In concluding his popular book, “The State of Africa” (The Free Press, London, 2006, Pgs 681-682), Martin Meredith writes:
“In reality fifty years after the beginning of the independence era, Africa’s prospects are bleaker than ever before. Already the world’s poorest region, it is falling further and further behind all other regions of the world. Its average per capita national income is one-third lower than the world’s next poorest region, South Asia. Most African countries have lower per capita incomes now than they had in 1980 or, in some cases, in 1960. Half of Africa’s 880 million people live on less than US$1 a day. Its entire economic output is no more than $420’ billion, just 1.3 per cent of world GDP, less than a country like Mexico. Its share of world trade has declined to half of what it was the l980s, amounting to only 1.6 per cent; its share of global investment is less than 1 per cent. It is the only region where per capita investment and savings has declined since 1970. It is the only region where school enrollment is falling and where illiteracy is still commonplace: two in five Africans – and half of all African women – are illiterate, compared to one m every eight adults m East Asia or Latin America. It is also the only region where life expectancy is falling. On a list drawn up by the United Nations Development Programme, all twenty-five countries that rank lowest in terms of human development are African.”
Meredith is more pessimistic than other authors, but there is no doubt that Africa’s people have suffered much and many continue to suffer. Some have given up on the continent or considered it “hopeless” as did The Economist magazine in May 2001.
Like many writers, Meredith does not treat one key aspect of Africa’s life and history. That aspect is the spectacular growth of Christianity in Africa south of the Sahara. According to Wikipedia, “Christianity is embraced by the majority of the population in most Southern, Central and Eastern African nations and in some West African nations” A website entitled “African Christianity” maintained by Bethel Seminary (http://www.bethel.edu/~letnie/AfricanChristianity/Sub-SaharaHomepage.html) declares that “… worldwide Christianity has become increasingly African. African and Latin American Christians outnumber those of any other continent. There are now more practicing Christians in Africa than on any other continent …”
The growth of the church in Africa and other places outside North America and Europe was first noticed by Dr. Andrew Walls who wrote “The Missionary Movement in Christian History”. A spate of books has followed as you can see below.
In ways they probably never saw during their lifetimes, God honored the faith of the first missionaries, those who sent them and those who stood behind them financially and in prayer. We also easily forget the hardships endured by the first missionaries, as a previously undecipherable letter from David Livingston recently revealed.
Those who believed under the missionaries’ ministry did most of the evangelism. The majority of African Christians today believe because of the witness of another African and the vitality of African churches.
Sometime in the next decade Africa will become the center of world Christianity at least in terms of sheer numbers of believers. Some church denominations which sent missionaries to Africa now have more believers in Africa than where they originated. The Anglican church is but one example.
In 1900 about 80% of all Christians lived in North America and Europe. By 2020, North America and Europe will have only 40% of all Christians in the world. This trend caused Lamin Sanneh, professor of history at Yale who comes from the Gambia, to write a book entitled “Whose Religion is Christianity?”
During my visit to Ghana in June 2010, the evidence of this trend was everywhere. As I noted in my blog at the time, there were churches everywhere including mega-churches filled with growing numbers of the middle class. Bible themes and names are evoked in the names of businesses and on vehicles. The country where Dayle and I work – the Democratic Republic of Congo – went from 3% Christian to over 90% from 1900 and 1970. It is estimated that by 2020 that country will have more evangelical Christians than any other country in the world.
For some, this presents a conundrum – how is it that a continent can be overwhelmingly Christian and yet fare so badly? That is much too big and complex a question to answer here. Its answer is probably found as much in the assumptions behind that question as in Africa.
The growth of Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa brings Christianity back to a reality it knew at its birth. I am reminded of verses 26-31 of I Corinthians chapter 1:
26 My dear friends, remember what you were when God chose you. The people of this world didn’t think that many of you were wise. Only a few of you were in places of power, and not many of you came from important families. 27 But God chose the foolish things of this world to put the wise to shame. He chose the weak things of this world to put the powerful to shame. 28 What the world thinks is worthless, useless, and nothing at all is what God has used to destroy what the world considers important. 29 God did all this to keep anyone from bragging to him. 30 You are God’s children. He sent Christ Jesus to save us and to make us wise, acceptable, and holy. 31 So if you want to brag, do what the Scriptures say and brag about the Lord.
At its birth, Christianity was a religion of the powerless and marginalized but for the last few hundred years it has been associated with the most powerful and prosperous countries of the world. Today, God is taking Christianity back to being a religion predominantly of the marginalized and oppressed. There is no doubt that those in the powerful countries who are abandoning the Christian faith consider Africa one of the “weak things of this world”. If we watch long enough, the rest of this Scriptural equation will come true – Christianity in Africa will “put the powerful to shame”.
If the shift in Christianity has you worried, the solution is to follow the instruction in the passage – “So if you want to brag, do what the Scriptures say and brag about the Lord.”
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