May 4, 2023
I am writing this letter from Kenya, where we have just completed our latest International Leadership Program (ILP) weekend conference. This program has become our most effective tool for developing congregational leaders outside the United States. The Church of God, a Worldwide Association, is indeed a “worldwide” association. We have 107 congregations in the United States, with 170 elders and approximately 6,000 in attendance. Outside the United States we have 166 congregations with 54 elders and approximately 6,000 in attendance. Our greatest growth over the past few years has been in areas outside the United States, especially in Africa and Latin America. With only 25 percent of our total ministry outside the U.S., it has been a huge challenge how to care for our international members.
The ILP was first proposed in November of 2017 and officially began in 2018. After two-plus years of shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, we restarted the program in Chile in May of 2022. The just completed conference in Kenya was our seventh since that restart, and we have one more remaining on the schedule, which will be in Guatemala in June. Each of these conferences is designed to promote the development of leadership in four areas: (1) doctrinal understanding, (2) personal example, (3) speaking and communication skills to effectively teach God’s Word, and (4) personal growth as a Christian. Each presentation focuses on one of these major areas.
During the conference here in Kenya, we had 60 attendees from 11 different countries, including Canada and France. On the Sabbath we were joined by some of the local members who were able to travel by bus from western Kenya to the conference location. We had an attendance of 120 on the Sabbath, which we consider excellent.
In each conference, the schedule consists of nine hours of classroom instruction, plus time for social interaction and personal interviews for all attendees. The interviews were added for this third phase of the program and have been very enlightening. During these interviews, we hear some amazing stories of God’s calling and the challenges faced by those being called.
One of the most inspiring stories for me during this conference came from the small, poverty-stricken country of Burundi. I believe that most of us would have trouble even locating Burundi on a map, yet we have one of our largest groups outside the U.S. in this nation. Over the past few years, the Church in Burundi has seen outstanding growth in attendance. Many of the new members have come from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. While attending the Adventist Church, they discovered the holy days from various sources—our booklet, family, friends or neighbors—and after gaining this new knowledge, they then contacted the Church. Being such a small country, many of them were already familiar with our local pastor, Nathan Mukeshimana, who answered their questions.
There are many challenges to being a Church member in Burundi. The government has recently made it very difficult for any church, not just the Church of God, to hold a weekly service. The government has consistently added, then changed, very strict requirements for churches, with the threat of prison if these requirements are not met.
So, what are the requirements for a church to be “legal” in Burundi? Currently, the government has three major requirements: (1) A church must have a modern building, and it cannot be rented or used as a personal residence. To be “modern,” the building must be constructed of concrete block or reinforced brick and have electricity, modern toilets and running water. Currently, we have five very modest buildings, but none of them meet the government’s description of a modern building. All five of our buildings were constructed with unreinforced brick. (2) A church must have a program for improving the community it’s in. A church can choose from a variety of programs, such as building a school, a hospital or an orphanage for use by the community. Of course, this is virtually impossible for our small groups. (3) A church must appoint a legal representative in the community who has the education necessary to keep up with all the legal requirements. If it doesn’t have such an individual in the congregation, it will need to hire someone.
As you can imagine, these requirements are overwhelming for our small congregations spread around the country. The government is serious about these requirements and has already jailed individuals whose churches did not measure up to its standards. We are doing everything we can to make sure that our congregations in Burundi are able to meet the various government requirements, but it won’t be easy. We don’t have the internal resources among the members in Burundi to fulfill all the government requirements.
During the conference, Clyde Kilough interviewed Mr. Mukeshimana for In Accord. In this interview Mr. Mukeshimana explained the history of the Church in Burundi and the challenges they face. His story is most inspiring. He had some contact with literature from the Worldwide Church of God in the 1980s, but he remained a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church until the early 2000s. At that time, he became dissatisfied with the Adventists and stopped attending church altogether. During this hiatus from church, he did an intensive study of Scripture. He became convinced that he needed to keep the holy days. At that time, he contacted Joel Meeker, our regional director for French-speaking Africa.
Mr. Mukeshimana explained to his family and neighbors what he found in the Bible. He officially left the Adventist Church along with a small group in 2004. Since that time, by personal example and word of mouth, as well as our literature, the group grew. I first visited the group in 2012, when we ordained Mr. Mukeshimana as an elder and confirmed him as the pastor of the group. At that time, there were approximately 150 in attendance. Today, there are over 700. Most attendees were former members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church who learned about the holy days and began attending one of the congregations pastored by Mr. Mukeshimana.
In Matthew 28:19-20, Christ instructed His disciples to “make disciples of all the nations,” to baptize them and to teach them “to observe all things that I have commanded you.” During this most recent conference in Kenya, where 11 nations were represented, we were able to see what it looks like to make disciples of all the nations. It was exciting and inspiring to teach, visit and fellowship with the brethren from the nations of central Africa. Please continue to pray for our brethren and the challenges they face in this part of the world.
Sincerely, your brother in Christ,