10 Things You Should Know about the African Church

This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.

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1. The African church is growing.

It is said that the number of Christians in Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century was about 9 million and that by the end of the twentieth century it was about 380 million. Church structures cannot cope with this kind of growth. So, churches are simply meeting in classrooms, in grass-thatched makeshift structures, and under trees—and yet they are still growing! It is also refreshing to see in attendance young parents with their toddlers, teenagers and young adults, all the way to octogenarians. It speaks well for the future of the church in Africa.

2. Where there is zeal, there is some lack of knowledge.

The church in Africa is full of zeal, though sometimes this zeal lacks knowledge (Rom. 10:2). This zeal is seen in evangelistic fervor. Anyone with eyes to see cannot miss this, and it is the explanation behind the quantum leap in growth. African society, generally, is very open to the Christian message, though openness to listening is not the same thing as openness to responding to the message. If they know that you are a pastor who has come to visit their home, most parents will call everyone in the home to come and listen to you. The door of opportunity is still wide open. Individuals whose knowledge of the Bible is still at a kindergarten level will soon be found leading a church in a village. Some of them do not even have a full Bible. Yet, they are preaching wherever they find ears that are willing to listen. You will find lay preachers in streets and on buses and trains. Personal witnessing takes place in schools, colleges, and universities.

There is a desperate need for more training in order to reduce the wildfires being produced by this zeal where knowledge is lacking. The normal “Bible College” structures used in the Western world to train future leaders and pastors cannot cope with this zeal and growth. Other forms need to be brought in that would function more like the combine harvester does on huge commercial farms. All such “problems” aside, however, the church in Africa is refreshingly zealous.

3. There is a need for biblically-trained pastors.

It is estimated that by the middle of this century, the number of professing Christians in Africa will be around 600–700 million. All these Christians will need to be in churches, under well-trained church leaders and pastors. Ninety percent of the people who are currently functioning as pastors are untrained. If our churches are truly forward-looking, they ought to be preparing for this windfall by putting in time and money to train these future leaders. This is not the time to claim that we do not have money. Pastoral training is not an optional extra. It is an essential part of every church’s ministry if it is to participate responsibly in the Great Commission that Jesus left with the church.

God's Design for the Church

Conrad Mbewe

As the church in Africa continues its growth, there is a pressing need for resources on what the church is, and how it should function. Using 30 years of pastoral service in Lusaka, Zambia, Conrad Mbewe applies biblical principles to help bring depth and maturity to African church leaders.

4. The church in Africa is respected by the community and the state because it often provides for the basic needs of society.

In my own country of Zambia, the church provides 60%of the health facilities of the entire nation. The church also runs the best schools in the country, in terms of both the physical structures and the holistic development of the students. Even when there has been need for disaster relief, the church has tended to be the vehicle chosen by donors to deliver help at the grassroots level. This has helped the nations of Africa that are on the brink of abject poverty to appreciate the church and to still have hope for the younger generation. The love shown by the church has won the ears of community and state leaders.

Therefore, when church leaders express concern about an important matter in society, local and national leaders tend to listen. This means that the church is able to speak into the moral issues of the day and gain a hearing. This is one reason why the leaders of African nations have been able to withstand the pressure from the West to redefine human sexuality and marriage to suit those with a homosexual agenda. This is despite the fact that some Western countries are tying their aid to an acceptance of this agenda. Although some church leaders have abused the listening ear of state leaders for their own personal gain, this relationship still augurs well for the ambience that enables the church to do its evangelistic work. What was true in the Western world some two hundred years ago is currently still true on the African continent.

5. The African chief mentality has affected how the church views leadership.

The view that a leader—even a church leader—is like a tribal chief still lingers in the African psyche. To begin with, a chief is not primarily chosen by the people. It is hereditary. The position comes to him because “the gods” placed him in the right family tree, at the right position in that family, and at the very right time. Once he is inaugurated, it is as if the spirit of the gods comes to dwell with him. A chief, especially a paramount chief, is the highest position in the tribe. He may have many elders and advisors to help him, but his decisions are final. He is the final custodian of the vast, vast land that belongs to the entire tribe. He has an aura about him that fills the people with fear when they are in his presence. He has a special seat, which is his throne. He has many assistants around him.

Pastoral training is not an optional extra. It is an essential part of every church’s ministry if it is to participate responsibly in the Great Commission.

In a bygone era, even the lives of individuals in his tribe were at his mercy. If he demanded that you die, you would die with nowhere to appeal the decision. That was the absolute power that chiefs wielded. When you understand this psyche, you begin to see why pastors and other church leaders in Africa tend to be treated with the dignity that leaves political leaders in the West green with envy. They end up being accountable to no one and easily abuse the money, property, and females in the church—and get away with it. We need to get back to the Bible and see what God says about who should be church leaders and how they should carry out their work.

6. The church in Africa is communal and has respect for authority.

This is something that comes largely from African culture, and it is commendable. The ubuntu phenomenon captures something of the tendency by the African people to prize human relations more than anything else. This is the fountain out of which relationships in the church tend to run deep and which also means that the elderly and those in positions of leadership are respected. Pastors living within certain distances of each other will have pastor “fraternals,” where they not only meet to listen to each other teach but also share their common lives as pastors and meet each other’s needs. They develop deep relationships in those groupings, and many of these are beyond immediate denominational circles. The “one another” imperatives of Scripture are already in practice in the culture before they are augmented with biblical teaching. People have a greater sense of belonging to churches than they normally do in the West. If there were to be a fault, perhaps it would be that people do not question the actions of their leaders as much as they ought to because of their respect for authority. Some biblical balance may be necessary.

7. Although there are unique issues facing African Christians, the central beliefs and practices of the church are the same worldwide.

There is a growing view that Christianity in Africa must be different from Christianity in the East or West. I think this view is wrong because it creates a divide that the Bible knows nothing about and would not even want to encourage. For instance, it wants us to deliberately and intentionally worship differently from our brethren in the West, many of whom live among us in our cosmopolitan cities. This self-conscious effort is foreign to New Testament Christianity, which tries to bring all of us into one body—“. . . Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11). Rather, I think that there is a need for the application of Christian truth to vices that are peculiarly African. This latter approach is what should be encouraged because it tries to apply biblical principles to what is customary in Africa so that we are drawn back to belief and practice that follows God’s design for the church.

8. There are many issues in the African context that need to have the torch of Scripture shone on them.

As God’s word is taught and the doctrines of Scripture are enunciated, we must apply God’s word to those areas—areas like ancestor worship, tribalism, corruption, funeral and burial rites, initiation rites, marriage and family relationships, human sexuality, servant leadership, relating to refugees and foreigners, culture and traditions, superstition and witchcraft, the world of the spirits (ancestral spirits, Satan, demons, and angels), taboos, polygamy, traditional sacrifices, bride price and weddings, widows and orphans, religious syncretism, disease and healing, and so on. If Christians are going to grow in maturity, they should be taught how to think through these issues from God’s perspective so that they can know how to live in society in a way that truly glorifies the God of the Bible. These teachings should be Bible-based and must grow out of doctrines of Christianity that are drawn out of Scripture.

9. The church must acknowledge the world of spirits and witchcraft so prevalent in African culture and correct it according to the Bible.

The world of the spirits is so real and near in the African church that it needs to be addressed in order to produce authentic Christian practice. Deliverance sessions have become a common phenomenon in the churches in Africa. Church pastors have inadvertently become the equivalent of witch doctors. Even Christians come to church not so much thinking in terms of what they should render to God as their divine Benefactor but rather thinking in terms of what they can get from God through his servant, and especially through his powerful intercessions and interventions. As popular as this has become, it is not what should be happening during worship services. There is no biblical warrant for this.

10. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are largely misunderstood.

For many Christians, baptism and the Lord’s Supper remain a mystery. They undergo baptism because it is commanded in the Bible, but they lack knowledge as to its meaning and significance. Likewise, when a pastor or an elder is praying for the Lord’s Supper, and the bread and drink are being passed around, many Christians have no idea how this simple meal benefits them spiritually. They assume that something mystical is happening that impacts them simply by the fact that the bread and drink are swallowed. Due to this wrong perception, they often hold the bread and the cup as if they were holding magic charms in their hands. Such views of the Lord’s Supper are superstitious at best and idolatrous at the worst.

In the average African mind, witnessing a pastor or elder praying for the Lord’s Supper conjures up thoughts of the village witch doctor invoking the spirit world as he apparently shatters whatever it is that is causing misery in the lives of those who have come to him for help. They know what it means to watch with awe as a witch doctor moves a few bones and feathers from dead animals on the floor while he chants some words in an apparent trance. Finally, he puts some concoction together and gives it to them to drink as part of their purification exercise. He may also give the people some roots that they are to put in water the next time they bathe. As they bathe and eat, in obedience to the witch doctor’s instructions, something is supposed to happen in the spirit world. They are supposedly going to be liberated from the mysterious curse and spell that is on their lives. Is this what really happens when you enter into the baptismal waters, or eat the bread and drink the cup during the Lord’s Supper?

The African church needs to understand the Scriptures to see what it teaches concerning these two ordinances.

This article is adapted from God’s Design for the Church: A Guide for African Pastors and Ministry Leaders by Conrad Mbewe.

Did you know that you can partner with Crossway to equip African pastors and church leaders with gospel-centered resources? Get involved.

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