Following the completion of our Indiana Annual Conference Session, I have been traveling with the Africa University Choir to raise awareness for that wonderful success story of our United Methodist Church and to raise awareness for the Campaign we are launching to raise $1.6 million for AU in the next three years. That campaign and goal were approved by our Indiana Conference to endow a professor of agriculture and to endow additional student scholarships.
Why Africa University? This is the 20th anniversary of that very successful United Methodist dream to build a university on the continent of Africa which draws young leaders from all of Africa (29 countries among the student body today) to educate them and also to build a spirit of harmony and peace -- for those leaders to go home and lead their villages and countries in peace. AU is one of the great success stories of our denomination, and the Indiana Conferences have been a part of it. In the 1990's under the leadership of Bishop White, we raised funds and built four dormitories on the campus (they have a policy of "no debt" -- so every building on their campus is fully funded). Now, for its 20th anniversary, Africa University has told us that they most need professorships and scholarships -- and that is why our Indiana Conference has voted for this campaign. During the fall of this year, we will have AU Rallies in all 10 districts (you can go to whichever one fits your schedule and plans), and we will be receiving pledges from individuals and congregations. Already we have our first pledge of $100,000 from the Friends of Africa University (an affinity network of laity who are committed to AU), and some churches have already begun making gifts and pledges. The campaign is being conducted in a partnership of the Conference and the Foundation (the United Methodist Foundation of Indiana, Inc.) so that all funds will be received by the Foundation for distribution for AU through the AU Foundation in Nashville, Tennessee. That allows protection for our gifts against any economic disruptions in Africa.
Meanwhile I have enjoyed getting to know the AU Choir members and director, and I have learned a lot of wisdom from my conversations with them. Here are a few examples: (1) when the AU Choir was taken bowling by their hosts at St. Luke's UMC in Indianapolis, it was soon obvious that none of them had ever bowled before, but it was also obvious that the African style was for everyone to celebrate any time anyone scored a strike -- because the African style is all about community and not about competition. (2) Several from the choir asked me good questions about what they observed during our Annual Conference Session, especially they wanted to know what is a "discontinued church" -- because such a concept is unheard of in Africa where they focus upon starting new churches and not on closing churches. (3) They were concerned by our discussions about retired clergy, and they were under the impression that our retirees only receive $150 per month for pension, until I explained that $150 per month is only the subsidy for their Medicare supplements. That led to a good conversation about the ways we provide for our retired pastors, spouses, and surviving spouses -- and it made it clear to me that we all need better information and communication about that complex issue. (4) We had several discussions about the JOY of their singing and worship style, along with lots of questions about why we in America are so often joy-less in our worship. Especially we talked about the Offering because in Africa most often the Offering is received with applause and dancing forward to bring gifts to God and the church. The choir wanted to know why we American "just sit there" during our times of worship and praise. I learned a lot of African wisdom in my discussions with the AU Choir.
All of those bits of African wisdom reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with one of our Bishops in Africa who is a good friend (I won't name him because I don't have his permission to share this quotation from him). In a deep conversation over coffee, I asked him what advice he had for me and for the American church so that we could be a growing, joyful, and alive church -- to be more like the African church. Here was his advice:
- Prayer -- he said "The American church is not a praying church. You say lots of prayers, but you don't pray deeply and listen to God. If you really want your church to be more alive, you need to pray for your church, your pastors, and your leaders."
- Love -- he said, "You Americans love one another in your churches, but you don't extend love beyond your close group of friends in the church. In Africa, we love people into the church, we don't just love other church people."
- Indigenous Worship -- he said, "In Africa the church only began to grow dramatically after we were freed from the colonial style of worship from France, Portugal, and Britain. We brought our drums into worship and we learned to sing the Gospel in the languages of the people." He went on to advise, "Your pastors need to learn the culture of those outside your old churches and bring worship to them in words, music, and style that they understand."
Now, I know we can quickly say to our African friends that Elkhart, Muncie, Terre Haute, Bloomington, and Madison are not Africa. We can keep on doing church the way we know how to do church and hope to get different results. Or ... we can listen to the wisdom of Africa.