Christian workers in Africa are participating in the third attempt to take the message of Christ to that great continent. The first attempt began in the days of the apostles. Christianity spread from Egypt down the Nile into Ethiopia and flourished for hundreds of years along the North African coast in the territory now occupied by Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. It reached its height between 180 and 430, with hundreds of bishops and three popes, and produced such men as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine.

In the eighth and ninth centuries, however, the African church was almost completely inundated by the wave of Islamic conquest. Why did it not stand up to Islam? The answer is threefold: It had not become a missionary church; it had wasted its strength on internal controversies; and it had not identified itself with the common people but had been satisfied with reaching only the upper Roman classes. A remnant proved faithful in Egypt and is seen in the Coptic churches today, but in North Africa Christianity practically vanished. Had the Church been faithful to its God-given task, Africa would doubtless have been as enlightened and advanced today as any other part of the world.

The second attempt to take the Gospel to Africa was made in the fifteenth century by priests who were chaplains to the Portuguese navigator-explorers. Their work was at first down the west coast, mainly in what is now Ghana and the Congo, and later up the east coast to Mozambique and inland as far as the borders of Rhodesia. Unfortunately, this work did not survive the slave trade; when the Portuguese moved their interests to the Far East, the work they had established withered. This church had not been firmly established among the native people, and the second attempt failed for the same reasons.

The third attempt came as a result of the spiritual awakening in England and on the continent at the turn of the nineteenth century and was centered in such pioneers as Robert Moffat, David Livingstone, C.T. Studd. Today we seem to be living near the end of this attempt. Will the Church in Africa survive the earthquake changes now taking place? The answer depends on how far the Gospel is made relevant to the people of Africa. Only as the Church is made part of the life of the people, and only as a strong indigenous leadership develops, can it survive. Regrettably, there are signs that we may once again fail our brothers in Africa.

A Beleaguered Fortress

Christianity has met its greatest test in the field of race relations, and here it has suffered some humiliating defeats. Islam is winning anywhere from seven to ten times as many converts as all Christian forces put together, according to some authorities. It has been presented to Africans by Africans and is considered an African religion, while Christianity is still identified with the West and considered “foreign.” “Africa is black, Islam is black.” Furthermore, it is a religion that can be assimilated gradually, without a great disruption in everyday life.

Article continues below

The fortress of African Christianity is also threatened by a revival of traditional religions. Having become disappointed with Christianity, or politically disillusioned, many Africans are reverting to the religions of their fathers. The heathenism of the early centuries dealt a strong blow to Christianity; it could do so again.

Christianity in Africa is threatened by internal forces as well. When churches compromise the positions of their founding fathers, as many African churches today, they open the gates to liberalism. In Africa this is a liberalism that seeks to find common ground with heathenism. A speaker at a recent African theological conference maintained that pagan concepts and Christian concepts on subjects like God, man, the world, morality, and evil are not so very different and that the missionary should try to work more closely with the leaders of pagan worship. He deplored the view of the non-Christian as one who has no light at all, and felt the missionary should take the pagan where he finds him and lead him from what he has to fuller knowledge of God as revealed in the Bible. There is some truth in this approach, but there are also dangers. It has led to the phenomenal rise of syncretistic “African” churches. In South Africa alone the government has registered more than 2,000 of these deviationist sects. If this approach should spread throughout the Church, the result might be a repetition of what happened in the early centuries, when Christianity nearly lost its identity under the trappings and concepts of heathenism.

The Great Priorities

If Christianity is to survive in Africa, several needs must be considered basic:

1. Africa must develop a truly indigenous church. Christianity cannot grow and deepen its roots there until African Christians carry their full share of responsibility for leadership. The Church must speak to the soul of Africa and must genuinely “belong.” The slowness with which this is taking place is most unfortunate; heaven alone knows the great loss the Church has sustained through the unwillingness of some to give way to progress in this matter.

Article continues below

Does this mean that the missionary will no longer be needed? No! But it does mean that he must be willing to work alongside the African as an equal. Persons not ready to accept this role ought not to try to work there.

Lessons may be learned from the Roman Catholics and the Muslims. The secret of the Muslims’ success has been their complete identity with the African way of life. And the phenomenal gain the Roman Catholic Church has made in recent years—from 18 million members in 1957 to 29 million in 1962—is due almost entirely to its successful Africanization policy. Like the Muslims, the Roman Catholics are not only developing a highly educated ministry but also trying to make their religious system thoroughly African in its theology and philosophical outlook.

2. The African church must be provided with a better-trained ministry, a ministry capable of showing the meaning of the Christian message for the Africa of today and of taking its rightful place in the new society. With the rapid growth of education, resulting in an emerging intelligentsia, there is an urgent demand for such a ministry. If the minister lacks a college education, with the accompanying cultural overtones, he will be handicapped in capturing the interest of the younger generation. And he will also find it hard to win the older educated class (court interpreters, police officers, teachers, businessmen); they may respect him for his position, but they will lose interest in his sermons and eventually stop attending his church.

There is indeed a bright future for the Christian message in Africa—but only if the Gospel is fully identified with an indigenous church served by a well-trained, indigenous ministry. Better training for the ministry on all levels must be a part of the planning of all church administrators, regardless of their particular field or institution.

3. Theological training must become a matter of top priority. This would seem to go without saying, but unfortunately the need for ministerial training has not always been kept prominent. With the demand for secular education high and tempting grants-in-aid from the governments available, missions have undertaken an educational program that leaves little or no time for the training of ministers. Consequently theological education has not had the emphasis that secular education has had, and the whole church program is suffering. In Seminary Survey Yorke Allen says:

Article continues below
Up to now the mission boards have often tended to be more interested in bandages rather than books, in hospitals rather than libraries, and in secular education as compared to the training of men for the ministry.… With the level of education rising in most countries, it seems reasonable to believe that the growth of faith, as well as the development of reason, will in the future be accomplished less through simple evangelism, however zealous, and more through the theological training of the most capable youth in each country [p. 568].

Several years ago a survey showed that American mission boards were devoting less than 6 percent of their annual foreign-missions expenditures to overseas theological training, and that the British societies were giving an even smaller proportion.

4. Recruitment of young men for the ministry needs to be greatly improved. It has largely been left to chance, with the result that the few who have entered the ministry have done so entirely on their own initiative. In no other important enterprise is recruitment so neglected.

The Church must continue to depend, as it has always done, upon the work of the Spirit in calling men to offer themselves as candidates. But it must also meet its own responsibility in pressing the claims of God and his work upon the young people in its congregations and schools.

Obviously, if the need for a better-trained ministry is to be met, then the colleges and seminaries must be improved. This does not necessarily mean that costly buildings must be erected, though in some places building may be necessary; it does mean that staffs must be strengthened, libraries expanded, and many courses realigned to meet the needs of present-day Africa. This, incidentally, is one of the best ways of solving the recruiting problem. Throughout the world the poorer-quality seminaries report difficulty in obtaining recruits; the strongest seminaries do not. Entrance requirements must be kept high, to attract good students.

The greatest days of the Church in Africa are before us, if, in the words of playwright James Barrie, “we choose to make them so.”

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.