African Methodists worry about the church that brought them Christianity

African Methodists worry about the church that brought them ChristianityPhoto by Maile Bradfield, courtesy of UMNS

Delegates pray following the statement from Bishop Bruce R. Ough about sexuality and the church from the denomination’s Council of Bishops on May 18 at the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, OR.

by Emily McFarland Miller*

PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) — The Rev. Jerry Kulah has nothing but gratitude for American Methodists.

In 1833, they sent their first missionary to his country, Liberia, which was founded for freed American slaves. Melville B. Cox died four months after he arrived in Africa, but the missionary’s legacy lives on in the United Methodist Church’s fastest-growing region, and in his words to his own church back in North Carolina: “Let a thousand fall before Africa be given up.”

“However,” said Kulah, who is dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology in the capital, Monrovia, “the church has taken on strangely a new direction. People from the country that brought the Gospel to us are now preaching a different Gospel.”

The United Methodist Church — which on Friday (May 20) was wrapping up its quadrennial General Conference — is struggling to maintain the increasingly tenuous bonds that hold together this global denomination of more than 12 million members.

And among the forces tearing at those bonds during 11 days of meetings at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Ore., were arguments over the ordination of LGBT United Methodists and whether to allow clergy to perform same-sex marriages — which are now legal in America and accepted by a growing share of its citizens.

“It’s mind-boggling, and it baffles the Christian leader from Africa — I speak for all of Africa — it baffles the mind of the Christian leader from Africa, who ascribes to the whole Bible as his or her primary authority for faith and practice, to see and to hear that cultural Christianity can take the place of the Bible. United Methodists in America and other parts of the world are far going away from Scripture and giving in to cultural Christianity,” Kulah said.

Despite this sense of outrage, the African delegations largely maintained a calm, restrained presence amid the vocal demonstrations and arguments over procedure at the conference. But many stood up and sang during the recess in the middle of the most contentious day, as delegates considered whether to defer decisions on LGBT inclusion to a specially created commission. Their singing, asking God for help, brought a joyous moment in the middle of strife.

“I think the Americans have something to learn from us,” said Betty Katiyo, a delegate from the West Zimbabwe Conference.

She reflected the belief among many delegates from growing African conferences that their churches retain something of the spirit of Methodism’s founder John Wesley that they can share with the rest of the denomination.

The United Methodist Church in Africa has grown dramatically over the past 10 years — jumping 329 percent in the Africa Central Conference, 201 percent in Congo and 154 percent in West Africa — as membership has dipped in the United States and Europe.

Even with an 11 percent decline in membership, the U.S. branch still is the largest, boasting more than 7 million members. But Africa is not far behind with nearly 4.9 million – including the single largest delegation at the General Conference: 48 delegates from the North Katanga Conference in Congo.

And this year, after a change in the way delegates are allocated, Africa has a noticeably larger share of delegates: 260 out of 864 delegates, compared with 252 out of 956 delegates four years ago.

“This time around … you actually see the worldwide nature of the church in terms of delegates,” said Katiyo, attending her fourth General Conference.

“You could actually see there were more people from central conferences (those outside the U.S.), and also there were more people taking part even in the legislative committees. People were really taking part.”

And the Rev. Mande Muyombo, executive director of the General Board of Global Ministries’ Global Mission Connections and delegate from North Katanga, said: “It is also fair to say that Africa — in the past general conferences, African delegates were not as prepared as they’re becoming now. I think African delegates are more empowered, they’re more prepared, they’re more acquainted with Robert’s Rules of Order.”

Some warned that a move on ordaining LGBT clergy or allowing clergy to perform same-sex marriages would split the church. Issues regarding the full inclusion of the denomination’s LGBT members have surfaced at every conference since 1972 and came to a head earlier in the week when delegates accepted bishops’ recommendations to defer any decisions to a commission and possible special session of the General Conference.Still, delegates from African countries expressed concerns that their members were underrepresented in the denomination and that the legislation discussed throughout its General Conference was too focused on issues that only pertain to America.

Aside from theological disagreement, Katiyo pointed out that homosexuality is not culturally accepted and is even illegal in some African countries. If the United Methodist Church affirmed the inclusion of its LGBT members, she said, it would be banned in her country of Zimbabwe.

African churches haven’t placed the same priority on the issue as the U.S. has, Mande said, though he pointed out that Africa is a huge continent, and one African country may not think the same as another.

“I also believe that African voices are diverse and the African notion of ubuntu (‘you are because I am’) is inclusive,” Mande said.

Examples of conference legislation that was too focused on the U.S., Katiyo said, included a measure advocating health care for all in the U.S. and a proposal to allocate $20 million to a new committee on U.S. church growth. The latter was later ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council.

When it comes to growth, she said, the American church could learn from Africa, despite the different dynamics in the country.

For one thing, the delegate said, her church of 1,500 emphasizes the Wesleyan idea of “class meetings,” small groups that gather every other week in members’ homes to pray and act as family. The church is a “nucleus” of the community, she said, hosting events throughout the week, and the congregation sets the day aside for worship after Sunday school “rather than a one-and-a-half-hour thing every week.”

The church in North Katanga also offers a holistic, Wesleyan approach to evangelism, according to Muyombo: building schools, hospitals, wells and farming projects around churches and making them relevant to their context.

And the denomination’s churches are sending missionaries “from everywhere to everywhere,” said Thomas Kemper, general secretary for Global Ministries.

But, Kemper said: “We need to find a relevant way for the Western culture as they seem to find a way for African or Filipino or whatever culture. It’s not that easy.”

That’s not to say churches in Africa are without challenges, Muyombo said.

The priorities instead for African churches are on such things as planting churches, ending conflicts and eradicating poverty, he said.

And while there’s no doubt the United Methodist Church in Africa is growing, it is not growing as fast as some other denominations, Kemper said. The structure of the churches in Africa also still is dependent on financial support from U.S. churches, he said.

Kulah agreed the African church needs to work toward becoming more self-sufficient because, as the bishops appoint a commission to discuss LGBT inclusion, he said, “what I see the church going to if we cannot reach a compromise — the end result would be schism, unfortunately.’”

Earlier in the week, delegates had approved a comprehensive plan for Africa that would add five bishops after the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis, narrowly voting down a push to immediately add two bishops in Nigeria and in Zimbabwe.

“I think the word for me is ‘interdependent,’” Kemper said. “We continue to depend on each other, but we also have the ability to walk in our own shoes and our own way of being the church and not depending on financial support from one part of the church even to keep the structure.”

The General Conference is scheduled for the first time outside the U.S. in 2024 in Manila, Philippines, followed by 2028 in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Meantime, Katiyo said, “I wish either they come or they ask us to come … be missionaries to America. … I’m sure if that happens there will be change.”

*Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

Religion News Service

RNS is owned by Religion News LLC, a non-profit, limited liability corporation based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Its mission is to provide in-depth, non-sectarian coverage of religion, spirituality and ideas.

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18 Comments on "African Methodists worry about the church that brought them Christianity"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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I am so grateful for my African Brothers and Sisters. Thank you for your witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


Please don’t group all Americans in this travesty. Homosexuality is a sin and there are still a lot of Bible believing UM in America who believe that



Richard F Hicks

The UMC USA is declining at a rate of 1%/yr. All the Africans have to do is wait a few more years and they have all the power. Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC

I grew up in the UMC, and was sent while still a teen, as our church’s representative to annual conference, because I raised concern over a pro homosexuality comment in one of the UMC’s new publications. I was encouraged to see that our church was finally starting to take action to defend God’s word. But, as time went on, I decided to leave the UMC because I saw that it continued to tolerate the unrepentant members and pastors who defended this sin. The bible is pretty clear about “putting out from among yourselves” those who embrace sin, and who preach… Read more »

No… he doesn’t speak for all Africa. In my early 20’s I worked with a lesbian from Zimbabwe at a Methodist camp. There are absolutely LGBTQI Methodists in Africa. Let’s not make the mistake of not recognizing the diversity in African UMC communities.

Daniel Wagle

I have known MANY African American gay men. The very first person I ever spoke with about me being Gay was African American. There are three African American gay men who are Co workers with me now. If only these Africans realized how many gay persons live among them.


Well….. they’re African, not African-American. There are vastly different cultural contexts. There’s a lot of different cultures within Africa, but between Africa and black America? There’s a huge cultural gap.

Daniel Wagle

People don’t become gay because of culture, but because of biology. A person can be gay despite living in a homophobic culture. Many gay persons exist in Africa.

Daniel Wagle

Also, homophobia is culturally constructed, but one’s sexual orientation is not. Homosexual practice as opposed to orientation can be culturally constructed. Some cultures have homosexual practice as a puberty rite. Homosexual attractions greatly precede practice and is therefore a product of biology. All feelings and drives are biological, but practices and attitudes have more of a cultural input.

Leland C Collins

What is the biological basis of loneliness? or Pride? or Joy? How about Shame? or AGAPE LOVE? are they seated in the pituitary gland, liver or big toe?
Where does homosexual attraction begin biologically? in the intestines, appendix or lungs? the genes? There’s no evidence that is either
How can you declare that it is biological if you cannot identify which part of the anatomy it comes from?

Perry, GA

Daniel Wagle
Sexual feelings are more instinctive. Anger and fear are also instinctive. Instinctive emotions are more biological. We don’t “learn” our instincts. We are born with instincts. We actually don’t learn how to feel joy or loneliness or sadness or even grief. These are all universal and not learned. The stress response is not learned. What we do learn is how to manage our emotions and feelings and learn to express them in more socially acceptable ways. If homosexual feelings as opposed to behaviors were learned, then how could you explain people who developed homosexual feelings at a VERY early age,… Read more »
Paul W.

Daniel, you personally choose to believe this. From a Christian perspective, you could just as easily choose to see it as temptation. We all deal with various temptations, but whether or not we give in to temptation is a personal choice. How we respond to temptation both in our thought life and in our actions determines whether we cross the line into sin. Without Christ, we are slaves to sin; with Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have power to flee temptation and overcome sin.

There is strong evidence against homosexuality being an inherited characteristic like skin color. This is the very high rates of homosexual men who report that their first sexual experience was with an adult, while they were still minors. This sex act may have been proceeded by a long period of “grooming” to get the victim ready. It seems that once sexual preferences are set, it is very difficult to change. This would not just be homosexuality, but pedophilia, and other kinds of fornication. To speculate, perhaps this is because God designed our bodies to bond with our spouse in a… Read more »
Daniel Wagle

I never had any sex whatsoever with anyone as a child. Yet I experienced same sex attractions from an early age. Years of counseling did not change these desires at all, while the counseling did help in many other ways.

Daniel Wagle

Lastly, we therefore can’t say the anti homosexual views of Africans is because of their race, but it is rather because of their culture. Blacks in America are far more accepting. Homosexual feelings are Trans cultural and inborn, whereas homosexual practice can happen sometimes because of culture, such as in prisons.


How dare Betty Katiyo speak? Does she not read the Bible she says she follows so closely? The Lord forbid she speak in church!

What? Oh.. we got by that? but.. but .. Paul says that.. oh. Since it’s culturally insensitive to say that women shouldn’t speak.. it’s fine now? Oh, cool.

I wonder if there is anything else that Paul said that is now culturally insensitive that we should take a look at..


Romans 16:3-5. (Women)

Wondering if our culture then wants to revisit 1 Corinthians 5 …and allow what was going on there as well? (After all Jesus never said anything about this issue….right ? Or did he in Mathew 19?

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