Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Is suffering the cause of UMC growth in the Congo?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Here are two sets of facts:

1. The country of the Democratic Republic of Congo is the site of great turmoil, conflict, and suffering. Moreover, this suffering is not new and was actually greater over the past two decades during the First and Second Congo Wars.

2. The country of the Democratic Republic of Congo is the site of great church growth for the UMC. The number of United Methodists in the country has grown dramatically over the last two decades, and the DRC now has the second largest number of UMC members of any country globally.

Many might look at these two sets of facts and say, "Isn't it amazing how the UMC has grown in the Congo despite all the violence and conflict?"

Yet I would like to suggest that it is possible that UMC growth in the Congo has occurred not in spite of violence and conflict but because of violence, conflict, and how the church responded.

As this blog has shown recently, the UMC in Africa has an excellent history of peacemaking. Nowhere has this been more true than in the Congo. Bishop Ntambo served as a peacemaking intermediary between warring factions during the series of Congolese civil/international wars. He and other leaders of the UMC in the North Katanga Annual Conference and neighboring regions served sacrificially in supporting local non-combatants, suffering with the people, and helping communities survive during the war and rebuild after the war. You can read more about that process in Pamela Couture's We Are Not All Victims.

There were extraordinary costs to this sacrificial choice to support the people. Many pastors died. Serving as a peacemaking intermediary was a dangerous undertaking for Bishop Ntambo. But it also was a strong and authentic witness for the gospel in a deeply hurting situation.

People noticed that witness, and it earned the UMC a positive reputation that helped fuel membership growth in the North Katanga Annual Conference, which is now the largest in the connection. While I in no way wish to condone, dismiss, or excuse the horrific suffering of the Congolese people, it was the UMC's decision to stand with the people that led to growth not in spite of that suffering, but because of the UMC's response to that suffering.

This should not surprise mission historians. In Korea and China, the Christian church grew the most after it had showed solidarity with the people by suffering with them, in the first case under Japanese occupation and in the second case under various Maoist plans.

Yet while this conclusion might not surprise missiologists, it does go against the lessons American United Methodists draw about "African" church growth.

First, as I have said before, we need to be more specific about "African" church growth. That largely means Congolese church growth. The other area of recent UMC growth in Africa is Liberia and Sierra Leone, also places in which the church has stood with the suffering, both during those countries' civil wars and the recent Ebola outbreak.

Second, the reasons Americans give for "African" church growth are usually tied to energetic worship styles or a particular approach to theology. Yet worship is largely a matter of contextualization. Theology is important, and there are worthwhile debates to have about what the church should teach, but successful phrasings of theology are also always adapted to their contexts.

Thus, while US United Methodists absolutely should learn from their Congolese sisters and brothers, we must be wary about learning the wrong things. First, that learning needs to be based on a full understanding of the Congo and the UMC's position in it, not just some simple takeaways from attending a Congolese worship service. Second, it is too simplistic and ignores the importance of inculturation to just say that if Americans incorporate the same worship style and theological phrasings as the Congolese, then the US UMC will grow, too.

Indeed, if the premise of the first part of this piece is right, then the most important thing that the US UMC can learn from the DRC UMC is the importance of standing with and suffering with the poor and suffering

This lesson will not likely be an easy one for American United Methodists, however. American culture exalts the successful, avoids suffering at all costs, and places little value on the poor. These cultural habits have infected the church, both in its liberal and conservative wings. Yet the opportunity for learning and for kenotic suffering remains there for the UMC in the US.

In a more hopeful application of the conclusions of this piece, while the continued suffering in the Congo is deplorable and something that the international community must take steps to end, it is also likely that the UMC will continue to grow in the Congo because of how it responds to that suffering. I would expect that the next area of significant growth will be in the Eastern Congo Episcopal Area, site of some of the worst suffering in the Congo currently, but also site of some of the best UMC ministry going on in the Congo right now.


  1. I deeply agree with such reflections and I believe North Katanga experience can serve a model to other nations. This is true sacrifice pastors continue to show in their ministries... I also think that there is still much to do us for the kind of teaching/sermons the church need to give to its members in order to keep them in the same faith. Thank you Dr. Scott for the update of your reflection.

  2. Three sets of intertwining factors (institutional, contextual, and spiritual) explain numerical church growth. Even though a church cannot change contextual factors, it can adjust to them in positive ways while aligning itself with the flow of the Spirit. When you analyze growth and decline through this matrix, you will always be able to understand the hows and whys of it.