“What’s the biggest issue your church is facing these days?”
It’s a question that gets asked and answered in dozens of ways as Christians cross cultures and engage counterparts in other nations.
In North America the answer this summer is often painful discussions and divisions around sexuality. In some parts of Africa and Asia it is the politics of coexistence and cooperation between Christianity and Islam. Where the church is growing rapidly, the answer is frequently, “We can’t train leaders fast enough.” In some places it is the heart-rending challenges of remaining faithful under persecution.
Our issues might reveal either strength or weakness in identity, tradition or transformation in focus, vitality or decadence in corporate life.
A few weeks ago I heard a stirring answer from John Nyagwegwe, a Tanzanian Mennonite Church (KMT) bishop.
“For many years we looked west for our solutions,” he said. “If a school needed subsidy, we looked west. If an ecclesiastical problem was too big for us, we looked to the U.S. If a church building needed a roof, we thought about Salunga [Pa., home of Eastern Mennonite Missions].
“Then one day it hit me, ‘I am Salunga!’ ” He had been talking with Stan Godshall, a former doctor at the Shirati hospital on the shore of Lake Victoria, a medical institution begun by missionaries from America. They were discussing the problem of declining partnership funds from the U.S. for KMT.
“As EMM develops new relationships around the world, the annual available pie needs to be divided into smaller pieces,” Godshall explained. This made sense to Nyagwegwe. Furthermore, he realized that as an 80-year-old church, his region had many resources to offer.
“Instead of looking west, what are the initiatives we can take? What can we offer?” he asked his leadership team. Beginning in 2009, one of their first steps was to no longer accept the “piece of the pie” from the U.S. that belonged to their diocese. Instead, the money would go to other, needier regions of KMT.
It was a costly decision, and for several years they struggled. But as the churches turned their attention to resources already in their hands, especially to their riches in relationships with each other and with God, something changed. The old attitude of dependence on the West had marred the dignity and joy of dependence on God and interdependence with brothers and sisters around the world. Now their subconscious sense of entitlement began to be replaced by new, creative ventures of faith.
As they took these steps of faith, they were amazed by God’s provision. They saw how they could turn the abandoned leprosy quarters of their hospital into a technical school. When they did, they watched God bring others to them with gifts in their hands — a Tanzanian businessman, their own women’s fellowship, a Dutch engineer, a Canadian traveler.
They watched their young adults spark a movement of prayer, worship and commitment to Christ and the church that has touched thousands. They looked for communities around them that had no living witness to Jesus, and they began to move alongside them, looking for ways to serve.
“I am Salunga!” Not a likely choice for a vision or mission statement, but Nyagwegwe is using it to address what might have been the biggest issue in one African church.
Richard Showalter lives and travels in Asia, Africa, the United States and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.