by Tite Tienou
In 1989 Professor Andrew F. Walls delivered a public lecture entitled “The Significance of Christianity in Africa” at the Church of Scotland’s St. Colm’s Education Centre and College.
In 1989 Professor Andrew F. Walls delivered a public lecture entitled “The Significance of Christianity in Africa” at the Church of Scotland’s St. Colm’s Education Centre and College. Commenting on the growth of Christianity in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific, Walls states: “we have seen a massive change in the centre of gravity of the Christian faith, so that Africa has become one of its heartlands.”1 Today, one cannot inquire about the state of the gospel in Africa without taking Walls’ observation seriously.
The recognition of Africa as one of the heartlands of the Christian faith implies that Christianity is an African religion. As a description of an aspect of the current religious scene in the continent, this is a factual statement. Christianity is indeed alive and well in Africa; its numerical growth can be documented and it bears an African imprint. The presence of the Christian faith in Africa is not a new phenomenon because “Christianity in Africa is not a recent happening, nor a by-product of colonialism.”2 The long history of Christianity in Africa has convinced some people that “Afro-Christianity” (that is, Christianity with an African ethos) is firmly secured.3 Yet, for others Africans are latecomers to Christianity. These observers note the fragility of the Christian faith in Africa as they point to the fact that many denominations and churches, especially in Africa’s interior, are the result of nineteenth century missionary efforts. For them the link between colonialism and Christianity is such that the idea of Christianity being an African religion sounds polemical.
How, then, should one go about ascertaining the state of the gospel in Africa at the present time in light of the foregoing opinions regarding Christianity in the continent? There is a plethora of studies examining and analyzing either the numerical expansion of Christianity in Africa, or the religious exuberance and fervor of African Christians, or the challenges of relating the Christian gospel to the multiple issues Africans face daily. These important and (sometimes) detailed analyses are needed. One must not and cannot, however, attempt a detailed study in any form here. For our present purposes it may be more helpful to examine the prospects of the gospel in Africa by reviewing selected categories of an agenda for Christianity in the continent.
Determining an agenda for Christianity in Africa is an endeavor fraught with many dangers. This does not mean, however, that such an endeavor should be abandoned, even if it is not possible to establish an agenda which is satisfactory to all. I propose, the following elements of an agenda for African Christianity. These elements are based on the article “Christianity on the March” written by Richard France and published in 1977. In his article, France suggested five areas of challenge for African Christianity: (1) African Christianity needs more than numbers; (2) African Christianity must become more than a relic of the colonial past; (3) African Christians must think and live in ways that are authentically African and Christian; (4) African Christians and churches must demonstrate care for the concerns of Africans; and (5) the Christian faith in Africa must not be either purely pietistic nor exclusively this-worldly.4
I realize that France stated his five challenges to African Christianity nearly twenty-five years ago. But, over the years, I have noted their relevance to discussions of Christianity in Africa again and again. Given the present situation of the African continent and of Christianity, France’s five categories can be helpful in providing a roadmap for evaluating the state of the gospel in Africa. I offer here a closer look at each of the five challenges.
1. African Christianity needs more than numbers. The spectacular growth of Christianity in Africa seems to be one of the features most noted by observers. In February, 2000, Time Europe reported that Christianity is growing faster in Africa south of the Sahara desert than anywhere else in the world, and projected, based on current trends, that African Christians will soon outnumber Europeans.
Time was only reporting to the wider public what is common knowledge to missiologists and other specialists of religion in Africa. Christians are the majority of the populations of many African countries. The countries with the largest Christian majorities are: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Lesotho, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, South Africa, Swaziland, Kenya and Angola. Yet, the impressive statistical growth of the Christian population in Africa seems to have minimal effect on African societies. No wonder some people still ask: “Where is God in Africa?”6 This question points to the fact that African Christianity must be about more than numbers.
It is one thing to count the number of people who identify themselves as Christians. It is quite another thing to attempt to measure the transforming impact of the gospel. The gospel must make a qualitative difference in the lives of people who profess to adhere to it. Numbers do, indeed, fascinate human beings. They are helpful in many ways but they cannot measure the success of the gospel. So, unless we pay attention to other dimensions of Christian life, rejoicing in the numerical growth of Christianity in Africa may be counter-productive. The impressive numbers of Christians may cause us to overestimate the strength of the Christian faith. Numbers are only a partial indication of the state of the gospel in any situation. This is as true in Africa today as it was in 1977.
2. African Christianity must become more than a relic of the colonial past. This second challenge may be somewhat surprising if one agrees with Andrew F. Walls that “Africans became Christians of their own choice, for African reasons, and often in response to African initiatives.”7 Moreover, we know that as important as the missionary movement was (and is) for Christianity in Africa, it was neither entirely colonial nor did it coerce Africans into becoming Christians. It is recognized that even the success of the missions in Africa was due to “the biggest amount of work [being] done by Africans.”8 So, the question is: should colonialism still be considered a factor when assessing the state of the gospel in Africa? The answer must be in the affirmative for several reasons. For one thing, “the fathers of the missionary movement undoubtedly expected that Christianity would assimilate Africans to a European style of life.”9 Furthermore, critics of Christianity in Africa will not let us forget past unfortunate compromises between Christianity and colonialism. Finally, calls for re-colonization abound in a continent described as “adrift as never before.”10 In such a context a Christian faith perceived as tied to colonialism can only be detrimental to the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
African Christians must do all they can to prevent the development of a “neo-colonial” Christianity.11 They will do so by holding steadfastly to the gospel, by living in full and equal partnership with Christians from other continents, and by working diligently for Christian maturity in Africa. This is why they must take up the challenge of being both authentically African and fully Christian.
3. African Christians must think and live in ways that are authentically African and Christian. In calling African Christians to be fully African and Christian, France joins many others, Africans and non-Africans alike. One thinks of Mojola Agbebi who, at the end of the nineteenth century, advocated the view “the Church should be a symbol and an expression of the African personality by acquiring characteristics of the African environment without sacrificing the eternal principles of the Christian faith.”12 Mention should also be made of Byang H. Kato’s Let African Christians be Christian Africans.13
Indeed the ongoing discussions on African Christian theologies illustrate that there is still work to do in the area of relating the Christian message to African cultures. Yet, Mercy Amba Oduyoye reminds us that “very few African Christian theologians have found a way of being part of … ‘the making of an African Christianity.’”14
The challenge is to refuse to domesticate the gospel and to be attentive to the changing cultural landscape of African societies. An African Christianity that is wholly exotic is a betrayal of the gospel. A Christianity that fails to relate to people in their cultures is also less than the biblical gospel.
4. African Christians and churches must demonstrate care for the concerns of Africans. At a time when so much is said about the economic plight of Africa, it is easy to limit the concerns of Africans to material matters. In this regard the success of movements promoting a gospel of health, wealth, and prosperity is not surprising. Numerous preachers have convinced multitudes of Africans that they deserve wealth and that prosperity awaits them if they accept the Christian faith. No wonder there is little by way of serious reflection on suffering in the public discourse of African Christians and their leaders.
One can hardly get a hearing for the view that “people are not only persuaded by the triumphs of Christianity, but also by its trials.”15 Christians seem to forget that our Lord comforted his disciples with these words: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33) and that for Paul suffering was an essential aspect of the gospel: “If we are children,” he says, “then we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory”(Romans 8:17).
Telling Africans they deserve to be rich is unrealistic and is, at best, the proclamation of a truncated gospel. Consequently, demonstrating care for the concerns of Africans means that Christians must show how one can continue in faith in God and His Christ even in the midst of adversity, poverty, and suffering.
5. The Christian faith in Africa must not be either purely pietistic nor exclusively this-worldly. It can be argued that African Christians have never really accepted a “purely pietistic” Christian faith since their surrounding cultures and religious ethos take this world very seriously. The real danger is the exclusive focus on matters of this world. The authentic gospel of Christ, however, is more than a recipe for good living here and now because “the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
What shall we conclude about the state of the gospel in Africa in light of the five challenges reviewed here? As one looks at the religious scene in Africa, one thing seems clear: in the midst of incredible challenges, the gospel of Jesus Christ is present and is advancing in the African continent. Christians everywhere, and those in Africa in particular, should be grateful to God and to previous generations of men and women who were faithful to the gospel. The remaining task for this generation of African Christians is to address the issues related to the unfinished agenda of the preceding generations. I consider the deepening and the nourishing of the faith of those who identify themselves as Christians to be of utmost urgency in this regard. This is crucial for the integrity of the gospel.
1. Andrew F. Walls. The Significance of Christianity in Africa. Church of Scotland: St. Colm’s Education Centre and College, 1989, p. 3.
2. John Baur. 2000 Years of Christianity in Africa: An African History: 62-1992. Nairobi: Pauline Publications Africa, 1994, p.17.
3. See Andrew F. Walls. The Significance of Christianity in Africa, p. 4: “Christianity is indigenous to Africa,…it antedates the oldest African Islam”.
4. Richard France. “Christianity on the March” Third Way (3 November 1977), pp. 3, 6.
5. Simon Robinson. “The Lord’s Business” Time Europe, Vol. 155, No.5 (February 7, 2000). The article is available online at: time.com/europe
6. See how Femi B. Adeleye deals with this disturbing question in “Where is God in Africa” Span, IFES-EPSA, Vol. 1, Issue 1 (September 1994), pp. 1-3, 7.
7. Andrew F. Walls. The Significance of Christianity in Africa, p. 8.
8. Klaus Fiedler. The Story of Faith Missions. Oxford: Regnum Books International, 1994, p. 364.
9. Andrew F. Walls. The Significance of Christianity in Africa, p. 13.
10. Paul Salopek. “Africa Mixes Calamity, Potential” Chicago Tribune, January 7, 2001, Section 2, p. 3.
11. Some studies such as African Christianity: Its Public Role by Paul Gifford (Indiana University Press, 1998) seem to suggest a dependence on the outside for the proliferation of new forms of Christianity in contemporary Africa. See also his edited book New Dimensions in African Christianity (Nairobi: All Africa Conference of Churches, 1992).
12. E. A. Ayandele. A Visionary of the African Church. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1971, p. 12.
13. Byang H. Kato. African Cultural Revolution and the Christian Faith. Jos: Challenge Publication, n. d., p. 51.
14. Mercy Amba Oduyoye “Christianity and African Culture.” International Review of Mission, Vol. LXXXIV, Nos. 332/333 (January/April 1995), p. 77.
15. A. Anderson. “Pentecostal Pneuma-tology and African Power Concepts: Continuity or Change.” Missionalia, 19:1 (April 1990), p. 73. Some of the success of the prosperity gospel may be linked to the so-called “Magical worldview” of Africans (see Jim Harries “The Magical Worldview in the African Church: What is Going On?” Missiology, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, October 2000, pp. 487-502).
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