Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Circuit Riders in the Eastern Congo

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

The General Board of Global Ministries recently published a story about the missions/evangelism strategy that the UMC is employing in the Eastern Congo Annual Conference.  This strategy is to go around to small villages and cultivate churches there, even if they are small churches, rather than focusing on large urban areas.

I couldn't help but note the similarities between Eastern Congo's strategy and the classical American Methodist model of expansion, the circuit rider.  While I'm sure pastors in Eastern Congo aren't on horseback with long coats and wide-brimmed hats, it is essentially the same model: Bring the gospel wherever there are people, no matter how small a group.  It's an admirably democratic approach to evangelism.

Yet this strategy has its drawbacks, though the Congolese seem aware of them.  The article states, "Having a large number of small local churches may prove to be financially unsustainable, as it is difficult for small congregations to attain self-reliance. There may not be enough people involved to maintain the facilities or even to pay the pastor."

My wife serves as a local pastor for three small, rural United Methodist churches, legacies of American Methodism's circuit-riding days.  These churches are filled with faithful people, but there are definitely questions about how they will maintain the facilities and pay the pastor.  Of course, that's complicated by the dynamic of decline membership in American Methodism, but a part of the problem is a commitment to having a church in every small hamlet.

I'm glad that Eastern Congo is raising these missiological questions now.  I think the solution to the problem of resources in small towns is not to abandon the strategy of rural evangelism.  God's grace extends everywhere, even small towns and villages, and God's mission needs people to take it to these places.

Instead, the commitment may come in rethinking what sorts of infrastructure is really necessary to be a church.  I am sometimes grateful for the faithful servants who bequeathed a legacy of beautiful and holy buildings to my wife's congregations.  But I also wonder if they didn't give a double-edged sword to their spiritual heirs.  Did they lock the current congregations into a particular way of being and doing church, one that might no longer be the most relevant?

Perhaps the Eastern Congo can learn from the circuit-riders' legacy in the US.  We should think twice before committing to significant infrastructure that will be expensive to maintain and limiting to the types of ministry that are possible.  I am glad that the pastors of the Eastern Congo are continuing the spirit of the circuit riders, and I pray that their efforts to build the kingdom are even more successful and more durable than those of the American circuit riders of old.

1 comment:

  1. It is relatively easy to find examples of ancient churches that met in homes, often in rooms re-structured for worship. Indeed one finds this today - including in my own neighborhood. As I walk to my own very conventional church I pass three homes in which a dozen to 20 young families are meeting to worship. There needs to be a place in the United Methodist future for many kinds of churches, and many ways of fulfilling the vocation of pastoring a congregation. Our current model is located in a culture and set of social structures that is rapidly disappearing, and was never congruent with the world outside the North Atlantic. It is time to let it go.