Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Renegade Methodists!

My first priority in touring the Southwest Province was to visit the pastors and congregations of our nine churches that are located there. And I managed to accomplish that goal.

However, what surprised me the most was the discovery of already-existing small prayer groups that are gathering and worshipping together under the name of “United Methodist Church.” These cell groups are not officially identified (or authorized!) as United Methodist congregations. But they claim the name anyway.

Let me tell the stories of four of these groups. First, Pastor Michael Elango of Kumba UMC accompanied me to the village of Banga Bakandu early on Monday, January 10th. We stopped first at the home of the chief, to get permission to visit the village. He was a tall, stately man who told me he’d just returned from a visit to Washington, D.C.!

Then we drove to a small neighborhood, and entered a small, ramshackle wood building where eight young men were singing a hymn. After prayers and a little more singing, I was introduced. I spoke for a minute, then asked each man to introduce himself and tell the story of how they had become Christians. A few of them were Nigerians, from just across the border, where they had been active in the Methodist Church. Pastor Billong and I gave them copies of our small Methodist hymnal and my booklet, “The Methodist Christian.”

After only a short time, we headed down the road to Penda Mboko, a village located next to a huge rubber tree plantation. En route, we picked up Mr. Ntui, a layperson from the Buea UMC congregation, who makes occasional visits to exhort and build up the cell group there. In Penda Mboko, the group is large enough to rent a worship space on Sunday mornings. But on this day, an even larger crowd had gathered to see the “white missionary,” so we all met underneath a big tree. Again, there were prayers and songs, and I spoke to the gathered crowd. This time, they had questions. One asked me if we were Pentecostal; another wanted to know how the village could be sure that we weren’t there to steal their money and children!

The pastor is a man who had formerly been a Jehovah’s Witness leader, who had been converted by one of our pastors. Unfortunately, he still uses a Jehovah’s Witness Bible; it’s the only copy he has! I promised to bring him a new one the next time I visited.

As we drove away, I realized that I must wrestle with a very real and incredibly important theological and practical problem – what is a local church? What does a local church need to thrive, succeed, survive? When does such a church become a United Methodist Church? And what do I do about these renegade Methodists?!

These groups obviously are hoping that they will be recognized as “authentic” Methodist churches, but that will require a certain level of financial commitment by the Mission. A commitment that the Mission can’t afford … yet.

The very next day, while holding a service with Sumbe UMC, I met a young man who had walked at least ten kilometers to meet me. He lived in nearby Tinto, and led a prayer group of about fifteen people. He had been mentored by one of our pastors, and was interested in learning more about the United Methodist Church. All he asked for was literature, resources, Bibles. I could sense that he had talent and desire – perhaps even what we Methodists like to call the “gifts and graces” to be a good pastor.

Finally, on Saturday, January 15th, I visited a small group in Bonakanda village. They also have a leader, a pastor who had formerly been in the Church of Christ. This group of 25 people meets on Sunday mornings in a wooden building that they have rented themselves.

In every one of these four places, I encountered genuine fellowship and warmth, plus some incredibly devoted and faithful “pastors.” These are, in every sense of the word, “churches.” They are fellowships of Christian believers who gather weekly for worship, prayer, and ministry of the Word. (The only element absent from these groups is the celebration of the Sacraments!) And, through the influence of other pastors and family members, they have taken the name “Methodist” for themselves.

Like Peter, I want to say, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? Can anyone keep these people from being called ‘Methodist’ just as we are?” (Acts 10:47)

I trust that, in the near future, I will be able to pull these communities into the United Methodist family in an official capacity. But there's a lot of work to be done in the meantime. For one, I must continue to define what it means to be “United Methodist” to these groups. As well, the pastors must be trained, encouraged, and supported.

Some of my pastors tell me that they have been working hard to create prayer groups in their surrounding villages, and that there are many more that I have not yet seen. I guess this could be a problem, but I choose to see it as an incredibly rich opportunity to take the gospel of Jesus Christ into new places.