The Harvest is Plentiful but the Laborers Are Few

What the American Church can learn from the Ethiopian Church


In episode 5.55 of the Pivot Podcast, Dwight Zscheile and Terri Elton delve into a conversation with Samuel Deressa, an Associate Professor of Theology and the Global South at Concordia University-St. Paul, as he shares his insights on the rapid growth of the Mekane Yesus Church in Ethiopia and how that relates to the empowering role of lay leaders in church ministry. They explore key principles that can be applied to churches worldwide, emphasizing collaboration and the pivot from clergy-led, lay-supported to lay-led, clergy-supported ministry.

The Origins of the Mekane Yesus Church

The Mekane Yesus Church started with the 1868 conversion of a freed slave named Yesus Nassib, who was the first person baptized as a Lutheran in Ethiopia by Swedish missionaries. Over the past 120 years, the church has since grown to become the largest Lutheran church globally, with over 12 million members in Ethiopia. 

Lay Leadership in Ethiopia

The Mekane Yesus Church is structured differently than churches in the United States. Lay ministers have long played a crucial role in leading the congregation. In fact, until the 1980s, the church was predominantly led by lay leaders, with clergy only taking on coordinating and educational roles. The American Church can therefore learn much from the Mekane Yesus Church as many churches lean further into this lay-led, clergy supported model of church.

Training and Equipping Lay Leaders

In Ethiopia, new church leaders are raised up in a context of churches growing so fast that the number of clergy can’t keep pace. Though exponential church growth isn’t a challenge that we’re currently facing in the US, or in other Western contexts, these growing global churches nonetheless find themselves dealing with the same problem as many Western churches: there are not enough clergy to fill the open spots in local congregations. The seminaries in Ethiopia see a mix of students aspiring to be ordained pastors and others seeking knowledge to serve as lay ministers. Lay leaders actively participate in various aspects of church ministry, often with an emphasis on practical, on-the-job-type training.

Communal Culture and Networked Communities

The communal culture in Ethiopia contributes to the church’s vitality. Churches in Ethiopia often function as networks of interconnected communities, engaging in activities like Bible study, prayer, and caring for one another, together. This includes communities outside of the institutional church, like house churches, of which Deressa says “I would say a lot of spiritual formation happens in those houses, much more than, you know, it happens in the church and it’s lay ministers that do all those ministries.” This relational network fosters spiritual formation and outreach. Deressa has noticed this is not as much the case in the U.S., where even churches from the same denomination in the same town might have very little to do with one another. Americans being prone to individualism and “self-sufficiency” takes its toll on the potential for us to live into greater Christian community.

Lessons for the U.S. Church

Reflecting on his experience in America, Samuel suggests that churches in the U.S. could also benefit from embracing surprise and trusting in God’s leading. We can leave room for the unexpected, and not be afraid of God introducing new ventures in church life.

Lay Empowerment and Collaboration

The significant (and successful) role lay ministers play in Ethiopian churches, challenges the American perception that pastors should control everything. Lay ministers are actively involved in leading prayers, preaching, and various ministries, contributing to the church’s holistic growth.

Cultural factors aside, how could our attitude towards lay leadership change if we looked to churches like Mekane Yesus as role models? In what ways does a broader leadership encourage every Christian to share their faith, and not “leave it to the professionals”?

The story of the Mekane Yesus Church in Ethiopia is an example of vibrant church growth fueled by lay empowerment and collaboration. As churches globally navigate the challenges of leadership and ministry, the lessons from Ethiopia offer insights into fostering vitality, embracing surprise, and nurturing interconnected communities within the body of Christ.

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