Africa is a beautiful continent. There is stunning scenery—the mountains, valleys and lakes of the Rift Valley—and world-famous wildlife. It is also poorer and much less developed than in the West. The majority of people live in villages. There is a shorter life expectancy, and a tragically high incidence of HIV-AIDS. It is less politically stable than countries like Australia. But, most significantly, sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most Christian places on earth!
European Protestant mission really got going in sub-Saharan Africa in the 19th century. Names like David Livingstone (“Dr Livingstone, I presume?”) and CT Studd (the former English test cricketer) are synonymous with this endeavour. Today there are high rates of church attendance. I have gained the impression that on any average Sunday roughly one-third of the people in East Africa are in church. There are lots of denominations, church leaders are quoted respectfully in the news, and many shops have Christian names.1
The original focus of Christian mission was on evangelism and the establishment of churches, education and medical assistance. Mistakes were made, but a lot of great work was done. Today, in the 21st century, Western missionaries still travel to Africa but there has been something of a shift. While education and medical work remain prominent, there has been a change of emphasis from evangelizing Africans to the training and discipling of African Christians. Given that Africans are culturally the best equipped to reach other Africans, and given that the church has already been planted in this region, this focus on training Africans to reach and teach their own seems wise.
In my own extremely minor way, I have been involved in this training of African Christians. For the past ten years I have helped run the snappily titled International Certificate of Biblical Studies in South East Africa Program (ICBS in SE Africa Program). This program is a joint initiative of Sydney’s Moore College External Studies Department and African Enterprise (AE). It aims to provide high-quality, low-cost, short-term theological education to untrained African church leaders—of whom there are many! Sub-Saharan Africa is full of fine Christian leaders who, usually for reasons of a lack of money or opportunity, have not had the chance to receive much (if any) theological training. In eastern or southern Africa we teach Moore College Preliminary Theological Certificate (PTC) subjects in intensive two-week courses. The aim is to teach students the six basic PTC subjects over a one- to three-year period,2 qualifying them for the ICBS Level 1 Certificate.
The idea of the program is to teach the teacher—to train the trainer. We are not there to tell them how to run their churches—they know their culture better than we do. Rather, we are there to help them better understand and apply the Bible.
Over the ten years, about 20 of us have taught well over 600 people in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania. The teaching is always very well received, the students are very grateful, and the need is obvious. It is humbling to find oneself in the position to be able to so usefully assist Christian leaders, and thus the church, in another part of the world.
Talking to Christian colleagues back here in Australia, particularly with a growing awareness of the importance of the African church, the need for (and value of) the program is quickly appreciated. What is less well known, and what all of us who have taught in Africa have found, is that we have a lot to learn from African Christians!
Of course, from my humble observations, Christianity in Africa, like Christianity in Australia, is far from perfect. There are the particular dangers of false teaching and sexual immorality. One prominent African Christian described Christianity in Kenya as being a mile wide and an inch deep. It also has to be said that we Western Christians, thanks to God, have our strengths. However, it seems to me that we have a lot to learn from African Christians in a few areas. What follows is not a comprehensive study; rather, it is a collection of reflections and generalizations based on my own experience and those of people to whom I have spoken.
But in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Pet 3:15-16)
African Christians are very ready to give the reason for the hope that they have. They are better evangelists than we are. They are more enthusiastic, quicker to take the opportunity, and, in terms of numbers, more successful.
One Christian in Malawi recently told me that Christians often get up in buses and preach. I expressed surprise, and suggested that that sort of thing would not go down too well in Australia. I asked him what the Malawians on the buses thought. He responded that the people were usually happy to listen.
African Enterprise often holds small- and large-scale missions. One standard evangelistic method they employ is to simply set up in a market place, provide something like singing and dancing, and then someone gets up and gives a talk to the gathered crowd.
I heard the story of one young Kenyan AE ministry apprentice. He was arrested for failing to wear a seat belt in a motor vehicle and was put into police custody for three days. He took the opportunity to evangelize the others in the cells and about 20 people came to Jesus.
I had personally been travelling with some Kenyan AE ministry apprentices the year before. We were on a short holiday and were going to drive around a game park one afternoon in our minibus. A park ranger got on board to serve as our guide. By the end of the afternoon the ranger had prayed a prayer committing his life to Jesus.
A senior AE leader from Kenya, who had set up a school for orphans on the outskirts of Nairobi, recently arranged to have extensions built. This Kenyan man told me that he was planning to have a meeting with the builders to talk to them about salvation. He explained to me that, unlike in the USA or Australia, it was natural to do this sort of thing in Kenya.
It’s clear from many of these examples that African culture is far more receptive to evangelistic encounters than Western culture, and some of these situations may well play out quite differently in Australia. That said, the African Christians I have spoken with know that they still have to prepare for opportunities and take them when they come. A Malawian AE ministry apprentice told me that most of the time before he goes out to evangelize he goes into prayer and fasting for two or more days. This is not the practice of a senior Christian figure—the man in question is just over 20 years of age! This brings us to our second point.
…praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication
for all the saints. (Eph 6:18)
African Christians are better prayers. In fact, I’ve become increasingly aware that they put most of us to shame. They pray on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and supplications.
One of my Ugandan students was the head of an African denomination. He achieved very good marks in his PTC exams. He is also a man of prayer. He once told me, “Prayer is my very breath in the day—in every single hour of my life. I pray in the mornings, and at other available times throughout the day as I walk on the road or am sitting at my office desk. It is my strength for the day and for my ministry.”
This man’s church, located in a poor area of Kampala, regularly has overnight prayer meetings and prayer fasts. They often enter the New Year with prayer fasts in the first week of January. He is always emailing me, enquiring about my family and telling me that they are praying for us.
It seems that church prayer meetings are reasonably commonplace. During the first week on a recent trip to Malawi, one of the AE leaders was speaking each morning before work at a daily prayer meeting in a local church. He told me that overnight prayer meetings were common, and that his own church (a Presbyterian church) devotes public holidays to all day prayer meetings. Can you imagine that happening in Australia? Is it a coincidence that the church is growing in Africa?
3. The spiritual and the l al
So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Gal 6:10)
An issue sometimes discussed amongst Christians in the West is whether evangelism or social action is more important.3 My simple observation of mature Christians in Africa was that they were flat out ministering to both spiritual and social needs. They were seeking to do good to all people, especially those who belonged to the household of faith.
One of AE’s Kenyan leaders is primarily an evangelist who has spoken throughout Africa and around the world. He and his wife have also helped to run a church in one of the poorer areas of Nairobi. There they arranged for small loans to assist people start small business enterprises. More recently they have set up a school for orphans.
As the Ugandan denominational leader mentioned earlier explained to me: “Although spiritual ministry ranks number one here in Uganda, there is no way we can separate the spiritual needs from the social needs of the people to whom we minister. As a pastor, I am often faced with the need to provide for children’s school fees, church Sunday school expenses, medical bills for sick church members, house-rental bills for elderly and some single ladies, and clothing for needy children. The eyes are often on the pastor for any such emergencies.”
In the first class I ever taught in Africa, one of the Kenyan female students asked me one day whether I thought that Christians should help people with HIV-AIDS. I asked her why she asked. She told me that some Christians in Kenya viewed AIDS as the judgement of God, and felt that such people should be left to their fate. I strenuously disagreed with this view, wrote a short paper on the topic, and suggested that if Jesus were walking the streets of Nairobi today, he would be spending time with those suffering from the disease. She has since started up an organization to minister to those with HIV-AIDS. She has also more recently been involved in a church plant.
Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. (Rom 12:13)
Finally, African Christians excel in practising hospitality. When I first taught in Africa, I stayed behind afterwards for a short holiday. One of the Kenyan AE leaders offered to put me up in his house with his family. He was also putting up a South African girl at the time. Since there was no spare room, he locked the front door and, with the aid of a sheet, converted the entrance hall into a small living space with a bed. In the short time I was there, the house was also host to a Congolese evangelist and a couple of South African backpackers. This man recently explained to me that as he grew up, his parents’ house always had more than their immediate family members. The same was true for his wife’s family. As a result, this has gone on to be the practice of his family.
Hospitality goes further in extreme situations. I once travelled down into Rwanda for a couple of days after teaching in Uganda. By arrangement, I was met at the border by a Rwandan Christian. Making general conversation, I asked about his family, and how many children he had. His answer was something like: “One of my own, and 35 others.”
While, as I said earlier, African Christians are just as flawed as we are in the West, I always come back from the continent personally encouraged and personally convicted by them. We have a lot to learn from African Christians.
- The main street of one Ugandan town in which I taught boasted the ‘Blessed Trinity Supermarket’, the ‘Hope and Trust Drug Shop’, and the ‘Alleluia Tea Room Amen’. ↩
- Introduction to the Bible, New Testament 1, Old Testament 1, Doctrine 1, Ephesians, and Promise to Fulfilment. See http://external.moore.edu.au for more details. ↩
- Matthias Media has helpfully addressed this issue in its MiniZine Evangelism and Social Action. ↩