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.

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Youth Convention

Yesterday I left Abuja, Nigeria after having attended the Mennonite Church Nigeria Youth Convention over the weekend.  The convention was 4 days long, starting on Thursday morning and ending on Sunday evening, but I was there just for Saturday and Sunday.  There were seminars, worship services and opportunities to tour Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city.  For nearly everyone who made the trip from Akwa Ibom State, some 13 hours away by bus, this visit to the capital was a first.  There were around 50 participants, fewer than what they normally draw at these gatherings, because of the prohibitive cost of traveling the whole way to Abuja.  The Abuja site was chosen to give a boost to the new church plant there.  It was successful as there was quite a bit of interest from the community due to the convention activities.

They asked me to lead a session on “Living a Worry Free Life.”  So Saturday morning I led the group through a study of Matt 6:24-34 and focused on the importance of faith, righteousness and the example of Abraham as a person of faith and righteousness.   In the afternoon there was a working session where participants worked at putting together a list of recommendations that they will send to the Mennonite Church Nigeria Executive Council.  Just a few of the many suggestions they came up with where:

  • The church should explore new methods of evangelism that focus more on urban centers.
  • Ministers should be assigned across different regions of the church instead of spending their whole ministry career in the same region, as is currently often the case.
  • Children’s ministries and development of Sunday School materials should be given more priority since the children are the future of the church.  Currently there is no church-wide effort to work at those issues.
  • There should be more opportunities for young people to assume leadership responsibilities in the church.

The weekend was a time of intense worship, lots of fellowship and little sleep for most of those who attended.  Here is a short video clip of the worship leader leading the group in prayer on Sunday morning as well as a couple of photos of the worship time.

Worship at the Convention

Worship at the Convention

Peter will be the Nigera youth delegate to the 2009 MWC meetings

Peter will be the Nigeria youth delegate to the 2009 MWC meetings

School, BBI and Getting Back on the Road

The first couple weeks of September have gotten us into the regular routine of the fall schedule.  Deborah is in her second week of CE1 (2nd grade more or less I think in North America) at the local French school and Jeremiah’s first day of year four at the English International School was today.  Deborah was a bit nervous about which teacher she would have but is quite pleased now with how things turned out.  She is liking school and glad to be back.  Jeremiah was pleased this morning to find out that his teacher is the same one he had last year, so he seems to be off to a good start too.

Nancy is busy again as classes are back in session at BBI with the seminar that started this past weekend and which continues until Thursday.  Pastor Codjo is teaching that one, Biblical Theology.  Pastor François spent the weekend in Parakou teaching Church and Culture to the new group of students there.  Other activities include the evaluation of the full-time students’ mini thesis projects which needs to be done before the upcoming fall graduation and the preparations for the new “module” format for the full-time program.  That is to start in mid October, and we hope the six-week intensive courses will be more manageable than the other semester-long format for the students.  Many couldn’t participate because of time constraints but have said that shorter, more intensive courses would be easier to commit to.  So we are hoping that this will be a positive change.

Fall means the start of my travel schedule again.  Friday I leave for Abuja, Nigeria where the Mennonite Church NIgeria will have a youth convention (“youth” in that context includes those whom we in North America would label “young adults”).  They haven’t had one for a few years and are hoping for a good turnout.  The last time the youth got together for a convention they planted a church, so I’m kind of wondering what might come out of this gathering.  After the weekend in Abuja I’ll head to Accra, Ghana for the annual conference of the Ghana Mennonite Church.  So there will be a lot of travel during the next 12 days.

Pray for a good start to the school year for Deborah and Jeremiah, for lots of student interest in the new full-time program format at BBI and for safe travels for me as well as for successful gatherings in Abuja and Accra.

Apostolic and Pentecostal

Between traveling and power outages that we are experiencing the new content here has been quite low. But today I’m at a cyber cafe so will share some reflections from a recent seminar with Mennonite Church Nigeria (MCN).

Most of the teaching that I have done with MCN has been part of a program that they call the Mennonite Bible College, an ongoing series of classes that meet a few times a week during the evening hours. However, because of the wide geographical area covered by the church, many congregations are too far from the Bible College site for their leaders to participate regularly in the classes. To remedy that situation the College has started to organize “Ministers’ Refresher” seminars. These are held over a three day period and classes go all day long. Many who can’t attend evening classes because of distance can manage to come and stay overnight for these intensive training opportunities.

While one of the advantages is that more people can attend, another plus is that it gives leaders from all over the church a chance to get together to discuss issues and exchange ideas about ministry. This past Ministers’ Refresher was attended by 60 pastors, evangelists, preachers, deacons, and other church leaders. One of the topics that was discussed in a plenary session was whether or not to join one of the federations of denominations that exist in Nigeria. One is called the “Christian Association of Nigeria,” (CAN) another is the “Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria,” (PFN) and there are others.

A number of the congregations and/or dioceses of the MCN have joined such groups and others are considering joining. The question that was raised was which group to join. A number of opinions and supporting reasons were shared, but participants finally arrived at a general consensus. It is best to join the PFN, but membership in other groups is also ok. Why? Because, they argued, MCN is “Apostolic and Pentecostal,” which means for them that MCN is modeled on the New Testament church. The things that happened in the church as told in the Acts of the Apostles should be part of what happens in the church today; healing, miracles, visions, and spiritual experiences of God’s presence. The presence of all that in the church shows that it is biblically faithful. Its absence suggests that things are not as they should be.

That corresponds with what Andrew Walls, an expert on the history of the church in Africa, writes about in an article that I recently read. He wrote about the challenge of understanding the witness of the early church and the documents that we have recovered from that period. His point was that the African and Asian churches can be an important resource for the rest of the Body of Christ because they are similar in many ways to the church of the first centuries.  He wrote,

“But we now have better resources for understanding the patchwork of fragments of Christian literature that survive from before the age of the great councils by examining the recent histories of the churches in Africa and Asia than the Bodleian or the Vatican libraries can yield.”

Hence understanding the African church can be a step towards better comprehending the New Testament witness. And furthermore, the African church likely understands better than we in the West the issues and context of the New Testament writers. In that sense they can help us towards a fuller appreciation of the biblical story. Certainly we have much to learn from our Apostolic and Pentecostal brothers and sisters!

Bishop Nsasak given an inspiring exhortation.

Bishop Nsasak giving an inspiring exhortation.

Lunchtime!

Lunchtime!

Participants

Participants

Following the seminar outline

Following the seminar outline

Perceptions About Nigeria

A recent article about Nigeria reminded me once again of how our perceptions about the world “out there” are formed. Here in Benin when I tell people that I am preparing to travel to Nigeria they often express surprise that I would do such a thing. At one time banditry and general lawlessness made travel there inadvisable. While there may still be some of that, things have changed and I feel like I can travel freely there as long as I don’t get too far off the beaten path. But the perception that it is a dangerous place to visit is still prevalent here and around the world. Note for example the advice from the US State Department and the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada.

Looking over the headlines from international news sources one might be inclined to understand the pessimism. Some of today’s headlines were Six Killed in Tribal Mayhem, Fuel Scarcity Worsens (this in a country that is the eleventh largest producer of crude oil in the world), Tackling Nigeria’s Violent Oil Swamps (where armed gangs seeming abduct people for ransom at will), and Abducted Oil Workers Released. Yet when I travel to Nigeria I find that there is a significant amount of good news, not the least of which is embodied by Nigerian Christians as they strive to provide a sane, hospitable, incarnational presence in the midst of insecurity. A while back I wrote a Prayer Letter about this very thing which you can see here.

Another thing one hears about is the problem of religious violence in Nigeria. Unfortunately there have been instances of Christian/Muslim violence that have included killings and destruction of property. Yet even in the midst of the violence there are those who are being witnesses of the Prince of Peace. Mennonite Central Committee is working in Jos, Plateau State, to decrease religious related violence. See their article Peacemakers help to save a Nigerian city from violence. A recent piece in The Atlantic Monthly gives a feel for the complexities of Christian/Muslim dynamic in Nigeria, God’s Country. The article highlights the work of two peacemakers, Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, who were recently keynote speakers at the Inter-Collegiate Peace Fellowship Conference at Conrad Grebel University College. Their ongoing work is an inspiration to us all.

Thank God for those working for peace in Nigeria and pray for the Mennonite Church Nigeria and all Nigerian Christians as they strive to incarnate God’s love in sometimes difficult situations.

Easter

Easter Service

The English Fellowship group we are a part of had it’s annual Easter service at the beach again this year. English Fellowship is a group of expats who get together Sunday afternoons for a time of singing, worship, Sunday school and fellowship in English. In our time in Benin it has become our church family in many ways. Those who attend are missionaries, embassy folk and other English speaking expats who live in Cotonou. We meet in someone’s home and are usually around 30 to 40 in number. It is the one place here in Benin where Jeremiah and Deborah can experience in English something close to what one would call Sunday school in North America. As has become our custom we met on Sunday for a morning Easter service at the beach. Nancy led us in worship and in acting out the Passion Week story. See some of the photos (in addition to some from the afternoon kayaking adventure) by clicking here . Many of the families who attend the Fellowship are leaving Benin this summer, so pray that others will be added to the group and that we continue to find ways for Jeremiah and Deborah to have that kind of “Sunday school” experience.

After the morning service we spent some time at a lagoon where Jeremiah and Deborah had a chance to try their hand at kayaking. The lagoon is only a few feet deep so it’s a good place to learn. It took a while but has you can see from the videos below Jeremiah finally got the hang of it.

Nigeria

On Good Friday I returned from a short visit to the Mennonite Church in Akwa Ibom, Nigeria. I did some teaching and spent some time on administrative tasks. Here are some of the photos from the trip, one from a class session and most of the others of church members preparing cassava for processing. They make it into a kind of paste which is eaten with stew. It’s quite tasty but sits heavy in the stomach.

Mutual Aid Nigerian Style

“Development Sundays” are the way that Mennonite Church Nigeria (MCN) congregations help each other raise funds for the development of the church. Due to the difficult economic situation churches often find it hard to cover their ongoing expenses, let alone find resources for further development. One of the ways that MCN works at that dilemma is the idea of Development Sundays. Every few months a Sunday is set aside for all the churches in a particular diocese to attend the service of the one of the congregations. Each comes with an agreed upon donation to contribute to the hosting church. Individuals are encouraged to participate out of their own pocket too. In this way there is a kind of mutual aid practiced among the different congregations of the church.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Itam Diocese Development Sunday. The service was like any other Sunday service except that the church was packed due to the attendance of members from the other 7 congregations in the diocese. And of course instead of ending after the sermon things continued for a couple more hours. Each visiting congregation was given the opportunity to dance their donation (set at 5,000 Nira, about $42) up to the front of the church were it was received and counted. All together they contributed 45,000 Nira or about $294. But that wasn’t the total amount collected.

The Offering PrayerOffering Prayer

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As each congregation was called to the front their members would dance their way forward but not alone. Everyone else would come forward with them. In that way anyone from any of the congregations could contribute and increase the total amount that that particular congregations was donating. So everyone danced to the front and around the offering basket at least 7 times. The total amount that was given reached 66,000 Nira, about $555. It was a festive time of dance and music with each of the diocese choirs having ample time to show their stuff.

This seems to me like a very creative way to raise what is quite an amount of capital in that context. By working together they gather enough together to do something significant. If they had to rely on week to week donations from members, ongoing expenses would eat up the offerings as they come in. This time the hosting congregation was planning to use the funds to make some progress on an improvement to their church building. Mutual aid à la Nigerian!

Counting the offerings

Development Offering

Dancing the offerings up to the front of the church