During my last visit to Ethiopia I joined students at Addis Ababa University for a meeting of the Evangelical Students’ and Graduates’ Union of Ethiopia (EvaSUE). They are part of a remarkably courageous Ethiopian church that survived the repressive regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Believers had to painfully go underground under persecution between 1974 and 1991 while the regime tortured and murdered tens of thousands. But afterwards the church emerged irrepressible and vibrant in witness.
At the meeting I attended, the worship session alone lasted an hour. Then came a time of prayer followed by biblical preaching, lasting about two and half hours. I could tell from the students’ singing, dancing and praying that most of them brought elements of their Orthodox Church background into their evangelical identity. Most could recite long portions of scripture from heart, a habit learned under Communist rule. There were 700 students present and another 50 were said to have gone into a village for rural evangelism. Later that night we sat and ate injera with bare hands from deep bowls.
These Ethiopian students could not have been more different in culture, experience, tradition and appearance from their counterparts in Oxford and Cambridge who pioneered Inter Varsity Fellowship (which later became the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students) about 64 years ago. Yet they are just as much a part of the future identity of global evangelicalism.
I believe there is a deep bowl of evangelical identity and heritage we all need to learn to eat from. This bowl is filled with diverse gifts contributed from the ends of the earth. Some of the best and most interesting foods on the menu come from newcomers in the evangelical family.
The future of evangelical reformation must take our global diversity seriously. We cannot be truly all that God wants us to be, or impact all the ends of the earth with Biblical truth and practice, if we are not attending to the global mosaic God is constructing in and through our diversity. In other words, beyond clinging to the values of our past reformation, which is rooted in particular contexts, we must take seriously the emerging values from new centres of Christian expansion.
In the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) the landowner hired workers at different times but paid them the same wage. The first-come workers had accepted the terms of payment, and would have gone home content if other workers had not been introduced. Instead, they resented the later-hour workers. Sometimes evangelicals stand in danger of being like them, expecting higher honour or greater wages because they came first.
We have seen wonderful things. The founding fathers of the evangelical tradition now stand surrounded by beneficiaries who would do all they can to defend and preserve the fathers’ heritage. That is certainly true of those Ethiopian students with whom I worshipped.
However, as the Lord of the harvest hires more workers to cross cultural barriers to the ends of the earth, they may produce fresher ideas to enrich the heritage. We cannot remain prisoners of the historical and cultural framework of the first-come workers. Our greater concern must be to listen and learn from what the Lord of history is doing globally. Can anything good come from the previously unimaginable, diverse ends of the earth? Only in being open to learn shall we know.
Femi B. Adeleye serves as Associate General Secretary for Partnership and Collaboration with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), and is a Langham (John Stott Ministries) scholar. He also serves on the Pan- African Host Team for the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, Cape Town 2010.
This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)