Thursday, June 08, 2017

"From Beyond the Rivers of Cush" - Africa's Christian Explosion

When you think about evangelical Christianity, what part of the world springs first to mind? If you're like most, it will probably be the USA, because of evangelicalism's strong historical roots there, and because of its abiding presence in American culture. But if so, it might surprise you to know that the continent with the world's most evangelicals is not North America. Not even close. It's Africa, with more than double the number of evangelical Christians than in the US and Canada. (In fact, Latin America and Asia both also outpace USA/Canada in this area. 3 out of every 4 evangelicals in the world come from Africa, Latin America, or Asia).

And that's just evangelicalism. When one considers the surge of Pentecostalism, African-initiated churches, and Roman Catholicism across the continent (to say nothing of the Protestant mainline denominations rooted in Africa's colonial past, and many still flourishing today), it is not an exaggeration to say that the 21st-century heartland of the Christian faith will likely be Africa. 

Many Americans find this surprising. That's mainly because the colonial age of "discovery," in which Euro-Americans finally became aware of the vast depths of the African continent, is still relatively recent. Many still have the old stereotypes of "the dark continent" very much in mind. And when they think about African Christianity, they tend to think about white missionaries in khaki suits and pith helmets: Doctor Livingstone, I presume? 

And while the story of African Christianity does indeed have many great Christian heroes who came there from Europe and America (Livingstone, C. T. Studd, Robert Moffatt, the White Fathers, and many others), African Christianity goes far, far beyond that small set of nineteenth-century adventurers. Christianity was an African phenomenon from the beginning of the Gospels, when the holy family fled to Egypt; residents of Africa were among the first Christians in the world (Acts 2:10, 8:26-39); two of the oldest branches of Christianity are African (the Coptic Church and the Ethiopian Tawahedo Orthodox Church); and a major set of the greatest early church fathers and mothers were Africans (Tertullian, Perpetua, Clement, Cyprian, Origen, Antony, Athanasius [aka "the black dwarf"], Pachomius, Macarius, Monica, Augustine, Moses the Black, Samuel the Confessor, etc.). 

Even when one comes to the story of contemporary Christianity and its vast, sweeping rebirth across the African continent, it's important to note that a very wide swath of that growth comes not from Western missionaries, but from indigenous Christian movements among Africans themselves, often led by pioneering, prophet-style leaders. These groups, classed as "African-initiated churches" (AICs), are one of the dominant forms of African Christianity, and are now spreading to other continents as well. The most successful Protestant missionary in West Africa pre-1950 was not a Westerner; it was the Liberian evangelist William Wade Harris. And he is only one of many--in the annals of African Christianity, these men can stand shoulder to shoulder with the Augustines and Livingstones: Samuel Ajayi Crowther (the first Anglican bishop in Africa); Joseph Babalola and Joseph Oshitelu of the Aladura revival in Nigeria; Joseph Kiwanuka, the first African Catholic bishop; Simeon Nsibambi, Blasio Kigozi, and William Nagenda of the Ugandan revival; Simon Kibangu, founder of the largest independent African church; Mensa Obatil and the explosive growth of African neo-Pentecostalism; and Desmond Tutu, the celebrated Anglican archbishop who helped guide South Africa along the road to racial healing (to name only a few!).

Christianity has spread across Africa with astonishing speed. From only nine million Christians in 1900, the number rose to 380 million a century later, and it's still rising! (This would be the same as if no one were a Christian in the US except the residents of New York City, and then within just three generations, every single person in the entire country became a Christian.) Even when taking the continent as a whole (including the Muslim-majority nations of northern Africa), it comes out as being 80% Christian. Missionaries from Africa are now being sent out to re-evangelize the secularizing mission fields of Europe and North America. 

And while some might have concerns at the sheer diversity of African Christianity, and the possible syncretism involved in some forms, I can attest, from personal experience, to the strength, vigor, and maturity of Christianity in Africa. Several of the saintliest people I've ever met were African Christians, including one Namibian evangelist who, through his wise counsel, forever changed my outlook on ministry. I have been personally enriched and challenged by African Christianity many times, and if it happens that America will one day require a reinvigoration from the rising tide of African faith, it will be entirely to our benefit.

"Then I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder. From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, my scattered people will bring me offerings."
              - Zephaniah 3:9-10