In spite of COVID-19, ministry continues.

These words are from Evance Mphalasa, a pastor and acting general secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Malawi (ELCM). They have energized him and a team of evangelists as they spread the gospel despite the setbacks of the pandemic.

Malawi is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. Its 18 million residents fit into a landlocked space the size of Pennsylvania, in the heart of central Africa. Yet it houses one of the fastest-growing Lutheran churches on the continent.

The ELCM formed in 1982 without any missionary influence, just the newfound faith of laypeople who learned about Lutheranism while working in neighboring countries, said Feston Phiri, ELCM director for training and secretary for mission and evangelism. “Evangelism has been our call, our main mission,” he said. “We’ve been involved in evangelizing across the country, and it has rapidly grown.”

In fall 2022, the church will celebrate 40 years of ministry, the fruits of which include more than 150,000 members and 400 congregations.

One of the strengths of the church in Malawi has been a holistic approach to sharing the gospel, said Philip Knutson, ELCA regional representative in Southern Africa. “There has always been diakonia (service) to rural evangelism,” he said, citing support for women and children through a parish-based feeding program, mobile clinics and sustainable development projects, through which many people have “come into the church.”

“Malawi has not stopped evangelizing. [We simply used] a different approach.”

But a recent mission outreach program, part of which was funded through Mission Support (offerings shared with the synod and churchwide organization), has further encouraged and increased the growth of the ELCM, even amid the pandemic.

“Now we can reach areas we couldn’t reach ourselves—hard-to-reach areas,” Phiri said. “Most of the people, including the government, ignore these people. Roads are not good. When we started getting funds from the ELCA, we started reaching out to people in a Muslim-dominated area … [and] we have been able to reach them.”

Strict COVID-19 government measures issued in early 2020 closed some of the churches in Malawi and restricted gatherings to 100 people,  Phiri said. Churches that remained open had to provide congregants with masks, sanitizer and water buckets, unbudgeted expenses that proved financially devastating.

Additionally, the printing of Sunday school and evangelism materials—particularly those in the Tumbuka language—stopped completely because most offices were closed, Phiri said. But Malawian evangelists were not deterred.

2020 was a “hard time indeed with regard to evangelism in Malawi, but I think the whole world [was challenged],” he said. “Despite this COVID-19 as a problem, Malawi has not stopped evangelizing. [We simply used] a different approach.”

“Things never stopped”

Pastors hosted two, three, even four services each Sunday to accommodate the small-gathering restrictions. To further share the gospel, evangelists set up a truck equipped with loudspeakers so they could preach and sing to people in their homes.

“We used this van and this singing group, which is a praise team, evangelizing, going around to different areas, reaching out to different people with this kind of way,” Phiri said. “This exercise was done during [the evening] … when people are in their houses, so it was very easy to reach them.”

These efforts were made “to make sure, each and every Sunday from our pulpit, conversations were going around to the people at large,” Mphalasa said. “So things never stopped.”

The ELCM also increased its evangelism training, focused on teaching local groups that included women and married couples. Church leaders were “giving them tips, tactics and techniques on how they could [evangelize]. This has proved very fruitful,” Phiri said.

Many Western countries turned to social media to continue faith conversations and stay connected to parishioners, but most Malawians lacked that luxury. Joseph Bvumbwe, ELCM bishop, was able to create a virtual forum for Malawi pastors, providing daily updates so they could stay at the forefront of helping their parishes.

Not only is the ELCM expanding, but authentic diversity is growing in the church as well.

“Bishop never slept; he was always helping to get us the latest information about COVID-19, always sending messages through the forums for pastors,” Mphalasa said. “Then the pastors disseminated the information.”

Bvumbwe’s role in this work was central to its success, Knutson said, adding, “Working at a very high level with government, dealing with these kinds of issues, has been important for the church and the country, to have a leader who is so well respected.”

Today, not only is the ELCM expanding, but authentic diversity is growing in the church as well.

Because of its growth, the church has decided to divide into three dioceses—“North, Central and South—and, eventually, to have three bishops,” Knutson said. “[As part of the] beginning of new growth, plans to include women as ordained ministers are coming as well.”

In fact, the first woman pastor in the ELCM was ordained on Sept. 26.

“The church is growing so fast and so rapidly,” Phiri said.

A version of this article appeared in the 2021-22  issue of Stories of Faith in Action, which highlights Mission Support at work.

Stephanie N. Grimoldby
Grimoldby is a freelance writer living in Antioch, Ill.

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