Wisdom from Africa

By Bishop Michael J. Coyner, Special Contributor…

Bishop Michael Coyner

Bishop Michael J. Coyner
Indiana Area of the UMC

We often note that our United Methodist Church is not growing in many places in the United States, but our United Methodist Church is growing in many parts of Africa.  This discrepancy leads to much self-recrimination among our American congregations and leaders.  Others offer various theories about why we are growing in Africa but not in America. Of course many American leaders conjure a plethora of defensive explanations of how the African situation does not translate to our American situation.

Perhaps we need to listen to and learn from the “wisdom from Africa.”

I am thinking about a conversation I had a few years ago with one of our Bishops in Africa who is a good friend. In a deep conversation over coffee, I asked him what advice he had for me and for the American church so that we could be a growing, joyful, and alive church — to be more like the African church. Here was his advice:

  • Prayer — he said “The American church is not a praying church. You say lots of prayers, but you don’t pray deeply and listen to God. If you really want your church to be more alive, you need to pray for your church, your pastors, and your leaders.”
  • Love — he said, “You Americans love one another in your churches, but you don’t extend love beyond your close group of friends in the church. In Africa, we love people into the church, we don’t just love other church people.”
  • Indigenous Worship — he said, “In Africa the church only began to grow dramatically after we were freed from the colonial style of worship from France, Portugal, and Britain. We brought our drums into worship and we learned to sing the Gospel in the languages of the people.” He went on to advise, “Your pastors need to learn the culture of those outside your old churches and bring worship to them in words, music, and style that they understand.”

As I reflect upon that conversation, I hear a great deal of wisdom from Africa, but I also see a great deal of hope in the emerging situation in our American version of The United Methodist Church.  I see many of our congregations developing prayer ministries that are moving beyond their Sunday morning “joys and concerns” which too often have been what I have called “an organ recital” of focusing upon Aunt Helen’s heart condition or Uncle Earl’s liver problems.  I see more and more congregations praying deeply, having prayer-focused weekends, praying with their pastors prior to leading worship services, and using e-mail and social media to share prayer requests 24/7.  We may not yet be the kind of praying church that my African friend was describing, but I am hopeful that we are moving that direction.  I recently met with the lay leadership of a congregation who shared with me about their numerical growth and their new building.  Naturally I asked, “How did this happen?”  Their response was a joyful surprise, “We became a praying church, and then we became a growing church.”  Congregations like that one give me hope that we are learning from the wisdom of Africa.

Likewise I see more and more of our American congregations who are learning how to love beyond their walls and their private circle of fellowship in the church.  Here in Indiana we have more and more congregations who are offering communitiy meals, free medical clinics, and actively engaging those outside ther church with ministries of love and compassion.  More than that, I see how those congregations are being changed on the inside by engaging in ministry outside.  Last year I visited a “First Church” congregation which had always had a reputation of being rather staid and aloof from its community.  I experienced a new worship service, filled with persons from diverse economic situations, and when I inquired how that congregation had developed such a service I was told, “These are our new friends who come on Sunday night to our community meal.”  Rather than simply feeding “those people” as a ministry of compassion, that church has become a place of loving engagement with others.  Congregations like that give me hope that we are learning from the wisdom of Africa.

And in spite of our so-called “worship wars” arguing about the nature of traditional and contemporary worship, I see many of our congregations offering what my African friend called indigenous worship services to reach new population groups.  Some of those are new language services for new immigrant groups, others are learning to speak the language of a new generation.  One lay leader told me about the new worship service his new pastor had led them to offer.  When I inquired what he thought about that new service which is complete with video screens, a band, and a “coffee shop” type of setting, he replied:  “I hate it. It is too loud and too strange. But my grandchildren love it. So my wife and I go to our early traditional service, then we go home and stuff cotton in our ears and pick up our grandkids and sit with them in the new service. Because I want them to know Jesus too.” That lay leader truly gets it — he understands that we need to offer indigenous worship to reach a new generation. He is not living by his preference, he is living by the purpose of the church. When I hear from people like him, I see a lot of hope that we are learning from the wisdom of Africa.

Now, I know we can quickly say to our African friends that the US is not Africa. We can keep on doing church the way we know how to do church and hope to get different results. Or … we can listen to the wisdom of Africa.


Bishop Michael J. Coyner leads the Indiana Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church.


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