by Jim Reapsome
The fact of unprecedented church growth in Africa has also brought some serious questions and problems.
Someday there may be more Christians in Africa than anywhere else in the world. That prediction by a church leader at first glance may cause missionaries to rejoice. But their rejoicing is not unmixed, for the fact of unprecedented church growth in Africa has also brought some serious questions and problems.
The first question is how much of the growth is genuinely Christian in the historic New Testament sense of the word. The answer is not easy. Of the estimated 100 million Christians among the 330 million black Africans, a good number — would it be one million or ten million?— also are animists, worshiping native gods as well.
Hundreds of thousands of black Africans are involved in cults that are called Christian churches – "independent, — or— breakaway I I churches – but which practice rites that in earlier days admittedly were pagan. How "Christian" is prophetess Alice Lenshina’s Zambian sect? How "Christian" are the 100,000 members of the Holy Spirit Church of Zion throughout East Africa?
Jehovah’s Witnesses are counted as "Christians" too. It has been easy to count more Christians in Africa because the standard has been lowered. Some U.S. missionaries would say that if a church uses drums and dances in its worship it can’t be called Christian. The question goes deeper than that, of course. Worship practices vary around the world according to culture; what is at stake is the core of the gospel proclaimed.
Some Africans want to be free of both cultural and theological standards imported from the West. They believe their rediscovered African religious traditions have equal if not superior authority to the truths of the Bible.
They are quite free to hold such a view, but missionaries rightly ask if those who do so may be counted as Christians. Are those flocking to this kind of Africanized Christianity to be seen as further proof that Christianity is rapidly growing in Africa?
A second question concerns the future work of the missionaries themselves. Obviously, much of the recent church growth is genuine; people in some areas are turning to Christ in large numbers. In such places missionaries find a significant role in teaching and training.
Other missionaries sense that they are still wanted to teach schools and to run hospitals and agricultural stations. Even the governments of some countries are asking for them.
But many others are not sure. They have lived through various turnover schemes and now they are trying to find a new niche under national leadership. It is not easy.
Church growth in Africa not only means thousands of new converts, but also more stability and a stronger desire for selfcontrol among the established churches. "Moratorium" was first an African appeal and it continues to have a certain attractiveness that is not limited to liberal church leaders. The move toward selfreliance is bound to leave some missionaries on edge.
In some parts of Africa missionaries face a third question : What is my role in the face of internal conflict: civil war in Ethiopia; repression in Uganda; guerilla war in Rhodesia; racial conflict in South Africa? Some have spoken out, taken sides, and been expelled. Others remain quiet, trying to avoid anything that would lead to reprisals.
A growing church brings growing pains. It is premature to call Africa a Christian continent. The United States has 121.2 million "Christians, " but it is far from being Christian. Africans know that. It is one reason missionaries find it hard to hang on.
But they are hanging on in Africa— an Africa far different from that which has been romanticized in U. S. churches for nearly a century. Despite theological, political and cultural upheavals, churches and missionaries committed to evangelism and the nurture of the body of Christ are finding new responsiveness to the apostolic message— not of a white, Western Christ— but of a universal Christ, God the Son, come down from heaven to save sinners.
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