LDS Church Growth Case Studies:
LDS Outreach Expansion in Awasa, Ethiopia
LDS Outreach Expansion in Awasa, Ethiopia
Author: Matt Martinich
Located in south central Ethiopia in the Ethiopian Highlands, Awasa is the sixth most populous city in Ethiopia and is the regional capital of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region. Shashemene is another major city nearby Awasa located in the Oromia Region less than 50 kilometers northeast of Awasa. Terrain consists of mountains, hills, and several large lakes which are subject to temperate climate due to high altitude. Amharic, English, and Tigrigna are the national languages of Ethiopia but none of these languages are commonly spoken as a first language in the Awasa area. Provided with the number of speakers, the most commonly spoken native languages include Borana-Arsi-Guji Oromo (3.63 million) and Sidamo (2.9 million), both of which pertain to the Cushitic language family. Christians account for the majority and Muslims constitute a sizable minority. Most Christians are Ethiopian Orthodox. Ethnic violence sparked by land use disputes has occurred within the past decade between the Oromo and Sidama. Shashemene is a Rastafarian cultural and religious center. Most of the population is employed in agriculture.
An LDS Ethiopian family who spoke English as a second language began holding church meetings in their home in Awasa as early as 2003. In 2008, the mission president from the Uganda Kampala Mission visited Awasa to organize the first official branch. At the time there were approximately 20 members and investigators attending church services. In March 2009, full-time missionaries were temporarily assigned to Awasa for a couple weeks to provide leadership training and doctrinal teaching to ensure that LDS doctrines were correctly taught and understood. Missionaries reported at the time that the Awasa Branch met in a rented home and that only ten members and a handful of investigators attended church meetings. During the two-week period, missionaries performed proselytism activities and held a fireside with over 30 in attendance. Until 2010, the Awasa Branch held only sacrament meeting and Sunday School due to few members in attendance.
Full-time missionaries were permanently assigned to Awasa sometime in 2010. In August 2010, full-time missionaries reported that approximately 20 members attended church regularly and that nearly all members were under age 21. Unlike some branches in Ethiopia, the number of active male youth was sufficient in the Awasa Branch to administer the sacrament without the assistance of full-time missionaries. During fall 2010, the LDS Church in Awasa achieved greater missionary success as church attendance increased up to 70 by November and dozens of nonmembers attended church meetings. During this period full-time missionaries more diligently studied Amharic to assist their teaching of members and investigators and the sacrament prayers were performed in Amharic for the first time. Several pastors from other churches residing in nearby cities and villages began learning about the LDS Church and joined the Church shortly thereafter, introducing church teachings to members of their former congregations.
In May 2011, full-time missionaries reported that three dependent groups were organized in Shashemene, Wendo Genet, and Ch'iko and that the combined church attendance of the four congregations was over 100. In July 2011, church attendance in the Shashemene Group generally ranged from 25-35 whereas there were as many as 90 attending church services in Wendo Genet. In 2011, church attendance widely fluctuated in the Awasa Branch from as many as 70 to as few as 30. As of late 2011, the Awasa Branch and its dependent units pertained to the Addis Ababa Ethiopia District.
Increases in the number of LDS congregations and members and investigators attending church services from one congregation of ten individuals to four congregations of collectively over 100 people constitute the greatest success for the Church in the Awasa area considering a lack of experienced members, low living standards, and the slow pace at which the LDS Church has grown in other areas of Ethiopia over the past two decades. The baptism of local religious leaders into the LDS Church is a major accomplishment which has expanded outreach into additional communities and accelerated church growth. Retention rates appear moderately high as most converts attend church services for extended periods of time before baptism and continue to attend church today. The permanent assignment of missionaries to Shashemene stands as another significant milestone for establishing an official church presence in southern Ethiopia outside of Awasa.
High receptivity to missionary-focused, nontraditional Christian groups, the traditional practice of Orthodox Christianity in the region, and use of Amharic as a second language provide good opportunities for future LDS Church growth. The sizable number of youth converts since 2010 offers excellent prospects for increasing the self-sufficiency of the Ethiopian full-time missionary force over time if baptisms continue and converts are retained. Awasa and Shashemene are likely to become future LDS mission outreach centers for southern Ethiopia one day if mission outreach continues to expand and Ethiopia becomes its own separate mission Low literacy rates and poor standards of living provide excellent opportunities for LDS-sponsored development work such as clean water projects, wheelchair donations, and agricultural and literacy programs. Due to distance from the center of LDS operations for Ethiopia in Addis Ababa and mission headquarters in Kampala, Uganda, the assignment of a senior missionary couple would greatly facilitate the development of local leadership, the coordination of missionaries and local leaders, and the organization of humanitarian and development projects.
The failure for the Awasa Branch and other groups to achieve steady increases in church attendance and develop larger numbers of potential priesthood leaders constitutes the greatest immediate challenge for the Church in the area. Oscillating sacrament meeting attendance numbers is an ongoing challenge for the Awasa Branch which likely indicates low comprehension of LDS teachings by investigators and new converts. This presents ongoing challenges for minimally-trained local leadership to efficiently delegate responsibilities to other members to provide adequate fellowshipping and member-missionary efforts. Finding and training qualified leadership presents additional challenges in the three groups in the area.
LDS missionary resources allocated to Ethiopia have been insignificant since the establishment of a church presence in the early 1990s notwithstanding Ethiopia ranking as the second most populous nation in Africa and the preservation of widespread religious freedom for decades. The lack of an LDS presence in Awasa until 2008 appears due in part to the Uganda Kampala Mission administering Ethiopia in addition to Uganda, Djibouti, Rwanda, and South Sudan. Comparatively few full-time missionaries are assigned to Africa as a whole. Insufficient missionary resources continue to hamper efforts to open additional areas as the Church traditionally relies on full-time missionaries to expand outreach. Distance from the center of LDS Church operations in Addis Ababa create additional administrative and logistical challenges providing training and support for local leaders and missionaries assigned to the Awasa area. No indigenous languages in the Awasa area have LDS materials available, limiting the practicality of utilizing English and Amharic language materials. Extremely low literacy rates create barriers for administrative self-sufficiency and testimony-building for illiterate converts and investigators. The conversion of several local religious leaders to the LDS Church and their subsequent efforts introducing others to LDS missionaries may present future challenges if these leaders exercise authority over LDS converts and attempt to supersede the appointed LDS priesthood authority for officially established LDS congregations.
Extremely low literacy rates are a major barrier for LDS Church growth. However the LDS Church benefits from little linguistic diversity in the Awasa area as only two indigenous languages are spoken: Borana-Arsi-Guji Oromo and Sidamo. Use of Amharic as a second language for church services and the availability of translations of LDS materials and scriptures has facilitated growth. Amharic pertains to the Semitic language family unlike indigenous languages to the Awasa area which pertain to the Cushitic language family. Speakers of indigenous languages to the Awasa area were likely not found among Ethiopian Latter-day Saints until the establishment of the LDS Church in the region in the late 2000s. Prospects for future LDS translations in Borana-Arsi-Guji Oromo and Sidamo appears unlikely for the foreseeable future as literacy rates for Borana-Arsi-Guji Oromo and Sidamo are estimated at less than one percent and between one and five percent, respectively. Audio translations of LDS materials and scriptures are warranted to reach illiterate speakers of these languages.
The LDS Church has expanded outreach in the Awasa area more quickly than any other area of East Africa over the past decade as multiple new congregations were organized within a matter of months in 2011. Local leader sustainability has presented greater challenges in the Awasa area than in most other areas of Sub-Saharan Africa for the Church as indicated by a lack of qualified church leaders needed to organize branches from groups and reliance on full-time missionaries for administrative and ecclesiastical support. The assignment of full-time missionaries to the Awasa area is unusual for the Church in East Africa as many isolated congregations do not have full-time missionaries assigned for years or even a couple decades from their inception.
Some missionary-focused Christians have achieved rapid growth in the Awasa area. Evangelicals comprise the largest Christian minority group and today comprise approximately one-fifth of the national population. Dozens of evangelical churches likely operate in Awasa and Shashemene alone. The Seventh Day Adventist Church reported 72,091 members meeting in 344 churches in southern Ethiopia in 2010. Jehovah's Witnesses reported 9,009 active members nationwide in 2010 and appear to have a similarly-sized presence in the Awasa area compared to Latter-day Saints. Unlike Latter-day Saints, other Christian groups have experienced rapid congregational growth in many areas of Ethiopia due to greater mission resource availability and self-sufficient missionary programs.
The outlook for future growth is favorable due to recent outreach expansion in the Awasa area but a lack of qualified leaders, widely fluctuating sacrament meeting attendance numbers, and some developing dependence of new converts on full-time missionaries create challenges for sustaining growth. Groups meeting in Shashemene, Wendo Genet, and Ch'iko may become independent branches within the near future if several male converts remain active, receive the priesthood, and obtaining leadership training. Once a sufficient number of active priesthood holders is reached a district for congregations in the Awasa area may be organized. Prospects for the translation of LDS materials into the Arsi-Guji-Oromo and Sidamo languages appear unlikely for several decades until a sizable following of Latter-day Saints who are not proficient in Amharic is reached. Additional groups may be organized in communities nearby cities with LDS congregations such as Aleta Wendo and Negele.
 "Languages of Ethiopia," Ethnologue.com, retrieved 19 July 2011. http://www.ethnologue.com/show_country.asp?name=ET
 "Land clashes kill 18 in Ethiopia," www.abc.net.au, 9 April 2008. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2008-04-09/land-clashes-kill-18-in-ethiopia/2398522
 "Shashemene," en.wikipedia.org, retrieved 28 October 2011. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2008-04-09/land-clashes-kill-18-in-ethiopia/2398522
 "Oromo, Borana-Arsi-Guji," www.ethnologue.com, retrieved 27 July 2011. http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=gax
 "Sidamo," www.ethnologue.com, retrieved 27 July 2011. http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=sid
 "Ethiopia," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127232.htm
 "South Ethiopia Field," Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook, retrieved 27 July 2011. http://www.adventistyearbook.org/default.aspx?page=ViewAdmField&Year=9999&AdmFieldID=SETF
 "2010 Report of Jehovah's Witnesses Worldwide," www.watchtower.org, retrieved 28 October 2011. http://www.watchtower.org/e/statistics/worldwide_report.htm