Thursday, October 21, 2004

Encounter with a Frenchman

It’s been a week since I last posted to the blog. I apologize to those of you who check regularly. Let me catch you up to speed with some of the things that have been happening ….

Tomorrow is our last day of language school. It culminates in a “final” exam.
The good news is that we’re going to continue with studies – at a slower pace – at the Centre Pilote Bilingual School for several more months.

We also welcome the arrival of Dr. Ellis Larsen to Yaounde tomorrow. Dr. Larsen works for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and is visiting us to talk about the future of ordained ministry in the country.

Over the last week, I have been spending a lot of time in deep thought about the future of the Cameroon Mission. It all started with a conversation I had with a Frenchman who lives in Yaounde with his wife who works for GTZ, a German NGO which specializes in development issues. When he heard that I was a missionary for the newly-established United Methodist Church in Cameroon, he asked me quite bluntly, “Why does Cameroon need more churches?”

I stammered a bit and said, “Well, there are villages here in Cameroon that don’t have any churches …”

He said, “Then why do they need to be Methodist churches? What do you have to offer that is different from any other church?”

At that moment, I froze. Indeed, why are we here? What in the world do we propose to offer to Cameroon that is different than what Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Pentecostals already offer, and are already doing? It’s true that there are lots of missionaries already here – Wycliffe Bible Translators have over 200 missionaries in Cameroon!

Of course, my friend spoke from a secular, almost anti-church, point of view. He pointed out to me that Western Christian missions had not always provided positive experiences to the peoples of Third World countries. So he wanted to know … exactly what did I think we were going to do in Cameroon that wasn’t already being done?

I didn’t have very good answers. I muttered something about making disciples, something about the Methodist emphasis on grace and good works, and even suggested that we were ecumenical, but it all sounded pretty weak. He wasn’t impressed. Finally, I admitted to him that I simply didn’t know the answers to his questions yet. I haven’t been in-country long enough.

Ever since then, I have been in a sort of existential crisis. Why are we Methodists here? What is supposed to be happening? Does Cameroon need another church?

I am not so narrow-minded that I think Methodists have any sort of monopoly on social or spiritual righteousness. Neither do I think that there is any point in putting lots of effort and spending lots of money in order to solely establish a new name-brand church in an African country which already is largely Christian.

There must be something different, a unique mark, a characteristic of the Methodist church that sets it apart from everything else.

This concern was at the heart of my first African sermon (see previous blog below). I believe that the heart and soul of the Methodist movement is not theological – it’s practical. I think that what will make Cameroonian Methodism different will be our emphasis on holy living, on discipleship.

In the end, it won’t be our distinctive theology, our impressive curriculum, our fancy creeds that will impact Cameroon. It will instead be the integrity, the depth and the quality of our Christian character. Do we love? Do we do good works? Do we pray?

In a society that is riddled – from top to bottom -- with corruption, a church that stands upright and remains trustworthy, will indeed have a strong, bold witness.

As I ponder these questions, I have been drawn to a couple of short books in the New Testament, known as the Pastoral Epistles. It just so happens that they have been the suggested lectionary readings for the last two months. They also happen to be extremely relevant to the Cameroon Mission Initiative.

In I and II Timothy and Titus, Paul (or whoever actually wrote the letters) addresses a very small, struggling, and growing new mission initiative. Through his words to the young pastor, Timothy, Paul gives us a glimpse of the common problems and pitfalls of any community of faith. He also gives some uncanny wisdom and strong advice to any pastors in the same situation.

So I am beginning to do exactly what Timothy must have done – I am pouring over the letters for any scrap of advice I can get for my new context. I have begun my own study of the Pastoral Epistles. I’m going to pass along what I learn on this blog, so that you can keep up with my on-the-job training!