After Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Western missionaries fled or were forced to leave. Among them were the first two missionaries from Sudan Interior Mission (now SIM), who had planted a church in Sidama, a southern region known for growing coffee. They were attacked on the road and killed. After the Italian occupiers were expelled, SIM sent four more missionaries to Sidama; three were soon killed.
Mourning their losses, Sidama congregations swore an unconventional oath: “We must avenge their deaths by sending out our own missionaries.”
Despite persecution and turmoil, the churches began to do as they had promised. Agedachew Anebo said many of his fellow Christian leaders in Sidama, where the latest census found 4 in 5 people are now Protestants, still recall this story today. One denomination, the Ethiopian Kale Heywet (Word of Life) Church, now has more than 1,000 Sidama congregations supporting more than 250 missionaries across Ethiopia and other nations.
These churches are leading what could be the world’s next major missionary movement.
In Ethiopia, evangelicalism is growing at a faster rate than even the booming general population, already the second-largest in Africa and projected to exceed 112 million people by 2020. According to the World Christian Database, in 1970 the Horn of Africa nation had about 900,000 self-identifying evangelicals, about 3 percent of its total population. By 2015, that number swelled to almost 19 million, or 19 percent of Ethiopians.
Each week, evangelical Christians across Ethiopia gather in buildings ranging from small mud huts to massive megachurches. In the capital, Addis Ababa, signs for new churches and home groups seem to spring up daily. As congregations mature, many articulate a vision that stretches beyond their walls—whether mud or concrete.
The two largest evangelical denominations in Ethiopia began in collaboration with Western missions organizations: the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (Dwelling of Jesus) was founded in the late 1800s with the help of Swedish Lutheran missionaries, and Kale Heywet was founded in the 1920s with SIM. Now they claim more than 9 million and 7 million members, respectively. And both denominations have embarked on international missions work of their own.
Mekane Yesus has sent 21 missionary families outside of Ethiopia since the formation of its International Mission Society in 2009. These missionaries are funded by Ethiopian congregations and currently work in neighboring Eritrea and Somalia, as well as in Chad, Mali, several Middle Eastern countries, and as far away as Pakistan.
Each year in January, Mekane Yesus designates a single “Mission Sunday” across its congregations. In 2012, its members gave only 12,000 birr (about $412 today); in 2017, giving topped 3 million birr ($107,000). In conjunction with year-round financial support from individual churches, this money is used to support the denomination’s missionaries in the field.
“Our plan is quite ambitious,” said Wondimu Game, the society’s director, who is currently studying missiology at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. “The plan is to send 500 missionaries out in the next 10 years.”
In 2012, SIM created an East Africa sending office in Addis Ababa to support local churches sending missionaries abroad with back-end operations such as training and insurance. Through this office, Kale Heywet has sent 37 missionary families to countries including Sudan, Ghana, Malawi, Zambia, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, and more are preparing to leave in coming months. These missionaries are primarily involved in evangelism and church planting, and each is supported financially by sending churches in Ethiopia.
Addis is the fastest-growing of SIM’s 14 sending offices, said Joshua Bogunjoko, a Nigerian serving in Ethiopia as SIM’s international director. More than 20 families await placements. “This is the result of the growth and maturity of the church in Ethiopia,” he said.
However, Ethiopia’s churches have a long way to go before they reach the scale of the world’s leading sending countries. According to World Christian Database projections, in 2020 the United States will send out 135,000 missionaries, Brazil 40,000, South Korea 35,000, the Philippines 25,000, and Nigeria 20,000. Yet it’s clear the turning outward of the Sidama church around World War II is now occurring across Ethiopia.
Local missions go global
Samuel Kebreab, a former evangelist who serves on the sending office’s board, said the Ethiopian movement toward international missions began after the fall of the country’s communist Derg regime in 1991. “After that, the church began to mature,” he said. “Western congregations that were partnering with Kale Heywet and Mekane Yesus began to think of the Ethiopian church as a partner that would also contribute to global mission work.”
Samuel [Ethiopians go by their given names] is also the Horn of Africa regional coordinator for the Movement for African National Initiatives (MANI), a network that mobilizes African Christians to fulfill the Great Commission. “Africa is a young continent,” he said, noting 6 in 10 residents are under 30. “Soon the main harvest force will come from Africa.”
Like many of the leaders interviewed by CT, Samuel sees sending missionaries internationally as a necessary response to the role foreign missionaries historically played in encouraging Ethiopia’s evangelical movement. “These people have come all the way and didn’t spare their lives, so we should do the same and go to other countries,” he said. “That has created a good legacy—a tradition.”
Worku Hailemariam, director of the Addis office, agrees. “We have been on the receiving end for years, for decades, even centuries,” he said. “We have to be involved in missions—local and global. The time has come.”
However, ties to the Western missions movement of the 19th and 20th centuries have not always motivated Ethiopian involvement in global missions. One of the primary barriers has been the perception that taking the gospel to other nations was the responsibility of the West. “We considered ourselves to be the mission field,” Wondimu said. “Some people say, ‘It’s not our responsibility.’” In response, he tells them, “Missions is not a Western responsibility; it is the church’s responsibility.”
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Source: Christianity Today