A Church With No Walls

Ethiopian Christians are helping nomads grow despite always being on the move

By Becky Hill   |  24 . April . 2009
ethiopian-children-adults-allison-plunk-465x280.jpg Thousands of Ethiopian nomads indicated they wanted to become Christians, yet because of their mobile lifestyle, helping them grow in their faith seemed almost impossible. Photo by Allison Plunk

They live continuously on the move, rarely returning to the same spot. More than a million people from the Borena tribe in southern Ethiopia, live a completely nomadic lifestyle.

These tribes wander the dry climate in search of water and grass for their cows, goats and camels. It's a harsh environment, with very little health care or clean water, let alone education.

Hidden and Forgotten People

"These are a hidden and forgotten people," says Damtew Kifelew, who leads Campus Crusade for Christ in Ethiopia, "who are dying silently without the gospel."

Churches in the area have puzzled over what to do about the nomads. The JESUS film has been shown around the country, and many churches were being planted over the years.

But how do you plant a church in a community that doesn't have buildings, or even stay in one place?

Nine years ago, Campus Crusade teams found several nomadic groups and showed them the JESUS  film, based on the gospel of Luke. Thousands of them indicated they wanted to become Christians, yet because of their mobile lifestyle, helping them grow in their faith seemed almost impossible.

"Churches did not know what to do," says Damtew. The group would be located in one place the first time, but then the Christians would come again and the people would be gone, searching for water.  

Nomads for Christ 

Then 2 years ago, a new strategy emerged from the workers who showed the JESUS film. They called it "Nomads for Christ," with the basic concept of having someone trained in the Christian faith who would travel along with the community -- a "mobile missionary."

"Instead of waiting for them to come to church, we have decided that the church should move with them," says Damtew.

But rather than recruiting outsiders to join the group, they instead took Borenan Christians and trained them. Campus Crusade staff members selected 19 of the nomads who had become Christians through the JESUS  film and were committed to their faith despite their lack of knowledge.

They brought these Christian nomads to a nearby town for training.

Training Mobile Missionaries

For 5 week-long trainings, the Campus Crusade staff members taught the mobile missionaries in:

The mobile missionaries were given JESUS  film equipment to use as a tool for evangelism, and instructed to send reports every 3 months about the film showings.

"It turned out to be very effective because they know the culture, the language, and the lifestyle," says Damtew.

Some of these missionaries began working among communities that were transitioning to a more settled lifestyle, and 21 new churches have been planted so far.

Church Under a Shade Tree

Several churches have also been planted among the completely nomadic groups.

They meet for worship and teaching in an open space in the community, often under a shade tree. The nomads bring their own handmade string instruments and animal-skin drums, and they sing for hours.

The mobile missionary teaches them from the Bible what he has learned from the Campus Crusade staff members, telling stories that span from the Old Testament to the life of Christ. 

Now, when the tribes come close to towns, the mobile missionaries will call the JESUS  film staff members and arrange for them to show the film.  The groups that were once hard to find now contact the churches to say, "Here we are."