Ethiopia: growth and unity
This is an account of remarkable church growth under wise leadership during and after great persecution, which brought about strong church unity. My experience has only been during the last few years, when on behalf of Pastor Training International (PTI) I visited parts of Ethiopia with Ken McIntosh, pastor of East Horsley Baptist Church, near Guildford.
The Christian churches were established in Ethiopia in 330-340AD by the Coptic Church in Egypt. It is still the dominant religious force today. Evangelical missionary societies began work in the eighteenth century and established churches in most parts of the country. In the 1950s missionaries from the UK established three churches in Addis, Batie and Kamisi. However, from 1974 until 1991 there was severe persecution of many Christian denominations when Colonel Mengistu overthrew King Haile Selassie and set up a Marxist government. All the missionaries had to leave and the church went underground. During this time denominational barriers were broken down, and the Evangelical Churches Fellowship in Ethiopia (ECFE) was started. This continues to today, with 35 (almost all) the denominations included. Those in the ECFE adhere to the following: an evangelical basis of faith; plurality of leadership in churches; respect for each other’s distinctives.
PTI began in 2005 to help church leaders (initially in Africa) with little or no formal theological training. When an invitation is received, the PTI committee endeavours to send two suitable pastors from this country, following a specifically prepared syllabus for one week and complemented by two further weeks over the next two years. Because of the expenses, they generally arrange to repeat the course in another area on the same visit.
Mulugeta is an exceptional church leader. In 1984 aged 18, at the height of the persecution, he went to the Mennonite church in Addis Abbaba and was converted. The next week he returned and found the church burned down, so went across the road to the Christian Brethren Church (CBC). Two days later the elders and some of the others were imprisoned, only to be released on recanting their faith in Christ. He wrote, ‘I will not stop believing in Jesus Christ as long as I live.’ He was, however, released, as they said they could indoctrinate the young. He then went about 50 miles west of Addis to Ginchi, where there were a handful of believers. In 2007 there was a church of 500, with 12 daughter churches. In 2009 they started extensions and it now holds 800. In 2007 there were 90 CBC churches; in 2011 there are 170. They have over 200 full-time evangelists and they all have such a wonderful, affectionate rapport with him – it really is amazing.
From Addis we drove to Ambo for an early start to Chobi on Friday. This is where the Christian Brethren Churches are strongest. Not only do they have over 40 churches, some with membership in the hundreds, they also have an acre of ground where the Chobi Bible School is. Mulugeta wants an educated ministry, and the regions send evangelists who will profit from a diploma or degree course to colleges in Ethiopia. They also run a six-week course with six modules each year at Chobi, which is followed for three years for others less able. This is a running syllabus, so new trainees can join each year.
While in the café in Chobi, Mulugeta called across to a couple of men to explain how they had been converted. A man in his mid-50s said he’d been brought up in a family of witch doctors but realised they were not honest, leaving them on principle. This meant he’d be isolated and killed, so he went to the Christians and asked if their God could save him from death. He is now a church elder.
We then went back to the church for the young people’s group. There were at least 300 in the church, with others sitting on windowsills or standing outside. Ken and I were asked to speak to them, which was a joy. In the afternoon we travelled back to Jeldu to be ready for preaching services on Sunday morning. There must have been a couple of hundred adults and a hundred children, 41 of whom formed the children’s choir.
In the afternoon we travelled back to Ginchi. Here is an excellent campus of an acre where the CBC can house, feed and teach 100 people easily. The church here sat 500 but was too small, so has now been enlarged to hold 800. There were 82 trainees from nine different denominations this year. Our first day, Monday, went very well indeed, with an unusual sense of the presence of God, which boded well for the rest of the week. We also spoke to the students returning to college. On Friday, the PTI Books were given and we returned to Addis. We also met 12 Board Members, giving a report of our visits to Chobi, Jeldu and Ginchi, and also answered questions from them.
On Sunday, Ken and I preached again in the CBC churches at Akaki and Kaliti. In the afternoon we travelled to Hawassa, ready to start the second PTI Conference there. This had been organised by Tesfaye Nenko, who co-ordinates 160 Full Gospel Churches running down 300 miles to the Kenyan border. There were 100 Trainees here, including some from four other denominations. These gave their fullest attention throughout. We also had the usual questions when Ken spoke on the sovereignty of God on Thursday. Friday was the book distribution, all in Amharic: ‘Servant Leadership’, Warren Wiersbe on John’s gospel, and a commentary on Hebrews by Hailu Mekonnen.
Persecution varies across Ethiopia. In Addis, because of the various embassies, it was relatively quiet but in other areas it was particularly hostile. In Hawassa 17 were imprisoned for seven years, including four women. In 2012 we met another Tesfay who had been detained from 23 to 31. He has written a small book and cut eight tapes of songs. Last year we met Markos, imprisoned from the age of 16 to 23. They were often in solitary and only had one shirt and pair of trousers. They were urged to curse God and recant but they remained faithful. Both are now highly esteemed pastors in the FGBC.
All churches were attacked between 1974 and 1991, including the Orthodox Church from whom the vast majority of converts came. They acknowledge however that the great persecution was the cause of cleansing the churches and bringing about rapid growth. Today the Ethiopian churches are the fastest growing in Africa; evangelicals account for 20% of the population, orthodox 60% and Roman Catholic only 1%.
While we look on the life and expansion of the churches in Ethiopia with awe, they find it difficult to understand the great decline here. We have asked them to pray for our situation in the UK.
David Sercombe is an elder in Mount Elim Evangelical Church, Pontardawe.