All these years I thought it was only the pastor who could understand what God was saying. But now I’m reading it, and I can understand what God is saying to me.”
A woman speaking the Moba language of Togo

Congolese women glued to the Jesus Film

Congolese women glued to the Jesus Film

A Christian leader in a large association of churches here in Ghana once told us a whole series of stories about how people had misunderstood the songs they were singing in church, sometimes even singing nonsense.

When we launched the Jesus film in three languages in the town of Isiro in the Congo, the audience was live with whispered comments in the language in which the film was being shown. They were saying:

“I can understand everything!” and “It is perfectly clear!”

Why? Because it is not an unusual experience for African Christians to not understand what they hear in church. The Bible reading, the sermon and even the songs may be in a language they do not understand, or understand only partially. This circumstance creates strong metamessages.

Definition metamessageA metamessage is an unspoken message that comes alongside the spoken message. It can be true, or it can be false. The person speaking may or may not be aware of the meta-message he or she is creating. They may be intentional or accidental. If I speak in public using fancy vocabulary, I may create the meta-message that I am snob, or my hearers may think that they are unintelligent. I may intend that, or I may not. If I read a older Bible translation, some who hear may think that Jesus himself spoke with archaic language. We create meta-messages almost every time we speak and when we hear; it is a normal part of life.

This Tembo boy, reading Luke in his language, will avoid wrong metamessages

This Tembo boy, reading Luke in his language, will avoid wrong metamessages

When a Christian sits in church year in and year out understanding only partially what is being preached, that person will create meta-messages which fit that reality. For the Togolese woman mentioned above, it was “only pastors can understand what God is saying”. Others will create the meta-message that preaching is magical, or that the Bible is magical – the words have power whether they are understood or not, like abracadabra. They may come to believe that Pastors are necessary intermediaries between them and God. Interestingly, when the Bible was first being translated into the languages of Europe including English, the translators were trying to dispel lots of wrong metamessages which had been created by the use of Latin in the church.

Translation of the Bible into the heart language, the language people really understand, dispels false meta-messages. It returns faith to a personal level, assuring each person that God speaks to them, cares for them. We hear the testimonies of that all the time.

It is written, but where

After his resurrection, Jesus was walked with two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus when he said to them,

“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Luke 24:46-47 CEV

Jesus says “it is written”, meaning that it is written in the Bible. But what Bible? When Jesus said that the New Testament had not yet been written, Jesus is saying that the Old Testament says that

repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.

Jesus had to show his disciples that proclaiming the Good News to all nations was right there in the Old Testament from the beginning. They had missed it. But consider these verses:

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. Psalm 22:27

I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here am I, here am I,” to a nation that was not called by my name. Isaiah 65:1

This is the purpose that is purposed concerning the whole earth, and this is the hand that is stretched out over all the nations. For the LORD of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back? Isa 14;26 – 27

Missions, including local and world outreach, are not an optional add-on — something tacked on in an “Oh, by the way” fashion. They are not an afterthought Jesus added at the last minute before he went back to heaven. Rather, outreach is God purpose and intention, indeed His own mission, from the beginning and throughout.

Ladies' Bible study in the Nouni language of Burkina Faso in fulfillment of OT prophesies

Ladies’ Bible study in the Nuni language of Burkina Faso in fulfillment of OT prophesies

Prayer Centers

Like Africans everywhere I have been, Ghanaians are very religious. Churches dot the southern and central parts of the country and there are quite a number in the north. A number of those in the south were built in the 1800s by missionaries in classic Western church architectural style, like the ones in the photos below, but many are very simple buildings or even just little shelters.

Church composite

Churches in Abetifi (L) and Akropong (R), Ghana

But that is not my topic today. Rather, it is the prayer centres (Ghana follows UK spelling for English), prayer houses and prayer grounds which one sees here and there.

Sign - Prayer center

Despite its modest construction, this prayer center is in the capital city.

In my travels in the US, I don’t think that I have ever seen a sign along the road for a prayer center, prayer house or prayer ground. Here, you cannot drive very far without seeing at least one. I would have more photos of them if they signs did not fly past before I had time to snap a picture, or the road was wide enough to pull off for a photo without creating a traffic hazard. Prayer is an outstanding feature of Christianity in Africa. All night prayer meetings are not uncommon.

Sign - Zion Prayer Ministry

This place offers specific prayer times including “All Night”

When I ask African Christians about this I get a variety of answers, but the most common is something along the theme of “You have money, doctors and good medical care. We don’t. You have responsive governments to which you can make complaints, we don’t. You have economic systems that are not rigged in favor of a few, we don’t. All we have is prayer.”

The prayer centers I have seen are humble, rustic, basic affairs, not to say crude or inadequate. From my perspective they are under-resourced. Does God think that they are? Does their lowly construction make them less helpful? I wonder.

Church of Pentecost Prayer Ground

This prayer ground looks like it doubles as a carpentry shop


I have written before that mobile phones are the first technology to be more quickly adopted in the developing world than in the places we usually associate with technology. There are lots of reasons for that, including that owning and operating one is not expensive and saves a person time and money. But that is not my story.

Dayle and I each have a phone here in Ghana with a network called MTN. We have a prepaid account, do not pay for incoming calls, and probably spend about $10 each per month on the phone, often less. Each mobile network has its own color and they each paint houses and buildings along the road in their color as advertisement.

Buidings painted in the colors of mobile phone networks

Buidings painted in the colors of mobile phone networks

To make a little money on the side, MTN sells custom ringtones. So, when I am making a call, instead of hearing a dialing tone (which would be wasted time, right?) I hear an advertisement for a ringtone with the option to push a certain key to download it for a small fee. Free enterprise at work, no story there. It is the ringtones themselves that caught my attention, even though have I not purchased one. The most frequent offerings are recorded songs by Ghanaian Gospel artists. They have a clear Christian message. So, while waiting for my call to connect, I am often treated to a few lines of song like

  • These are the days of Elijah, or
  • I pledge allegiance to the Lamb

And now you know what kind of songs and message MTN thinks its Ghanaian customers want. I’ll bet that they are right.

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A Symphony Orchestra in Kinshasa – the rest of the story

Not long ago 60 Minutes did a report called Joy in the Congo: A musical miracle. If you have not seen it, you should. But the rest of the story is even more interesting.

Kimbanguist band in Isiro

Kimbanguist band in Isiro

The name of the orchestra gives us a big clue. It is the “Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra”. The Kimbanguist Church (that’s right, a church) is perhaps the largest African Independent church at 5.5 million members. It was founded by Simon Kimbangu in the Democratic Republic of Congo,  then the Belgian Congo. They are known for their brass bands, such as this one I found parading in the city of Isiro.

Kinshasa SymphonyIt was the leader of the Kimbanguist church himself who gave the instructions to start music groups with more variety that eventually led to the formation of the symphony orchestra. They had vision, but not much else: few instruments, no one who could read music. More, even Congolese laughed at the idea of classical music, saying that it just puts people to sleep. But they kept at in and they are making a sensation. You can buy a DVD documentary of the orchestra on Amazon!

All this happened in a country where corruption, abuse of human rights, sexual violence against women and poverty are rampant. The Kimbanguist Church has lost its way a bit, but it seems that there are reform movements in the church that could bring it back into the mainstream.

Christianity is growing fast in much of Africa. Up to now, that growth has mostly been in numbers. But now there are many signs of growth in depth. The world may not take Africa seriously. It may not take Christianity seriously. But just watch and you will see the suffering, poor, patient, and faithful people of God in Africa will do impressive things in the middle of the messes made by their leaders. A symphony orchestra?  You ain’t seen nothin yet!

Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? (I Corinthians 1:27-28, The Message)


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.


Before missionaries — there was God

Did you know that the people of Ghana knew a lot about God before the missionaries came?

Gye Nyame - None other than the Lord

Akan symbol for the omnipotence and omnipresence of God

When the first missionaries arrived they found this symbol everywhere, and it still is found all over Ghana . It stands for the Akan language words “Gye Nyame” often translated “Except God”. I prefer the translation “None other than the Lord”. It echoes the most fundamental things the Bible says about God:
• He always was and always will be
• He is all powerful
• He is everywhere
• Everything comes from and depends on Him.

Gye Nyame sign

Gye Nyame (None but God) street sign in Accra

Akan symbol for the death of God

Akan symbol for the death of God

This next symbol is about the power of God to overcome death. It come from the Akan belief that God created life and death, but death killed him. However, he came back to life and now he lives forever.

This set of beliefs has too many parallels to the death and resurrection of Jesus to mention in a blog like this. Given that the Apostle Paul developed a whole theme from an idol to an unknown God in Acts 17, I have to wonder what he would have developed from this symbol if he had come to Ghana.

Akan symbol of the banch for the grace of God

Akan symbol for the grace of God

This branch stands for the Akan words “Nyame Nti”, meaning “by God’s grace”. From their belief that “Except (for) God” (first symbol) there is nothing and the obvious observation that man will die without food, the Akan people deduced that they could not survive without the food that God put on the Earth. From that, they further deduced that we humans live by God’s provision and so by his unmerited favor, or grace. In this, they are a lot more like the first settlers to celebrate Thanksgiving than a lot of Americans today, who are thankful, but may not attribute their bounty to God’s doing.

God was working here in Ghana long before missionaries came. After spending 30 years as a missionary in Africa, Dr. H. Junod stated: “Wherever I went, I found that my Master had been there before me.” He was referring to these symbols among other things. God prepared the way for missionaries by revealing himself. This is not a new idea. The Apostle Paul develops it in the book of Romans:

“But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being.” (Romans 1:20 The Message)

A modern-day missionary, Don Richardson has developed this idea further in his book “The Peace Child” from which a movie was made.

The image projected of Africa as “the dark continent” is way off the mark. God was at work here and he still is. Africans are responding to that in record numbers, finding in Christian faith the fulfillment of the thoughts God put in their ancestors. I’m thankful to be here and see it firsthand.


Weak Things

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 ( 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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On my way to Chad I had to overnight in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In the morning I looked out my room window and saw this. I assumed that the building was a mosque. Only when looking at the photo closely later did I see the crosses on the top, not crescent moons, so this is an Orthodox Church. Ethiopia has large number of Christians and the orthodox church has a very long history here dating from 330 AD. Its even has its own web site

In fact, no more than nine countries in the world have more Christians (of all persuasions) than Ethiopia, and a large number are evangelical. In Chad, on the other hand, Christianity is relatively new having come early in the 20th century. Also, most Christians are in the south, whereas most people in the north of Chad follow Islam.

(This was first posted on a different site. It was republished here in March 2012.)