Pentecost at the Crossroads

African Central Conferences worship service“The United Methodist Church is at a crossroads,” Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa told the more than 500 assembled for the African Worship Service on Pentecost Sunday at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

Nhiwatiwa welcomed the international congregation and made it clear that the church in Africa and its bishops must play a pivotal role in helping The United Methodist Church take the right road. “The church has been here before” he said, and African bishops such as St. Cyprian and St. Augustine led the church at other key crossroads.

Nhiwatiwa, the president of the African Council of Bishops, concluded with the message that the Holy Family sought shelter in Africa, the Word was kept safe in Africa, so that it would shine as a bright beacon for all the world. “As it was 2,000 years ago, God said, ‘Take the baby to Egypt’ [Africa].… With worldwide hostility to the cause of Christ, we say again today: ‘Take the baby to Egypt!’”

The congregation erupted with cheers as it gave Nhiwatiwa a standing ovation before being led into worship by the dynamic Africa University Choir. Participants in the worship service hailed from numerous African nations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Angola, and Nigeria.

The modern day reality of United Methodism is that nearly 5 million of our 12 million members are found on the African continent. In Portland, that new reality explains why 30 percent of the 864 delegates were Africans – with 48 delegates from the North Katanga Conference in Congo. That number will increase exponentially as membership continues to skyrocket in Africa and descend in North America. Quite simply, the energy, vitality, and growth within Methodism is found in different time zones, nations, and languages than the solely American name brand Methodism of yesterday. The shift is epic.

• More United Methodists reside in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2.5 million) than in the North Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions combined (2.4 million).

• More United Methodists live in Nigeria (457,959) than the entire Western Jurisdiction (322,939).

• Twice as many United Methodists worship in Cote d’Ivoire (677,355) as in Virginia (327,706) – one of our largest annual conferences.

• More United Methodists worship in Mozambique (108,322) than in Northern Illinois (90,820).

The axis of Methodism is shifting. The unmistakable tilt of the sociological and spiritual reality found in the newly emerging United Methodist Church is in African cities such as Harare, Abuja, and Kinshasa. These urban epicenters could end up being the Londons, Bristols, and Epworths of the next wave of Wesleyan resurgence.

The fiery tongues of angels were manifest on Pentecost in the book of Acts, but the tongues of Methodism’s next chapter may be in French, Portugese, and Swahili.

“Today is Pentecost Sunday, and so we celebrate the birth of the Church,” said the Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah, dean of Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia. “This historic day, the day on which the Church was born, is also the first time in the history of General Conference that the Central Conference of Africa conducts a worship service that celebrates Jesus Christ.

“As bearers of the Good News every second there is a message to offer to the world,” said Kulah, one of the leaders of the Africa Initiative that prepared delegates for the General Conference in Portland. “The Initiative is a movement of African leaders both clergy and lay people committed to partnership. We need to raise our voice and pray to seek God’s face to train and develop leaders so that the African church will be empowered with men and women who know the truth, and who live the truth, and who proclaim the truth.”

Kulah repeated the theme of the crossroads confronting United Methodism. “I’ve come to realize that on our life’s journey, there are always crossroads to encounter,” he said. “And at the crossroads of life, it becomes our responsibility to carefully identify the path that leads to our destination. If we fail to take the path that leads to our destiny, we eventually will take a road that leads to our dead end.”

Preaching from Jeremiah chapter 2, Kulah spoke about the political and religious leaders of the nation of Judah abandoning God. “Their priests were preaching lies, their prophets were prophesying lies. They were preaching peace when there was no peace,” he said. God sent the Prophet Jeremiah on the difficult task of declaring His truth to a wayward people.

“The crossroads is a place of decision making. At the crossroads, you choose to take a new direction or the wrong direction,” Kulah said as individuals from the congregation stood in affirmation of his message. “At the crossroads, God asks us what path will you take. Will you take the path that leads to what is good?”

Great biblical characters such as Abraham and Esther had to face their own crossroads, said Kulah. God chose them to make difficult decisions with faith. “I don’t know how long we will be at the crossroads, but eventually we will move on,” he said.

“Look to the future and see the church. Do you see a growing, vibrant church? What do you see? God’s invited all of you to look into the future,” Kulah told the assembly. In the interim, he said, we are to “walk in justice, walk in mercy, and walk in righteousness.”

Kulah concluded by quoting Jesus: “I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life. No one, absolutely no one, comes to the Father except through me.” When we come to our crossroads, the rest for our soul is found in Jesus Christ.

The service concluded with the Lord’s Supper being served by the African bishops to the congregation gathered from around the globe. The morning message soon seemed to crystalize: With a shared cup and a broken loaf of bread we will approach the crossroads together with one faith, redeemed by one Lord, and empowered by one Spirit. It was, after all, Pentecost Sunday.

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