The African Church

At the risk of being too subtle, I am absolutely fed up to the back teeth with hearing people tell me that the African church is riddled with the prosperity/health and wealth gospel. 

At the risk of being too subtle, I am absolutely fed up to the back teeth with hearing people tell me that the African church is riddled with the prosperity/health and wealth gospel.

There are two reasons for my frustration; firstly, I’m not convinced that generalisations like this do anyone any service and secondly because I’m not sure that Christians in the west are in any place to go about criticising others. I’ll return to the second point in a later post.

As some of you know, I spent twelve years living in Ivory Coast; six years in an isolated village and the rest of the time in the commercial capital, Abidjan. I’ve also visited about 20 other countries on the continent. That makes me an expert on the African church, right?

Of course it doesn’t.

I know a lot about one corner of one of the 54 countries in Africa and I have general grasp of what is happening across the continent – but I am no expert.

However, that doesn’t stop people who have made month long trips to, say, Accra, coming back to the UK and telling us all about the strength and weaknesses of the Church in Africa. Let’s put that in some sort of perspective; imagine someone from Africa spending a month in Vilnius and then returning home and assuming that they know all that there is to know about the church in Europe. It would be ludicrous – but no more ludicrous than the sort of statement that I hear from church leaders and others in the UK on a regular basis.

So, what is the church in Africa like?

If you take a moment to think about the size and diversity of the African continent, you will realise that this is a silly question. Which Africa? Which church?

The first thing to remember, is that Christianity has been around in Africa for longer than it has in Europe (Acts 8 gives an early picture of this). For centuries the centre of Christian life was in North Africa and many of the great early theologians of the church were Africans.

Here are a few snapshots about the African church. Most of them are not true of the whole continent, but they do give a flavour of the diversity that exists.

  • In North Africa, the church is growing slowly, despite the dominance of Islam in the region.
  • Church leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa are looking to take the gospel message to the North – by which they mean the “unreached” people of North Africa and, beyond that, Europe (that’s us, folks).
  • There are seminaries in Africa which provide training for pastors and church leaders that is more biblically and theologically rigorous than most pastors in the UK receive.
  • Despite hardship and poverty, which would blow the minds of most Europeans, the church in Africa continues to grow at an amazing rate.
  • Generally, Christians in Africa are more conservative and Bible orientated than their counterparts in the West.

Of course the picture isn’t all rosy. The church in Africa struggles to train enough leaders to cope with the rate at which it is growing, it has to deal with a whole raft of heresies and perversions of the faith (most exported from the West then recycled with an African gloss). To go back to my introduction, the prosperity gospel is a huge problem in parts of Africa; but the story does not stop there and we do an injustice to our African brothers and sisters when we imply that it does.

This post is more than a year old. It is quite possible that any links to other websites, pictures or media content will no longer be valid. Things change on the web and it is impossible for us to keep up to date with everything.

8 replies on “The African Church”

Thanks Ed, this is helpful.

One thing that skews my thinking, certainly, is the theology of African congregations that I encounter in the north east of England. The ones I know emphasise material ‘success’, wealth and health in their teaching, sometimes (apparently) to the exclusion of the cross, forgiveness and new life. It is easy for people like me (not that well travelled, not all that globally aware) to run away with the idea that this is rife in Africa as a whole. So the lesson in your article is – for me – ‘Don’t generalise!’ As you know, I find that quite a challenge.

I’d say that my London experience is similar. Sadly.

However, I do know that there are many Churches in Africa that welcome conservative Christian teachers, and publications, which groups I know send over. I’d have more hope over Africa than Europe!

Thank you Eddie. We Africans are tired of generalisations about our amazing and diverse, huge continent, although even this statement is a generalisation. We must not neglect to acknowledge the any great church leaders found here. The problems here are not really different from those in the north. Perhaps the perceived absence of problems in the European church is a reflection of an unacknowledged lack of church in Europe.

“The thing about white churches, especially the Anglicans that I’ve seen on TV is that they are so liberal. You have white bishops on TV saying they don’t believe in the resurrection, that they believe in gay marriage, and that the Bible needs to be updated. Also the churches I’ve been to they don’t know their Bibles. They have short short 20 minute sermons full of jokes and no scripture. It is an abomination. I am grateful for your encouragement not to generalise, for I had been imagining that all white men have given up on the true faith. I am reminded that the Lord will always keep fit himself a remnant.”

Hi Eddie, ………I wonder whether Christians in the UK, are no less materialistically (prosperity) orientated than anyone from Africa, or elsewhere for that matter, only we are better at covering it up?

I live in Tanzania and have been ministering here for twenty years. When I stand up in front of a Swahili congregation to preach about the ‘wrongness’ of the prosperity gospel, I am very aware, that many are looking at me and thinking: ‘You have a car, a pension, medical cover, an annual holiday and a flight out of here if something goes wrong’. All good things perhaps, but I am dependent on supporters and churches who have been blessed with a modicum of prosperity! We might describe ourselves as ‘cross-centred, gospel people’, but how does that translate in terms of our day to day priorities?

Someone has said, that “Christianity in much of Africa is worn like a cloak around an animist heart”, which may or may not explain their interest in present blessing and power over the day to day realities of disease, poverty, corruption, rather than a concentration on the world to come, but what is our excuse?

Is our Christianity worn like a cloak around a secular heart ? whereby our faith is equally influenced by a material prosperity priority? Perhaps the only difference is we are not so overt about the connection between God and our material blessing, perhaps we should be!

We have missionary friends who are in Africa and they way they explain it, is that in Africa that for the most part Christianity is wide, but it is not deep. They are teaching at a theologically sound seminary there to help change that.

That’s exactly the sort of generalisation that annoys me. How can you describe Christianity on a whole continent that is larger than Europe, the United States and China combined in one sentence? I’m sure your friends are doing a great job, but one seminary is simply not going to change Christianity in a whole country, much less in 54 of them.

Oh and I am far from convinced that Christianity is any deeper in the West

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