This spring the leaders of thirty-four African states assembled in Cairo for a conference of the Organisation of African Unity, to discuss such items as settling border disputes and forming a pan-African army. At a preliminary meeting in Lagos, Nigeria, earlier this year, I talked with some of these delegates. Robed Muslims from Mali opposed French economic aid while business-suited Togolese welcomed it. Ghana’s foreign minister preached Marxist socialism while Nigeria’s talked of attracting capital for private enterprise. Algeria’s white-skinned Arab delegate explained the effects of the European Common Market to the Congo’s ebony-faced official, who talked about combating terrorism. One strange anomaly was a Southern Rhodesian delegate who told me his people would fight if Britain granted independence to his country! They want the white minority to agree first to “one man one vote” elections.
Then up came another delegate who is also a fearless ambassador for Christ. His hearty smile and handshake assured me that even in this “African U. N.,” with its multiplicity of problems, its tensions, and its intrigues, God had his witnesses.
That is Africa today: feverishly seeking unity, plagued by complex diversity—and living through it all is the Church. Before 1950 there were only four independent states in Africa: Ethiopia, Egypt, Liberia, and South Africa. By the end of 1964 there will be thirty-five. One-third of the U. N. General Assembly’s seats are filled today with Africans once represented by half a dozen European powers. Even with such trouble centers as Congo and Angola the revolution has been surprisingly peaceful, with far less violence than in similar transitions in China, India, and Europe.
Africa is so vast (the United States, Europe, and India could be tucked into it with much room to spare) that inland villages continue traditional patterns of living while coastal areas are rocked by the impact of rapid change. The evolution of civilization in Europe, molded by trial and error over half a millennium, has been telescoped into a few decades in Africa.
Last century, the same ship often brought both missionary and colonizer to Africa’s torrid coasts; Christianity naturally became labeled as the traveling companion of colonialism. Some (Muslims, for instance) opposed it as an undesirable aspect of Western civilization; others (such as coastal animists) welcomed it as a prestigious addition to modern life. Some seed planted by the gospel husbandmen withered, some was bad, some took root and flourished. The depth of the roots is being tested in 1964 by the scorching heat of persecution and the violent winds of change. The majority of people remain outside the Church; ignorance, disease, and superstition are strongly entrenched; vices such as bribery and sexual promiscuity (which the tribal community at least controlled) are spreading like cancer. On the other hand, every leader in Africa has at some time had contact with a mission school. Dispensaries and hospitals carry on a Christian witness across the continent. Churches are well filled.
There is certainly room for concern over the Church’s internal health. Lethargy and parochialism are most noticeable, as Christians have often developed into closely knit communities instead of penetrating their society with the Gospel. Like the early Church in North Africa, these communities face decay and eventual annihilation unless they press outwards and confront their environment with the life of Christ. Lack of teaching and training is an obvious weakness. Pastors who ten years ago had enough education to present the Gospel to unlettered villagers now preach to educated clerks and teachers needing spiritual instruction. Ministers feel their inadequacy also in dealing with such problems of today’s youth as those thrown up by Communist propaganda. The laity are similarly untaught in the Word and its application to daily life.
Nominalism is sapping the Church’s witness in the face of militant religions. Pagans and Muslims notice the hypocrisy of Christians far more than their divisions. “The Church will have a future in Africa if it practices what it preaches,” Kenya’s Tom Mboya told me. Of the Church’s rivals for Africa’s heart, the major one today is not Communism but Islam (see the article on page 19), but Africans usually resent American questions about Communist activity in their lands. Anti-Communism is equated with colonialism; therefore the Church has to take a positive rather than a negative approach to the problem. The current African temper is violently independent and does not wish to trade Western imperialism for Eastern dictatorship. However, with not enough industry to absorb the semi-educated school leavers and a per capita annual income of less than $100, conditions are building up for revolutionary feeling to explode.
Roman Catholicism, everywhere suspected of political intrigue, lost some of her impetus with the abdication of France’s colonial rule. The hierarchy seems conscious of current feelings and is seeking to regain initiative through Africanization, literature, and social services. Cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses find fertile ground among Africans disillusioned by Roman Catholic or Protestant orthodoxy. Those with psychological overtones (as Rosicrucians and Christian Scientists) are also gaining because of people’s desire for mental self-improvement and occult power. African sects—often Pentecostal in form—add to their number those seeking more emotional expression in worship than most Western forms permit.
The independence movement gave impetus to pagan religions by appealing to nationalist pride in traditions. Pouring libation to ancestral spirits at official and private ceremonies has become an issue of patriotism in Ghana, and evangelical elements in the churches have had to take an unpopular but uncompromising stand. Nationalism in itself is not a threat to the Church, but it can be ridden by anti-Christian forces. It has been fanned into racial hatred in East Africa, where there has been the complicating factor of a European settler population, and in Congo and Angola, where political aspirations have been suppressed. In West Africa it has had no real anti-white or anti-Church implications.
Until World War II the Church tended to see its missionary endeavor from the perspective of “the homelands.” Now in the context of politically self-conscious Africa, missions are increasingly viewing their policies from the African viewpoint. Many missionaries developed an unconscious sense of security under the colonial ruler’s umbrella, but now they are exposed to the glare of nationalism’s hot rays. New mental tensions and frustrations have taken the place of physical hardships to test their calling. In Congo, Somalia, and Tunisia modern martyrs have given their blood that the seed of the Church might be sown.
While the outside observer might be gloomy about the overall picture, those closest to it are the least discouraged. Said a Christian Ghanaian Ph.D., “I believe the Church in Ghana needs to go through a fiery trial to purify and strengthen her.” He and other eager young Christians are carrying on an effective witness. In countries where the ax may fall at any time, missionaries have learned to live each moment in obedience and holy optimism, using every opportunity as it comes. In an area where an African pastor was recently buried alive, 5,000 pagans have declared for Christ. In another country, when 3,000 pagans embraced Islam under political pressure, the local church was shaken awake: backsliders were restored, and teams visited every home in every village in the vicinity, with more than 300 conversions as a result. In a land where evangelicals are imprisoned and tortured, one evangelist refused bail: “I can preach to 120 prisoners here—the authorities wouldn’t let me do that back in my town.”
Not all is opposition. There are countries that place no limits on missionary work, tribes that are asking for Christian missions, areas that have not been entered. Increasing literacy and radio audiences provide unlimited scope for evangelism. Mushrooming shantytowns (an estimated 45 million job-seekers will move into the cities in the next twenty years) are wide open for urban evangelization. Campus witness could be increased if student workers were available. Some government schools welcome missionary Bible teachers to conduct curriculum classes in religion. Most encouraging is the emergence of African evangelism groups that are sending African missionaries into neighboring tribes. In Dahomey, Christian Fulani nomads are training to return to their people as evangelist cattle-herders. In the central Zaria-Plateau Provinces of Nigeria, churches are cooperating in an intensive “New Life For All” evangelistic campaign. In Ethiopia young men farm on weekends and study the Bible during the week; they go out as laymen who evangelize as they work.
The United States recently sent Averell Harriman to Africa “to reassess America’s relations.” In this day the Church of Christ must also reassess her position. We cannot afford merely to extend past policies, to patch up mistakes, to maintain the status quo as much as possible. Africa is on the move, and the Church must be on the move, too. The unsettled conditions that throw problems in our way also provide unprecedented opportunities for confronting a changing society of 265 million people with the revolutionizing Gospel of Christ.
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