Growing in the Word
Preacher Yoshanis Asrat's frenzied homily pulsed over the tin shacks and mud homes of the Megenanga neighborhood in Addis Ababa. If you followed his voice and the blaring synthesized piano that accompanied it, you would arrive at his congregation, the Mascara Church—little more than a tent in a muddy backyard in Ethiopia's capital.
But in a black suit with his hair slicked back, and standing over a glass lectern in front of a large gold-colored cross, Yoshanis might as well be in a polished megachurch in a wealthy American suburb.
"Take Jesus," he shouted to his parishioners, scattered across the rows of rickety wooden benches. "Take him right now! Right now he will heal you!"
"Amen!" the congregants cried.
In 16 years, Yoshanis's flock has grown from a handful of members meeting around a kitchen table to a congregation of several hundred. That could be a testament to the pastor's electrifying orations. But such growth has not been uncommon for charismatic and evangelical churches in Addis Ababa, a city of 3 million people.
"We are growing into a modern country," Yoshanis said. "We have modern people here, and they want a modern church."
Ethiopia has 90 million people and is one of the world's fastest growing major nations, with a 3.1 percent increase in population from 2010. Over the past 30 years, that national population growth rate has averaged 2.7 percent per year. The rapid expansion is introducing historic change to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, an ancient branch of Christianity.
As the world's largest Oriental Orthodox church, its identity is tied to traditions and some unique teachings that are more than 1,600 years old. (For example, opposing the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451—which taught that Christ existed as one person with two natures, human and divine—they believe that Christ's natures were united in one.)
According to Operation World, since 1974, the Protestant church has grown tenfold, representing about 20 percent of the current population. Many Ethiopian Protestants belong to indigenous evangelical or charismatic movements, historically linked to the Lutheran church, Sudan Interior Mission (now Serving in Mission), and the Mennonite Church.
Researchers expect these growth trends to persist for decades to come, leading to a deep shift in Ethiopia's religious landscape. But signs of significant change have already occurred.
Hungry for the Word
The story of Berhanu Aweku, a young adult born into an Orthodox family, reveals how change is unfolding at the ground level.
As he matured, Berhanu became increasingly hungry for God's Word. But in his hometown of Arba Minch, 300 miles south of Addis Ababa, the only Bible teaching he received came from Orthodox priests and monks, who have for generations seen themselves as the only trustworthy mediators of biblical truth for a population that is about 50 percent literate.
Berhanu said that several years ago, a friend introduced him to a "Pentay" church, a slang term for any non-Orthodox church in Ethiopia. His friend promised the inquisitive teenager an environment in which pastors would encourage him to examine the Bible for himself.
"In the Protestant church, you have the opportunity to make a study of the Holy Scriptures," the 20-year-old student and part-time disc jockey said. "That was something new for me." Once he had a Bible in his hands, Berhanu said, he was hooked. And he wanted to share what he learned from reading the Bible for himself.
During an interview at the Arba Minch club where Berhanu works, he looked across the crowded dance floor from a closet-sized DJ booth. He picked out acquaintances from Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic families. A few Muslims were in the crowd too. Aside from drinking non-alcoholic Ambo mineral water, Muslims are as much a part of the social scene in Ethiopia as everyone else, Berhanu said.