Sunday, November 8, 2015

Today's Membership in Blantyre--George's Post

A.   Today’s Membership in Blantyre

1.    Demographics of Blantyre District

The Blantyre District has roughly a 1,000 members on the Church’s rolls, spread out over four branches—Blantyre 1st, Blantyre 2nd, Ndriande, and Zingwangwa--and one group—the Liwonde Group.   Average Sunday attendance in each of the Blantyre Branches ranges between 95 and 65.   The vast majority of the members are Malawians, with a scattering of members from other African countries, such as Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa.    The foreigner members are in Malawi because one or more of the grandparents or parents are Malawian-born or they came to Malawi years ago for family or work.  Currently, the only “azungu” attending the branches are Western missionaries, roughly 8 to 10 in number, and it is unlikely that the size of the Western population in the Blantyre District is apt to increase dramatically over time.[1]   Each branch has members of all age groups—from infants to the elderly; primary age children to parents with families; young men to young women.   The Church’s proselyting efforts seem to have greater traction among late teens and young adults, so it would not be surprising to see those age groups better represented in the foreseeable future.   Those joining the Church come from a variety of backgrounds, generally representative of the broader population; some of the new members are poor, others more established and prosperous; some are educated and many are still going to school; others have not finished secondary school.    New members include the elderly, middle-aged, young people, young teens, and children.  The Church welcomes new members whatever their circumstances, but it recognizes the prospects for success over time are enhanced when those joining the Church come for “intact” families being baptized together.   This permits family members to support and encourage one another.
The Liwonde Group operates under the auspices of Blantyre 1st.  The original unit in the Church was the Liwonde Group, located in Liwonde which is about 2 hours by car from Blantyre, on the way from Blantyre to Mangochi and the southern tip of Lake Malawi.   The Liwonde Group meets in a newly-constructed meetinghouse, capable of accommodating a congregation of well over a 100 members, located just south of where the main road crosses the Shirer River.   The Liwonde Group has some 32 households, many residing in the Sitima Village, 13 kilometers outside of Liwonde, an area inaccessible during parts of the rainy season due to seasonal flooding along the Upper Shirer River.   Average attendance in Liwonde is 40 to 45, down from highs in the 60s.   Recently many men had had to leave Liwonde looking for temporary work due to the destruction of their 2015 maize harvest, so many in the area, including members, are or will shortly be facing starvation type conditions.   Many members spend an hour or more walking to Church for services and are periodically cut off totally from Church due to flooding in the rainy season from December to March.   One Sunday last January 2015 Carole and I visited Liwonde with the Zone Leaders and Blantyre 1st Branch President, right in the midst of some terrible flooding, only to find 6 members at the chapel for the Church services.   Given its distance from Blantyre to Liwonde, the Blantyre District faces constant challenges in overseeing Church activities in Liwonde, including routine leadership training.   The Blantyre Zone Leaders try to visit Liwonde at least one Sunday per month, and Blantyre 1st and District leaders make occasional visits to provide priesthood support.
Like any mission-field area, the District experiences considerable member turnover.   Not all who are taught by the missionaries stick.   Some stay active for a few weeks, few months, few years, and then fade away.   The keys to keeping members active are not hard to figure out.    They do best when they have a job in the Church, make friends, attend seminary/institute classes, and study the scriptures on their own.  Visiting less-active members can be very productive.   Many are open to being visited—they do not consider the visits to be intrusive.   They welcome short lessons and are willing to talk about the Church.   With some gentle prodding, many will come back to Church, even if they haven’t been out for a while.   What is less certain is whether they will continue coming on their own without constant reminders.
This past weekend[2] President Erickson of the Zambia Lusaka Mission called a new District Presidency for the Blantyre District.   As he did so, he shared with the new leaders his vision for Blantyre’s becoming a new stake in the Church sometime in the next few years.    No one expects the transition to be easy, but having the goal in place will help the local leaders as they plan for the future.   Key steps will be the training of the local branch leaders, organizing the district so that it looks like a stake, continuing to shepherd the existing members, and helping the missionaries grow the Church in Blantyre.
Currently, the Blantyre District has 16 full-time elders and sisters, together with us as senior missionaries.   When we arrived, 18 full-time elders and sisters and three senior couples (including ourselves) were serving in Blantyre, so the size of the local missionary force has slightly decreased during the past year.   How important is it to the local District to have a full-time missionary presence in Blantyre?    I have never put that question to any of the members.   Certainly, the missionaries are the primary proselyting arm of the Church, responsible for most of the converts, though working hand in hand with local members.   Members also draw strength from the full-time missionaries and see their constant presence as reassuring.   

[1] Over time, Lilongwe, where the Church has the second District in Malawi, is more likely to attract more Westerners, since Lilongwe is the capital of Malawi, hence the center for foreign governments have a presence in Malawi, and is increasingly the location of choice for the primary office of charities and NGOs operating in Malawi. 
[2] On Saturday, November 7, 2015, President Erickson called a new District Presidency, President Matale being called to serve as the District President, with Brothers Chikapa and Chinomwe, as his first and second counselors, respectively.   These leaders were sustained in the various branches on Sunday, November 8th.