Challenges accompany the joys of growth as tens of thousands of people new to Ethiopia’s Meserete Kristos Church swell the denomination.
Now with more than 600,000 participants, the world’s largest Anabaptist conference struggles to train enough pastors, find adequate meeting spaces and keep vehicles maintained for its teachers, who travel to distant outposts on rough roads.
According to its latest statistics, MKC added about 88,000 people to its faith community in the past two years, growing from 295,607 baptized members in 2016 to 344,829 members in September 2018. Including 58,158 people preparing to be baptized and 212,442 children, MKC counts 615,429 people in its churches, up from 527,851 two years earlier.
In Mennonite World Conference’s 2018 census, Ethiopia passed India for second place on the list of countries’ Anabaptist populations, based on MKC’s 2017 membership of 310,877. The United States is still first, with 500,481.
Growth is taking place in every aspect of MKC’s evangelism-centric ethos. The number of pastors has nearly doubled in two years, from 160 to 298, or roughly one for every 2,065 adults and children. “Gospel ministers” who are full-time but not yet ordained grew from 536 in 2016 to 799.
Worship spaces present one of the biggest challenges. Land is owned by the government and difficult to acquire, driving up the price of properties.
In spite of this, the number of local churches — defined as at least 50 baptized members, three able leaders, one full-time minister, an owned or rented place of worship and financially self-supporting congregation — grew from 961 to 1,067. Infant churches known as “planting centers” grew from 1,016 to 1,110.
“As long as we do evangelism, we will have more planting centers,” said MKC President Tewodros Beyene by email. “We encourage every member to be an evangelist.”
While passion for sharing the gospel is widely shared, trained and qualified leaders must be continually added. Meserete Kristos College has 509 students enrolled in leadership and ministry programs at a main campus in Debre Zeit and extention campuses in Nazareth and Addis, along with distance education programs.
MK College Student Council President Feyera Hirko recounted in the December MK College Newsletter how the dean and a group of students visited the Tsega congregation in Nazareth-Adama for two days of preaching.
On Nov. 3 the students shared about Christ with 1,080 people, 117 of whom confessed and received Jesus. Hirko said one woman had been an unbelieving spouse of a pastor “who notoriously challenged her husband.” One man was a Muslim on the verge of committing suicide before receiving a message in a dream to not do so.
“Seeing their effectiveness, two other MKC local congregations invited the students to come and conduct a similar program in their churches,” Hirko reported.
While economic growth is happening in Ethiopia as government reforms fall into place, the church’s growth has outpaced it, putting a strain on resources of both the churches and the college.
A women’s dorm was inaugurated on May 12 as attention shifted to other pressing needs, such as nearly $700,000 needed to build a kitchen and dining facility that meet health codes after an 11-year-old temporary kitchen was threatened with possible closure by the Ministry of Health. About $250,000 is still needed to complete the project.
More than 1,600 graduates have come out of the college to serve among the church’s pastors, evangelists, teachers, gospel ministers and missionaries, but this group does not represent even 50 percent of the need for trained leadership.
In addition to the college providing formal education to equip full-time ministers, the denomination offers regular teaching programs on spiritual formation, leadership and other matters for lay and other full-time ministers. A separate “key teachers” program trains people from churches to be prepared to teach in other churches. Those teachers have grown from 126 to 184.
But rapid growth presents challenges even here. President Beyene said when there were only a few MKC regions, one or two “key teachers” programs could be held in every region.
“Now we have 39 regions, and to go to some regions it takes us two days to drive on terribly damaged roads,” he said. “Even if we have trainers, we don’t have many vehicles, and they are in poor condition after serving almost two decades on gravel roads.”
Reinforcing denominational links as MKC grows will help the body maintain its identity, no matter the conditions of Ethiopia’s physical byways.
Beyene said mainline evangelical churches represent about 20 percent of Ethiopia’s population, and they have similar worship and biblical understandings to MKC’s.
“But we keep the teaching of peace theology, and the church is kind of charismatic in its nature,” he said. “Though our background is Anabaptist/Mennonite, most of our members do not know these names — but the Anabaptist teachings are there.
“The name Meserete Kristos (meaning church founded on Christ, derived from 1 Cor. 3:11, one of Menno Simon’s key verses) helps our evangelistic strategy that it is a local church, not dependent on a foreign church.”
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