated during one of our sessions that unfortunately, the vestiges of old “evangelical imperialism” still lives on in Africa, especially as we see current church leaders following patterns of their Western missionary forefathers.
This is why MANI is attempting to connect with top heads of African churches to cast new vision that Africans can and should be mobilizing and resourcing mission efforts. A major summit is being planned for a year from now in Accra, Ghana in hopes that several hundred presidents of church denominations will come together for that purpose.

I’m praying this event will be a watershed moment and begin shaping a new African paradigm that will see national churches shedding old hurtful attitudes and truly begin helping to spawn a new generation of mission outreach across the continent and around the globe.