Saturday, May 14, 2005

Where There's a Will, There's a Method

This last week I took a trip to the Southwest Province, visiting our Anglophone churches for the second time. The first time, in January, the trip was in the midst of the dry season. A fine red dust covered everything.

This time, the little rainy season is upon us. And, indeed, we encountered just a little rain. Just enough, in fact, to make the dirt roads sturdy and drivable.

The last time I visited, I was meeting churches and pastors for the first time. This was more enjoyable, because I am beginning to get to know people. I recognize faces and remember stories.

The purpose of my trip was twofold: first, I wanted to worship with and serve Communion to as many United Methodists as possible. I also took the occasion to preach my Communion sermon, “The Lord’s Party,” every chance I got.

But second, I gathered all pastors, lay leaders, and prayer group leaders for Mission Meetings in every possible place, in which I outlined the plan by which churches are to grow from fledgling cell group … to United Methodist Church … to self-supporting congregation.

Let me explain: from the beginning, this Mission has been growing from village to village, thanks mostly to evangelizing and enterprising pastors, who start prayer groups everywhere they can get a foothold. Many of these groups became official churches quickly, meaning the pastor began receiving a monthly stipend and the Mission Office began paying worship space rents. Unfortunately the last missionary had to put a freeze on starting churches because of a lack of funds.

This hasn’t stopped our pastors from their evangelistic efforts – there are still lots of prayer groups meeting in the bush. But I know that I need to start moving again soon, so that these groups receive some kind of support.

We have another problem … as Conferences and churches in America become interested in the Cameroon Mission, they are going to begin sending money and work teams to the country. One of the things Volunteers in Mission are especially interested in is the construction of church buildings. One day soon, I will be faced with the problem of deciding where to build the first United Methodist Church.

The decision will be fraught with political peril. If we build it in the French-speaking part of Cameroon, all the Anglophones will cry, “Foul!” And if we build it in the English-speaking area, all the Francophones will cry, “Irregulier!” Or something like that.

Factor in the various personalities, the financial implications, the prestige associated with our own building, and you can see that my decision could open a Pandora’s Box.

So over the last few months, I have been working on a kind of scheme by which cell groups might become churches … and churches might work their way toward a building. I came up with a working draft that I have now presented to all our pastors and lay leaders.

I make it clear that the goal of the Mission is to build a United Methodist Church in Cameroon, to be run by Spirit-inspired Cameroonians. This is no colonial enterprise; God is at work in the lives of Methodist Cameroonians. One day, the UMC in Cameroon will be self-sufficient, self-supporting, with its own bishop(s), districts and ordination process. And one day, the General Board of Global Ministries can withdraw its missionaries. In fact, Cameroon could one day send missionaries out into the world!

But to get there, the church will have to learn how to listen to God herself, make her own decisions, and discern her strategy for ministry in this country.

The scheme I have outlined helps the church move in that direction. In a nutshell, this is how the process works: A Prayer Cell Group can begin meeting, and after a certain number of people have completed “The United Methodist Christian” Bible study, can become a Mission Congregation. After a length of time, when the group has begun a Sunday School and has completed the next Bible study, they may be designated a Pastoral Charge. At this time, the Mission appoints a pastor (and begins paying a stipend to him/her). The Pastoral Charge meets for a length of time, begins taking in members, must begin a social ministry to the people of the community, and completes the third Bible study. When these requirements have been met, the Mission Office may officially declare that this is a United Methodist Church. At this point, the church is named, the pastor begins receiving full support, and a Church Council is formed.

Once a church has been formed, they must begin moving toward self-supporting status. This is accomplished by doing two things: one, setting aside a tithe of its Sunday morning offerings to send to the Mission Office in support of new ministries (like an apportionment in American UMC’s); and two, beginning to help the Mission pay for the pastor’s monthly support. As a church begins to do these two things, it starts to move toward self-sufficiency. And these churches may be rewarded by receiving the first groups of construction worker teams!

Thus far, the reaction from churches and pastors has been very enthusiastic. It outlines a very clear process to follow, with goals and procedures. It’s a “method” in the best Wesleyan sense!

Already, we have several groups working through their first Bible study booklets, energized by being a part of something organized and serious. Their zeal is contagious … and I’m hoping that about a year from now, there will be some great news from Cameroon!