In remote northwest Ethiopia, 500 small churches have been built in the last 14 months. The remarkable church growthfrom just seven in early 2004in impoverished Benishangul-Gumuz province comes from the extraordinary collaboration of a government official, an association of Ethiopian evangelical denominations, and the energies of an 84-year-old American pastor.
The American minister is Charles Blair, for more than 50 years pastor of Denver's Assemblies of God megachurch, Calvary Temple. Blair heads the Charles E. Blair Foundation, which has worked in Ethiopia since 1990, when the Communist government fell. The foundation trains church leaders and raises money to support pastors in the poor nation (nationally, per-capita GDP is approximately $700).
Talargie Yeshidenberb was the national representative of the Blair Foundation in Ethiopia. Two years ago, Yeshidenberb, a veterinarian, looked up from his desk in the capital city, Addis Ababa. In the doorway was Yaregal Aysheshim, president of the Benishangul-Gumuz province and one of the few Christians in government.
Blair said Aysheshim was impressed by the transforming power of Christianity, and so "challenged us to help the Evangelical Churches Fellowship of Ethiopia begin 1,000 churches in that many villages in his province, before his current term of office ends this September."
Aysheshim said the government would donate the land for any church started in the province that reached 25 baptized members. The constitution respects freedom of religion.
"This is remarkable and probably possible only because of the region's isolation," said Joanne Brant, a longtime missionary in Ethiopia and now an executive at Serving in Mission. "The Ethiopians have a saying: 'You don't touch a man's wife or his land.' Land is a preciously guarded resource, so this is a significant involvement for the government."
The major ethnic group in the province, the Gumuz, are animists, economically depressed, and have a history of being enslaved and oppressed.
Ethiopian church leaders and foundation representatives determined that it costs US$1,850 to start and support a church for a year in Benishangul-Gumuz. The Ethiopian evangelists receive Bibles and three "EvangeCubes"small blocks of wood with the gospel in picture formto explain the Good News to listeners.
Most of the indigenous missionaries go to villages and work in the fields or help locals collect wood. After they are invited to dinner as honored guests, they explain the Christian faith to the Gumuz.
The new churches are affiliated with 11 of the 21 denominations that constitute the Evangelical Churches Fellowship of Ethiopia. Each town has one church and one denomination.
The foundation has raised money for another 264 churches, but time is growing short before Aysheshim leaves office in September.
Ethiopia overall is seeing explosive church growth. According to Operation World, Protestant churches are growing faster than 6 percent annually in the nation of 67.8 million people.
Independent churches are growing by better than 13 percent a year. Traditional religions are, by contrast, declining by 7 percent annually.
Charles Blair is raising money to build a hospital in the province, too. "We need to demonstrate to the people that our commitment extends to their very real physical needs as well."
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The U.S. Department of State's report on religious freedom in Ethiopia says, "While the relationship among religions in society is generally amicable, there continued to be pockets of interreligious tension and criticism between followers of evangelical and Pentecostal churches, on the one hand, and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, on the other. During the period covered by this report, a violent conflict broke out between Christians and Muslims."
The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting article from 2000 about the growth of evangelical churches in Ethiopia, which has caused tensions between evangelicals and the country's ancient Orthodox church.
More CT coverage of Ethiopia includes:
'I Never Thought I'd See Anything Like that Again' | A famine worse than that of 1984 threatens Ethiopia. (May 16, 2003)
Ethiopian Evangelical Killed by Orthodox Church Mob | Local police fail to respond during attack. (Aug. 05, 2002)
Returning a Tabot | Orthodox demand that British give back all looted sacred items. (April 08, 2002)
International Community Has No Excuses in Ethiopia, Says Aid Official | Starvation not widespread, but growing rapidly (May 2, 2000)
Meeting Noah's Other Children | For years our congregation had done short-term missions projects. Then the Afar of Africa expanded our vision. (August 9, 2000)
Our interview with Edwin Yamauchi, author of Africa and the Bible, discusses much biblical history in the region, from Moses' wife to the Ethiopian eunuch, to Haile Selassie, the Ras Tafari.
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