The Oromo Evangelical Lutheran Mission Society and Cross-cultural Ministry

By Girma Daka.

 There are many mission societies in America started by the first-generation immigrants. One of those is the Oromo Evangelical Lutheran Mission Society (OELMS), a mission society that was established by the first generation of Oromo immigrants from Ethiopia in 2012. OELMS started in Minnesota and has expanded to over 20 states with over 2000 members. There are 20 missional congregations planted by this mission society across the States and has ties with the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) in Ethiopia and the Lutheran Church of Missouri Synod (LCMS) in the United States. Its vision is to establish missional and scripture-based Oromo Speaking churches and prepare disciples of God that will reach out to the non-Christian Oromos living in the States. This article focuses on the ministry and challenges of OELMS related to cross-cultural ministry and second-generation ministry. 

The Oromo Evangelical Lutheran Mission Society (OELMS): Ministry Model 

In order to reach out to more souls, OELMS uses a model of Biblical Disciple-making. Biblical “disciple-making” involves the process of winning the lost, building and energizing the believer, equipping the workers through Biblical Training, and sending out believers to make more disciples. This was the original intent of Jesus when He gave the command. This is the model the early church planters used. If implemented consistently, such a model has an exponential factor in disciple-making, because each believer is trained to disciple others. 

At the early stage of the OELMS’s ministry, the majority of the OELMS church planters went through a Disciple-making training program called Harvest Incubator for Mission (HIM) provided by LINC Twin Cities, which equips church planters with Discipleship making training. This program teaches and prepares church planters on how to engage with people in the neighborhoods, sports arenas, shopping malls, community gatherings, and around the dinner table to make them Disciples of Christ and Disciple makers. These are where real, effective conversations about Jesus take place and are very effective tools to bring people to Christ. For instance, one of the OELMS churches in Kansas City, MO has used the Discipleship model effectively and has brought many souls to Christ. As a result, their membership has grown from 33 confirmed members in 2018 to 95 in 2020. 

In today’s church planting model, disciple-making is not popular as in the old days. Most often, we preach it to those already in the church or who came to the church on their own. The majority of the church’s program is targeted primarily to help believers grow and is not designed to equip the believers to disciple more. This explains why the churches’ numbers are dwindling and our membership isn't growing. Instead, year after year, we observe a persistent decline in church attendance. If the church doesn't change the way it approaches evangelizing, it will eventually have to close all of its buildings and put them up for sale in the booming real estate market, which is what we are already witnessing. Church planters, therefore, must be able to develop a culture of biblical discipleship in their churches. They must equip men and women to own their roles as active participants in the life of the church and the work of church planting and disciple-making. 

The other OELMS strategic plan worth mentioning is that OELMS churches’ plan is to split into multiple missional churches when they reach 100 confirmed members to further reach out to more souls. This can be very difficult to implement in today’s competing church world. These days the church is operating in a worldly business fashion, not in a kingdom mentality. It can be quite challenging to convince every leader of the church and members to let go of their members to establish a sister missional church elsewhere in the same area. In today’s church world, money can be more of a driving force than saving the lost. It can be a daunting task for the future OELMS leadership to convince its church leaders and members as some of our church members are approaching the 100 confirmed member mark. If successful, this can be a testing ground for OELMS leadership which can be replicated in other places. 

The OELMS churches are deliberately partnering with LCMS hosting churches to set A multiracial setting for the future churches 

The OELMS believes that the church should look like and reflect the kingdom of God as it appears in Revelation 7:9. The first thing that was revealed to John was heaven’s ethnic diversity. People from every tribe, tongue, and nation are finally all united as one—and now they sing to the glory of the Lamb and feast on his power, his presence, and his living word. In racially diversified communities like the United States, the church should overcome racial barriers and establish multiracial churches, where people from different backgrounds come together and worship together in unity. 

Since its inception, the OELMS’s plan is to deliberately partner with the LCMS churches to set a foundation for the future multiracial church. However, it is often difficult to integrate first-generation immigrants into the existing American churches due to language barriers and cultural differences. To make this happen, the church should start planting the seed today. To make it a reality, OELMS’s plan is to intentionally identify and have strategic partnerships with the hosting churches to focus on the younger generation. The idea is for both churches to have the same Sunday school and Youth program where the youth from both the Oromo churches and LCMS churches come together. They would attend Sunday school with one another and go to the same confirmation classes to set up a multiracial church setting in the future. This requires patience and a longtime investment from both churches to see the fruit. 

For instance, this has already started at two of the OELMS churches; one is in Kansas City, Missouri in partnering with the Christ Lutheran Church, and in Bloomington Minnesota in partnership with St. Michael Lutheran Church. To lay the groundwork for the future multiracial congregation, they have jointly launched a Sunday school and youth program at each location. This is not something that can happen overnight, therefore, the church leaders from both congregations should come together and collaborate to develop multiracial congregations in the future by focusing on the younger generation. 

A need to establish a separate ministry for the Second-Generation Oromo in collaboration with other Oromo Churches within the area or in collaboration with the hosting churches: 

The main challenge for the OELMS churches is how to address the second-generation identity crisis within the church. Just like any other immigrant community, our children born in the 

United States are more Americans than Oromos. However, unlike other larger churches, most OELMS churches in America have fewer than 100 members, with an even smaller number attending churches every Sunday. They are often not equipped to accommodate the second-generation Oromos. In most Oromo churches in America, their church program only targets first-generation Oromos and little to no programming for the second-generation, English-speaking Oromos. There are two main factors causing this: The first and most important reason is that the first generation is very eager for the second generation to continue to worship with them in their native language. This is due to a desire to sustain their culture and values in America. However, language remains a key barrier for the second generation who rarely have an adequate grasp of Oromo vocabulary, let alone an understanding of the Oromo Bible written in Qubee (Latin Alphabet). The second reason is a lack of all the necessary human and financial resources to establish a new second-generation ministry. Sadly, the result is a silent exodus of the second generation from the Oromo churches. Some just come to the church to hang out with their friends. Some walk away and never come back. Some connect with non-believers and fail into unpleasant habits. Only some choose to stay, hoping to influence and shape their church beyond its immigrant-focused culture. There are very few who find belonging and acceptance in hosting churches and worshiping with them. 

There is also another hindrance factor in some states like Minnesota and Wahington D.C. where there are several Oromo Churches. In these states, each church wants to have its own youth ministry for the second generation rather than collaboratively establishing one that serves every church. This has become an issue, seeing as they do not have enough human and financial resources needed to launch such a full-fledged program on their own. 

What are some ways we can better serve the second-generation Oromos? 

To effectively accommodate the second generation, it is a must for the OELMS to establish a separate ministry that fits and attracts the second generation to make them disciples of Christ. When discussing the second-generation ministry, another crucial subject worth discussing is the format of the ministry, the worshiping style, and the kind of songs of the ministry we are planning to establish. From the OELMS’s ministry experience and observations, the younger generation seems to be more drawn to contemporary church settings than to more traditional Lutheran settings. We shouldn't discount the fact that such contemporary church settings have gained popularity across all age groups and led to a dramatic increase in church growth in other parts of the world, such as Ethiopia and other African countries. Even though it may be a very contentious topic, it is worth exploring how we may carefully identify the needs of the younger generation and incorporate them into their services without compromising the Scripture and the key principles of Lutheranism. It is imperative to find better ways to cater to their culture and needs to grab the attention and win over the hearts of these young generations to the kingdom of God. It is doable, but it necessitates both the OELMS and the hosting churches’ willingness and collaboration to bring their God-given resources together and the young people from both sides. If successful, this could bring the younger generation back to our church body, which could reverse the declining membership of the Lutheran Churches. 

In the next ten years (second phase) of our ministry, OELMS’s primary focus is on the second generation. To make this happen, the goal of OELMS is to plant a separate English-speaking ministry for the second generation in collaboration with the hosting LCMS churches. Church leaders from both LCMS and OELMS churches should deliberately collaborate by bringing their God-given resources together. I firmly believe that to carry on the Christine mission's activities in the twenty-first century in a way that is most appealing to the younger generation, new directives and better strategies are required. Therefore, the leadership from both churches should conduct their own surveys and establish a ministry that better suits the young people. In this process, it is very crucial to involve the second-generation and their first-generation parents in order to incorporate their ideas and interests into the initial phase of the new ministry. 

At the moment, OELMS does not have all the human and financial resources to launch a separate ministry for the second generation at all OELMS churches. It is, however, in conversation with LCMS churches that have both human and financial resources to partner with us. So far, only one church in Bloomington, Minnesota, St. Michael Lutheran Church, has secured all the human and financial resources needed to start a separate ministry that addresses the second immigrant generation in the Bloomington, Minnesota area. They have already called a pastor and started the ministry. It appears promising so far, but there is still more to be done. In order to launch similar ministries at all our locations, I urge that both the OELMS and LCMS church partners collaborate to secure all the resources it requires. These are our future church planters. It is not only serving the second-generation Oromos but also opening a door for the multiracial church discussed above. 

The need for a Holistic Approach to reach out to a larger community 

The OELMS leadership strongly believes in holistic Theology which is something we learned from the early Evangelical Pioneer Leaders of Mekane Yesus, like Onesmos Nesib, a converted Slave who translated the English Bible into the Oromo language or Afaan Oromoo, and Rev. Gudina Tumsa, one of the founders of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekana Yesus, who used a Holistic Approach to address the needs of the society they are called to serve. 

The concept of Holistic Theology emphasizes serving a whole person, both the spiritual and physical aspects of society, which helped the Lutheran Churches in Ethiopia and other African nations grow. I don’t think that their initial intention was to increase the membership but rather to address some of the social problems of the society such as the lack of educational institutions, health care facilities, and development initiatives to improve the physical being of the society in the communities they are serving in addition to the evangelization ministry. Rev. Tumsa believed that Evangelization alone is not enough by itself, but the social mission should be an integral part of the church’s ministry, which grabbed the attention of several Ethiopians and helped the EECMY’s growth as a result. 

Here in the West, this aspect of Theology is either ignored or misinterpreted. For instance, the church in the United States has totally kept silent and ignored the social and economic injustices in this country, which might directly or indirectly have impacted the church’s growth. What brings people to the church is not what we preach from the pulpit every Sunday but what we 

practice on a daily basis. What we preach and what we practice must be in harmony. Our calling is to transform the world we are called to serve, not to be conformed to it, as the Apostle Paul states in his epistle to the Christians in Rome. In order to confront the social and economic inequalities we see in our society and around the world, the church must take an active role and adopt a clear stance. Learning this crucial missional approach from our sister church in Ethiopia and using Holistic Theology, could be effective in attracting people to God's kingdom, but it requires bringing everyone to the same understanding and being in agreement. 

For instance, Ethiopia as a country is currently going through political and economic turmoil. As a church, we cannot be silent when we see injustices have been committed by the Ethiopian government against the Oromo people or other ethnicities. Although it might be a very divisive and contentious subject, we decided as OELMS to join the Global Oromo Interfaith Council to confront the injustices committed against the Oromo people and other ethnicities in Ethiopia. We strongly urge our church leaders to come together and at least have a discussion on how to address the contentious social problems in our society in biblical ways. Not only in Ethiopia but here in the United States as well there is a lot of racial tension that needs to be addressed. The OELMS believes that it’s the duty of the church to address and stand against any form of political, social, or economic injustice. It’s the church’s call and responsibility not only to preach love, justice, and peace to this world but practice it as well by being a voice. If the church intentionally keeps silent, she is either forgetting or ignoring her biblical duty as stated in the scripture. 

Primary Challenges we faced during the first phase of the Oromo Evangelical Lutheran Mission Society missional works: 

This article includes some of the primary challenges we faced during the first phase of our missional work. The difficulties we had as first-generation immigrant church planters were significant. Not having trained evangelists and visionary leaders at the beginning of the process was one of the major hindrances. Other issues we encountered were a lack of clear direction and experience in church planting (particularly in the context of the Western world in the twenty-first century), a lack of financial resources, and the difficulty in locating potential churches or individual partners on the ground. 

Overall, LCMS congregations are exceedingly supportive and not only opened their doors to our ministries but also provided their time and financial assistance. A very small number of LCMS congregations were not ready to welcome us or were unprepared to share their resources with the Ethnic Ministries. As a result, sometimes we struggle with finding partnership and worshiping centers for our churches. For instance, we have a group in Lancaster, Pennsylvania worshiping at an individual home that wanted a hosting church to join us, but we could not find a partnership for them in the Lancaster area. The OELMS leadership approached one local LCMS church in that area, but they were not ready to host or partner with us at that moment. 

As discussed above, one other difficulty we encountered internally was that some of the OELMS church leaders and parents could not fully grasp the idea of a Multiracial setting. Their desire was for their children to learn the Bible in their native tongue, which many children neither 

speak nor understand well. Most of the parents and church leaders were persuaded after extensive discussion and training in this area. Still, there are a few parents who aren't fully on board yet, and there is a long way to go before we can convince everyone. 

One major lesson we learned from this process was that when you take the first step in faith, God provides all the resources you need to complete the task He has given you. As He promised to assist us with His Holy Spirit before He ascended into eternity, He was by our side in every step we took and helped us do all that seemed impossible. 

As stated above, we had both success stories and challenges. However, there’s much to be thankful for as an immigrant church. As OELMS we have found it helpful to reflect on how intentional our church is in reaching Oromo immigrants with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have been humbled by the sacrifices many of our lay leaders and pastors have made in this ministry. We are also very thankful for those individuals and institutions God has given us to walk with in this journey.