Theological Trends in Africa: Implications for Missions and Evangelism

A blossoming Christianity devoid of discipleship suggests
a weak doctrinal grounding. This approach lacks depth, will
hurt our commitment to evangelism, and could scuttle the
mission of the African Church.

The Rev. Billy Graham once observed, “If you lose your health you have lost something, but you have not lost everything. If you lose your wealth you have lost nothing. If you lose your character you have lost everything.” The Church in Africa will do well to heed this word of wisdom. The absence of Christian integrity is a key trend that marks church growth and activity on the continent. This article elaborates certain critical trends and their implications for the mission of the Church in Africa.

Negative Trends

1. An Emphasis on Numerical Growth rather than Spiritual Growth
Success in ministry is measured by quantity rather then quality. Numbers are celebrated and quality is compromised in the process. Several theologians and missiologists, including the Rev. Dr. John Stott, observe the numerical growth of Christianity in Africa as being “an inch deep and a mile wide.”

Indeed, the foundations of Christian discipleship are weak in many churches experiencing explosive numerical growth across sub-Saharan Africa. This is the case from Lagos to Lusaka, Kinshasa to Kumasi, Accra to Addis Ababa, Abuja to Yaoundé, Nairobi to Kampala, Harare to Blantyre, Cape Town to Dare Salaam. Churches need to refocus on their character and how this impacts their commitment to completing the task of world evangelization.

Revelation 2-3 reveals the importance of character and the consequences of a church without moral identity. Since 1988, there has been a growth of mass conversions and a resurgence of church planting in my native country of Nigeria. Because of this, I began asking myself questions concerning the character of the emerging Nigerian Church (which includes churches with strong neo-Pentecostal roots). Some of these Charismatic churches boast having some of the largest church attendances in Africa; one congregation in Lagos records a weekly attendance of fifty thousand people. Prayer meetings attract up to two million attendees.

Yet the impact of the gospel on society is diminished by the disjuncture of belief and practice. During the Langham Nigeria Preaching Seminar ’08, Rt. Rev. Dr. Cyril Okorocha, Anglican Bishop of Owerri Diocese, observed that Nigerians are tired of hearing ministers preach about Jesus. They want to see Jesus lived out by preachers through lives of personal integrity.

One major result of the disjuncture between belief and practice is the lack of depth found in many Christians. Religiosity is widespread; however, godliness is scarce. People from all walks of life profess faith in God; however, this is not displayed in everyday life practices. Is it any wonder that Christians going into government are unprepared to withstand temptations of the office? They fail to be true ambassadors of Christ in government. Many have instead brought shame to Christ’s name.

Unfortunately, we are discovering that Christian politicians are not immune to corruption. By using the illustration that Zambia is a Christian nation because President Federick Chiluba is born again, the Rev. Kuzipa Nalwamba, a woman cleric of The United Church of Zambia (UCZ), observed that

In most of our nations Christianity has a public role, yet we have not developed an adequate theology….How that is harnessed and channelled towards mission rather than the Church merely gaining clout would have far-reaching effects on the Church's prophetic role in society and therefore its mission. But the public role of Christianity is a mixed blessing because collusion with the state [is] a real temptation for the Church. History attests to how that can harm or enhance mission.

There is no denying that God will turn the tides in Africa. The twenty-first century is Africa’s century in Christendom. There have been prophecies emerging from different parts of the world regarding the roles reserved for Nigeria and Africa in catalyzing world evangelization in these last days. There is abundant reason to believe this claim. Africa has ample natural and human resources waiting for the right generation of leaders to develop; our adventurous Christian youth can support any spiritual movement that God will orchestrate. Add our immense capacity to adapt freely to all natural environments, and you will have a force waiting for mobilization and ready for deployment. The African Church of the twenty-first century must not only guarantee proclamation of the gospel, but ensure its survival for coming generations.

Christianity in Africa must be spiritual, not simply social. 

2. Christianity as a Social rather than a Spiritual Phenomenon
Does church growth in Africa represent genuine conversion? Or does it represent spiritual and social convergence as instigated by modern contextual realities such as poverty, invasion of culture, political instability, and corruption. These factors notwithstanding, in his book The Next Christendom, Phillip Jenkins describes the unprecedented growth as the great shift: “Over the past century…the centre of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Already today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America.”

Unlike previous centuries, the majority of Christians now originate and reside in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But one may ask, “Since we have the largest Christian population in Africa, what responsibility does this place on us?” Dr. Andrew Walls describes the global Christian advance as “serial.” Jenkins claims that,

In the providence of God, it is the Christians of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific that are next in the series….It means that the Christians of the southern continents are now the representative Christians, the people by whom the quality of twenty-first and twenty-second century Christianity will be judged, the people who will set the norms, the standard. And the quality of twenty-first century Christianity will depend on them.

In light of this reality, it is imperative we ask ourselves, “What legacy will the African Church bequeath to the rest of the world fifty to one hundred years from now?” If the majority of today’s Christian world does not pay adequate attention to developing disciples after conversion, Christianity in Africa becomes a social rather than a spiritual phenomenon. A blossoming Christianity devoid of discipleship suggests a weak doctrinal grounding. This approach lacks depth, will hurt our commitment to evangelism, and could scuttle the mission of the African Church.

3. Nigeria: Africa’s Litmus Test
One in every four Africans is Nigerian. One in every five black people in the world is Nigerian. With a population of nearly 150 million, there is no doubt the Nigerian Church and nation are bound to have a significant impact on the African continent. The general perception of Nigeria is its failure to set a good example for the rest of Africa. Recently, I read a screaming headline in one of the Nigerian daily newspapers: “Nigeria Still Sinful Despite Many Churches.” This calls for sober reflection, genuine repentance, and a reorientation on the part of the Church. Here are several issues the Nigerian Church is facing:

  • The creation of megastars. The “Man of God” syndrome is aptly described in the book Preachers of a Different Gospel, by Rev. Femi Adeleye. “Men of God” have become “stars and celebrities.” Preaching has become a skilful marketing art. Jesus is relegated to the background. Where is the humility of John the Baptist, who declared, “He must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:34)?
  • The existence of doctrinal distortions, pulpit abuse, falsehood, and the commercialization of the gospel. “Cash for Christ” is sometimes found in churches—the more cash you pay, the greater your chances of seeing a bigger miracle take place.
  • The commonness of the prosperity gospel. Nigerian churches have exported this to the rest of Africa. Today, this gospel of greed is a disturbing trend with appealing momentum. Capitalist desperados are masquerading as church planters. In his book Foxes in the Vineyard, Insights into the Nigerian Pentecostal Revival, Sean Akinrele quotes Bishop Mike Okonkwo, former president of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN):

The PFN leadership has discovered that money has sadly become the yardstick for success in the Church, especially the Pentecostals…. Prosperity messages have therefore taken centre stage of most preaching at the expense of full gospel messages. This has degenerated to the extent that people now come to church primarily to get rich outside the richness in their souls. Pastors, too, have cashed in on the gullibility of unsuspecting members as symbolism in oil, mantle, honey, palm-leaves, sprinkling of blood, and other mediums are now evolved to build the faith of the people unto materialism.

  • The prominence of bossy leadership. In Christ, we learn a new and liberating model of leadership: servant leadership. The African continent, caught in the throes of conflict arising from tussles for power and resources, are desperate for this biblical leadership model. The current posture of spiritual grand-standing depreciates the gains of the Charismatic renewal movement across Africa and makes the tasks of evangelization less convincing in its genuine appeal.
  • The lack of making the cross central. Where is the cross in the way we live as Christ’s followers? Today, popular theology inspired by the prosperity gospel exponents, “He go butter my bread and sugar my tea. Me, I no go suffer.” This needs to be reviewed if we are to be faithful to the teaching of the one who hung on the cross for the redemption of humankind. In The Chosen One—a Ghanaian home movie—a prostitute made an observation that resonates with the African Church: “Nowadays, pastors want to be like Jesus, but they are not ready to suffer like Jesus.” If this is true, it means the message of the cross is neither being portrayed to a needy world, nor are believers receiving sound doctrinal teaching required for proper spiritual formation. Rev. Ft. Mathew Kukah, a leading Catholic crusader for social justice in Nigeria, observed, “Many preachers are promising to make their followers millionaires, landlords, and landowners….This Christianity is a crossless Christianity, preaching a crossless Christ. It pretends that we should apologize for the cross of Christ because to be a Christian is not to suffer. It pretends we should apologise that God may have made a mistake for allowing Jesus…to be buried in a borrowed tomb….This kind of Christianity is transitory and it does harm to the foundation of the faith.” The Church cannot afford to live in denial of the cross. If the cross is denied in our Christian emphasis, then our Christianity has lost its biblical distinctiveness.

Positive Trends
These trends are widespread across denominations. Despite this, the African Church has made major contributions to the Global Church through missions, evangelism, and prayer.

1. The Uniqueness of the Charismatic Movement
The Charismatic renewal experienced across Africa should be celebrated and theologically guided. There may be questions about the Pentecostal resurgence regarding practice and doctrine, but it should never be discarded. I recall an African proverb which states that “a mother does not throw away the dirty water and the baby inside after the bath.” Reflecting along this thought line, Rev. Nalwamba added,

I think we need to consider trends in the Renewal/Charismatic movement and its relationship to the African traditional worldview/religion. One reason why the Charismatic movement has had such a growing appeal is that it takes seriously the spiritual world and spiritual phenomenon which mainstream Christianity tends to sideline. A theologically sound and balanced approach to these phenomenon would contribute to the deepening of faith and mission on the continent.

2. The Example of the Anglican Communion in Africa
The Anglican Communion has stood out globally in spearheading a strong protest within the Anglican Communion worldwide. Their effort also represents a global, prophetic voice against the agenda to institutionalise and mainstream gay ordination in the Church. This is helping to shape the agenda for evangelicals in promoting biblical ideals in the marketplace. It helps our Christian witness and defines our identity. Throughout history, compromise has never helped in advancing the Church’s mission. This is a positive influence the Church in Africa should model to the rest of the world. May more bold prophetic steps be taken in other areas, such as corruption, good governance, social justice and equity, gender balance, and good stewardship of the environment.

3. The Missionary Impact of the African Church
The African Church has become a blessing to the rest of the world. It has moved from a missionary-receiving continent one hundred years ago to a missionary-sending continent today. Nigeria has been in the forefront. A strong commitment and sacrificial missionary spirit is moving across Africa in response to drumbeats of missions. For example, within the context of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), several universities and college graduates are missionaries in villages and cities both in African and beyond. From Nigeria alone, there are nearly 5,200 missionaries serving in other countries.

The Way Forward—A Return to Basics
I have not written this article to put down my continent or to let others use this to discredit what God is doing in Africa. I am sharing our struggles as we forge ahead with a new wave of God’s movement across the continent. Like every renewal movement, there are bound to be excesses. These must be addressed in context. Old African stereotypes within missiological circles will not foster better understanding of the continent nor appreciate the substantial contributions Africa will continue to make to Christendom.

Calisto Odede, a mission enthusiast in Kenya, shares, “We have come from a long way. The background and history of Africa is loaded with all sorts of imaginations of who the Africans are, what they are able to do, and what they cannot be able to do.” Adam Hoschchild points out that

  1. When the Europeans began imagining Africa beyond the Sahara, the continent they pictured was a dreamscape, a site for the fantasies of the fearsome and the supernatural. Ranulf Higden, a Benedictine monk who mapped the world about AD 1350, claimed that Africa contained one-eyed people who used their feet to cover their heads. A geographer in the next century announced that the continent held people with one leg, three faces, and the heads of lions. In 1459, an Italian monk, Fra Mauro, declared Africa the home of the roc, a bird so large that it could carry an elephant through the air.

Odede continued, “Unfortunately, such imaginations about Africa/Africans remain. We still struggle against worldviews that undermine our ability to belong and proclaim. Even within missions’ circles, negative stereotypes persist. But many of us are convinced that the hour for Africa has struck.”

The hosting of the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 2010 by the African Church in Cape Town, South Africa, should be embraced as an opportunity to reinforce positive trends throughout the continent. It should also initiate critical discussion on ways to reverse negative trends by promoting sound biblical teaching in churches. Transformed lives conform to God’s redemptive vision of why he created us. We are here to impact society and serve as God’s agents of redemptive change. To accomplish this task, we need to be rooted in the knowledge of God’s word. Biblical depth has no shortcut to a blossoming Christian life. Without biblical depth, we lack critical Christian minds. Without depth in God’s word, we lose our prophetic message. 

Correcting these trends is now a sacred duty we all must undertake sooner rather than later if we are to preserve the divine mandate of taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. This will define our character and shape our prophetic duty. Its urgency stares us in the face; procrastination is not an option. We must each pledge ourselves to arrest the current drift toward spiritual lawlessness. May the Church in Africa impact our society with proper biblical values. We must prioritize character over charisma.

Chuck Colson once wrote, “The first Christians worshipped God and lived as a holy community, conforming their character to the demands of Christ rather than to Caesar. They didn’t purpose to turn the first-century world upside down. They did so by who they were.” There is a bright future for the Church and society in Africa if the required safeguards are put in place to consolidate gains and eliminate excesses.

Gideon Para-Mallam is associate regional secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) in West Africa. He is also Lausanne international deputy director for Anglophone Africa.