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Lessons from Ethiopia

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This past May, I travelled to Luanda, Angola. There, I had the privilege of representing the Canadian conference to our global family, the International Community of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB). Representatives from 15 of our 21 national conferences met for Summit 2014 to hear and learn from each other, to pray together and to discern how we can best serve each other. (See report here).

It was a joy to encourage the Angolan church with our presence and to worship together with them. But some of the most poignant lessons came from our guest resource people from Ethiopia’s Meserete Kristos Church (MKC). I was inspired by their passionate spirituality, which is motivating men and women to seek God – and God alone!   

Travel troubles

When I arrived in Angola, I passed through customs in a few minutes. But when Desalegn Abebe and Kelbessa Muleta from MKC arrived, airport authorities took their passports and cellphones, and demanded they pay a “fee” to enter Angola.

At one point, authorities told them they were being taken to a restaurant when, in fact, they were led to a holding cell. Through the efforts of our Angolan church leaders, the men were freed after 30 hours of captivity. Even though our brothers were threatened with deportation and repeatedly asked for money, they continued to reflect a wonderful godly spirit.

A Spirit-filled church

After Eastern Mennonite Mission began relief work in Ethiopia in 1945, the resulting church was called Meserete Kristos. The name – meaning “Christ is the foundation” – arose out of Menno Simon’s favourite verse: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).

In its first 30 years, MKC grew to 5,000 members. Then a remarkable thing happened as the Holy Spirit poured out of a group of university students desperately seeking the presence of God. They were filled with the Spirit and began to cast out demons and preach the gospel in powerful ways. This renewal prepared them for coming persecution. 

In 1981, Marxist oppression drove the Ethiopian church underground, yet MKC outreach centres and congregations flourished. In 1991, when the Marxist government was overthrown, MKC emerged with 50,000 members in 52 congregations. Today, MKC is 780 churches, 500 thousand members and 750 church planting centres. 

These four statements summarize MKC ministry priorities: 1) Christ is the focus of our life; 2) Simplicity is our model for using resources; 3) Teamwork is our model of leadership; and 4) Evangelism is the reason for our existence.

MKC is outreach focused, with local churches and regional leadership working together to reach their communities. Even though Ethiopia is ranked among the world’s poorest countries – 78 percent of Ethiopians live on less than US$2 a day – MKC teaches that poverty isn’t a reason to withhold giving. Each member is expected to tithe; if the gospel touches a person’s life, it should also touch their pocketbook.

God is enough

At the summit, Desalegn told us that as MKC members become more educated, they’re tempted to rely on knowledge rather than on the filling and power of the Holy Spirit. They’re tempted to forget what God did during the persecution era. Desalegn reminded us that if we rely on what we have, even if it’s a spiritual gift, we’re relying on the wrong thing. We need to completely depend on God and give what we have for his glory.

Kelbessa reminded us to hunger not only for the gifts of the Spirit but for the giver. God is available. When we yearn for God and don’t settle for anything less, we can participate in God’s mission anywhere in the world. 

I was challenged by Desalegn and Kelbessa’s priority and passion to host the presence of God, which precedes mission. They want God, not for what God will do through them or for them, but simply to be in his presence. Our brothers’ prayers aren’t focused on freedom from persecution, health issues or poverty. Their priority is walking in intimacy with the Father. 

As a Canadian, my default is to look for methods, to discern transferable principles and insights that can be neatly packaged. Learning is admirable and necessary, but it’s secondary to knowing God and following the leading of the Holy Spirit.

I often hear people express frustration regarding the “state of the church.” But nothing prevents us from pursuing the presence of God! We don’t need methods, programs, facilities, talent, training, education – or whatever we think we’re lacking. We simply need to make God a priority. 

I encourage you to slow down; give the Spirit space to work in your life. Read God’s Word as the revelation of Jesus Christ, not as a manual for ministry or a textbook for teaching and preaching. Let the Spirit speak into your mind and heart. 

Let God’s presence transform you (Romans 12:2) and renew your heart for him this summer.

Willy—Willy Reimer

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