Mennonite Mission Theorists and Practitioners in Southeastern Nigeria: Changing Contexts and Strategy at the Dawn of the Postcolonial Era

In November of 1959 Edwin and Irene Weaver arrived in southeastern Nigeria, the first Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM, the predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network) missionaries assigned to the region. Their arrival was in response to a request for assistance and an invitation to establish a missionary presence from a group of “independent” congregations that desired to take on a Mennonite identity. In fact, when the Weavers arrived Mennonite Church Nigeria had already been established and congregations were in the process of affiliating with it. But the Weavers took action that seems, in many ways, strange for missionaries to take. They stopped the process of adding congregations to the new Mennonite church and, over the next eight years, focused much of their time and energy on resourcing African Independent Churches, those that had decided against affiliating with western denominations. In the following decades MBM as a mission agency also shifted much of its focus in West Africa in the same direction.

Why would missionaries or a mission agency make such a decision? In order to start answering that question, I’ve written an article that identifies missiological issues such as mass movements, the indigenous nature of the church, and ecumenism as being important considerations for the Weavers and others as they fashioned their missionary strategies. The article has now been published in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (IBMR)It’s likely more than should be include in a blog post, but if you’re inclined to read it, I’m providing links for you to do so.

There are two ways to access the article. You can go to the IBMR website and see it in the July 2013 issue. You will need to sign in, but registration is free. Or, to open a pdf file of the article directly, you can click here Mennonite Mission Theorists and Practitioners in Southeastern Nigeria, used by permission of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. R. Bruce Yoder, “Mennonite Mission Theorists and Practitioners in Southeastern Nigeria: Changing Contexts and Strategy at the Dawn of the Postcolonial Era, ” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 37, no. 3 (2013): 138-144.

Partnership

Partnership is the current paradigm for our mission involvement in West Africa. That means that whether it is community health, theological training, or any number of other ministry initiatives, we collaborate with partners who are working in those areas instead of working unilaterally. The vision of what should happen and how is shared between the different partners who work together to implement that vision. In a very practical sense partnership makes for more efficient ministry. Partners with a long history in a specific context are inevitably better equipped to carry out objectives than those of us who are foreigners. Working together also builds relationships, an important benefit of the partnership paradigm.

North American congregations are also participating in this way of doing missions. For the last number of years Waterford Mennonite Church in Goshen, In. has been developing a partnership with the Benin Bible Institute. They share topics of prayer and praise with each other, host each other in yearly visits back and forth, learn from each other’s different cultural and religious perspectives and occasionally share resources in the form of teaching personnel or funding.

St. Jacobs Mennonite Church in St. Jacobs, ON is also partnering with the Benin Bible Institute. In 2003 they sent a group to train Beninese church leaders in the skills necessary to implement what in the North American church tradition is Vacation Bible School. Many of the Christians in Benin are first generation believers and perhaps haven’t yet thought through what it means to cultivate belief in those generations that follow. So a group of church leaders who are responsible for, or who work with, children’s ministry spent a week at the Bible Institute leaning the hows and whys behind Vacation Bible School. It is of course impossible, and would be ill advised, for them to simply copy North American models for their context here in Benin. Yet they were exposed to methods and educational philosophy that impact positively their continuing work with Beninese youngsters in their respective churches. In addition, the involvement by St. Jacobs Mennonite has developed into an ongoing partnership that is building relationships between the congregation and the Bible Institute through reciprocal visits and exchanges.

This past week representatives from University Mennonite Church in State College, Pa. and Maple Grove Mennonite Church in Belleville, Pa. made the first steps toward partnership with Good News Theological College and Seminary and the Ghana Mennonite Church. A group representing both congregations spent 10 days in Ghana at Good News getting to know the staff, the students and the ministry that happens there. They developed new relationships by accepting and offering hospitality in a new place among a new people. And they started to ask, “What does it mean to be the church together, we from the heartland of Pennsylvania and our Ghanaian brothers and sisters from the coastal plains of West Africa?” That, it seems to me, will be a fruitful question to keep asking, not only among ourselves but also with our African partners.

How might God be calling you and/or your congregation toward partnership? Let us hear from you about how partnering with brothers and sisters in West Africa might fit into your faith journey!

David Miller from Univeristy Mennonite presents a peace flag to the Ghana Mennonite Church

David Miller from University Mennonite presents a peace flag to the Ghana Mennonite Church.

Nancy Kauffman from Maple Grove Mennonite sharing resources for children with Ghana Mennonite Church leaders.

Nancy Kauffman from Maple Grove Mennonite sharing resources for children with Ghana Mennonite Church leaders.

BBI/Good News Exchange Visit

The visit of Thomas Oduro, principal of Good News Theological College and Seminary, to the Benin Bible Institute these past few days was a positive experience for both parties. Both BBI and Good News see themselves as the continuation of the work of Mennonite Missionaries Edwin Thomas Oduro addressing BBI studentsand Irene Weaver who started working with African Initiated Churches (AICs) in West Africa almost 50 years ago. Today they are looking for creative ways to continue that ministry of leadership training with AICs.

Dr. Oduro addressing the BBI students.

The conversation these past few days highlighted a number of challenges that both institutions have in common:

  • Few students are able to take the time to study full-time and many don’t have the resources to do so.
  • The AICs that the schools serve have limited financial resources and often can’t fully support the students they send, let alone give significant support to the schools themselves.
  • The senior leadership of some AICs don’t value theological training and hence don’t encourage their developing leaders to seek training.

Despite the challenges that were expressed, the conversation was upbeat and led to a number of ideas about ways the two schools might cooperate. :Dr. Oduro and IBB Administrator Bonaventure Akowanou

  • The possibility that BBI teachers could contribute articles in the journal that Good News publishes.
  • Good News teachers could spend time at BBI to increase their French language capacity and vice versa BBI teachers could work on their English at Good News.
  • There can be ongoing conversation about how to reduce financial dependence on overseas supporters.

Thomas returned a day early to Ghana because of an unexpected announcement that the accreditation committee of the Ghanaian Ministry of Education would be visiting Good News today, 16 January 2008. Good News is in the process of becoming accredited to offer a Bachelor of Theology degree. It’s a long and complicated process. Pray that all the hurdles will be overcome and that by next fall they will be able to offer the BTh degree.