Malawi: Youth wake us up and women keep us moving

Bishop Dr Joseph Bvumbwe, head of the ELCM and president of the Lutheran Communion in Southern Africa. Photo: LWF/A. Danielsson
Bishop Dr Joseph Bvumbwe, head of the ELCM and president of the Lutheran Communion in Southern Africa. Photo: LWF/A. Danielsson

Voices from the Communion: Bishop Dr Joseph Bvumbwe 

(LWI) - The creativity of the The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Malawi (ELCM) youth, the action of its women and the faithfulness of its members is the reason for the church’s record growth over the past 39 years, says Bishop Dr Joseph Bvumbwe, head of the ELCM and president of the Lutheran Communion in Southern Africa (LUCSA). 

In an interview with the LWI, bishop Bvumbwe describes how his church continues to flourish in the midst of poverty and suffering.  

What would you like the LWF communion of churches to know and understand about The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Malawi?  

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Malawi is one of the younger churches in Southern Africa and is rapidly growing. We will celebrate the 40th anniversary of our foundation in 2022 - and in less than 40 years this Lutheran church has grown to over 150,000 members, with 300 congregations across the country, and over 72 pastors ordained. Each of the 72 parishes has from 3 to 7 congregations.   

What are the secrets of this impressive growth?  

One is the strength of lay leadership. We strongly believe in the priesthood of all believers. All baptized Christians are exercising their priesthood by witnessing, preaching, teaching; especially our women and young people. They are very dynamic. They are the ones who are behind this great growth throughout the past 39 years. We have grown into every corner of Malawi. We have permanent church buildings all over the country and, though there is still need for more, we think we have done what any growing church can do.  

Our church is predominately young people, 39 and younger is considered youth in our region, so the youth are the hands of this church. We call them the hands because they make this church work. If you go searching for gifts in this church you will find them among the young people: music, poems, witnessing for Christ in creative ways. As we speak they have composed a song about how to prevent the Coronavirus, which is not in Malawi, but they have written a song in case it comes this way. The youth wake us up!  

Alongside them you will find the women, the mothers. We call them the legs. They are the ones who make us walk! While the youth make us work, it is the women who keep us moving!  

If you come to Malawi, you will see in practice how the women walk to visit a family who has a newborn baby to provide support and encouragement for the family. The church is where the people are.  

There is a pastor for every parish. Is there a need for more ordained ministers?  

Yes, we are still training pastors at the Tumaini University Makumira in Tanzania. We did not think it was necessary for us to create our own seminary but we have the Lutheran Bible Institute in Lilongwe where we train lay leadership for six months so that they are ready to go out and minister as volunteers. Wherever they are, they are the witnesses to Christ and contribute to church growth.  

I am happy to share that for the first time in our history, we have a woman who is on internship right now and will be going back to continue her theological studies next year. Hopefully, in 2021 she will be our first ordained woman and we are praying very hard for her.  

How is the church supporting her and making a place for women?

The ELCM is supporting her locally with logistics but we are so grateful to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) which granted her the financial scholarship to study in Tanzania for a degree in theology.  Right now, she preaches every Sunday, visiting and teaching in various congregations. 

There are also many women participating in lay leadership, for instance the General Secretary of the Lutheran Church in Malawi is a woman who works as director of the department of diakonia. We have made a lot of progress in this church because of these strong women.   

It sounds like the ELCM is providing a way for Christians to be able to act out their faith. Is this part of the growth?  

Absolutely, we know church life today must be lived. You cannot isolate the church from your daily activities. In our part of the world, the Sub Sahara and Africa, we have serious challenges facing us – challenges that question people’s faith. The Gospel must be alive, the theology must be practical, we must provide reasonable responses to people’s questions about life and when a church does so, people may not have all the things they want to have in life but at least they have hope. They have hope that God loves them and that God will provide for them.  

Does the 150,000 members of the Lutheran Church in Malawi reflect the economic demographics of the country?  

Yes, I would say so. More than 50% of the people of Malawi are living in poverty – meaning that they earn less than one dollar a day. Most of them in our rural areas. So, the church will be the same. This means we are witnessing to people living with very little financial means, trying to make ends meet, so the Word of God is what is speaking to them, providing the answers, for which the pastors are the messengers. The majority of our members are peasant farmers who grow food to live on, they are not commercial farmers. However, they are in this church to give to their neighbors in need and they are a gift to this church.  

In 2016, ELCM in cooperation with LUCSA, adopted the LWF project, “Confronting Poverty and Economic Injustice in Africa.” The project provides clean water, improves livelihoods, and advocates gender and child justice. One result of the project was 89 teenaged mothers able to complete their education. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in American (ELCA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hanover (ELCH) partner with ELCM.  

Why is it important for your church to be a part of the LWF communion?  

The late Tanzanian Bishop Josiah Kibira, LWF President from 1977-1984, said, “There is no church in the world so rich and so big that it has no need to receive, neither is there a church so small and so poor that it cannot give.”  

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Malawi believes that we are strong enough that we can give, but we are also in so much need that we can also receive from those who are stronger than us. We are proud to be part of that communion of believers because our faith connects us to each other.