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The secret behind church growth in Tanzania

10 May 2013

Christians in England can learn from the exponential increase in parishes in the diocese of Mara, says Stephen Spencer

IMAGINE a diocese that grows from 12 parishes to 150 parishes in only 25 years. This is not a dream, but has actually happened in Mara, Tanzania. Its Bishop, the Rt Revd Hilkiah Omindo, was recently in Wakefield, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the link between Wakefield and Mara dioceses. He preached at a service attended by 300 parishioners in Wakefield Ca-thedral, and told the story of this extraordinary growth.

In 1985, when Mara was carved out of the diocese of Victoria Nyanza in north-west Tanzania, it had 12 parishes and a large section of the Serengeti National Park (home to one million wildebeest). By 2010, when the number of parishes had reached 150, the diocese was divided into three (Mara, Rorya, and Tarime). The Bishop reports that growth is continuing, and four or five new parishes are being created every year.

Bishop Omindo is very clear about the reason for this growth: people are attracted to the Anglican Church because it proclaims a holistic salvation, of the body as well as the soul. In particular, they see Anglican churches engaged in community and development projects, as well as Sunday worship, and this is very appealing.

He tells of wells that have been dug, of a goat "library" that lends animals goats to families with HIV/AIDS, who benefit from the nutritious milk, of school classrooms that have been built, of children's nurseries that have been opened, of subsistence farmers trained in irrigation and drought-resistance, of trees planted, and of theological education extended.

Yet there is another ingredient, too. Wakefield parishioners could feel proud at the cathedral service because many of these projects had been started with support from them. Indeed, Bishop Omindo said that Anglicans in Mara had a sense of confidence that was engendered by the backing of Wakefield parishes.

Mara Anglicans have felt able to reach into new villages and to create new churches and projects because they knew that they had the continuing backing of prayer and financial support from their friends in England.

THE outreach into villages is often a two-fold process. To begin with, an already-established church would send a group of recently baptised and enthusiastic Christians to a new place. They would tell the villagers about their new-found faith. When there was a positive reception, the central diocesan team would arrive, and encourage this response, but ask the question: "What is your community project going to be?"

They might suggest rearing chickens, or an irrigation scheme, or a children's nursery, or even gathering the wider community together to discuss digging a well. Each village would have its own needs and opportunities, and the new church would decide how its development project would go ahead. Local ownership of the project was the key to its long-term success.

The diocesan team would then offer technical advice and training in the chosen project, giving it every chance of success. Such projects also provide the new church with a shared aim and some practical objectives, which in turn help to consolidate the life of the congregation.

THIS inspiring story issues an invitation and a challenge to churches in Britain: follow Mara's example, combine community development with evangelism in equal measure, and look to the wider community as the place to put this into practice.

While the culture of Britain is obviously very different from that of Mara, there are still transferable principles at work that can be applied here. The focus on the whole person, with physical and social, as well as spiritual, needs, is clearly an example. The emphasis on local ownership, where central diocesan structures are there to assist and enhance rather than direct or control, is another.

One more of these is a shift away from preoccupation with church-growth as an end in itself: the goal in Mara has never been to increase church-attendance for its own sake, but to bring a broader salvation to the wider community. In Brit- ain, the success or failure of ministry is often measured by church-attendance statistics. In Mara, success or failure is as much about improving the conditions in which the village community lives as it is about the numbers who gather for worship each Sunday.

Christians will see the needs around them, and any opportunities that might exist to address those needs; and they will try to embrace those opportunities. Then, as they carry this out, others see what is happening, and begin to take an interest in church; people start coming to worship out of curiosity and an inkling that something good is on offer.

Behind everything, however, and apparent from Bishop Omindo's manner and approach, is a conviction that the whole endeavour does not belong to the Church, but is part of something bigger. He states that the extraordinary growth in discipleship and development in Mara has not come about through the Church's own power and authority, but from God and his mission in the world. This is the real secret of church growth in Mara.

The Revd Stephen Spencer is the Tanzania link officer for the diocese of Wakefield, and the Vicar of Brighouse and Clifton.

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