There is probably the perfect person to write this blog. A Ph.D in Wesleyan studies with a resume a mile long that includes teaching practical Wesleyan theology all over the world. That person probably exists, but I am not them. I am a missionary, with no seminary training, trying to make things work in a place with no church buildings (though we are working on it), no pastors with even high school education (though we are working on that to), and relying fully on our intelligence, the training and instruction available to us, what Bible study we have been able to do on our own, and oddly enough ;) the Holy Spirit. This is my disclaimer that this is not an expertly written blog on Methodist, but the observations of a person working with fledgling local churches, having read a copy of Wesley and the People Called Methodists.
As we continue to visit with churches, move past mere introductions and really start getting into the life of the various churches we work with we have started to get a picture of how the people we know worship with and work with entered the United Methodist Church for the first time. You have to understand that the first United Methodist Church wasn’t planted in the Mara Region of Tanzania until 2005 so NOBODY grew up in the United Methodist Church. I have been a United Methodist for longer than anyone that I work with whether they are 5 or 50. We have head over and over again from faithful Christians of the various churches that they have been a part of. Some of the left a previous churches because of bad leadership since there is a struggle here in Tanzania to keep the church from turning into someone’s personal business. Others didn’t leave their previous church, the previous church left them, just one day shutting the doors. The leadership left, the money left, the missionaries for that denomination came and left and there just wasn’t enough of a foundation for the church to continue. I have heard this story over and over again, most recently from one young man who has traveled up to an hour away to attend church. He has been in leadership in four different churches having attended five different denominations and he is not much older than I am. Every single one of those churches has ceased to exist.
As I continue to talk to church leaders and occasionally think of that time when we will no longer be in Tanzania, however far away it may be (one person told me I can only leave after I have grandkids J). I wonder what will keep the churches going that we are working with now. I think the foundation that will keep these churches moving long after we are gone, other than the Sunday School answer of Jesus (true as it is), is lay leadership, small groups that care about each other and hold each other accountable, practical, relevant theology that addresses the concerns of the people instead of weighing them down more than they already are. Things like grace in their daily lives, teaching theology not just to pastors, but to everyone. In short, Methodism will keep these churches going. The same movement that saw the American Methodist church grow in the early days of the US without a single ordained pastor is also perfect for Tanzania.
I work in one of the fastest growing areas for Christianity in the world. The society is changing and people are hungry to have an identity in something larger than themselves, yet their traditional values and practices are falling under the steady machine of modernity. For all of this I truly think that one of the most helpful models for community and certainly for the church, that can help secure a peaceful future for the people of Tanzania is Methodist in its earliest form. I think we would all benefit from learning more from a movement that has launched more schools and hospitals than almost any other denomination in the world, and has impacted so many people. Especially a movement that is so grounded in Christ and his love for us and our love for him.
For someone with a much more informed opinion on the contemporary church that gives a shout out to Methodism check out this blog by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove where he interviews Diana Bass.