African Church Leaders Taking Hold
Africa, the “dark” continent brought to light by missionary David Livingston, stretches from the Mediterranean in the north to the mixing of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans in the south. Soon to be 1.2 billion, its varied cultures, peoples, religions and economic successes mixed with disasters, is a place of exotic beauty, barren wastelands and many peoples with a loving and inviting disposition.
I visited with pastors and Evangelicals leaders of 33 of its 62 nations in Harare Zimbabwe at the General assembly of the African Evangelical Alliance. Called together under the theme, “Living the Lordship of Christ,” stories were told of the multitude of challenges and opportunities facing the witness of Christ today.
Today, two out of ten Christians in the world reside here. In 1970 (its population then 366 million), 142 million or 38.7% were Christians. Fifty years later (estimates for 2020) out of 1,278 billion in Africa 50% or 630 million will confess Christian faith. In 50 years that’s an explosive growth, expanding from 142 million to 630 million Christians.
For centuries the African church was shaped by its many mission groups . Today the African church is coming into its own. Its leaders are resolved that this African church is a continent of their concern and responsibility. While agencies and churches continue to send their support and target issues like evangelism, poverty, war, corruption and the encroaching presence of Islam, the present and rising generation of leaders know this is their time to lead.
While polls show decline in Christian faith in Western countries, globally church growth in what is called the “Global South,” (Africa, Latin America and Asia) offset those numbers. Demographers who previously “located” the center of the Christian church (that is the population center of the Christian majority) in Europe that has now shifted to Africa. Countries in Africa often seen as countries in need of outside help, today increasingly African leaders are forming their own responses and strategies.
Speakers and across-the-table conversations reminded me of the critical matters they face. While Westerners are concerned of shifting patterns in our own countries, it matters that we understand what our Christian brothers and sisters face in their lands. And Africa, given its growing population and rising Christian witness, we are better served in seeing on the macros scale, what they face, and in turn how we might help.
Daily we see the vicious savagery of Islamic extremists in North Africa and sub Saharan regions. At the Kenyan university, Garissa, 147 students were recently cut down by bullets of terrorists from across the border in Somalia. Boca Haran, an ISIS linked army in north Nigeria in 2014 abducted last 300 young female students from a school in Chibok, selling many as wives and sex slaves: its national government seemingly incapable of rescue.
Violence captures our attention, describing the underlying incursion of Islam, funded by its oil rich Arab states, supplying funds for the building of mosques and pressing populations to convert or die. While we focus on the nuclear and regional proxy wars of Iran, Saudi Arabia funds radicals in th Middle East, Africa and South East Asia. One pastor noted that while the election of a new Muslim president in Nigeria will help to quell Islamic violence for a time, his opinion is that it’s simply a strategy designed, first to upset the population to elect one of that faith, but tht during this Islamic presidency officials from that faith will increase, pressing out the boundaries of their influence.
The debate over whether or not we are facing cultural wars may be of interest to scholars and diplomats but in Africa its people are challenged by this powerful move of Islam to imprint itself with an increased presence, moving the northern boundaries of their message further south.
To the south, South Africa, the economic engine of Africa, while having worked its way from under the weight its former racist government, led from the wilderness by Nelson Mandela, now under a democracy of free vote, its leadership seems unable to enact what will bring prosperity to a people with a 26% unemployment.
Poverty, the scourge of so many tribes and peoples mitigated by various government and non-government groups (NGOs). Some seem to work others don’t. Yet this land, fertile and rich with its potential of agriculture and other natural resources, struggles to find means of building family and youth into strong and able communities. The Brookings group note that in 1990 56% lived under the poverty line of less than $1.25 per day. In 2010 that dropped to 48% and they predict it will be halved in 2030 to 24%.
On the other hand Evangelicals see beyond issues as being just that of poverty, lack of education or military conflict for example. For them its a spiritual matter. Christian enterprise from the West often see issues in a more rationalistic way. For example, poverty is viewed solely as a social/economic matter needing funding, training and growing its expertise. Our diagnosis comes from analysis and applied technique.
The Evangelical African church see is differently. For them life is lived within the confrontation of good and evil. Spiritual battle is the issue. Seeing forces at work against them, with an accompanying response by the Spirit, really matters. Worship, as noted in a recent article by Brant Myers, is where their analysis and response begins. Surrounded by the life and presence of the Spirit, their concern is not as it often is with us, but as he notes, “What does God want for Africa?”
Much like what I learned in my prairie church, when Jesus came, he lifted people from their self-destructive behavior. For our community, “being saved” often meant deliverance from alcohol, the curse of farm life. That resolved, more resources was available for family. Reduced family violence and in time a social and economic rise in wellbeing as family was tied together with parental love, not broken down by damaging behavior.
Its future narrative will gradually unfold, wrestling with its own tribal conflicts, corrupt governments and efforts to evangelize and build church-centered communities. Leaving the former missionary instruction to stay out of politics, increasingly Evangelical leaders are entering public life, in some places enabling and other times and places less than successful. Even so their sense of call is to engage all of life with their Kingdom call.
Led by Aiah Fouday-Khabenje, the AEA and its national leaders are buoyant in their vision and courageous in their plans. They look for encouragement and assistance from outside their continent yet recognizing their role is to give heart and drive to the continuing task of beginning in “Jerusalem and in all Judea and to the ends of the earth.”
Brian C Stiller
The World Evangelical Alliance