Missionary to America: Prof. Samuel Deressa
An Antidote for Dying Churches
“I had never heard such a thing before.” That was Samuel Deressa’s response to a seminary classroom conversation.
Prof. Deressa was born in Ethiopia, the son of an Ethiopian Lutheran theologian.
The boy grew up on the campus of the Lutheran church in Ethiopia’s Mekane Yesus Seminary. After graduating from college he spent a brief time as an accountant, but decided to go back to that seminary, this time as a student. He would give his life to teaching theology. The decision was urgent because the need for pastors was great.
Lutheran seminary professors are sorely needed in Ethiopia. With eleven million members, Mekane Yesu is the fastest growing Lutheran church in the world, second in total membership only to the Lutheran church in Germany. According to Samuel, hundreds of new churches are beginning in Ethiopia. Mekane Yesus has a large mission heart. The church is challenged to educate enough pastors to meet the opportunities.
America the Mission Field
Deressa planned to leave his wife and two small children for two years to come to the United States and earn a doctorate in theology. When he arrived in America he saw another mission field. What sparked his concern was a question he heard in class; a question never discussed at the seminary in Ethiopia, “What can we do about dying churches?”
Dying churches? What was a dying church? He had never heard that term in the fast growing Ethiopian Lutheran Church. He began to think the Lord had brought him to America to help churches experience the same mission zeal as the Lutheran church in Ethiopia. Today he is a professor at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Mission Nation’s Dan Gilbert conducted a video interivew with Dr. Deressa (see below). Gilbert asked the professor what he thought was most needed for a change. He responded by using his own Ethiopian congregation as an example.
Grace and Love Move People
The church where Prof. Deressa is a member is part of a century old Anglo congregation that graciously opened its doors to the Ethiopian immigrants. “If you came inside you would think you are back in our home country,” said Deressa. The same could be said for Korean, Hispanic, Chinese, or long established white churches. They were established out of a need to worship, but worship in ways they felt comfortable. In so doing they shut out everyone else. For newcomers, and increasingly for the children of the immigrants, it is difficult to hear the good news of God’s love and what Jesus sacrificed for us. In other words, there is not a clear Word of God to reach beyond their culturally specific worship to touch and transform hearts.
As Deressa sees it, we live in a multi-ethnic society. Ways can be found for churches to represent the demographics of their neighborhood, at least their local supermarket and school. The mission opportunity to become a multi-ethnic church is substantial and it is growing. Can churches look beyond their racial and cultural ghettos?
This year for the first time the number of white, English speaking people has declined in America. The future is bright with colors of many different races and cultures. More and more churches are taking steps to become multi-ethnic, some are much further along than others.
The antidote for a dying church is a grace that moves people out on a limb, a love so great that a church is willing to be uncomfortable to love its neighbors. You could say in the same way, the love of God brought Him to the limb of a cross.
The antidote for a dying church is to be so loving that we sacrifice our comfort to create a church that looks more like our neighborhood, more like the local university, and more like heaven.