What to make of them

We used to call them sects. They are a bewildering collection of over 10,000 independent “Christian” church denominations in Africa. As their proper name, “African Instituted Churches”, suggests, they are defined by being founded by an Africa and not by a missionary.

Harrist church service

Ladies in procession after Harrist church service

They are the growing segment of the church in Africa. Denominations founded by missionaries are stagnating or shrinking while the AICs are growing and multiplying. Is this good or bad? Do these African churches teach the truth? Do they lead people to Christ or away from him? The answer is an ambiguous “yes and no”. Their beliefs range from encouraging, to those I could live with, to those I find strange, to the completely unacceptable.

One thing is for sure, some of the AICs are quite exotic in their forms of worship, and therefore interesting. When we were assigned to Côte d’Ivoire I came in contact with the Church of the Prophet William Wadé Harris, called the Harrist Church for short. Everyone dressed in white, they had a fancy procession to and from the church before and after the service, and the head man was called a Prophet. It was fun to visit their Sunday afternoon services.

Kimbanguist parade

Kimbanguist parade in Isiro

When we were in Congo, I met the Kimbanguist Church, founded by Simon Kimbangu in the Congo. With 5.5 million followers, it may be the largest AIC in Africa. I was in a town in Congo one day when a Kimbanguist parade came down the street complete with brass band, banner, and uniforms. They were celebrating the birthday of the founder’s wife even though she was deceased. Apparently it has become an important day on the church calendar. After the founder died, the leadership of the Kimbanguist church declared that the founder was the Holy Spirit – a doctrine denounced by other churches in Congo. Apparently, not everyone in the Kimbanguist church follows this doctrine and some are working to change it.

The big debate is how to respond to the growth of the AICs. Denounce them? Separate from them? Work with them? The debate is interesting, especially because there are strong reform movements in some of the stranger AICs. Here in Ghana a special Bible school was set up for the AICs and there are mixed opinions as to whether that was a good idea. It appears to have bolstered reform movements in some of the stranger AICs.

As a Bible translator, I have the luxury of having a simple answer to guide my actions toward the AICs – give them the Bible! One of the successes of the reformation was giving people the Scriptures so that they could know when clergy were leading them astray. The Harrist church had congregations in many of the places our group was doing Bible translation in Côte d’Ivoire. They were often the most avid users of the translated Scriptures. That can only be good.

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The mouse, the duck, the pig and the cow

Mouce duck cow pigThere once was a mouse who lived in a farmer’s house. One day a spider told him that he heard the farmer saying that he had bought a mouse trap. But the spider did not know where it had been set. The mouse was worried. He had never seen a mouse trap and so would probably get caught in it. He went to consult his wisest friends: the duck, the pig and the cow. They heard him out, thought about the matter and responded: “The farmer bought a mouse trap; not a duck trap, pig trap or cow trap. So this matter is for you to deal with. It does not concern us.”

That night, there was a loud SLAP as the trap went off. The farmer’s wife got up to check the trap. When she reached back into the dark crevasse where she had placed the trap, she found that the trap had not caught the mouse, but a poisonous snake. Not only that, the snake was not dead and it bit her.

The next day, a few family and friends came to console her; some from a distance. The farmer wanted to serve them a nice meal, so he killed the duck.

Unfortunately, his wife did not respond to treatment and was hospitalized. So, more family members came from around the area to see her. The farmer again wanted to feed them a nice meal, so he butchered the pig.

Then the worst happened; the farmer’s wife died. Now many family and friends came for the funeral, even from far away. To make sure that they were well fed, the farmer called the butcher and had him butcher the cow. The guests were well fed.

So only the mouse was left.

The moral of this story: Help your neighbors even with problems that don’t affect you because in the end, they just might. I seem to remember reading this idea in a well-known book:

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4 ESV)


I heard this tale from a Ghanaian colleague and I have embellished it a bit from his telling. Many African peoples use stories like this to teach values to the next generation. I have been in villages where everyone sat around after nightfall listening to such stories from the older members of the family.

Two SIM phone

Over 70% of Ghanaians have a mobile phone. There are 17 million mobile phones in this country of 24 million. That means that the only big group without a phone is young children.

In late August, I had just finished 3 1/2 days of communications strategy. But Kwame, a cab driver I met, was teaching me the real marketing lessons. When I rode with him, he took my number and he calls every few days to say hi and remind me that he is available when I might need him. And, if you had not heard, mobile banking is big in Africa, and it is not being led by the banks, but by the mobile phone companies. And they did not plan for it. Africans generated the idea at the grassroots. Some think that it will result in increased access to financial services for the poor and thus help reduce poverty.

Two-sim phone

Nokia phone with back off showing places for two SIM chips

Because some places are covered by one network and different places by another, a number of people started carrying two phones. No more. Here is a phone I bought for about $50 and which can be on two networks at once because it has two SIM chips.  The back is off and you can see the two shiny doors for each SIM chip. Like most people here I have a prepaid account, no contract and the cost is VERY reasonable.

So, why is a a guy involved in Bible translation going on and on and one about mobile phones? Well, I do like technology. I also try to understand the place where I work. But there is more! It is possible to put the Bible on many mobile phones.

Bible Is offers the Bible on iPhone and Android. They already have the New Testament available in hundreds of languages and plan to have it in 2,000 by the year 2020! Can Africans afford expensive iPhone and Android phones? They don’t have to. There is a China-made Android phone selling in Ghana for $80 – with no contract to sign! But Scripture can be put on some phones that cost as little as $40.

There is work to do on the details, but I think that in five years there will be more copies of the Bible in Ghanaian languages on mobile phones than are printed. Because there is no printing, the cost will plummet. The plan I am helping with will definitely include getting all the Bibles in all the languages of Ghana on mobile phones.

If you like this, you might also like my blog about mobile phones making Ghana more colorful?

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What is New Year? It’s a party, that’s for sure. A time to make resolutions, to look back on the last year, and for some to make predictions.

Prediction made in 1924 of cars in 1950I like the predictions. The predictions about the coming year are okay, but the wrong predictions made in past years are fascinating and sometimes hilarious. Popular Science published a great photo gallery of their past predictions about automobiles. Some of their predictions were close, but the overall form of the car was off.

The 20th century saw a lot of predictions about religion. Some of them were widely accepted for many years, yet turned out to be spectacularly, blatantly, and publicly wrong. In a fascinating article in Foreign Policy Magazine, Timothy Samuel Shah and Monica Duffy Toft wrote about one of these spectacularly wrong predictions:

In April 1966, Time ran a cover story that asked, “Is God Dead?” It was a fair question. Secularism dominated world politics in the mid-1960s. The conventional wisdom shared by many intellectual and political elites was that modernization would inevitably extinguish religion’s vitality. But if 1966 was the zenith of secularism’s self-confidence, the next year marked the beginning of the end of its global hegemony. In 1967, the leader of secular Arab nationalism, Gamal Abdel Nasser, suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Israeli Army. By the end of the 1970s, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, avowedly “born-again” U.S. President Jimmy Carter, television evangelist Jerry Falwell, and Pope John Paul II were all walking the world stage.

The secularism that dominated politics and the thinking of political pundits also lead them to predict that as African countries became independent they would shake off the religion of the colonial powers, Christianity.

Protestants in Africa

Number of Protestant Christians in Africa

Not long ago the Pew Charitable Trusts released results of a global study of Christianity. The map to the left shows the number of Protestants in different African counties. The bigger the circle, the more Protestant Christians in that country. I have highlighted four because they are among the 10 countries in the world with the highest numbers of Protestant Christians. They are Nigeria, South Africa, The Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya. Of the top 20 countries in the world in terms of numbers of Protestant Christians, nine are in Africa.

In Accra, we just experienced an event which illustrates the persistence and growth of Christianity in Africa. For its special New Years Eve service, one of the larger churches in Accra rented the national stadium. As you can see in the photo, they filled it.

Central Gospel Church fills the Accra Stadium for its New Years service

When Ghana government minister Elizabeth Ohene made her predictions for 2012 for the BBC, she said: “The area of the biggest growth on the continent will continue to be in religious congregations…” She is undoubtedly right, but beware, it is possible for those who believe to join in the spirit of the secularist prophets who were so stunningly wrong about the future of Christian Faith. We do that when we look at the trends in our country or our world and worry that they will overwhelm us. Instead, let’s trust and be faithful.