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.