The miracle of Malawi: After a century of dramatic growth, Churches of Christ focus on unity, urban ministry
One of them, Innocent Nyasulu, flips through the well-worn pages of a paperback hymnal until he finds No. 234, “Mundimvere Mbuye Wanga.” In Chichewa, it means “Hear me for my praise,” he says.
Nyasulu and his fellow preachers take those words literally. In boisterous harmony, they belt out the lyrics, their voices echoing across the mission’s campus — and clear up to heaven.
The preachers come from across this nation in southern Africa to study in Namikango’s ministry training program. Twice each day — 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. — they gather on woven floor mats for a time of devotion and prayer.
Another student, Gift Kapitawo, flips to his favorite song, “Come with a happy heart.”
“We should be happy in our hearts, because of the son of God,” Kapitawo says. “We should be singing.”
Malawians have reason to rejoice. Their nation, known as “the warm heart of Africa,” has enjoyed peace unknown by its war-ravaged neighbors.
Though poverty, famine and AIDS take countless lives here, the country remains among the most densely populated in Africa.
Malawi has a significant Islamic population — and once had a Muslim president — but religious conflicts are rare.
No less miraculous is the growth of Churches of Christ among the gentle people of Malawi, church members say. Researchers estimate that the country has more than 4,000 congregations — accounting for more than a quarter of known Churches of Christ on the African continent.
When the first missionaries from Churches of Christ arrived, they concentrated their efforts where most of Malawi’s people lived — rural villages.
It was an effective strategy, said Roderick Maluwa, an administrator for Namikango Mission.
“I just want to thank our fathers who came here years back,” he said, because they “chose to prioritize those who were then in the majority — out in the village. They went again and again and again, and the Gospel spread.
“The poverty of the Malawians helped them to cling to Jesus, who enriched them with the Gospel,” he added.
Churches of Christ also offered a faith of simplicity, said Wilson Tembo, Namikango’s warehouse and distribution officer. No buildings were required. Congregations could meet under a tree.
“Most of the churches in Malawi don’t allow members to join without a monthly or annual contribution fee of some sort — and long-term lessons before one is actually baptized,” Tembo said. “This is not the case with the Church of Christ,” which offered free membership to anyone “heeding to the Word.”
Though training is available for preachers, it is not a strict requirement, Tembo added. Anyone who wants to preach may do so.
“There is no compromise with the Gospel,” said Moses K. Banda, a Malawian minister studying at African Christian College in Swaziland. “We tell people plainly, ‘No Christ, no salvation.’”
Churches of Christ also are known for their generosity and kindness, especially during times of need, Banda said.
“The help we give people during funerals and sickness outbreaks makes them believe what we tell them about Gospel,” he said. “It’s love in action.”
DIVISION AND UNITY
Despite acts of benevolence, “One sad note is that many of the Malawian congregations do not fellowship with each other,” missionaries Wimon Walker and Robert Reese wrote in the book “100 Years of African Missions.”
Some African leaders have broken away from the church and formed their own religious groups, the authors wrote. Missionaries from Churches of Christ that believe using one cup in communion is the only scriptural model have planted numerous congregations, as have churches that oppose support of church institutions.
In recent years churches have split over the issue of singing during communion. Malawian Christians note that many of the divisions have roots in missionaries from the West.
The lack of unity frustrates young preachers, including Nyasulu, who came to Namikango Mission from the northern city of Rumphi, where he works with a Bible institute.
“There is lots of division here — one cup, choir or no choir. Ay-yi-yi-yi!” he said, using a Malawian expression of dismay. “I think the main problem is pride and leadership issues.”
Recently, about 250 elders, deacons, ministers and their wives — representing Churches of Christ across southern Malawi — gathered at a police barracks in the city of Blantyre for in-depth discussions of the challenges they face in the 21st century.
The meeting was part of an ongoing dialogue among the churches, said Arthur Msowoya, an elder of the Red Cross Church of Christ in Blantyre.
“There was a time when we were leading at bringing people to the Lord,” Msowoya said. “Over time, it has sort of gone down.”
“We have the right message,” he said, “but … we are not good at shepherding. We have overemphasized things that we shouldn’t have been emphasizing.”
In the past, evangelists have been divisive and territorial, said Rabson Kaliso, minister for the 70-member Soche Church of Christ in Limbe, Malawi, who attended the meeting.
This behavior has contributed to a decline in church growth, he said.
“Little by little, leaders are going here and there, saying, ‘Let’s work together,’” Kaliso said. “We are contributing equally. … This meeting was very, very successful.”
A NEED TO REACH GROWING CITIES
Christians in suits and ties worship at the Red Cross church — one of the oldest and largest congregations in Malawi. About 400 people attend the English-language service, and another 400 attend the Chichewa service that follows. A new auditorium, complete with balcony, is under construction next door.
Many of the church’s seven elders are second- and third-generation members. Among them are business owners, lawyers and government officials.
After the English service, Dorothy Chiwaya and Rita Chiphaliwali watch their grandchildren scamper across the church’s courtyard, playing tag. Both ladies came into the church through their husbands, and have worshipped here for 20 and 30 years, respectively.
Their children grew up in the church, but not all of them stayed. Two of Chiphaliwali’s sons live in Lilongwe and worship with fast-growing charismatic churches.
“What they want (is that) the church should be more alive,” Chiphaliwali said. Young people want to know more about what they read about in the Bible — including the Holy Spirit, she added. In Malawi’s big cities, they find religious groups that promise them answers.
Malawi is increasingly urban. In the past decade, the population of Lilongwe has nearly doubled, according to census figures. Though Churches of Christ have excelled at rural evangelism, they are not well equipped to reach educated people in big cities, Maluwa said.
“I have seen some evangelists who, when sent to go work in towns, they shiver,” he said. “Something has got to be done.”
Church leaders believe education is the key to reaching souls in big cities.
Outside the town of Dedza, workers are setting the foundations for a new Christian school, hospital and orphanage. The project is a partnership between the Red Cross church, the Area 47 Church of Christ in Lilongwe and the Green Valley Church of Christ in Noblesville, Ind. The Malawi Project, an Indiana-based nonprofit overseen by church members, is partnering in the work, along with Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas.
Though Malawi has many ministry training programs, “we realize that we’ve lost a lot of time in this country” when it comes to Christian education, said Evance Mwapasa, an elder of the Area 47 church. Today, many longtime church members send their children to Catholic schools, he said.
Randy Judd, a second-generation missionary in Malawi’s north, hopes to use the country’s increasing access to the Internet to help Christians train for urban ministry. In addition to a Bible college in Mzuzu, Judd and Malawian Christians have established ministry training centers in Blantyre, Salima and Zobque, Mozambique, using the church-supported Internet training ministry Nations University.
Though he sees the need for urban church growth, Judd hopes that Christians in Malawi — and U.S. supporters — will resist the urge to build American-style urban congregations.
“When we try to make the church anything instead of letting the Malawians make a Malawian church, we’re going to have problems,” Judd said. “Besides, it’s Jesus’ church. And Jesus was not an American.”