Missionaries and evangelists must learn to read time and culture. For example, what worldview type is most prevalent in Africa? Is Africa secular, pantheistic, theistic, or animistic? The typical assumption is that Africa is primarily animistic. This judgment is based on our vision of Africa: ritual drums being beaten, diviners casting cowrie shells, a dervish possessed, and ceremonies to appease angry ancestors. However, Africans, especially those in East and Southern Africa, are steadily moving away from animism.
A second assumption is that Africans are becoming theists, that submission to Allah and relationship with God are displacing traditional animistic beliefs. The fact that millions of Africans have become Muslims and Christians is used as proof. Some even claim that the mantle of Christian leadership, which has passed from Europe to North America, now rests on Africa.
The reality, however, is that Islam and Christianity in Africa continue to be a “mile wide and an inch deep.” During times of crises, many Muslims and Christians return to the succor of African Traditional Religion (ATR). Christ is accepted as Savior and spirits and ancestors are manipulated and appeased simultaneously. Dal Congdon’s discovery that 69.6% of all professing Christians among the Zulu of South Africa believe that ancestral spirits accompany people to protect them and bring them good fortune (1985, 297) continues to be true among many African peoples. Christ is acknowledged as Savior on a cosmic level, but everyday dilemmas of life (illness, death, drought) are handled using ATR. School systems in many countries teach ATR along with Islam and Christianity, and African scholars who desire authentic African experiences aggressively advocate ATR.
Rwanda’s genocide in 1994 also indicts the depth of African Christianity. How could a nation whose Christian heritage spans three generations revert to tribal warfare in which massive numbers of soldiers were killed, as well as mothers, children, and men too old to fight?
Another cultural wave, perhaps more powerful than either traditional animism or revitalizing theism, is now sweeping Africa. This spreading force is not verbalized. It is almost imperceptible but present in statements such as: “We need education so that our children will have jobs,” “How can the church go forward if preachers are not trained?” and “We need to develop our country, and technology will enable us to do so.” Underneath many Christian movements is the desire for progress. These perspectives are not animistic or theistic but secular.
Secularism as a worldview presupposes that humans are able to chart their own course through reason and human ingenuity with little reliance on God or spiritual realities. On the practical level secularists tend to live for the here and now. They are absorbed by material, this-worldly concerns, are extremely busy with earthly distractions, and are career consumed. Although they acknowledge God on a philosophical level, they live as if he does not exist.
A secular church seeks human advantage and personal gain by holding to forms rather than the Spirit of God. Leaders molded by secularism operate for power and prestige rather than as God’s “ministers of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-20).
The church must rather be “the distinctive people of God called by him through his mission and set aside for his mission” (Van Rheenen 1996, 31). God’s fellowship must be a unique community in the world created by God through the Spirit to be both holy and human. The body of Christ must be “a distinctive community formed by the calling and sending of God and reflecting the redemptive reign of God in Christ” (Guder 1998, 8).
If the church in Africa is to remain a vital, counter-cultural force, Christian leaders must understand that the church does not grow in maturity and number by human power, intellect, or might. Growth comes when holy people congregate together to be used as missionaries of God.
For years I have studied animistic customs of Africa and have written about “communicating Christ in animistic contexts.” Never did I dream that I would write about Africa becoming secular (although theistic and animistic influences are still present).
African leaders must awaken to what is happening. They must know the times and read the culture.
Congdon, Dal. An Investigation into the Current Zulu Worldview and Its Relevance to Missionary Work. Evangelical Mission Quarterly (July 1985):297.
Guder, Darrell L. Ed. Missional Church: A vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Piot, Charles. Remotely Global: Village Modernity in West Africa. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Van Rheenen, Gailyn. Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.