By Jennifer Bagnall
Imagine the sight: more than 3,000 pastors lined up under the hot sun, crowding and pushing forward, just to pick up a free book.
This was the scene at the April pastors conference of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY).
“Chaos ensued at least five times,” recalled the Rev. Matthew Heise, executive director of the Lutheran Heritage Foundation (LHF), an LCMS Recognized Service Organization that translated and published the books. “I looked over at Rev. [Robert] Rahn, who was helping me distribute, and he was being crushed up against the piles of books, handing them out as fast as he could and laughing the whole time.
“We realized that the Ethiopian pastors simply haven’t had these books in decades, and they’re really eager to dig into them,” Heise concluded. “It was truly inspiring to see their zeal.”
The distribution of The Book of Concord — the foundational book of the Lutheran faith that explains what the Bible means — was a key step in achieving one of the goals of the conference: “helping ministers deepen their theological understanding of their identity and ministry as Lutherans,” said the Rev. Dr. Wakseyoum Idosa, EECMY president.
Though the EECMY has existed since 1959 and today is the fastest-growing Lutheran church body in the world, its growth has presented several challenges.
Need to prepare pastors
With only 3,000 pastors to serve about 7 million church members, “the EECMY needs to train more pastors quickly,” said the Rev. Dr. Albert Collver, director of church relations for the LCMS and assistant to Synod President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison.
“The EECMY would like to have 10,000 pastors in the next five years,” Collver said, “but that growth is actually putting a lot of pressure on their church body, because the danger is that pastors often are not trained as well as everyone would like, with a strong Lutheran identity.”
Idosa and other EECMY leaders have asked the LCMS to assist in recovering that strong Lutheran identity by helping the EECMY to expand and improve its theological education and training.
“Theological education is one of the LCMS’s competencies,” Collver noted. “What we’re doing right now is providing scholarships to our American seminaries for some of their future leaders, as well as providing scholarships for about 60 students to attend the Master of Theology program at EECMY seminaries, where in many cases, the classes are being taught by LCMS professors.”
Another challenge is that until recently, few Lutheran theology books have been available in the languages of Ethiopia. In late 2010, LHF published 1,000 copies of the Amharic Book of Concord — enough for only one-third of the EECMY’s current pastors.
In talks with the LCMS, one of the EECMY’s first requests was an Amharic Book of Concord for every pastor, which LHF provided. In addition, the LCMS partnered with LHF to print 30,000 side-by-side English/Amharic editions of Catechisms, Creeds and Confessions, a volume that includes the Small and Large Catechisms, the three Christian Creeds and the Augsburg Confession.
The Rev. Dr. Frederic Baue of St. Louis recently returned from his second teaching trip in Ethiopia, where he taught The Book of Concord to pastors who had never read it before.
“You know how you can get on fire from reading the Bible?” Baue asked. “If The Book of Concord contains nothing but biblical truth, you can get on fire by reading The Book of Concord. That is exactly what happened. I had a group of 35-40 students who, by the time we were finishing up the class, were ready to storm the battlements! They were really cranked about Lutheran theology because they’d never had it before. They had heard about the Augsburg Confession, but they’d never read it because they never had the books.”
Guiding doctrine, practice
Reading The Book of Concord brought up many questions of doctrine and practice, some that American Lutherans also face and some that are more particular to Africa, Baue indicated.
“The students saw things in The Book of Concord that spoke to their situation today, especially regarding Pentecostalism [the Holy Spirit coming directly to you, apart from the Means of Grace],” he said. “They asked, is Christ really and truly present in the Holy Sacrament? What about gender equality and women’s ordination? How do we interpret Scripture? They saw, from reading The Book of Concord, that the Confessions are absolutely relevant, and they came away with a determination to read their Confessions on a daily basis, along with their Bible.”
The Rev. Mark Rabe, who has been called by the LCMS to teach at the EECMY’s Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa, was in Ethiopia for the pastors conference and is also looking forward to using the Book of Concord translated into the language of his students.
“The Book of Concord is vital for the health of the Church,” Rabe said. “To be without The Book of Concord would be like having the incorrect prescription in your glasses. Yes, you might be able to see the page, but you won’t have the clarity you need to understand Scripture, its central teachings and the One who is in the center: Jesus and the forgiveness won for sinners.”
Rabe said he was impressed with the EECMY pastors’ desire to learn what it means to be Lutheran and with their commitment to scriptural faithfulness.
“In those whom I met, [I saw] a great desire to grow in their Lutheran identity,” Rabe said. “It could be seen clearly as I walked around after the distribution of The Book of Concord. One could see pastors carrying their copies wherever they went for the days following. They were proud to have that book as their own and they would not leave it sitting around.”
“The EECMY appreciates LHF for availing these books to our pastors,” Idosa said. “It is our prayer and hope that [the LCMS and the EECMY] continue accompanying each other as we engage in the witness of the Gospel of our Lord in Ethiopia and beyond.
“As the growth of the work of the church is continuing, the needs for nurturing and equipping pastors and the members in general will also continue to be a priority for us,” Idosa concluded. “We need to continue to cooperate with our partners in this noble job of preparing people for the Kingdom of God.”
In addition to the Amharic edition, LHF has translated and published The Book of Concord into seven other languages and is at work on another seven in celebration of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. To learn more about LHF’s work, go to LHFmissions.org.
Jennifer Bagnall (JBagnall@LHFmissions.org) is director of Public Relations for the Lutheran Heritage Foundation.
Posted May 29, 2015