Like many other Christian leaders, I study and ponder general trends affecting faith in general, and Christianity in particular, as we look forward into the rest of this century. Most of what I read on that topic is rather discouraging, as sociological trends portend a continued decline in most of the ways we in the West have come to express faith since the Enlightenment. Maybe some of those things NEED to decline, although the experience of that is not comfortable. We who serve in the theological education may actually feel the effects of these transitions ahead of the Church in general, and we are already keenly aware of that discomfort.
I was quite intrigued, therefore, to read this fascinating post by Philip Jenkins about African Christianity. Jenkins appeared on the scene about 15 years ago with his celebrated eye-opening book, The Next Christendom, which was about the new “global Christianity.” In that and subsequent volumes, he paid particular attention to the “Global South” (Latin America, Africa, and Asia), where Christian faith is on the rise, even as it is in decline in the West. In this article, “How Africa is Changing Faith Around the World,” he assesses not only Africa’s growing numerical dominance but also its growing influence on how Christianity is perceived and expressed around the world.
In short, he suggests that we must pay attention to Africa, and in new ways. For over a century and a half, most of us have seen that continent as a place to send things–money, missionaries, and materials. We’ve seen its population as a people to be taught (by us). Only begrudgingly did North American churches and agencies begin releasing control to African leaders within this past generation. We have, in the formulation of Emmanuel Katangole, a Ugandan missiologist, moved from paternalism to something more like partnership, but there is yet a pilgrimage to be taken together…one in which over the next generation or two we may receive more from Africa, in terms of how we understand our own faith, than we have given.
African Christianity has its own problems, of course. Unhealthy forms of charismatic leadership, patriarchal and nepotistic systems of control, an exuberant embrace of the prosperity gospel, a hyper-emotionalism that sometimes supersedes sound doctrine, and an uncomfortable syncretism with traditional beliefs and practices…these all come quickly to mind. And yet each of these is either a manifestation or an extreme version of the Christianity we North Americans introduced there and for which we are at least partially responsible. And we have not had the challenge of living our faith shoulder-to-shoulder with an aggressive form of Islam. So we must be humble in any critique we would make.
The real challenge of humility will ultimately be whether we allow the African church to critique US, and I suspect we desperately need such a critique from a continent in which both energy and numbers are driving people into Christian churches. The growth of African immigrant churches here in the United States, a still somewhat hidden phenomenon that I have had the opportunity to participate in just a little for the past two decades, provides us with relative ease the opportunity to ask questions of and listen well to what African brothers and sisters observe about our foibles and failures, aspirations and achievements. When that happens, we will know that a truly global pilgrimage has actually begun in earnest.