Saturday, February 10, 2007

Church Conflict, Cameroon-Style

This blog entry is for all of you who think that working with the emerging church in the developing world is a romantic idea.

I was one of those people before hitting the mission field. I had pictures of a primitive, Spirit-led church that looked a lot like the first three or four chapters of Acts. I imagined that people met for worship under trees, and loved God and each other for the right reasons. I envisioned a place of revival and heart-felt worship. All the books said that the church in Africa was booming, and I envisaged the Pentecost scene being acted out over and over again.

That is not exactly the reality on the ground, however. The truth is that people are the same everywhere, and the same conflicts, concerns, and preoccupations that I found in suburban churches in North Texas are acted out in tiny village churches in Southwest Cameroon.

I had a colleague once contact me by email, who said that he was envious that I was working in a context where Christians weren’t concerned about church buildings and the trappings of worldly success.

But don’t be fooled – the Christians of Cameroon are very concerned about church buildings, and downright upset that we don’t have any yet!

At the Pastors’ Retreat last week, some of these issues surfaced. Here’s just a sampling of some of the issues that the United Methodist Churches of Cameroon face:

  • Pastoral workers complain that they don’t get paid enough
  • Conflict between Church Council Chairpersons, who think they rule the church, and pastors
  • Conflict between pastors, who think they rule the church, and laypeople
  • Treasurers who abscond with church offerings
  • Jealousy among pastors, some of whom are considered “probationary pastors” and others who are called “lay evangelists”
  • Theological conflicts between liberals and conservatives

See, it’s not all that different than what is being played out right now in dozens of conferences in the US. The miracle is that, despite all of these problems and conflicts, the church does continue to grow, that the gospel does continue to be preached, and that somehow a true witness for Christ is being born in some desolate places.

In our missionary training before we left America, one presenter from GBGM made a speech in which he argued that “Mission is messy.” He led us through the rest of Acts (after chapters 1-5!), which give a picture of a Christian movement that was truly messy; at times, chaotic, unpredictable, and unplanned, and at other times, full of conflict between the key Christian leaders. He let us know that, as we went on the mission field, we should expect that the work would be similarly difficult.

I’ll never forget his words, because it struck me as fairly disturbing; I didn’t really want to hear what he had to say, but his warning served prophetic.

Mission is messy. Any sort of work on behalf of God’s people, the church, is complicated.

But it was also Paul, the missionary par excellence, who put the best face on this messy work: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”