Few churches can trace their history directly to a passage of Scripture like Ethiopian Christians can.

In Acts chapter 8, Philip, one of the twelve disciples, shares the good news about Jesus Christ with an Ethiopian eunuch he meets while traveling. The eunuch believes and insists on being baptized on the side of the road. According to church tradition, the eunuch returned to his home country and spread the gospel there. 

The Ethiopian Orthodox church continues to this day, and many evangelicals there have family roots in it. Professor of educational studies and researcher Seble Denneque grew up in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, attending an Orthodox church with her grandparents. A common saying among Ethiopians is, “If you scratch us, you’ll find Orthodox blood.” 

Ethiopia’s political history makes the perseverance of the church all the more remarkable. In 1974, when Denneque was a child, the country’s monarchy was overthrown by an oppressive Marxist junta, which ruled until the late 1980s, when the country spiraled into civil war. With the emergence of a democratic republic in 1991, religious organizations were allowed to enter the country for the first time since the ’70s. This paved the way for development organizations like Compassion International to begin working in the area to address ongoing issues of poverty, periodic drought, and low literacy, especially in rural agricultural communities. 

As world headlines bear out, children are especially vulnerable in regions with a history of violent conflict and poverty. Denneque and her research partners in child development have a mission to ensure that children—especially those in at-risk environments—receive the care they need to become whole and healthy people who serve and love God.

Learning to Hunger and Thirst for God’s Word

Denneque’s passion for working with children goes back to her involvement in church and Sunday school. She attended an evangelical elementary school, and “a love for Christ was planted in my heart. Later in high school, a friend invited me to church. There, I was introduced to Christ personally as my savior—I learned to pray directly to him.”

As a teenager, Denneque began attending Bible studies and studying Scripture at a time when, under Marxist rule, many evangelical churches had been driven underground. “Very few evangelical churches were openly worshiping at that time. Because of persecution from the Marxist government, most were underground churches. Persecution makes you even more close to your God. That has contributed to the church in the past, and it did for me as a teenager. I didn’t experience serious hardship, but in our church, faith was very serious. We meant it.”

Bibles were scarce in Denneque’s church, so her leaders encouraged everyone to memorize Scripture. “I encountered Scripture with a hunger and thirst to nurture my soul and to grow in Christ. My church had a strong emphasis on knowing Scripture by heart and living it. I got my first Bible when I was 16 or 17, and I treasured it. I remember it was so old and torn in places. Still, when I found a newer version, I gave the old, torn copy to someone else. Today, I have my Bible on my phone in different versions, and in at least two different languages. But at that time, the Bible was so scarce that it was a huge blessing to give your old Bible to someone else.” 

Denneque has observed the wider acceptance of religious culture in Addis Ababa today versus 20 years ago. “Christianity is an old religion in our country, but the number of evangelical Christians has increased, and there’s greater variety in types of churches. Many churches used to say that a theological education was wasted—that believers only needed the Holy Spirit. I’ve noticed a charismatic movement growing here, and we have more Bible schools than before.”

Calling to Compassion

By the time Denneque enrolled in university, she had a passion to serve the church, but no sense of direction. She began teaching Sunday school when she was 16, and a visiting missionary told her she had a calling on her life—but Denneque struggled with how to fulfill it. She began studying statistics. “I was dealing with a lot of questions about the future, and I was overwhelmed by  fear. I prayed daily and asked the Lord for guidance. I went to a meeting about ministry, and the speaker quoted Matthew 28:19–20: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ To this day, when I’m overwhelmed with worries, or when I am trying to discern what to do, this passage refreshes me and gives me the assurance that the Lord is with me.”

With the encouragement of her pastor and church, Denneque went on to study theology through an extension program at Mekane Yesus Seminary, and then later at the Evangelical Theological College. “My heart was burning in me for ministry. My time studying honed my knowledge of Scripture and helped equip me for my mission.” 

When her church began a Compassion International-assisted child sponsorship program, Denneque applied for a job as a project worker. “I served about 265 children as they grew socially, cognitively, physically, and spiritually. We planned and implemented programs in these areas for the children. When I look back, I feel so satisfied to see that the children I worked with have become responsible Christian adults. Some are doctors, engineers, project workers, and business people.”

Denneque held several different roles over the next few years, eventually working as a program facilitator. To further equip their employees, Compassion arranged for them to earn master’s degrees in child development through Daystar University in Kenya. “This experience sparked my desire to pursue further education. I wanted to teach and write, and to contribute to development work that way.”

Holistic Child Development

Although Denneque still believes in the work that Compassion and similar organizations are doing, her vision is for a longer-term effect. “The depth of the need is so great. My mission now is to educate the educators, so we can affect development in a deeper and more sustainable way. I prayed with a group of friends over what to do next. I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford a PhD. But the Lord opened this chance to join Trinity Evangelical Divinity School as a program fellow first, and then ScholarLeaders supported me in completing my PhD in Educational Studies.”

Today, in addition to teaching for the Evangelical Theological College in Addis Ababa, Denneque works for the Child Development Training and Research Center—a new organization with close ties to Compassion and the Evangelical Church Association of Ethiopia. “My job is establishing a team to begin researching and developing curriculum. We train church leaders and project directors. As we began developing a holistic curriculum for children—to be used by the local church and also parents—we were concerned that emphasizing only spirituality is not going to be effective in developing mature Christian citizens who contribute to the transformation of the country. So we gathered about 17 church leaders and showed them our concerns. They’ve agreed to implement our curriculum in their programs as we roll it out.”

In the course of her hands-on ministry to children and her research in the field of child development, Denneque has become an advocate for a holistic approach to child development—specifically the idea that ministry should include not just sharing the gospel, but meeting a child’s other needs. The concept has long been considered ideal in development work, given its effectiveness, but can be difficult to implement. “Children have spiritual, physical, social, and cognitive needs. But some will say, ‘Our calling is just spiritual. The education sector addresses the cognitive needs, or the health center addresses the physical needs.’ But we see it differently.” 

“We also believe that relationships are broken in four directions because of the fall: our understanding of ourselves and our relationships with God, others, and nature. A holistic curriculum works to restore all these relationships. The Bible tells us in Luke 2:52 that from his childhood, Jesus grew in wisdom and in favor with God and man. The Old Testament records the same thing of Samuel’s upbringing in 1 Samuel 2:21. We should aim to bring up our children in this way. Every child is created in the image of God. Holistic child development only becomes truly holistic when you engage the spiritual side of the child. The way we see the world, the child, and the way we see the world around the child won’t be complete unless we have a biblical foundation.”

Denneque wants to see the next generation of Ethiopian children transformed into Christian leaders who can participate and create change in their country. And she wants to enroll churches in that discipleship vision. “Our goal is to have churches with an ownership stake in this project so that together we can grow children who are transformed and restored in relation to creation, nature, their environment, toward others, toward themselves,
and to God.”  

Jessi Strong is senior writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at  JessiStrong.com.

Jessi Strong is senior writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at JessiStrong.com.

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