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A conversation with Behailu Abebe

Behailu Abebe is a study in indigenous leadership.
Converted to Christianity in June 1964, Abebe, a member of an aristocratic family and son of a state governor, gave up a promising political career and risked alienation to follow Christ.But Abebe exchanged political leadership for church leadership. Instead of governing his people from a mansion, he served them food when they were starving, supervising relief missions during two famines. The loving response of churches of Christ outside Ethiopia increased the number of Christians within, Abebe said.

When he’s not speaking at lectures and drumming up support for African missions in the United States, Abebe, 59, is coordinating the work of three schools for the deaf in Ethiopia with nearly 800 students. He also serves as dean of branch schools of Sunset International Bible Institute. The Lubbock, Texas-based Institute has three campuses in Ethiopia.

The love he and his wife, Alem, have for their people has made them the parents of many. The couple has raised 17 children — four of their own and 13 needy ones.
Why do you think churches of Christ are growing rapidly in Africa?

The needs of the people of Africa differ from the needs of the people of the Western Hemisphere. The people of Africa are always going through political unrest, natural and man-made calamities, tribal conflicts and a good deal of struggles for existence. Hardships have made the people of Africa seek God and be more receptive to gospel of Christ.

In Africa, people always have time to think about their spiritual needs more than their material needs. I believe that materialism hinders people from surrendering themselves to the will of God.

What did churches in the United States do in the 1980s that helped churches in Ethiopia to grow? Did the U.S. response to the famine help?

The answer is ‘Yes!’ The churches of Christ in the United States and churches in 28 other countries stretched out their hands generously to feed and save the famine-stricken people of Ethiopia during the 1980s.

This effort has brought thousands of people to the light of the gospel of Christ. Many churches were planted in new areas because of the famine relief development program. Those who were hard to reach with the gospel of Christ were won by the expression of the Christian love shown in the time of their sufferings. Six congregations were planted in the middle of the Muslim-populated area.

How are churches of Christ in Ethiopia different from churches in other parts of Africa?

Compared to other African countries, fewer American missionaries were sent to Ethiopia to start the work in 1961, and by 1974 no American missionaries resided in Ethiopia to carry out the mission work. The ultimate goal of the missionaries who came here was not to take up permanent residence, but to train the nationals to reach out to their own people with the gospel of Christ.

Today the national Christian leaders in Ethiopian churches carry out all the evangelical efforts, preacher training institutes, educational development programs for the deaf, famine relief and other development projects.

Today about 95 percent of local preachers in Ethiopia are supported by their local congregations, or they are self-supported.

Before you became a minister, what about the gospel message appealed to you? What do you like about the churches of Christ?

The simplicity of the gospel message had a powerful impact on me. The Jule Miller filmstrip presentation has helped me to open my eyes to study the Bible and change my life.

What do I like about churches of Christ? The sound teaching of the Lord’s church, the decent and undisturbed worship of the church, the love and harmony that I find in the church family.

In addition to the soul-saving efforts, the benevolent work of the church touches my heart. In view of the fact that Christ had a compassion for all people, it is wonderful to see. The church has a caring heart toward the unfortunate.

Do you feel that American missionaries or African evangelists are more effective in spreading the gospel in Africa? Why is it important for African churches to be led by Africans instead of American missionaries?

I believe the trained national evangelist is more effective in spreading the gospel. Using trained nationals eliminates language, cultural and custom problems. It is also less expensive.

African leaders understand and know the language of their people, customs, traditions and mentality better than the missionaries.

But American missionaries are useful also, especially in the area of training and equipping the nationals in the preacher training institutes. American missionaries can train local church members in leadership and accountability. They can train local leaders in how to counsel and resolve conflicts in the church. They can train leaders to counsel church members dealing with marriage problems. They can also implement health training, or serve as medical missionaries.

What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions Americans have about churches of Christ in Africa?

Most American missionaries do not believe that the churches in Africa can continue to exist without them. Most missionaries do not accept the nationals as co-workers. Therefore, trust and teamwork does not exist between them. Finally, it becomes an obstacle for the growth of the church.

What are the biggest misconceptions African Christians have about churches in the United States?

Some Africans think that all churches in United States are very wealthy, strong and holy. That creates dependency on the churches in America. Some churches in Africa think that they cannot function without the total support of the churches in America.

Some Africans think that the church belongs to Americans because missionaries are always coming from the United States. It is known that U.S. churches support mission work outside of Africa, so this leaves some African Christians with the impression that American churches support all the pulpits all over the world.

What do you feel are the greatest strengths of churches of Christ in Africa? What are African churches’ biggest challenges?

Among the greatest strengths are the churches’ faith, unity and trust in God. The biggest challenges for churches in Africa include breaking through tribal differences. There are also a variety of different beliefs in political systems. There are also a number of Africans who still practice polygamy.

What is next for churches in Africa?

Churches in Africa need to have the spirit and involvement of the church on the field. They need boldness in spreading the gospel of Christ. The church must become the living body of Christ that grows and develops spiritually (Gal. 5:22). The church must become a training institution as it trains its members (not just evangelists) (II Tim. 2:2).

Churches in Africa must become mission-minded churches to reach out to the lost souls in different parts of the continent and beyond. They also must learn sacrificial giving so that they will be able to support their own preachers and missionary enterprises.

How can African churches continue to grow in the next 100 years?

The gospel must penetrate all ethnic groups, cultures and customs. In areas where people are most receptive to Christ, maximum effort should be given to broaden the outreach of churches. But churches and missionaries also should strive to push beyond these borders.

What can U.S. churches do to help?

There many things that the U.S. churches could do to help the churches in Africa. (They can help)by sending able men to train and equip leaders in Africa, through preacher training schools. U.S. churches also can cover the expenses of the training schools or support key teachers in the schools. Funds are always needed for building and teaching materials.

U.S. churches also may help by funding benevolent and development programs that help people become self-sufficient.

How can Christians reach out to Muslims in Africa?

By establishing friendships and showing love and compassion to them in order to open their heart for the gospel. (For example, through development programs).

Do you envision a day when African missionaries will come to evangelize in the United States?

Yes. I believe one day African Christians who are educated in the Christian universities or through business training programs will start supporting themselves and preaching in the United States.

Filed under: Dialogue

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