One of the biggest stories of the growth of Christianity is the African story. The mere fact that the third Lausanne Congress is being held in South Africa is testimony to that fact.
The Christian faith in Africa goes back to the New Testament period. Whether it was the earliest years of Jesus as a refugee in Africa, or Jewish Christians leaving Jerusalem after Pentecost, or Philip reaching out to the Ethiopian ruler, we know that the Christian presence in Africa is very old, even older than Islam. For that reason it certainly qualifies as one of Africa’s traditional religions.
Books like Thomas C. Oden’s How Africa Shaped The Christian Mind, (IVP, 2007), help us understand the influence of the early African church and its presence in Egypt, Algeria, Ethiopia and even the Sudan. Oden shows how the African church had a decisive shaping influence on Christianity. Early African Christian witnesses can be seen in people like Perpetua, Athanasius, and Augustine. The early African church shaped our exegesis of Scripture, the formation of Christian creeds, the development of ecclesiology, and the birth of monasticism, etc..
In 1900, with Africa under colonial rule, there were some 8.7 million Christians. Today, almost half of Africa’s population (504 million people) claim Christianity as their religion. Through more recent missionary efforts in the early 1900s, the continent was re-evangelized. Africa, which was once called “the tomb of missionaries,” is now one of the heartlands of Christianity.
Why has this happened? There are many reasons. God’s Word was sown by the Holy Spirit into fertile hearts. This is the ultimate reason. Human explanations include—sustained missionary effort and sacrifice, literacy developments and Bible translation through missionaries, and the in-house evangelism of an indigenous church with African reaching Africans. Today, all kinds of means are used to spread the Christian faith including development and relief work, health care efforts, local itinerant evangelists using all kinds of methods (radio, film, church planting, rallies, etc), the planting of schools, and the development of seminaries (i.e. BEST—Bange Evangelical School of Theology, 1977; NEGST—Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology in Kenya, 1982).
One has to be somewhat careful when talking about “Christianity in Africa” and identify which part of Africa we are talking about, and which Christianity. Africa is a very complex as well as a very large continent (it took me ten hours to fly over it!).
For example, while we speak of the Africa as a Christian heartland, we must remember that parts of Africa are still part of the 10/40 window of unreached people groups. The continent has 13 of the world’s 20 least evangelized countries—including Algeria, Comoros, Djibouti, Gambia, Guinea, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, Mayotte, Morocco, Niger, Senegal, Somalia and Tunisia.
While there are many Christians in parts of Africa, there is a great need for discipleship and leadership training. Investments in indigenous leadership is still needed. There still exists a lot of syncretism in Africa. There are many competing world views that still influence Christians, including Africa traditional religions with their animistic world view, Islam with its press for conformity to Islamic law, and western individualism, stressing the independence of the individual.
Does Africa still need missionaries? That’s a big question. In some ways, yes it does. There are still unreached people groups in Africa. There is the need for Bible translation. There is also the need for medical missions and ministries of assistance. But African leaders stress that they need a new kind of missionary who will join in strategic partnerships of mutual blessing with Christians from other parts of the world, helping them move from dependency to maturity.
Strategic partnerships of mutual blessing will highlight two important facts. First, that the African church still needs help from the church around the world. Africa is still the poorest continent in the world. It still needs investments for development, help with problems of fatherlessness, HIV/AIDS, and the recovery from outbreaks of violence and war. It also needs help in dealing with the aggressive press of Islam and training its leaders.
Second, the Western church, desperately needs to be exposed to the vitality of the African church. African Christians can bring strength to us in the area of evangelism, prayer, worship, fellowship, and faith in the power of God. The greatest blessings of partnerships come when long term relationships are established and everyone involved comes away strengthened. In short, we need the African church and the African church needs us.
In sill other ways though, we can say that Africa is now moving from simply being a missionary receiving continent to being a missionary sending continent—even sending missionaries to Europe and the United States. Watch the power of the gospel at work in Africa in the next decade. It is going to become a missionary force in the future so that the land that once was called “the dark continent” will become a beacon of light. Pray for the church in Africa.