The Ethiopian Evangelical Church MEkane Yesus (EECMY)
Between Indigeneity and Globalism:

Re-measuring Growth, Re-visioning Mission, Recasting Leadership


Ezekiel Gebissa
(Kettering University)




Abstract: The church needs to recognize its place between indigeneity and global forces.  While its circumstances and social location has changed, its core values remain the same. It is a challenge for the current EECMY leadership to ensure the church is equipped with a theology and practice to carry out faithful and missional work locally that is effective in a changed global context.






In the1970s, church growth scholars predicted that by the end of the century the center of Christianity will have shifted from Europe and North America to the Third World, and Christians beyond the First World will be setting the agenda for the Christian church as a whole.[1] Christianity is indeed growing in Africa, Asia and Latin America and declining in the West.[2] In Africa, the Christian population grew from 60 million in 1962 to 411 million (or 46% of the total population) by 2005.[3] In numerical terms Africa is arguably the center of gravity of global Christianity, but the numerical strength has yet to translate into the kind of theological prowess capable of defining Christianity as earlier predicted. Andrew Walls writes:

The Christianity typical of the twenty-first century will be shaped by the events and process that take place in the southern continents, and above all by those that take place in Africa.… The things by which people recognize and judge what Christianity is will increasingly be determined in Africa. The characteristic decisions, the liturgy, the ethical codes, the social applications of the faith will increasingly be those prominent in Africa.[4]

The lag between numerical growth and theological impact holds true for the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) among world Lutherans. The EECMY is reportedly the fastest growing Lutheran church in the world and the largest in Africa. If size is all that matters, it can rightfully be claimed that it symbolizes the shift in Christianity’s center of gravity. Even in terms of qualitative attributes, the EECMY has a record of leadership and theological distinction in defining the mission of the church nationally within Ethiopia, within the African continent, and globally.[5] In recent years, however, this national church has struggled in its quest for becoming an independent church that can sustain itself financially even as its membership has grown steadily. Above all, its capacity for theological vitality is regarded by young church members to be severely diminished.[6] The strain between numerical expansion and institutional maturity that has beset the African church’s capacity to define the very character of the Christian church seem evident in the EECMY case.

At the outset, it is important to underscore that numerical growth could be read in a way that can divert the leaders’ attention from measuring the raison d’être of the national church. Descriptions such as “fastest growing” and “largest church,” albeit justified by the numbers, have the potential to foster complacency. While the EECMY has grown steadily in actual numbers since its inception as a national church, the rate of growth has declined over the same period. The church started out with approximately 25,000 members in 1959 and reached 209,000 in 1974, growing at an average of 49% annually for the 15 years of EECMY’s existence. The church grew from 2.1 million in 1998 to 5.3 in 2009, a phenomenal growth in actual numbers (the fastest growing Lutheran church), but at 13% annual growth rate, at a much slower rate than during the first decade and half. The rate of growth relative to population growth shows a slower rate than the actual church growth rate.


Growth Rate MY.JPG

Figure 1: EECMY Growth, 1959-2009

While the EECMY can celebrate its growth, the declining rate raises a whole host of questions about why the church is growing, who actually is responsible for the current growth, and in what geographic area or what level of the church structure is the growth occurring. I shall not, however, pursue this line of inquiry.

Rather, the relevant issue here is the preparedness of the national church to become a global leader among Lutherans. By its very design, the EECMY’s national governing structure is meant to be a visible symbol of its unity, to coordinate the work of the synods, and serve as a conduit to the Ethiopian government and international relationships. As Gudina Tumsa long ago observed, “the organizational structure of the EEC-MY must be judged on the quality of service it is rendering to the people of God. … The administration of the EEC-MY must use its organizational structure as effective tools [sic] and be itself an effective means whereby the Gospel proclamation is accelerated.”[7] These objectives cannot be measured using quantitative data. Growth in size cannot be taken as an indication of maturity and well-being, two qualities required for global leadership. To go forward into the twenty first century, the work of the EECMY should be assessed for the quality of service it provides rather than statistical data that records numerical increases.

Self-assessment is critical for other equally important reasons. Even though the national polity bears the name “church,” we should keep in mind Gudina’s observation that the “church as an organization is a human institution. … and the organizational set-up of the church must be subject to critical evaluation.”[8] The reason is that all organizations, by their very nature, follow what may be called an “organizational maturation curve.” Institutions are built to advance a vision. Many fail but those that succeed grow in numbers and organizational complexity. In time, they reach a level of maturity and operational regularity that result in the creation of a bureaucracy that functions on routine procedure. Richard Hamm has pointed out that eventually, unless the leadership assesses its performance and updates the original vision, “the institution begins to lose its mission focus, becomes self-serving, loses the confidence of the membership and suffers a decline. Every human institution, including every expression of the church, has this tendency to ‘turn on itself’ and to become preoccupied with self-service and survival.”[9] In church institutions, survival becomes the mission. Reassessment allows the leadership to get the institution back on track, clarify and reaffirm its mission, and live out its core values.

This paper proposes that any self-assessment conducted by EECMY must be multidimensional in approach. This will require different instruments to measure progress. The matrix of numerical growth needs to be supplemented by measures that take account of the church’s capacities to sustain, govern, extend, and contextualize itself. The paper argues that the main reason for the disparity between the numerical increases in converts/members joining the church and the impact of church leadership to affect change is a lack of theological depth guiding decision-making. This includes the way the EECMY regards its identity and how the church chooses to relate to its own cultural context. It is my position that the gospel needs once again to confront the church and the very many challenges facing Ethiopian society. Related to this I assert that the ebb in theological vitality is a function of myriad factors, but revitalizing is a leadership challenge. This paper argues that that the future of the church’s mission depends entirely on the adaptive capacity of the leadership to undertake the task of leading change.[10]


Re-Measuring Growth: Expanding the Matrix


For over 150 years, mission-oriented churches have determined that a newly planted church is mature when it is self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. Because these principles were often ignored in practice, rather than try to make a definitive conclusion about whether the ‘Three-Self” formula has been efficacious in assessing the independence of churches that grew out of external missionary enterprises, I suggest that the critical question is whether the principles have merit in the current day, i.e., can they be used today to assess the health and continued growth in maturity of the independent church?

Over the years, the formula has been criticized as inadequate, outdated, and narrow. Robert Reese, of the World Mission Associates, argues that the “the formula, whatever may be its shortcomings and blind spots, remains the criterion in missions for a church or Christian organization that is not dependent. A Three-Self body of Christians has enough strength and responsibility to work for Christ whether others are available to help or not.”[11] Further, Reese adds, “the Three-Self Formula remains relevant because it takes Christians in the developing world more seriously than many other current popular mission methods that continue to create dependency.” Following Reese, I argue that the Three Self formula can be a critical instrument of self-assessment for the EECMY, because, as a body of believers, it desires to be a self-sufficient, independent, and missional in serving God’s purpose on earth. After all, as Melvin L. Hodges (1909-1988), an American missionary to Nicaragua, long ago observed, “the indigenous church principles are in reality New Testament church principles.”[12] As long as the mission of the church in this world remains God’s mission, there should be no doubt that the Three Self principles should be applied to an independent church with missionary heritage.

The challenge of the EECMY is not whether it is self-governing and self-propagating in its sociological sense or self-supporting in monetary terms. If the goal is to make sure the church remains on a trajectory toward fulfilling the greater expectations held of the African church, that is, that it attain global leadership, then indigeneity would be relevant, at least “indigeneity” in the sense of maintaining local cultural patterns, meanings and images.[13] These are the issues that matter to indigenous ethical reflection, homiletical style, hermeneutical methods, sense of identity, cultural expressivity in worship and so forth. As such, these issues are not so much identifiers of indigeneity as they are signifiers of successful contextualization, a critical capacity for a missionary church. In the EECMY case, therefore, self-governing should be seen as self-identifying and self-adapting.

In the context of our time, the most important construct of “contextualization” is the fourth “self” proposed by Paul Hiebert, renowned professor of mission and anthropology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Arguing that a healthy church must have leaders with a deep understanding of scripture and how it should be applied to the cultural situation, he added another characteristic -- self-theologizing.[14] As David Bosch suggested, the EECMY should self-theologize in dialogue with the universal 'invisible' church.[15] Only when the African church has fulfilled the Four Self principle, and is truly grounded and contextualized can it affirm that the center of gravity of world Christianity has shifted to Africa.


Indigeneity: The Triple Bottom Line Matrix


The EECMY springs from the Ethiopian soil and manifests many of the cultural traits and expressions of the people themselves, rather than being a church that consists, primarily, of an imported culture foisted on new believers. There is no escaping that one needs to seek to become a contextualized church aspiring to be autonomous, solvent, and missional.[16] Just how self-supporting, self-governing, and self-extending has EECMY had been?


Self-governing as self-identifying and self-adapting


In a broader sense, self-governing encapsulates self-identifying and self-adapting more than the sociological aspect of church leadership. Self-identifying is the concept that those who gather as a group identify themselves as the local expression of the body of Christ in their area while self-determining refers to the idea of the church being able to organize itself and its worship services follow the scriptures and in accordance with indigenous patterns.[17] In the sense that the concern in the latter case relates to how others should perceive the church, self-determining is sometimes described as self-adapting to local culture.[18]




From the very beginning of the introduction of evangelical Christianity, Ethiopian evangelicals envisioned themselves as a separate entity independent of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC). The indigenous evangelical missionaries of the early 20th century knew where they stood vis-à-vis the Protestant missionaries with whom they shared a common understanding of the meaning of salvation. This faith made them a target for persecution by the EOC clergy and Ethiopian authorities. The evangelicals’ faith and the structure of their church were formed in contradistinction not only to the powerful EOC, but also to the imperial political rulers who, according to the prevailing or traditional mythology of governance, derived their power from the church.

As such, the EECMY evolved as a church of the periphery of official political power, as opposed to the EOC that has always dominated the center of power and privilege. Unable to make inroads into the stronghold of the EOC in the northern highlands, indigenous evangelical missionaries first got a foothold in the western and southern peripheries. From its inception, the EECMY has occupied the periphery, kept at bay by members of the EOC through derision and alienation.[19]

Reforming the EOC was never a goal of Ethiopian evangelicals. Nor was identification with European missionaries. In 1907, seven indigenous evangelists[20] met in Naqamtee to discuss their common purpose of evangelization. They resolved to preach the gospel with integrity and determination, and to conduct themselves in irreproachable manners to deny that the Orthodox clergy grounds for persecuting them. The evangelicals were aware that they were different from the Orthodox in their beliefs and commitment to evangelization.

Any hope that the evangelical Christians would attempt to reform the EOC dissipated during the Italian invasion (1936-41) in part because of the treatment they received at the hands of the Orthodox clergy. The ultimate break occurred in the absence of European missionaries. The act that symbolized the evangelicals’ intention of becoming a separate church came after the Italians were expelled in 1947, when the evangelical congregation in Addis Ababa sent a letter to the Sweden declaring its independence from the mission.[21] A more concrete step to establish a unified Ethiopian evangelical church was taken when a meeting of all Ethiopian evangelicals was convened in Naqamtee in December 1944. Due to the harrowing experience of the occupation years which all the evangelicals shared, the conveners did not invite expatriate missionaries to participate in the council’s conference. Persecution became a mark of evangelical identity in Ethiopia.

The EECMY also worked assiduously to self-identify in the formation of the constitution of the church – insisted on the term “evangelical” and refusing to be called “Lutheran.” “Qes Badima Yalew reportedly remarked incisively asserting that the newly established EECMY was an indigenous church: ‘We are reformers, but we are not a colony, reformers of the Church, but not a colony of the mission.’”[22] Qes Badima left the Orthodox Church to become the first pastor of the AAMY Church. His statement emphasizes the indigenous roots of Ethiopian evangelicals and determination to be independent not just from the EOC but also from the foreign missions.

After its establishment of the EECMY as a national evangelical church, the leaders saw their primary task to be affirming the identity of the church as Ethiopian in its leadership and organization.[23] As such, the church’s national identity was defined theologically, ecclesiastically, and politically[24] against other churches or state institutions in Ethiopia,[25] foreign missions, and other evangelicals. This was done by the “Integration of Church and Mission,” a mechanism which achieved all the goals of independence without antagonizing any of the parties involved. The integration document demonstrated to the state that the EECMY was an Ethiopian church that would respect the law of the country, thus denying the EOC the grounds to tag that the EECMY as a foreign agent. It defined the EECMY as distinct from those of the EOC and the imperial government and placed missions under the auspices of the national church. The integration agreement showed that independence was not just a matter of the law but central to the national character, identity and integrity.

As noted, persecution had become a mark of identity for evangelicals. During the Derg years (1974-91), church closings, harassment of believers, and arrest of leaders exemplified the EECMY’s place in society. Throughout that revolutionary period, the church was consistently labeled an “outsider,” “the enemy within,” and “an imperialist agent” and especially targeted for persecution during the war with Somalia in the late 1970s.[26] The suffering church’s only strength was a theology of “bearing the cross,” expressed in such scriptural themes as “God is with us” and “Hitherto the Lord has helped us” that were chosen for its conferences.[27]




The EECMY congregations and the structure of the governing bodies of the national church organization are unique and the members worship in their multicultural variety. The structural foundation for organizing the church was the biblical concept that Jesus Christ is the Head Shepherd who joins and holds every part of the church’s body together.[28] Without Jesus as the head, the church will not be able to function or accomplish its mission. Underneath the Head Shepherd, there is a group of under shepherds (overseers, elders, or pastors) who are the spiritual leaders of the church. This group of spiritual leaders can be composed of individuals who have dedicated their lives and livelihoods to ministry and others who earn a living elsewhere. As such, the church’s organizational structure was laid out upside down by the standard of the world, with autonomous congregations at the top of the organizational structure and directly accountable to the head of the church.

The para-congregational structures -- the synods and the head office -- were designed to support and facilitate the work of the congregations, not to dictate decisions to them. For thirty-four years after its inception in 1959 as a national church, the EECMY was led by lay ministers. The presidents of the para-congregational structures of the church (bishops and archbishops in Lutheran churches elsewhere) were not ordained ministers. The number of congregations and preaching sites always outpaced the number of full-time pastors nearly five to one. Proclamation was almost exclusively conducted by volunteer evangelists. Using the method of chain-reaction evangelism, ordinary believers disseminated the gospel and built a church with a profound impact on Ethiopian society.

In the process of organizing itself, the EECMY leaders made a conscious choice to establish a lay church, quite different from the missionary churches with which it was cooperating. There was a debate even before the founding of the church whether the EECMY’s governing structure was going to be organized following the Episcopal structure of the mission home churches in Scandinavia and North America. A decision was made to make the leadership positions at all levels elective offices open to any lay member. It was a matter of self-expression based on an indigenous ecclesiology which took account of the Lutheran view of the “priesthood of all believers” and Jesus’ model of servant leadership. Equally importantly, the Episcopal structure was deemed inappropriate to the Ethiopian context.

 Thus, the EECMY organized itself democratically contrasting the EOC’s hierarchical governing structure which the clergy claimed was ordained by God. It seems the choice was made as a self-conscious statement of the EECMY’s aspiration that it was in Ethiopian society but not of the “prevailing structures of Ethiopian society.”[29] The structure was distinct from the monarchy which claimed divine provenance and legitimacy. As Tasgara Hirpo notes, “For the first time in the history of the Ethiopian empire a purely democratic structure was introduced. Power sharing became a reality.”[30] This commitment to a democratically inspired lay church never waned throughout the years. In his Pastoral Letter of 1975, Gudina Tumsa wrote: “We welcome the prospect of participation by the people at all levels of decision-making.”[31] Although not explicitly stated, this statement can be easily construed as a critique of the historic structure of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.


Self-supporting properly understood


In many ways, the lay emphasis was meant to harness the resources of members in advancing God’s mission and making the church genuinely self-supporting. The earlier evangelical missionaries were itinerant preachers who responded to the call “whom shall I send” and became messengers of the gospel. These missionaries, to my knowledge, except for Onesimos Nesib, were all self-supporting. To a large extent, the local congregations that grew out of their labor of love were, by and large, self-supporting. There was probably no time in the church’s history where the congregations were financially more than self-sufficient to provide financial outlay for church organizations such as the synods and the head office.

Indeed, there were services that the congregations could not provide by themselves. The human development aspects of the church’s mission required cooperation and coordination of services by the various church organizations. The synod, for instance, was supposed to be such an agency for the congregations. I cannot say that the church has gone very far in the direction of becoming self-supporting in this respect. It was a young church. In this regard, the EECMY saw itself as part of the mission of the church of Christ in the world. The church was in development, and there the EECMY viewed it as interdependent, not dependent, and rejected paternalism.

Many observers have commented that the EECMY has not quite made significant progress towards being self-supporting. This statement is true to a large extent as it applies to the church organizations rather than to the congregations. If the church has not been self-supporting, it is because it lost its strategic choice to be a lay-supported church. Here I would like to quote Gudina Tumsa, writing in 1968, only two years after he became general secretary.

… if I may say something out of my experience during this short time in the EEC-MY Headquarters, I find the dialectical theology of the law and the Gospel in a restricted sense, to be an analogy to the Church as an institution and the Church as proclaiming Christ. The church as an institution, with its routine administrative tasks strives to dominate us after the fashion of the law.… The Church as proclaiming is the assembly of Saints … the local congregation in action, the right place for inventing manpower as well as funds. It must be obvious by now that the organizational structure as well as the central administration of the EEC-MY are seen to be of secondary importance to the life of the Church. Thus, the central administration must be kept to the minimum.[32]

Over the last four decades since Gudina made this observation, the church has changed its organization and structure of administration several times. To a large extent, change was forced by external events. The persecution of the church during the Derg years had compelled the church to create stop-gap measures to survive, such as making the traditional lay president a paid official in charge of daily operations at the central office. The famine of 1984-85 necessitated that the development side of the church’s service be extended to respond to human suffering more effectively. In the subsequent administrative reorganization, the temporary arrangements that were made to respond to emergencies were institutionalized into several layers of administrative structure. The church administration came to resemble the structure of government ministries of Ethiopia than one that is designed to advance the church’s own mission. The failure to achieve self-reliance was in large measure the result of innovations at the central office rather than at the level of the proclaiming church.

It has been noted above and it should be added here that all human institutions have a natural tendency to become self-serving and preoccupied with control instead of with serving the mission for which they were created. This is not the result of self-centered leaders but a dynamic process that arises that causes the institutions to begin to lose their mission focus. The organizational face of the church, as a human institution, is susceptible to the syndrome that renders bureaucracy preoccupied with self-service and survival without the conscious intervention of leaders to combat it by continuously updating the mission of the organization.[33]



Description automatically generated


In the case of the EECMY, some now claim that progress has been made in recent years to make the central office self-supporting, though questions remain whether this means the capacity for the central office to survive or for it to carry on the mission for which it was created.


Self-Propagating as self-teaching


In its origin, evangelical Christianity in Ethiopia is deeply embedded in Orthodox Christianity. Throughout its history, there were Orthodox clergy and monks of evangelical persuasion who attempted self-propagation of their faith long before any European missionary set foot in the country. In Tigray, this tradition goes back to the fifteenth century when a monk known as Estifanos who publicly chastised the clergy for deviating from the teachings of the apostles and was martyred for being tsere mariam (enemy of Mary), a label that persisted to our days to designate all evangelicals. The Stephanite movement survived to the nineteenth century in the form of secret groups of monks who espoused essentially evangelical beliefs without any contact with foreign missionaries.

In seventeenth century Gonder, there is the case of a secret brotherhood called the “Evangelical Association” in Begemider and Gojjam who rallied to the teachings of the Lutheran missionary Peter Heyling because it comported well with their own beliefs. The EOC was compelled to issue doctrinal statement in Amharic to vindicate its own position in face of evangelical faith that they espoused. Some of its members joined in the 1950s the first independent Lutheran Church in Ethiopia, the Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus.

Another example of self-propagation is the evangelical movement in Hamasen which grew out of reading the first edition (1840) of Abu Rumi’s Bible in Tse’azega St. George church sometime in the early 1860s. When Peter Lager visited the Tse’azega Orthodox clergy he was surprised to discover that they were thoroughly evangelical in its beliefs. The first successful evangelical mission to the Ethiopian interior was sent by the indigenous Bible Readers’ Movement in Hamasen.

In Wallaga, in the early twentieth century, an Orthodox priest named Kumsa Gulti (also known as Abba Tirgum), with no affiliation with the evangelicals, famously gave public sermons that attacked the teachings of the legends of Saints and indifference of the Orthodox Church to the salvation of souls. Because Kumsa had attended the famous Debre Libanos monastery his Orthodox credentials were unimpeachable and, as such, his public sermons presented a greater threat to the EOC establishment than was posed by the Protestant indigenous missionaries.

At the stage of expansion, a self-propagating church, according to Charles Brock, is also self-teaching in the sense that the individual members of the church family are able and willing to teach one another while expressing their own beliefs in developing patterns of worship and rituals of service.[34] In this regard the role played by bible translators is critical in the conversion of many. For example, the massive conversion of the Macca Oromo in Western Ethiopia was made possible because the message of the bible was transmitted in the vernacular. As noted, Abu Rumi’s bible launched a Bible Readers’ Movement in Hamassen which was able to send a missionary into Ethiopia’s interior. Interestingly, the first successful mission, which was led by Gebre Ewostatewos of Hamassen who learned the Oromo language specifically to read scriptures, did not stand a chance making connection with the local Oromo had he not been equipped with the Oromo New Testament. Here, it is appropriate to mention the work of Oromo bible translators such as Christian Rufo, Aleqa Zeneb and his assistants Solan, Waré, and Dchagan, as well as Onesimos and his associates, and early converts. Their extensive efforts to translate the Bible into vernaculars were especially important. Without them message of the gospel and rituals of the Christian faith could not have been rendered audible or readily understandable to potential converts.

The gospel that was planted by indigenous pioneers in western and southern Ethiopia was extended to villages and localities by their converts and students. It is reasonable to state that evangelical Christianity was brought to the periphery by indigenous people who 1) accepted the Christian message mainly from reading Holy Scriptures in their language, 2) converted personally, 3) translated the message into vernaculars and 4) returned to their countrymen as missionaries to preach their new faith. As such, they set in motion a chain-reaction evangelical movement, the effects of which went beyond their own people, cutting across clan, linguistic, and cultural barriers. This entire enterprise was essentially an independent movement of self-propagation and self-teaching.

The EECMY has been self-conscious almost from its inception that its worship services should be patterned in culturally appropriate patterns lest it invoke the usual characterization of imported culture. In 1967, the church’s first executive secretary stressed that the EECMY “had its distinctive teachings and styles of worship. Some of its practices in fact had settled into a definite tradition with some variations. Its liturgy, its congregational set up and its requirements for membership are common knowledge not only to members of the EEC-MY but also to Ethiopian Christians outside the EEC-MY.”[35] Years later, Eskil Forslund has shown that Mekane Yesus preachers used local language, style, and structure of their sermons as 'rhetorical strategies' in order to make the message relevant to various situations.[36]




The EECMY fares well on the scale of self-theologizing, in its own theologies regarding its unique cultural issues of the Ethiopian context. Gudina Tumsa is considered a dominant figure in the production of EECMY’s indigenous theological thought. Oyvind Eide, a long-time co-worker and a leading scholar on Gudina life and legacy, relates that Gudina “gave his church a decisive push towards independence in theological thought and church practice.”[37] What is striking about Gudina is not just he was theologically reflective, but he was also a prolific writer who left behind a sizeable number of conference papers and correspondences which addressed the specific circumstances in the life of the church. In his theological reflection, he is motivated by the need to apply in action the gospel into Ethiopian and, by extension, African realities.

This is perhaps the dimension that many describe as contextualization, an effort to interpret the scripture in ways that have local meaning and relevance. Concerning Western theology, Gudina’s hermeneutic historical-critical but he is by no means a rejectionist. In my view, his theology applies itself both to the temporal aspect of life in this world and the timelessness of the next. He recognizes the reality of suffering and underscores the joy of the next, without losing sight of the emancipatory relevance of the gospel in the Ethiopian context. In this formulation, I cannot help hearing a loud ring of Reinhold Niebuhr’s thoughts as the intellectual foundation of Gudina’s theology. In Gudina’s writings, one sees a range of theological reflections on the relevant ecclesiological,[38] ecumenical,[39] missiological, and Christological[40] issues of his time.

The EECMY and Gudina are noted globally for the theological position enunciated in 1972 report “On the Interrelationship between Proclamation of the Gospel and Human Development,” in which EECMY leaders addressed the nature of development-related relationship with sister churches. The position is theological, reflective not only for the interpretive insight of the scripture from an African perspective, but also for its assertive challenge of dominant interpretations extant in Western theology. It rejects Martin Luther’s “Two Kingdoms” dichotomy as inapplicable to Africa, for, in the African context, the “mind and the body” are inseparable and therefore the temporal cannot have any precedence over the spiritual. The EECMY asserted the church can serve “whole person” in a holistic fashion. The Lutheran World Federation acknowledges this position as a distinct biblical understanding that originated with the leaders of the EECMY. Gudina also makes it clear the EECMY’s ecclesiology grew “out of her experience…taking the spiritual and the physical together in an inseparable manner.”[41]

It is obvious that a fair amount of self-theologizing had already occurred in the EECMY before Hiebert’s proposition was made in the mid-1980s, but much of it was probably considered syncretistic and ignored by sister churches. The EECMY does seem to have lost its theological vitality. Its seminary has lurched towards becoming a management institute in its attempt to survive the tumult of impending insolvency. I see no wrong with the desire of the MYTC to become a leading university in Ethiopia if that is what the church chooses to do with it. It then cannot claim to continue to be the center of theological vitality as the church approaches the challenge of the twenty first century in a changed national and global context.


Looking Forward: The Challenges Facing the EECMY Today


The EECMY, like all churches, exists to represent the authority of God’s presence on earth and to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the unalterable mission it shares with all Christian churches. There are some unarticulated core visions that are relevant for a particular period, be it the goal of becoming the largest evangelical church in Ethiopia or helping in the county’s development endeavors. Some challenges, such as poverty, have been rightly construed four decades ago but remain virtually unaddressed.

 In the mid-1970s, EECMY leaders brought to light an imperative point concerning global theology. The last section of the report the LWF, shows their awareness that the “phenomenal expansion” of the Christian church across Africa will establish the “‘center of gravity’ in the Christian world” firmly on the African continent. The document identifies the challenges it entails as “simply frightening.” Considering the rapid growth, countries such as Ethiopia will have difficulties solving or managing the immense shortage of “physical plant” (e.g., church buildings, religious education, literacy programs, etc.). This puts immense theological responsibility on the “historically young churches” of the world, which are not only dealing with a lack of theological experience and history.

These challenges pertain to the self-supporting and self-theologizing imperatives of the four selfs principle. As we have seen in the preceding section, the EECMY has excelled in some and underperformed in other areas of the Three Selfs criteria. The assessment shows, the EECMY is self-governing (on the scales of self-identifying and self-adapting), self-supporting (in evangelization but struggling in providing services), self-propagating in the sense of self-teaching and self-expressing, and self-theologizing, although theological vitality has not been consistently increasing. As such, the EECMY remains a church suspended between indigeneity and globalizing forces. As it prepares to live up to the expectations of global leadership, the church needs to define its challenges as they exist now.


The Local Context


A mature and healthy church, according to Melvin Hodges, “shares the life of the country in which it is planted."[42] In this, Hodges underscores the importance of being relevant to the human dimension of mission and the importance of being responsive to the needs of people. A responsible church cannot be oblivious to the plight of those within and outside the church. A responsible church views the challenges of the citizens of a country as an opportunity to serve God’s mission on earth. The challenges Ethiopian citizens face may serve as a mission field for the EECMY.

In recent years, Ethiopia has experienced profound sociopolitical transformation but the challenges of poverty and governing a multinational polity remain largely unresolved. Throughout the twentieth century, Ethiopia’s leaders have sought to modernize the country’s political economy. Earlier in the century, Japan’s model of political and economic progress was held by political leaders and opinion-makers as one to be emulated. In the post-World War II period, the Oriental model was replaced by the Western model of rapid industrialization, military/administrative/educational reorganization, and agricultural mechanization. In keeping with the then-ascendant theory of modernization, policies were designed to achieve development via an “imitative process” in which the application of Western scientific and technical knowledge would lead to prosperity. These objectives failed to pan out, resulting in a revolution of 1974.

The failure of the Western model ushered in the era of the centrally guided socialist modernization of the USSR. Plagued by a rigid commitment to an ideological course and lack of material and financial capacity to undertake meaningful investment, this model turned out to be a catastrophic failure which not only tore apart the country’s cultural and moral constitution, but also its political and economic structures. In 1991 when the military regime that relentlessly pursued socialist modernization fell, the promise of modernization stood in ruins, the society characterized by cultural dislocation, economic devastation, and political fragmentation.

The failure of the modernization experiments unleashed centrifugal forces that were intent on improving the lot of their own group over serving fellow citizens. For the last two decades, Ethiopia has been on a journey to achieve economic development and political enfranchisement. In the new political dispensation, economic growth has been adopted to political stability. The ruling party has declared that its objective is to follow the developmentalist state, said to be eclectic in its provenance but increasingly resembling the Chinese variant. Yet history has shown repeatedly that economic growth fosters harmony among culturally disparate peoples only when it works for all. In the Chinese model, it also has shown to produce undesirable consequences such as unsustainable inequality, rampant corruption, and environmental degradation. The challenge for the EECMY today is to deal with the ravages of failed modernization, the vagaries of transition to a prosperous democratic country, and peace-building efforts to deal with the conflicts emanating from the depredations of past failures and the elusive promises of the future.


The Global Context


The challenge of confronting the depredations of domestic social change is compounded by the equally profound changes that have occurred globally. In the last two decades, the concept of globalization has become one of the more familiar tools of social analysis. While this is important, the concept’s utility in our context relates more to the question of how the church should function locally and encourage meaningful expression in a globalized culture and economy. Mediated through modern communications technology, Ethiopian youth are buffeted with a wide-ranging menu of cultural and religious content. As Christians, they tend to imbibe religious themes and images that are broadcast into the country but lack the capacity to filter out patently false teachings or recognize meaningless rituals. As regards the globalized economy, as members of their generation, Christian youth have embraced the individualist drive of American capitalism without the ethos of hard work and frugality, and deference all without knowing the rules that govern the free enterprise system. Business in Ethiopia today is not governed by the principle of fair trade but by opportunism.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, the EECMY has experienced a gyrating change in its social location and function. The church was tolerated for the social benefit it provided to Ethiopian society during the imperial period; dubbed an instrument of the CIA by the military junta; and apparently co-opted when it seems expedient for the regime in power to capture the churched. In terms of its social location, therefore, it has gone from arms-length cooperation to consignment into exile, to a Constatinian détente. In a political dispensation that publicly professes that individual freedoms are constitutionally protected and legislatively enacted, freedom of religion has come to be viewed as precious, to be preserved no matter how steep the price to be paid in the identity and function of the church. The church leadership seems determined to achieve respectability by becoming more closely identified with the dominant political culture even at the cost of losing the church’s identity.

At a time when the EECMY could be buoyant about its numerical expansion, it would be playing the spoiler to imply that all is not well. Interviews with youth leaders, pastors, and past and present leaders of the central office of EECMY, as well as my observation of active leaders, inside and outside the country, has revealed a wide chasm in the assessment of the life of the church between the bottom-up and top-down perspectives. The grassroots vision is one of despair, disappointment, and disenfranchisement. There is a profound sense of dissatisfaction with leadership at all levels. The top-down view is one of relative contentment, complacency, and self-congratulation. The leadership feels it has weathered the tumultuous period of its recent past which was wrought by declining finance and division within the church. The reality is captured by what one pastor told me: “The congregations are fine; the central office is in decline.”

The history of the church amply demonstrates that Christianity that is faithful to God’s mission often, perhaps usually, finds itself at odds with the dominant culture in which it functions. There is no doubt that survival is a precondition for continued service, but it is not for the sake of organizational maintenance. The overriding political task of the church is “to be the community of the cross,” a church “that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.” For church leaders to fix their eyes on the mission rather than on survival, it is an imperative to view themselves as with exilic eyes as “resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief.”[43]


Globalism – How Would the Church Serve Its Mission?


The analysis in preceding sections has shown that the EECMY has succeeded in some of the Three-Self formula but did not fare as well in others. The self-supporting criterion was barely met in attempting to carry out its development projects while covering operational costs. It is clearly self-extending and self-theologizing. Based on its history, the EECMY should be expected to be poised to take up global leadership. The assessment shows, the EECMY is a church suspended between the demands of indigeneity and globalism.

This is not a new position that the EECMY now finds itself in. As early as 1972, church leaders were able to anticipate the that the impending shift of the “center of gravity” of world Christianity to the global South within three decades, which they described as “simply frightening,” will place immense theological responsibility on the “historically young churches” of the world, such as the EECMY. Writing to the LWF, the church officers stated: “If the historically young Churches will represent the “centre of gravity” in the Christian world in three decades they must be prepared.” The numbers kept growing as the capacity of the church declined commensurately. This is the disjunction between numbers and maturity I raised at the beginning of this paper. The church will have to assess systematically why it is unprepared to assume the global leadership that its size warrants.

The main challenge for the EECMY going forward is dealing with change. The first one is organizational change. The central office needs to guard against succumbing to the syndrome that ravages all human institutions. When the leadership spends disproportionate amount of its time on maintenance of the organization neglecting mission, on ways of increasing finance rather than on stewardship, and on ongoing management issues rather than on recalibrating vision, it is clear that the organization has entered a stage of decay. If the mission of the church is more than a generation old, it is due for reconsideration of its purpose, approach, and governance. The first step the EECMY needs to take in such a reconsideration is to refuse to gloat over numerical expansion and instead engage in re-measuring growth using a multi-dimensional approach. In this regard, it is important to eschew innovations that do not comport to the church’s historic identity, integrity, and independence.

According to its vision, EECMY, like all churches, exists to represent the authority of God’s presence on earth and to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the unalterable mission it shares with all Christian churches. There are also some unarticulated or time-sensitive goals that are relevant for periods and contexts, whether that is becoming the largest evangelical church in Ethiopia or helping the county’s development endeavors. Some challenges have been rightly construed four decades ago but remain virtually unaddressed. The theology of serving the whole person, which engaged the world Lutheran community, was envisioned [adopted?] as theological contextualization of the gospel for the realities of the society in which the EECMY was embedded. It was a product of self-theologizing and self-identifying.[44] This year is the 40th anniversary of the issuance of the EECMY document “On the Interrelation Between Proclamation and Human Development.” In the intervening period, both Ethiopian society and global Christianity have shifted in significant ways. The changes are so fundamental that the context in which the church operates has been radically restructured. These new conditions create a demand for theological reconsideration. For the EECMY re-visioning its mission is an imperative as it strives to toward the unalterable purpose of God’s mission.

Operating in a changed context has altered EECMY’s operations and its conceptions of its identity and purpose. Because of the social transformation in Ethiopian society, the societal positioning of the church has changed, thus requiring adjustments, not just to its vision but also its modus operandi. Some of the adjustments that the church has recently made to its organizational structure were in response to external demands rather than the result of internal soul-searching as had happened in the 1970s, when the national political context in Ethiopia changed dramatically following the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974. Beginning in the last years of the Derg years and more so in recent years, the observable trend in the EECMY approach to its role in society has been to become domesticated by politics rather than working with a theological foundation to challenge the depredations of the failure of politics. There is inherent danger in comfortable accommodations over against sacrificial immersion. As Donald Posterski put it, describing mainline churches in the West, instead of being “in the world but not of the world,” the churches have inverted the dictum of Jesus and become openly “of the world… both captured and intimidated by the culture.”[45] The EECMY must choose what kind of church it wants to be: an Constantantian accommodationist or a proclaiming missionary church.

The most significant challenge pertains to the development of an authentic indigenous theology, referred to as “self-theologizing.” The essential precondition for overcoming the challenges is the capacity to restore theological vitality. Without a contextualized theological prism, nothing that the EECMY does matters for it means that it has no utility without a clear vision of the goal. There is an acute need of theological reflection that at the same time addresses local concerns without ignoring the global dimension. At one level, contextualization should make the gospel relevant to local concerns. Describing how the weekly sermons from the pulpit left him unprepared for the horrors of the 1994 genocide, a son of a Rwandese preacher, stated: [every week I] only heard one sermon; a sermon that only addressed the life of the hereafter. … So much death, so much hatred and distrust between tribes, so much poverty, suffering, corruption, and injustice, and nothing ever really changed. Eventually, I realized something. I had never heard a sermon that addressed these realities.[46] A theology that interprets lived realities is needed in Ethiopia. It also means, local events must be interpreted from a global perspective.[47]

The EECMY needs heightened awareness of its position as a church located in the new center of global Christianity and of its own history in world Lutheranism. While globalization sensitizes us to our common humanity it also introduces to a variety of Christian practices in diverse cultural traditions. In this diverse world, the EECMY must be responsible enough to recognize differences and embrace the phenomenon of globalization as an opportunity to maintain a continuous dialogue with national churches while remaining faithful to its own identity. In all, we must yearn for recasting leadership for the EECMY to elevate the level of discourse the church ought to maintain within the Lutheran family if it is to have the predicted global impact.

Dealing with change is what good leaders do. They find a way to make change work. In the present context, the key responsibility of EECMY leaders should be positioning and preparing the church for global leadership. It requires that leaders have courage to change and wisdom to minimize resistance to change. Ronald Heifetz first defined as adaptive challenge that requires 'adaptive leadership.'[48]

Applying Heifetz’s theory, Richard Hamm argues that, to be continually functional and effective, institutions must be able to change in response to changing contexts and adopt their mission, structures, and style to serve current needs. But institutions tend toward homeostasis (staying the same) regardless of how much change has occurred in the surrounding environment. An institution that has difficulty operating optimally but keeps resisting the very change that it needs for its viability becomes anxious, precarious, and unstable. When these dynamics are set in motion, it becomes the duty of leaders be a “non-anxious presence,” that is, engaged enough to maintain a sense of being in charge but emotionally removed just enough to take stock of what is going on.[49]

In a situation that Heifetz describes as having technical challenges, the problems can be addressed with known solutions or existing know-how. Because such solutions do not require changes to current structures and procedures, their impact on people is minimal and resistance can be easily overcome. If however, the situation of the type of adaptive challenges, systemic problems that are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures, the solution involves significant (and often painful) shifts in people's habits, status, role, identity, ways of thinking, without which “people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in a new environment.”[50] These problems call for "adaptive leadership" which mobilizes people and units that frequently have different needs, priorities and perspectives toward new ways of working and ways of thinking. [51]

When the challenge requires adaptive change, Heifetz says, it is the function of leaders to creating a “holding environment.” He uses the metaphor of pressure cooker to illustrate the proper role of an adaptive leader, saying that it is in the balance between “not enough heat” and “too much heat” that a holding environment exists, and cooking takes place. In institutions, change creates heat (anger) and pressure (discomfort) within the institutional body. Too much heat blows up the system; too little heat precipitates decline and eventual collapse. Adoptive leaders allow enough level of discomfort in the body to ensure healthy adaptation and avoid complacency from taking hold and stymie change altogether.[52]

As described in this paper, the EECMY now operates amidst profound economic, political, cultural, and theological changes occurring nationally and globally. Leading change is an inherently risky business. EECMY leaders demonstrated competent leadership through tumultuous times, a fact that European Lutheran leaders readily recognized as a distinctive asset of the church.[53]

There is a precedent here. In the mid-1970s, when the church faced existential challenges from the Derg government, the leadership conducted four seminars on Christianity and socialism to help its members adapt to the immanent change that was already in process. The position of the church should be based on biblical theology when it comes to concern for human equality, dignity, and standing for truth. The resolution reminds us that this church places a high value on theological reflection regarding political and economic issues. These seminars were devoted to “the relationship between socialism and Christianity in areas such as social justice, equality, spirit and concern for the poor.”[54] The church needs to recognize its place between indigeneity and global forces. While its circumstances and social location has changed, its core values remain the same. It is a challenge for the current EECMY leadership to ensure the church is equipped with a theology and practice to carry out faithful and missional work locally that is effective in a changed global context.


[1] Walbert BuhlmanThe Coming of the Third Church: An Analysis of the Present and Future of the Church (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1977).

[2] David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson, “A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World,” in World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford: Oxford, 2001); Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1995); H. J. Hendriks, “Evangelism in Africa,” Praktiese Teologie in Suid-Afrika. 22, no. 1 (2007): 23-40; Jenkins, Philip. 2002. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-cultural Process in Christian History. (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2002); Lamin Sanneh, Whose religion is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

[3] Sanneh, Whose Religion, 18.

[4] Walls, Cross-Cultural Process, 85.

[5] For details on EECMY leadership from Marangu to Lutheran World Federation, see Emmanuel Abraham, Reminiscences of My Life (Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 2011).

[6] An informal survey of sentiments shows rampant dissatisfaction, particularly on the part of the youth, with the leadership, the mission, and experience of church even as the national church boasts numerical growth.

[7] Gudina Tumsa, “The Church as an Institution: The Concept of the Church as an Institution,” in For the Gospel and the Church: Documents of the Rev. Gudina Tumsa and Mekane Yesus Church from the Period 1961-1970 (Addis Ababa: Gudina Tumsa Foundation, 2006), 1:120.

[8] Tumsa, “Church as an Institution,”120.

[9] Richard Hamm, Recreating the Church: Leadership for the Postmodern Age (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2007), 26.

[10] James O'Toole, Leading Change: Overcoming the Ideology of Comfort and the Tyranny of Custom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995).

[11] Robert Reese, “The Surprising Relevance of the Three-Self Formula,” Mission Frontiers 29, no. 4 (2007): 25-27.

[12] Melvin L. Hodge, The Indigenous Church: A Complete Handbook on How to Grow Young Churches (Springfield, Mo: Gospel Publishing House, 1999), 58.

[13] àCharles Kraft, “Measuring Indigeneity,” in Readings in Dynamic Indigeneity, eds. Charles Kraft and Tome Wisely (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1979), 118-152.

[14] Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 97; and Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 199-224.

[15] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997), 450-57.

[16] J. D. Payne, Discovering Church Planting: An Introduction to the Whats, Whys, and Hows of Global Church Planting (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2009), 18-24.:

[17] Alan Tippett, Verdict Theology in Missionary Theory (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1973), 148-163.

[18] Ebbie Smith, A Manual for Church Growth Surveys (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1976), 41-54.

[19] Øyvind M. Eide, Revolution and Religion in Ethiopia: the growth and persecution of the Mekane Yesus Church, 1974-85 (Oxford: J. Currey; Athens: Ohio University Press; Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press, 2000), 147. 

[20] Attended by Negussie Tashu from Jimma, Habte Mariam Kassa from Sayyo, Habteh Yimer from Ammaya, Boru Siba from Liban, Onesimos Nesib, Aster Ganno Salbana, and Gebresellassie Tesfa Gabr from Naqamte.

[21] Addis Ababa Evangelical Church archives. A copy of the letter is in my possession.

[22] Staffan Grenstedt, Ambaricho and Shonkolla : from local independent church to the evangelical mainstream in Ethiopia : the origins of the Mekane Yesus Church in Kambata Hadiya (Uppsala: Swedish Institute of Missionary Research, 2000), 131-132.

[23] Djalletta Jaffero, “Ethiopianiszation and Missionary Personnel,” in For the Gospel and the Church: Documents of the Rev. Gudina Tumsa and Mekane Yesus Church from the Period 1961-1970 (Addis Ababa: Gudina Tumsa Foundation, 2006), 1:91-96.

[24] For detail, see Abraham, Reminiscences, 264-265, 268-269, 276-284.

[25] Ezra Gebremedhin, “The Church as an Institution: Challenges Facing the EEC-MY in its Relations to Other Churches,” in For the Gospel and the Church: Documents of the Rev. Gudina Tumsa and Mekane Yesus Church from the Period 1961-1970 (Addis Ababa: Gudina Tumsa Foundation, 2006), 1:114-117.

[26] Eide, Revolution and Religion, 62, 199.

[27] Eide, Revolution and Religion, 228.

[28] Ephesians 1:22-23, 4:15-16; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13.

[29] Eide, Revolution and Religion, 83-4. 

[30] Tasgara Hirpo, “The Cost of Discipleship: The Story of Gudina Tumsa (Guddinaa Tumsaa),” Word & World 25, no. 2 (2005), 162.

[31] Eide, Revolution and Religion, 269. 

[32] Tumsa, “Church as an Institution,” 121.

[33] Hamm, Recreating the Church, 28-30.

[34] Charles Brock, Indigenous Church Planting, a Practical Journey (Neosho, MO: Church Growth Int., 1994).

[35] Ezra Gebremedhin, “Church as an Institution,” 114.

[36] Forslund, Eskil, The Word of God in Ethiopian Tongues: Rhetorical Features in the Preaching of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (Uppsala: The Swedish Institute of Missionary Research, 1993).

[37] Eide, Revolution and Religion, 60.

[38] Tumsa, “The Church as Institution.”

[39] Gudina Tumsa, “EECMY’s Responsibility Towards Ecumenical Harmony” in Witness and Discipleship or the Gospel and the Church: Documents of the Rev. Gudina Tumsa and Mekane Yesus Church from the Period 1961-1970 (Addis Ababa: Gudina Tumsa Foundation, 2006), 1:120.

[40] Gudina Tumsa, “The Role of a Christian in a Given Society,” in Witness and Discipleship: Leadership of the Church in Multi-Ethnic Ethiopia in a Time of Revolution: The Essential Writings of Gudina Tumsa (Addis Ababa: Gudina Tumsa Foundation, 2003).

[41] Eide, Revolution and Religion, 277.

[42] Melvin Hodges, On the Mission Field: The Indigenous Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1953).

[43] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. WillimonResident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Nashville: Abingdon Press,1989), 44-49.

[44] Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections, 94.

[45] David C. Posterski, Reinventing Evangelism: New Strategies for Presenting Christ to the World Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 28.

[46] M. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crisis and Revolution of Hope (Dallas, TX: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 18.

[47] Max Stackhouse, Apologia (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988).

[48] Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard Press, 1994).

[49] Hamm, Recreating the Church, 8-9,

[50] Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Business Press, 2002), 13.

[51] Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard Press, 1994).

[52] Hamm, Recreating the Church, 8, 41-42

[53] Minutes of Ethiopia Consultation on the ECMY Memorandum “On the Interrelation between Proclamation of the Gospel and Human Development (held in Villach, Germany, 4 November 1972),” in Ministry of the Whole Person: Documents of the Rev. Gudina Tumsa and Mekane Yesus Church from the Prerevolutionary Period 1971-1973 (Addis Ababa: Gudina Tumsa Foundation, 2006), 2:57.

[54] Eide, Revolution and Religion, 117.