The church in America is shrinking daily. The church in most parts of Africa is growing dramatically.
Most notably among them is the Anglican Church of Nigeria. According to a recent article by the Christian Post, the Anglican Church of Nigeria has grown from 24 dioceses in 1988 to 156 dioceses today.
What’s more, each week in worship they average about 20 million people in church. That’s staggering growth when you think about it. (We United Methodists in America can’t even get our 7 million members to show up each week.)
So what gives? How have they done it? How have they managed to grow so dramatically as a church in such a short period of time?
In an interview with the Rt. Rev. Peter Jasper Akinola, the former primate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, they received the following explanation:
According to the Rt. Rev. Peter Jasper Akinola, it all started when bishops stopped thinking of themselves as bishops in the conventional sense.
Previously, the bishop was addressed as “His Lordship.” He mainly occupied the position of the office, had everything done for him, attended meetings, decided mission strategies, and graced ceremonies.
“Today, every bishop (in the Church of Nigeria) is first and foremost an evangelist,” said Akinola. “And from that, other things follow.”
Asked if the leadership of the primate is really that crucial to the growth of the church, Akinola replied:
“Without a leader, how much can we really accomplish?”
“When a leader is focused, when a leader is determined, when a leader is genuine, when a leader is being led by God, I am sure that good things will result,” he said. “But when a leader does not give attention to these matters or has a different agenda, of course the fellowship will be affected.”
I am struck by these two comments. According to Bishop Akinola, leadership is absolutely essential to the growth of the church.
But, it’s not just any kind of leadership. Sitting in an office will not suffice. Presiding over committee meetings and planning sessions is not enough. Being a visible figure who provides nice sound bytes for the media is insufficient.
According to the bishop, what is needed is evangelistic leadership. The leader needs to be out there doing the work of evangelism, leading people to faith in Jesus Christ and organizing others for that purpose. When the leader evangelizes, others will follow. They will do it too. But the leader must set the tone. The leader must do the work of evangelism.
I read that, and I can’t help but think of the recent dustup over Bishop Willimon’s remarks. I am sure Bishop Willimon means well. However, if he wants his conference to be more evangelistic and “effective,” perhaps he should follow Bishop Akinola’s advice: Lead us in the work of evangelism. Be an evangelistic bishop.
Perhaps he’s already doing that. I don’t know. But, if his pastors are balking against his emphasis on numbers, it may well be because he hasn’t led them first in how to bring people to faith in Jesus.
“Saving souls” is out of fashion these days. But, perhaps that’s why we’re shrinking and the Church of Nigeria is growing. Akinola seems to have no problem with the idea of saving souls.
Of course, all of that hits closer to home. As a pastor, if I expect my church to grow, perhaps I need to be more of an evangelistic leader myself. Perhaps I need to spend less time in meetings and more time trying to lead people to faith in Jesus.
After all, I can’t ask others to do what I’m not willing to do myself, can I? If I want my lay leaders to be evangelistic, I need to be right there with them, don’t I?
Perhaps the reason the United Methodist Church in America is shrinking is because not enough of us as pastors are leading our churches in evangelism. It’s an interesting thought.