African Christianity Rising

By John Southwick –

James Ault has produced a two DVD set on the Church in Africa. This should be of interest to United Methodists because this focuses on the fastest growing segment of our denomination. In fact, if current trends continue, there will eventually be more United Methodists in Africa than in the U.S. In addition to the growth trend, (versus decline in the U.S.) the African Church has a number of other notable characteristics lifted up in the DVDs. One striking observation is that the U.S. Christians have long felt the need to send missionaries to Africa to teach them how to do church, but that is no longer the case. In fact the African Church is now in the position to teach U.S. Christians.

The first DVD explores the Christian presence in the West African nation of Ghana. This is one of the places in Africa where the UM Church is not currently represented with an Annual Conference so this segment covers other denominations. Nevertheless, the contextual information is valuable since so much is shared across the continent. The second DVD is filmed in Zimbabwe, where the UM Church is strongly present. In fact, the UM-affiliated Africa University is located there. This disc features St. James UM Church, a large church by any standard.

We learn that an important distinction between Africa and the U.S. is that the African culture is keenly sensitive to the spirit realm. Of course, the pervasive native religions accentuated the role of the spirit realm in all of life. It is no stretch then for Africans to believe in a Christian God. The films do point out that some Christians, such as a featured Catholic bishop, are more syncretistic insofar as they allow the native paganism and animistic beliefs to co-exist in their churches. Many church groups clearly do not do this, though. For example, there was no evidence that St. James UM Church is syncretistic, though one might expect some local variations.

In contrast to the synchretism, a key feature of much of African Christian churches is the emphasis on deliverance from demonic power. Clearly these Africans realize that the pagan and animistic spirits impede the Christian faith and need to be dealt with. While this is rare in most U.S. churches, it is commonplace in Africa. Pastors discuss this on the DVDs and examples are shown, as well as testimonies afterwards – St. James UM Church included.

African worship is generally much livelier than what most Americans are familiar with. As in the U.S., worship styles vary from congregation to congregation, with some being closer to a typical U.S. service, while others have vastly more movement and singing. Movement does not necessarily indicate vitality, but in most African cases it does. Also present is much spontaneity and freedom for individual worshipers to express themselves vocally, both in word and song.

Dr. Ault, who is the son of the late United Methodist Bishop James M. Ault, also documents a number of revival gatherings. These are usually outdoors and resemble a large scale campout where the primary activities are worship, prayer, and Bible teaching. While these can be assemblies of multiple churches, many individual churches hold these as well, including Methodists. They can go for days. One can’t help but think of the camp meetings on the American frontier in the 1800s when American Methodism was at its most vital. Interestingly, some of these revival gatherings for Methodists were for women only.

A surprising aspect of the featured churches is their large size, including St. James UM Church and Grace Presbyterian Church. One of the Ghanian churches featured was a very large Pentecostal church headed by the Rev. Mensa Otabil. He started with twenty people and grew so large that they planted local assemblies in most of the major cities in Ghana, started a significant college, and have planted churches in the U.S. and Europe.

Ault notes that if the viewers of his films take away only one point from the series, it is that “Christianity in Africa depends on the powerful and inexorable process of believers rooting their faith more authentically in their own cultures.” United Methodists can benefit greatly by reviewing these films.

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John Southwick is a United Methodist clergyperson and is serving as an interim pastor in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference.


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