Notes from Africa
By Thomas Lambrecht
As I write this, I am in the middle of a three-day meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, with about 40 leaders of African Methodism. Most are United Methodist, while a few have already joined the Global Methodist Church because they were evicted from the UM Church.
The devotion this morning was led by a pastor from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He talked about the passage of Scripture in I Kings 18 when Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on the top of Mount Carmel. He illustrated from the passage that those who speak prophetically for God are often viewed by people in authority as “the problem.” When Elijah confronted King Ahab, he addressed Elijah as “you troubler of Israel.” Elijah replied, “I have not made trouble for Israel, but you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals” (I Kings 18: 16-18).
When people challenge those in authority for speaking or acting contrary to God’s will as outlined in Scripture, the challengers often are put down as the ones causing problems. The story was shared here in the meeting about a pastor who raised questions to the bishop during the annual conference session. The next day, the pastor was removed from his appointment and evicted from the parsonage. At 8 PM the pastor was asking a colleague to borrow his truck because he had to move all his family’s possessions out of the parsonage by midnight and move in with his brother to have a place to live. I turned to Good News president Rob Renfroe, who is also at the meeting with me, and said, “And I thought we had it bad in the U.S.!”
The last Perspective told the stories of an African leader arbitrarily and illegally removed from the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters and about a U.S. pastor summarily suspended from his church, even though the church’s disaffiliation vote failed. We are grateful for the bishops who have acted with measured wisdom and fairness. Unfortunately, some bishops are increasingly exercising autocratic power in ways never envisioned by the Book of Discipline. They have become a law unto themselves. Stories of punishments and persecution are common in Africa, aimed at traditionalists who are not willing to go along with the One Church Plan agenda of their bishops.
From Small Beginnings
The episode of Elijah on Mount Carmel ended with God bringing rain after three years of drought. God promised Elijah he would bring rain, and Elijah began to pray on the top of Mount Carmel. Periodically, he would send his servant to look for signs of an approaching rain. Time after time, the servant would return, saying, “There is nothing there.” But on the seventh time, the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea” (I Kings 18:41-45). Within a short time, “the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling.”
The African leaders here sense the coming of the rain of revival. They believe that, despite the difficulties posed by the ongoing schism in the UM Church, God is bringing spiritual revival to the continent of Africa.
Just over a year ago, the Global Methodist Church officially launched in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Churches there were not allowed to disaffiliate by the bishop. Instead, over the past several years, two of the four bishops have steadily cast out of the church pastors and lay leaders who attempted to promote a traditionalist position. The good news is that, since launching a year ago, there are now over 160 churches that have been planted in homes and other meeting places in the two episcopal areas in DRC where the outcasts are. God is using the hardships to birth a new church that is unfettered by corruption or abuse of power, focusing on the Gospel, evangelism, and serving others in the name of Christ.
Just last month, for the first time, churches successfully disaffiliated in Africa. During the Kenya-Ethiopia Annual Conference meeting, 58 out of 91 churches in Kenya voted to disaffiliate and join the Global Methodist Church. Sixteen more that were planted in the last year have also joined, making for 74 total GM churches now in Kenya. More congregations may join them. You can read more about the details here in the GM Church’s blog.
The African leaders take great hope from these developments. They believe out of small beginnings – a cloud no larger than the size of man’s hand appearing on the horizon – God will bring great revival and rain down his Spirit to quench the spiritual thirst in a dry land.
Some progressives and centrists are working very hard to marginalize the voices of Africa. They believe the African delegates to General Conference can be persuaded to support the regionalization plan endorsed by the Connectional Table and the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. This plan would isolate the various regions of the church from each other, allowing each region – and most especially the U.S. part of the church – to enact its own agenda, unhindered by input from other regions of the church.
However, there is no support for such regionalization among these African leaders who represent the majority of grass-roots United Methodists. Some African bishops are reportedly withholding all information from their people about the conflict in the church, hoping to keep them in ignorance and thereby direct the course of their annual conference without questions or hindrance from their people. Pastors and lay leaders who share information are penalized, keeping others in fear of similar punishment. All of this occurs outside the prescribed processes of the Book of Discipline and contrary to the fair process of church accountability. There is still no way in our Discipline to hold such bishops accountable.
Again, despite persecution and hardship, these African leaders are standing firm. They will not compromise the principles of our faith. They see through the attempts of the bishops to manipulate them. They understand that the point of regionalization is to free the U.S. church from hearing or heeding the traditionalist voices of Africa, which now constitutes a majority of the worldwide United Methodist Church. They continue steadfast in their contention that they cannot remain part of a denomination that goes against Scripture by affirming same-sex marriage and the ordination and consecration of non-celibate gays and lesbians as pastors and bishops of the church.
The bishops have prevented churches outside the U.S. from using Par. 2553 for disaffiliation, claiming it only pertains to churches in the U.S. (Churches that have successfully disaffiliated in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Estonia, and Kenya used other strategies to accomplish their goal.) That is why African leaders have submitted petitions to the 2024 General Conference to reinstitute a revised Par. 2553, as well as a streamlined process for annual conference disaffiliation, both of which would apply to conferences and churches outside the U.S.
Not only does the bishops’ interpretation fly in the face of the actual language of Par. 2553, but it also represents a resurgent neo-colonialism in the way that many U.S. UM leaders treat United Methodists outside the U.S. and particularly in Africa. Their experience of this resurgent neo-colonialism has often been mentioned by African leaders in the meetings here this week.
Many African delegates have been asking for months for the Commission on the General Conference to send them their letters of invitation to General Conference, so the delegates may schedule their interviews to obtain a U.S. visa. Despite repeated requests, many delegates have not received the invitation letters. Time is running short, as some U.S. embassies in African countries are now scheduling visa interviews six to nine months from now. Soon, it will be too late for some African delegates to receive their visas. An unusually high number of African delegates are at risk of not being able to attend General Conference. Perhaps, if African delegates cannot be converted to support regionalization, their presence at General Conference can be compromised, forming just another way to reduce the traditionalist voices and votes from Africa.
The African leaders in this meeting are not discouraged. Despite the obstacles, they see the hand of God working here in Africa, bring people to Christ and multiplying concrete expressions of God’s love to be experienced by thousands. They believe in the power of prayer and in the ability of a wonder-working God to overcome all barriers to bring about the growth of his kingdom. As diverse parts of the Body of Christ, U.S. Christians could use more of that confidence and faith. Judging by the tenor of this meeting and my previous experiences with these anointed leaders, the African church stands to contribute much to the future fruitfulness of global Methodism.