Creating an Indigenous African Church

by Ronald J. Allen

Ronald J. Allen teaches preaching and New Testament at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, March 6, 1991, pp .265-269. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Allen identifies and comments on seven areas of concern that African Christians face in their churches, including the Africanization of theology, relationships with other religions, church and state, pastoral leadership, relationship with Euro-American partner churches, theological education, and struggles with social concerns. Perplexing as these issues are, Allen sees them positively as signs of life and evidence of great courage and strength in the African churches.

A two-week tour makes a northerner an expert on Africa. Sometimes these northerners know more about Africa and our needs than we ourselves. That's how Africans chide European and American visitors. Despite this warning, I will risk outlining the major issues confronting churches in Africa, on the basis of my stay at the Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation in Kitwe, Zambia.

Mindolo (named for the Mindolo River, which flows near the campus) is a major pan-African ecumenical center of theological education. It offers study programs that last as long as two years, as well as one-week conferences. I spoke with Christians from 20 nations, from Ghana to the Republic of South Africa, representing the relatively new national union churches (such as the United Church of Zambia), the Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Pentecostal Assemblies of God and the Salvation Army. From their remarks I discerned seven concerns that face their churches.

One is the Africanization of theology. For the past 25 years, African theologians and church leaders have argued persuasively that the missionaries brought to Africa a very European and North American' Christianity. They insisted that African converts abandon their traditional religious heritage and many cultural practices.

As a result, even today some Africa congregations sing European hymns in English (though increasingly in the local languages). Sunday worship may follow an order of service from Calvin's Geneva and feature a sermon that could be preached almost word for word in Amsterdam, London or St. Louis.

Many African Christians have found it difficult to break so completely from their heritage. A few historians of Christianity in Africa claim that some Africans from the colonial era to the present, professed Christianity in order to gain access to the benefits (such as education and health care) that accompanied the colonists and their religion. And even the many who have wholeheartedly converted have been reluctant to relinquish all their traditional beliefs and practices. Folk wisdom has it that such converts come to the priest on Sunday and to the traditional African religious leader on Monday.

At best, their hesitation to scrap their African identity may be an intuitive attempt to join Christian faith and traditional African religious life. At worst, people may be using Christianity for personal gain. Either way leaves Christians in a quandary: Must they renounce their own heritage in order to be Christian? Must they live a double life, essentially taking up the claims of the church on Sunday and then denying them on Monday?

Independent African churches were among the first to challenge this Europeanized Christianity. These churches sought to find similarities between Christianity and traditional African religious and social values. More recently, theologians and church leaders from denominations that have historic ties with churches in the north have encouraged African Christian expressions that are free of northern acculturation, are faithful to the gospel and draw upon traditional African

culture. These thinkers propose that Christian and African thought can often be mutually interpreting. For instance, J. N. K. Mugambi in African Heritage and Contemporary Christianity (Longman Kenya, 1989) says that Christian understanding and traditional African thought can be harmonized in such matters as views of God, spirits and angels, ancestors and saints, rites of passage and eternal life.

This raises a question that confronts the church in every society. Where is the boundary between the gospel and the culture? How much can the church adapt itself to the prevailing world view and still remain recognizably Christian?

The African experience poses a distinct challenge to the American theological community. Reacting against the past easy identification of the gospel and U.S. cultural values, today's church leaders are quick to differentiate between them. But Americans have been so concerned to maintain the purity of the gospel that few contemporary U.S. theologians are attempting to find points of positive intersection between Christianity and our cultural mythos. We might well take a cue from the African church.

A second concern of African theologians is Christianity's relationships with other religions. Like North America, Africa is a place of religious pluralism. Many different religions open shops alongside one another. These groups are often rivals.

The tension between Christianity and Islam is a case study of such rivalry. Both Christians and Muslims claim to have the exclusive interpretation of divine revelation. Islam is reportedly even more aggressively evangelistic than Christianity and recruits Christians even as Christians try to recruit Muslims. When mixed with the drive for economic, political and social power, the competition between the two groups has contributed to open conflict, as in Nigeria and Sudan.

At Mindolo–and by report at other places as well--dialogue is replacing confrontation. Christians are exploring how much they can witness to their faith without being imperialistic. They seek to maintain the integrity and vitality of their faith while acknowledging the inherent worth of the adherents of other religions. Is it possible, they ask, for Christianity to stand on common ground with other religions and even to be instructed by them? Can such a vision be translated into social reality on a continent where sectarian passion and conflict are as old as humankind?

African Christians are also examining the relationship between church and state. When I arrived in Africa, my image of the relationship between church and state was fired by headlines about Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak. I had read about the church's central role in helping end a totalitarian government in Benin and in promoting a new humanitarian approach to government. Here, I thought, is a continent where the church exercises the prophetic role of monitoring justice and courageously calling for change.

Of course, it is impossible to speak about the relationship between church and state in Africa. The relationship differs from nation to nation and from church to church. While the church is a powerful witness in the political arena in many places, Mindolo participants insisted that my view of the prophetic African church was too rosy.

In some regions, authoritarian and repressive regimes keep the church under their thumbs.

While an occasional Desmond Tutu speaks out, most clergy walk the line of trying to keep out of jail without losing their integrity. In such settings, the church often criticizes the state in indirect language that only sensitive ears can hear. Some churches, of course, simply assimilate into the prevailing milieu without attempting to be prophetic. Even in countries that protect freedom of speech, clergy worry about government informers who visit their congregations and then report to the national intelligence officers.

To my surprise, some African churches (particularly those connected with reform movements) face a danger common to U.S. churches: they can so identify with their cause that they lose critical distance. It is difficult--though not impossible--for a church that helped create a government later to criticize it. With the same lack of perspective with which Jerry Falwell can sing "America the Beautiful," a revolutionary group can effectively sing "God bless our bullets and gun sights." It is one thing to be driven penitently to violence as the only possible means to end injustice. It is quite another to glorify killing. Can the church participate appropriately in the state without being co-opted by it?

Pastoral leadership poses another problem for many African denominations that suffer a shortage of ordained, formally educated clergy. Several ministers serve more than one congregation. In the United Church of Zambia, a pastor may serve as many as eight or ten congregations. (One pastor who is responsible for seven congregations reports that the lowest average Sunday worship attendance for any one of these congregations is 300.) Because of poor roads, unreliable transportation and the distances between congregations, a pastor can usually visit only one or two congregations on a given Sunday.

Not surprisingly, many clergy are overworked and weary. Some report that they are spread so thin and so flooded by responsibilities that they lose their sense of vision. And most are underpaid: a first year pastor in Zambia makes 600 kwacha a month. A month's supply of the national staple food (called mealie meal) costs 500 kwacha. Love for God does not put school uniforms (which are required) on children.

The shortfall of pastors does have an advantage. Lay leaders do most of the preaching, teaching, pastoral counseling and general oversight of congregational life. Ordained clergy preside at the sacraments and teach the lay leaders in order to equip the laity for their ministries. In this respect, the pastor's role is clearly defined in a way that many U.S. clergy would welcome. Further, many national churches offer comprehensive and sophisticated programs of theological education by extension for lay leaders.

Many denominations seek to attract more people to the ministry. Can the churches enlarge the ranks of the clergy while maintaining the present high level of lay leadership? Or will African churches in the next generations become as clergy-dependent as their cousins in the U.S.?

African Christians are also pondering their relationship with partner churches. Christianity came to bud in Africa when European nations colonized the continent. The Euro-American churches assumed a dominant, colonial attitude toward the African churches.

In the generation after World War II, one African nation after another became independent. In like manner (though more slowly), African churches achieved legal independence from their northern sponsors. Churches in the north and the south began to regard one another as partners. The church from the developed country may provide money as its share of the partnership; the church from the developing country may offer personnel and a locale for witness. Their mission boards work together to assign money, personnel and equipment for mutual projects.

However, the partnership ideal is not always fulfilled. African governments sometimes claim that they shed colonialism only to find, 30 years later, that they were enslaved by economic neocolonialism. Something similar can happen to the churches. The wealthier church can tie so many strings to its share of the partnership that the African church operates like a puppet.

African churches must sometimes choose between buckling under pressure from the Euro-American church and standing on their rights as partners and pushing against the hands that tie the strings. On the other hand, African churches sometimes exercise their part of the partnership in ways disappointing to their partners. Will the churches regard one another with suspicion? Or will they acknowledge the uncertainties and ambiguities of this period and trust that, fumbling and faltering, they can walk together into a new era of genuinely cooperative witness?

Theological education poses another concern. The faculties of many African theological colleges comprise mainly Europeans and North Americans. Many of these colleges want to bring more Africans to their faculties. Though many European and North American theological educators support this goal, it is frustrated by two factors.

For one, most theological colleges require their teachers to have completed at least a master's degree. Very few Africans hold this degree. The education of ministers in Africa is slightly different from that in the U.S. After completing the equivalent of high school, the ministerial student next attends theological college without attaining a university level bachelor's degree. After three years of a theological program, which basically corresponds to the seminary curriculum in the U.S., the student receives the equivalent of the A.B. Few schools in Africa offer a master's in theology. Financial limitations prevent many African students from studying in North America or Europe. Thus there is a shortage of qualified candidates for faculty positions.

Another problem is that faculty service is not especially attractive even to those who possess the necessary qualifications. Salaries are as low as those for clergy. The average faculty is very small and the teaching and administrative load is very heavy. Support services and research opportunities are minimal.

A bright, thoughtful, articulate, theologically alert person who is an ideal candidate for a, teaching position will often prefer to work in the upper judicatory levels of the church or for a council of churches. These positions pay higher salaries and present opportunities for world travel. Travel means not only exposure to new and different places but also the opportunity to purchase things that are not available in Africa. Furthermore, the position of church leader is more prestigious than that of seminary professor.

Europeans and North Americans labor heroically in the classroom to make African theological education as African as possible. But as one of them said to me, "No matter how precise I am, when I explain African traditional religion to an African, something is lost." Africa is

ready to begin training its own theology teachers. In the meantime, the churches need to make it financially possible for more African students to pursue advanced theological degrees outside of Africa.

Like the American churches, African churches struggle with developing positions on contemporary concerns. The issues that seem to draw the strongest interest are neocolonialism, racism, economic justice, human rights and polygamy. Indeed, these are matters of daily survival. Not surprisingly, Africans of all denominational and theological stripes agree on the importance of ending neocolonialism and racism, establishing economic justice and guaranteeing human rights to all.

On polygamy, Africans are divided. Some think that the church must take an unequivocal stand against it. Others think that the church should teach monogamy as the preferred form of marriage relationship but should accept those who practice polygamy. Still others think that the church should bless monogamy and polygamy equally.

Many African denominations ordain women, oppose sexism and generally support equal opportunities for women in all arenas. If the Mindolo community is a representative group, African church leaders' views on women's issues are much like those in the U.S. 20 years ago. A large body of women (and a small group of men) is committed to equality. A good number of men are sympathetic to this concern, but still make jokes about women moving into areas formerly populated almost exclusively by males. A handful of men and women oppose women's leaving their traditional home roles.

Until recently, the inclusive language movement in the U.S. has focused largely on expressions related to gender. Some Africans of both genders are concerned about exclusive, hierarchical language, but most seem content to continue with these patterns. The temperature of a discussion rises rapidly on the language of color, however. One student said in a class session, "What is so great about 'white' that it is always good, clean and pure? Why are angels always white? And what is so bad about 'black' that it is bad, dirty and wrong? Every time people talk about a 'black devil' they're associating you and me with that devil." The room reverberated with thunderous applause.

On the issue of population control, many African clerics find themselves in a dilemma. On the one hand, many African societies deeply value large families. Large families provide social security and are a part of the African soul. On the other hand, in some areas burgeoning population already threatens the quality of life. More and more Christian leaders are calling for structures of social security that don't require eight, ten or 12 children. Still others argue that the church must help its members appreciate smaller families.

Environmental consciousness, so high on the agenda of American middle-class religious communities, is at a nascent stage in Africa. Africans seemed knowledgeable and concerned about the rapid disappearance of their continent's animals, but less aware of the dangers of environmental abuse. In Kitwe, a city of 500,000, it is customary to peel a banana and to drop the peel on the sidewalk. This is a small but typical gesture. A columnist in a newspaper outside of Zambia even proposed that, as a matter of justice, developing nations deserve to engage in a few generations' worth of wanton polluting.

Few in the world are more aware of the need for peace than the residents of this continent where violence is woven into the fabric of daily life in several countries. But few Africans share the same concerns of the peace movement in the Euro-American community. I talked with one participant from a rural area who knew nothing about nuclear weaponry. Few of our African acquaintances see a connection between military spending in the developed nations and oppressive social conditions in the developing world.

I was surprised by an anomaly with regard to sanctions against South Africa. The participants from South Africa emphatically told us that sanctions from the U.S. were a major reason for progress in the talks between the government of South Africa and the African National Congress. Having supported sanctions for many years, I was startled to see Mindolo participants in local stores buying goods from South Africa. What about sanctions? Several people pointed out that in this region, South Africa is simply the only supplier of some necessities. If you want them, you buy South African. Ethical purity is a lot easier in a church convention hall in Indianapolis than in a store whose shelves are only one-third stocked.

As the church in Africa faces these and other significant issues, it does so as a robust community. Indeed, the recent record of church growth in Africa is a direct contrast to that of the old-line churches in the U.S., whose membership rolls are ailing and whose real dollars for mission are diminishing. Mindolo participants claim that by and large the church is growing in most parts of Africa. African independent churches and Pentecostal congregations are said to be increasing the fastest. The denominations with historic ties to European and North American churches are reported to be growing, though more slowly. Even the communions most closely identified with colonial powers--such as the Anglican--have full sanctuaries.

Growth is sometimes phenomenal. We worshiped in a congregation in a Kitwe township that was established in 1985 with a handful of people. With characteristic African Christian optimism, they built a simple, open, airy, light house of worship that seats 1,000. The Sunday we worshiped there the attendance was about 3,000. Many people could not get into the sanctuary and stood under the sun outside the open windows for the two-and-a-half-hour service. The previous week, at the congregation's monthly baptism service, 173 were baptized. That congregation has a half-time pastor. Worship is led almost completely by lay people; the pastor preaches only once a month. We were told that this is not unusual in Zambia or in other parts of the continent.

Unless the church slips beneath the surface of history, it will contend with perplexities. Much of African Christianity struggles with problems that are, at the same time, signs of life. Given the importance of the issues confronting the church in Africa, it is a blessing that it faces them in vitality and strength.