A Front-Row Seat to African Faith
African Christianity Rising (For Home Use Only)
Vision Video $23.47
There are plenty of books describing the rapid growth of African churches. Those who can't travel to witness this growth firsthand, though, can find it difficult to grasp. But now we have a set of impressive films: James Ault's new series, African Christianity Rising. It is a superb resource for anyone who wants a front-row seat to the explosion of this part of global Christianity.
Ault, whose acclaimed 1987 PBS documentary, Born Again, set a new standard for covering American fundamentalism, began filming in African churches in the late 1990s. Funding hurdles made the process agonizingly slow, although the opportunity to revisit his subjects over several years gives us interesting insights into how their stories have developed.
In its final form, African Christianity Rising comprises two DVDs, one each on churches in Ghana and Zimbabwe. (An educational edition includes a treasure trove of additional materials.) The films cover a wide spectrum of churches, each with its distinctive historical background and worship style. We see independent evangelical congregations, a classic African initiated church (Zimbabwe's Zion Apostolic Church), and a surging Pentecostal megachurch, Ghana's International Central Gospel Church, founded by Mensa Otabil. We also learn about Ghana's Roman Catholic Church and the Pentecostal Assemblies of Zimbabwe.
Much of the material, though, concerns what North Americans would regard as mainline Protestant congregations—Grace Presbyterian in Akropong, Ghana, and St. James United Methodist in Mutare, Zimbabwe. So initially familiar to North Americans, the "mainline" setting makes the differences all the more startling when they emerge.
What makes the series so powerful is the believers we meet. Yes, Ault does present learned experts, including the late and much-lamented theologian Kwame Bediako and Ghana's former Catholic archbishop Peter Sarpong. Both discourse eloquently on "inculturation," the process of taking faith out of the European envelope in which it was brought to Africa. But most of the people we hear are quite ordinary, and that is their glory.
Ethnographic films run the risk of making their subjects appear so alien that they seem to belong on another planet. Ault's work, in contrast, introduces people we come to care about and would love to have as our neighbors. We see the Zimbabwean Methodist congregation through the eyes of Dorcas Bwawa, a widowed schoolteacher facing difficult family circumstances, but who is nevertheless a towering figure in her church's lay leadership. We also come to know and like the church's female pastor, Tsitsi Moyo, who at first sight seems conventional enough as a thoughtful and dedicated leader.
Further conversations, though, supply a backstory startlingly different from anything Americans might expect. Moyo turns out to be prophetic royalty, the daughter of a charismatic healer from the profoundly African Zion Apostolic Church.
A Very Different Mainline
For me, the best single feature of the series is its seamless integration of the thoroughly familiar with quite different African contexts and assumptions. Just when we become comfortable with these pleasant Methodists or Presbyterians, we start to count the ways in which their world is not that of most American congregations.
For one thing, we are struck by the sheer size of the African churches, not to mention their numerical expansion. We might expect mushrooming growth in a Pentecostal megachurch, but the mainliners are just as successful. We first see Grace Presbyterian as a church plant, and return to it several years later when it is becoming what we might consider a megachurch, but which in Africa is a normal congregation. If the concept of women's lay leadership is quite familiar, we are still taken aback by the near-military organization (complete with uniforms) that women's groups have developed in the Zimbabwean Methodist church.