This is a story untold by the secular media, but it is a vibrant movement of God’s Spirit in this land presently facing food shortages. Most of the people whose lives have been touched are from an Orthodox Church background, but many Muslims have found Christ too. Those who have seen what the Lord has been doing have been astonished.
The book in the monastery
The story of the gospel in Ethiopia begins in Acts 8 with Philip preaching to the Ethiopian eunuch, an important treasury official from the court of Queen Candace. But the gospel was revitalised in the country during the 19th century by Samuel Goldblatt and a very interesting story began to unfold. Goldblatt was a Lutheran missionary who stayed only about six years in Ethiopia, but translated the New Testament into the Ethiopian language, Amharic.
On his departure he left a copy of this New Testament with a monastery. There it collected dust until, 25 years later, one of the monks took it off the shelf, read it and was overcome by the truth of the gospel. He got other monks studying, with the result that they came to saving faith and out of this came the Mekane Yesus evangelical church.
Mission organisations including SIM began to work in the country, but mainly evangeli-sation was restricted to the South. It did not touch the North of the country or most of the East and West. There were two bursts of growth during the 20th century. When the Italians invaded the country, then known as Abysinnia, under Mussolini, missionaries had to withdraw, but these years saw the number of Christians increase markedly. Then, following the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, there was a Communist government until 1991, with a ‘security service’ inspired by the East German Stasi and the evangelical church had to go underground. Some church leaders fled the country, many others spent years in prison and some were killed. Believers met in homes in secret. But again there was growth. This was partly due to the Government’s determination to bring education to poor people. They sent educated people into distant villages to start schools. Many of these people were Christians, who not only taught the basics of reading and writing, but the gospel as well.
Stories that connect
But then, just about 20 years ago, a group of missionaries in the country became very burdened for the 80% of people in the country with very low literacy – perhaps they could write their name but that was all – who had no access to the gospel. They looked at finding Bible stories that connected with the culture of village Ethiopians that would communicate the gospel. These were broadcast on short-wave radio (FEBA was involved). At a similar time a couple of Orthodox bishops, who were believers, realised that the Orthodox Church was losing their young people to secularism and to Islam. They saw that they needed to get the Bible to the people. A newer translation from the 1960s was put into the hands of deacons, priests, monks and into the churches. This meant that the Word of God began to travel into the North of the country.
With this background God began to work. Inspired by Jesus’s words in John 4 that the harvest fields are ripe for harvest, and pursuing a method rooted in Luke 10.6 of looking for a ‘man of peace’ as the door into untouched communities, the gospel began to be shared using story telling.
On the first occasion, en was told, the one sharing the gospel very diffidently challenged his contacts that if they wanted to, yet they didn’t have to, they might like to come to Christ and make a covenant with him there and then. The response took him aback. ‘Of course we want to. Why haven’t you told us to do it before?’ Later he encouraged them to share the gospel with others, perhaps two or three friends. One woman asked, ‘Do you mind if I tell ten or 20 people?’ And so this movement began to grow exponentially as people told the gospel and trained their friends to share with others.
The heavenly way
One leader had the experience of driving his car to a new town, walking around the narrow streets and then being unable to find his way back to his car. He said to a group of people (knowing that his words had a double meaning) ‘I have lost my earthly way.’ ‘I will show you,’ said a man in the crowd, ‘but have you found the heavenly way?’ ‘Yes,I have’, said the leader, ‘and if you show me back to my car I’ll tell you about it.’ As they walked he shared the gospel.
They walked right past his car, because his guide insisted on taking him back to his home to hear more. Here was a ‘man of peace’ from whose house the church was planted in the town.
This same leader had the joy of leading a young man, David, to Christ during his time in the city of Addis as a university student. David wanted him to come back to his village. The village was on a mountain. On one side was a Muslim village and on the farther side the Orthodox village from where David came.
On their journey, as they entered the Muslim village, a young girl tending goats asked the group if they would like to have coffee at her house. Almost immediately a woman insisted that they go to her house instead. The group divided. In the woman’s house the leader was given very meagre hospitality and when he said ‘I have a story for you’ and shared the gospel the woman made him pay for his coffee! However, in the little girl’s house, the father of the home heard the gospel and came to the Lord. It turned out later that, although he could not read, he was the chairman of the committee which, being a poor village without an imam, looked after the running of the local mosques.
The group then proceeded over the mountain to the Orthodox village. There, in David’s father’s house, the gospel story from Creation to Christ was shared. David’s father, who also could not read, made a commitment, a covenant with Christ. Teaching the new convert and his family went on until midnight. But it was also explained to the man that he had a new ‘brother’ who had become a Christian in the Muslim village on the other side of the mountain. When he heard that this man, like him, could not read, his response was ‘I have two sons who can read and so tell me the Bible’s stories. I must give one of my sons to him.’ This resulted in David going to live with the man in the Muslim village for six months.
During this time, under the committee’s influence, the preaching at the mosques changed, with the gospel now being proclaimed. Many in the town came to Christ, including the woman of ‘meagre hospitality’ and a church started. She later apologised and made the man she had charged for his coffee a large feast!
Need to pray
With the gospel being passed on so quickly by those who have only recently become Christians themselves, there may be a danger of doctrinal weakness and vulnerability to false ideas. Christians need to pray. But certainly lives are being changed and the work of God is proceeding with great joy.
The acceptance of believer’s baptism has proved a strength in this area. A big breakthrough came in the minds of people from an Orthodox background when they realised that though Jesus was circumcised as a child he was baptised at the age of 30.
For security reasons we cannot properly name any of the people referred to in this article.