Children from the Mennonite Church Nigeria congregation in Uyo form a processional to give their offerings. Photo by Lynda Hollinger-Janzen.
A light-bulb moment came during a worship service in Uyo during the annual convention of Mennonite Church Nigeria. It was December 2014, and I was with Rev. Femi Fatunmbi, pastor at Royal Dominion International Church in Los Angeles. He is also moderator of Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference.
During one of the five services, I turned to Rev. Fatunmbi, a Nigerian-born U.S. citizen, and asked what he thought of the offering taking place. There were several offerings in each of the services. The person conducting the offering started by asking those who had $20 to come first and contribute.
Then, the countdown to $15, $10, $5, $1 and less.
More people came forward as the monetary amount lessened.
Many of the churches I work with in Africa have practices that appear to me to be inconsistent with Anabaptist belief and practice. The offering processional seemed showy to me.
I told Rev. Fatunmbi I have never been comfortable with this way of collecting offerings.
He said, “How can you be Africa director for all of these years and have questions about this?”
It was not the time or place to enter into a discussion, but we picked up the topic later.
I said I often look to the Sermon on the Mount as a point of reference for my thinking. Jesus’ teaching about entering into a closet to pray and not letting the right hand know what the left is doing seem to be the opposite of some African church practices. This is why I struggle with public displays of prayer and offering, I said.
I value Rev. Fatunmbi’s perspective and appreciate the freedom he gives me to raise questions with him, particularly because I do not have many opportunities to raise this topic in conversation. He reminded me there are other biblical passages we could explore together, and we went on to talk about some of them, such as David and others dancing before the Lord, and Paul being transported in prayer.
“Sooner or later, we Anabaptists will come to the understanding that we need Pentecostal power to be effective witnesses of the gospel of Christ with peace and justice emphases around the world,” Fatunmbi said.
Bruce Yoder, who serves with Mennonite Mission Network in Burkina Faso, was also with us in Uyo.
He spoke of the historical research he is conducting for his doctoral dissertation on the Mennonite Church in Nigeria. North American Mennonite workers once served with a growing church in Uyo but had to leave due to the complexities of the Biafran war. Those who left Nigeria went to other parts of Africa and were unable to return. The leadership of the church needed training, and Pentecostal schools were able to provide that service.
Now the reality is that leaders of Mennonite Church Nigeria have not had many opportunities for training from a Mennonite or Anabaptist perspective. It is only in recent years that Mission Network has been able to help plan for more systematic theological training. Yoder is working alongside several teachers from Mennonite Church Nigeria to develop the program. During this visit, we participated in the matriculation of the new students for the Mennonite Bible school.
I do not think there is a right or wrong in the issues that surfaced in the situation presented when I was in Nigeria, but I do think we need to continue to work toward providing opportunities for theological education from an Anabaptist perspective on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. We are a part of the same Mennonite World Conference family.
It is clear to me that Bishop Victor UmoAbasi, president of Mennonite Church Nigeria, values the relationship with Mission Network and the way we are working with the church. I also know that he sees himself as both Anabaptist and Pentecostal. During Rev. UmoAbasi’s visit to the United States in 2013, during which he attended the Mennonite Church USA convention in Phoenix, he had plenty of questions about our worship style, prayer and practice. He wondered about the dress of our young people. But he did not say, “Now, I see what it means to be an Anabaptist or Christian.”
Engagement in mission relationships with new and mature Christian churches and movements around the world invites and reinvites us to examine our assumptions about faith. It calls us back to reexamine Scripture together and our cultures in the light of Christian witness. Biblical faith and practice is discerned as we dialogue together in the global family of faith.
Steve Wiebe-Johnson, Mennonite Mission Network’s director for Africa since 2002.