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Learning from the African Church’s extraordinary success

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Why has faith in Africa blossomed beautifully, while Western Christianity declines? Here are four habits we should learn from our African brothers and sisters.

Much has been said of the rapid growth of Christianity in Africa in just a century. There are many statistics that illustrate the powerful change. For example, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity reported that in 2018, Africa had more Christians than any other continent (631 million) for the first time. While in 1900 there were 9.6m Christians, by the year 2000 there were 384m, according to the Center for the study of Global Christianity.

Of course, Africa was one of the very first homes of the faith in its earliest days. One of our greatest theologians, Saint Augustine of Hippo, came from early Christian Africa, as well as other important Church fathers. However these regions had mostly been subjugated by Islamic conquests by the turn of the 20th Century, with the exception of Ethiopia, and resilient minorities such as the Egypt-based Coptic Orthodox church. People in other African regions mostly followed indigenous spiritualities. Christian missionary work led to an extraordinary spread across the continent that is comparatively recent.

Perhaps the most important statistic is that the growth is not just people labelling themselves Christian – there is a huge difference in the level of commitment, too. A 2018 study by Pew Research Center found that Africans are among the most committed Christians in the world (the least being European). Africans pray more frequently, attend religious services more regularly and consider religion more important in their lives than Christians elsewhere. “At least four out of five Christians in Nigeria, Liberia, Senegal, Cameroon and Chad pray every day, the survey found… in every African country surveyed, more than 60% of Christians say they attend church at least weekly,” Pew’s report said.

Recently I interviewed Nigerian-born Pastor Agu Irukwu, who leads one of the largest churches in the UK, Jesus House for All Nations. He grew up and came to faith in his homeland, but has ministered in London for many years, so has insight into the differences in church culture. He offered some suggestions.

Prayer

“If there’s one thing I would commend to any Christian, it would be to develop a strong prayer life,” said Pastor Agu. “There is also a lot to learn from the developing parts of the world where churches are growing, not just Africa. A commitment to prayer and the belief that God does answer prayer – that is deeply embedded in [African] Church culture.”

A few years ago, I attended the weekend retreat of my multicultural church at that time at a large Christian centre. We shared the large space with a black majority church. I have a vivid memory of traipsing down to breakfast at about 8.30am along with my bleary-eyed fellow church members, to be put to shame as we passed by the small room that housed our black majority church brothers and sisters. They were enthusiastically praying together in a small room, passionately interceding as a group, and had been hard at it since the early hours, when we were all still fast asleep.

Fasting

In African culture, fasting is seen as very important, not just during Lent. “You can’t run away from the encouragement that the Bible gives us to fast, which hardly exists in a lot of Western churches,” said Pastor Agu. If there is a problem or God is being sought, African churches will fast. For example, an ecumenical initiative for unity in Nigeria last year was supported by 40 days of fasting.

“Biblically understood, fasting partners an ​intensification of prayer,” writes Oyewole Akande, a deacon at Sovereign Grace Bible Church, in Nigeria, for The Gospel Coalition Africa. “It is the decision to set aside a period of time to focus on bringing a particular issue before God in prayer. ​It is removing every distraction, including the necessary pleasures of eating and drinking, to seek the face of God with a specific petition.

“Many of us are too comfortable within this fallen world, feeling no strong compulsion to disconnect from it. Thus we struggle with the notion that our own discomfort might bring about the will of God.”

Faith and positivity

Another virtue that I often witness in African Christians is a positive, optimistic outlook, linked to a faith that God can transform any difficult situation for the better. “Believing that there is nothing God can’t do, and being full of hope for tomorrow, no matter how bad today is – [the African church] is very upbeat in that regard,” said Pastor Agu. Taking the Bible at its word and trusting in God’s love and His promises to act are commendable attributes of many African Christians.

Simplicity

It is a negative stereotype to think of Africa as a place of poverty: there are wealthy Africans, and some parts of their economies are doing well. However it’s fair to say that there is more money sloshing around in Western developed countries. Could this be one reason for our relative spiritual dryness?

Cardinal Robert Sarah, the influential Catholic priest, wrote surprising words in his book God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith. He made positive comments about poverty – distinguishing it from destitution, which we should alleviate. “Poverty is a Christian value,” he said. “The poor person is someone who knows that, by himself, he cannot live. He needs God and other people in order to be, flourish, and grow. On the contrary, rich people expect nothing of anyone. They can provide for their needs without calling either on their neighbours or on God. In this sense, wealth can lead to great sadness and true human loneliness or to terrible spiritual poverty.”

Perhaps the Western church needs to muster humility and listen harder to our African brothers and sisters, and how they practise their faith? Pastor Agu does emphasise that the Western church can pass on its own wisdom too. He said: “The beauty is when [the two cultures] rub off on each other; what it produces is so beautiful.”

Heather Tomlinson is a freelance writer. Find her work at www.heathertomlinson.substack.com or on twitter @heathertomli





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