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2013-04-01 issue:

And when they shall ask

Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church

by John D. Roth

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By all accounts the story of the Meserete Kristos Church of Ethiopia is a remarkable success. Since its humble beginnings in 1951 with the baptism of 10 believers, MKC has become the largest national conference in the Mennonite World Conference family, numbering 225,000 baptized members.

During a recent visit to Ethiopia, I witnessed firsthand some of the reasons behind the church’s astonishing growth: gifted leadership, dynamic worship, investment in evangelism, active youth programs, a creative prison ministry, innovative relief and development projects, an extensive curriculum for discipling new believers, and a thriving Bible college dedicated to training future leaders. Today MKC enjoys a national reputation as a teaching church, committed to discipleship and reconciliation.

But amid this remarkable vitality, almost no one in leadership seemed interested in MKC history. “It’s just not a priority for us,” one church leader told me. On the surface, I can understand why. Though this is changing, Ethiopia is still largely an oral culture: memory is woven into the stories of ordinary conversation, not something to be fixed in print. Moreover, the Orthodox Church—whose culture and rituals continue to dominate Ethiopian life—is closely associated with tradition. For an evangelical, charismatic church like MKC, what matters most is the urgency of sharing the gospel in the present moment. History suggests the dead weight of the past.

I understand the arguments, but I’m not convinced. First, as I learned to know more about the MKC, it occurred to me that a significant group of church leaders is now passing from the scene. The generation who knew the missionaries in the 1950s and 1960s assumed key positions of leadership during the era of persecution (1977-1991), then oversaw the dynamic transformation of the church during the past 20 years, are now dying. When an elderly person dies in an oral culture, it is as if an entire library has burned. Their stories need to be honored and preserved.

Second, newcomers who join the MKC need training in biblical literacy and discipleship. But they also need to know something about the character and identity of the group they are joining. Since most converts to MKC come out of Orthodox or Muslim contexts, they bring with them a deep sense of history. When they join the MKC, they need to find their anchoring in a new historical identity.

But most fundamentally, attentiveness to history is evangelical. The God we worship is known to us not only as a personal Savior but as the Lord of history. The stories of the Bible—along with the account of Pentecost and the apostles; the emergence of the Catholic Church, the Orthodox tradition, the Reformation and Anabaptism; and the witness of many other renewal movements since then, including the MKC—are all part of a grand story of God’s revelation to humanity. The MKC story matters because it bears witness to the larger drama of God’s faithfulness in history.

While browsing in a bookstore on the last day of my visit, I had a conversation with a friendly young man behind the counter. As we talked, Wondosson casually mentioned that he and his youth group at the Debub MKC in Addis had just completed a video project honoring the life of Beyene Mulatu, an elderly leader in their congregation. One of the first Ethiopians to earn a doctorate, Beyene returned from a promising career in the West to devote his entire life in service to the MKC.

Wondosson’s youth group had saved money to rent a digital camera. Then they conducted a series of intensive interviews and spent nearly a year editing the footage to create a 90-minute documentary telling Beyene’s story. When the video was first screened to the congregation last December, Wondosson said, the entire congregation was in tears.

Even now, though he had worked on the project for months and seen the movie many times, Wondosson said he could not help crying when he watched the movie and was reminded of Beyene’s faithful witness.

I thank God for young people like Wondosson who are hungry for their history.
In Joshua, we read that when the children of Israel crossed the Jordan River, God commanded them to build a stone pyre. Why? So that generations later, when the children asked about the meaning of the stones, the story of God’s faithfulness would be remembered (Joshua 4:21-24).

What stories are you telling your children? What stone pyres has your congregation erected? Could history be a source of evangelism?

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of
Mennonite Quarterly Review.

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