ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION: The Great Shift: Africa in Missions

by Lazarus Phiri

History and theology of God’s mission inform the philosophy and practice of mission. Among mission historians, Andrew Walls is credited with prompting the realization that the center of gravity for Christian witness has shifted from the North to the Global South. This missiological phenomenon has implications for the Global Church today, particularly in Africa.


Global Missions Today 

Editor’s note: As we celebrate fifty years as a publication committed to equipping and encouraging those in mission, we continue to take seriously the issues we face today. We asked top mission leaders around the world to reflect on missions from their respective vantage points. We pray that God will use their thoughts to challenge, inspire, instruct, and correct us all. 

This article was contributed by Lazarus Phiri.

HISTORY AND THEOLOGY of God’s mission inform the philosophy and practice of mission. Among mission historians, Andrew Walls is credited with prompting the realization that the center of gravity for Christian witness has shifted from the North to the Global South. This missiological phenomenon has implications for the Global Church today, particularly in Africa.

The perception and appropriation of the shift from North to South ought to be governed by a sound biblical theology of mission. In his monumental work, Mission in the Modern World, John Stott states, “Mission arises primarily out of the nature not of the church but God himself. The living God of the Bible is a sending God” (1975, 21). Jehovah is a missionary God.

With the reality of this shift, Africa has come into prominence and predicament. Its prominence is seen in the large number of believers on the continent. Its predicament is perceived in the state and role of the Church, which is both gaining and losing—gaining in quantity, but seemingly losing in its spiritual quality. In some ways, African Christianity is becoming a popular religious culture characterized by nominalism, where depth is sacrificed for breadth (scope).

The African Christian brings to the mission world both challenges and contributions. A general understanding of Africa and missions follows.

#1: Faith in Mission

Africa and Africans are notoriously religious. Their faith is typically characterized by vibrancy in worship. They live with little materially, yet they abound in joy. Their praising of God in song is typically accompanied with dance. They seem to sing from birth to death. Yet this blessing sometimes seems to lack depth. The simplicity in song, while providing spontaneity, at times is devoid of sound biblical worth. 

Passion for the gospel and the lost is the mark of the African Christian experience. Zealous church planters who leave home with little financial support are known to establish multiple churches in rural parts of their own countries. Although at times the African Christian may be limited in biblical knowledge, he or she does not lack in zeal. Indeed, passion for God, God’s word, and God’s Church is vitally needed in global mission.

#2: Fellowship in Mission 

The African Christian tends to have strong family ties and communal sensitivities. African society values and promotes relational priorities, even at the expense of tasks. An African proverb captures this belief well, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go further, go with someone.” 

The African desires and nurtures partnership in mission. However, biblical foundations of partnership (namely, the doctrine of the Body of Christ) need to be sought and promoted. Mutuality of both benefits and responsibilities need to be fostered. The desire to enhance relationship at all costs causes some African Christians to compromise dignity and self-worth to win a partner in mission. The pursuit of partnership in mission must embrace God’s intended worth of humanity both in creation and salvation as vital values. Methods and motives for partnership must aim to honor and glorify God alone.

#3: Followership in Mission 

The prevailing burgeoning of the Church in Africa has numerical significance. Sometimes, one wonders whether or not the converts are flocking to the centers of religious affiliation or following Christ. The current image and perception of the “anointed man of God” carries a messiah complex. This is a title given to modern charismatic leaders specializing in healing and special revelation. Other titles include apostle, prophet, and bishop, although these terms do not carry the traditional biblical understanding. 

The propensity for physical healing and material gain is confused for spiritual gain. Where once we heard the clarion gospel call, we are now served with a miraculous menu, real or fake. Much of an African Christian’s appetite for the dramatic phenomenon seems insatiable. The transactions include sowing (investing) before reaping. It resembles the selling in the temples where tables were overturned in Jesus’ time. The so-called man of God has mediator roles and abilities to reveal the unknown, at times resembling African traditional superstition. While conservative churches are averse to miracles and spiritual gifts, those in the modern deliverance movement delve into the arena, at times with little or no biblical theological understanding. 

God might not always receive the glory, either. The cost of disciple-making focusing on presenting every believer mature in Christ is questionably absent. There is also the absence of the embrace of God’s sovereignty in suffering and in want, which is dismissed for low spiritual pursuit. 

The survival and propagation of the gospel from the Global South must
revisit the centrality of the gospel and its implication for true spiritual pursuit. Above all, Christ (who went about teaching, preaching, and healing the sick) must forever remain the model for messengers of the gospel from the Global South.

#4: Fielding in Mission 

Another implication for the shift is the demise of a dualistic approach to mission—namely, sending and receiving entities. It can be attested today that every continent and context qualifies to send and receive missionaries. Africa has a similar privilege and responsibility. If the stature of the African Christian comes as a mixed bag of superficial and mature disciples, then Africa’s contribution to the mission task and provision of gospel bearers raises both great concern and great celebration. 

The African Church must prepare, equip, and nurture its messengers to meet the needs of a dying and diverse world. Africa and the Global South must
venture out in exploring new mission strategies and structures. While the West might attempt to form franchises of the old sending mission agencies, Africa must seek new avenues suitable to its context and culture. Africa must not be tied to old sending strategies, but be trusted to be guided in new ways of accomplishing God’s mission. 

#5: Funding in Mission 

Closely related to the question of sending and receiving is the perennially-debated challenge of dependence, interdependence, and sustainability in mission. Africa must reevaluate the support mechanism of aid and courageously embrace the responsibility for its indigenous missionaries. The contemporary funding format with apparent imperialistic tendencies must be subjected to the biblical body life of the Church, the primary agent of God’s mission. Could the Church in the Global South recognize that stewardship of local resources should be plowed back into God’s mission? Would the Church in the North come to realize that all are blessed to be a blessing without imposing conditions that deprive the dignity of recipients?

What Africa Brings to World Missions

Africa brings a number of gifts to the global mission table.

Learning flair. Within any given country, the African Christian is experienced in multiple languages, learning in multiethnic and multicultural settings. Therefore, the African Christian’s ability to engage in new environments and adapt to foreign cultures is a significant resource to global missions.

Simplicity and spiritual flair. Despite the ramifications of globalization, the African milieu remains close to the biblical worldview, which includes subsistence living, spirit manifestation, and primal (basic) communal lifestyles. The African Christian reads the Bible with simplicity of belief as the word of God. The African Church is acquainted with the spiritual world and engages in spiritual warfare. Included in spiritual warfare is prayer and fasting with desperate inclination and faith for miracles.

Linguistic flair. Another asset to global mission would be the variety of languages for communicating the gospel. The average African is likely to speak several foreign dialects, such as English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic as his or her second language. Appropriately so, the African’s ability to learn foreign languages adds to the chest of tools for mission engagement. This would be a huge saving and needed investment in global mission. 

Multi-religious flair. The African Church resembles the Asian Church in its interaction with non-Christian religions. The African Church has experienced and can train others in living mutually with militant Islam, with its blessings and burdens. In its experience of extended family, one sibling might belong to a different religion, yet they will co-exist. Inter-religious dialogue as a means of gospel propagation can be exploited by such virtues in global mission. 

Diaspora flair. The world is replete with Africans in diaspora, immigrant workers, foreign students, and economic and socio-political refugees. Like the unprecedented Philippines mission in diaspora, Africans have gone where traditional mission structures would not have sent or accommodated them. A cursory observation of world Christianity attests to the fact that some of the largest churches in Europe are pastored by African Christians. 

Given the rightful space and opportunity, African Christians can provide much-needed, conservative, biblical, ethical leadership to the Global Church. Some apparent debatable ethical issues in the West are standard expectations and procedures in the Church of the Global South. 

Africa has always been in the plans and purposes of God in his mission. In biblical times, Africa was a refuge and a rescuer of the early exodus of God’s chosen people, through whom God manifested his glory. In God’s redemption plan, Africans were recipients present at both the crucifixion and the day of
Pentecost, thus propagators of the gospel. Early Church fathers were comprised of African forerunners who shaped the theology of both that day and now. Today, the African Church is poised to join the ranks of the faithful in obedience to participate in God’s mission.

Stott, R W John. 1975. Christian Mission in the Modern World. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.


Lazarus Phiri was born and raised in Zambia. He has had the opportunity to train in accounts and business studies, pastoral ministry (BSc), intercultural studies (MA), and theology and history of mission (PhD). He serves as the missiologist-at-large with PIONEERS and as president (principal) of the Theological College of Central Africa in Ndola, Zambia. 

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 401-404. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.


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