Posted by: Titus Presler | February 12, 2011

Countering stereotype of African Christianity as shallow

Twice in one day I’ve encountered mission agencies, one in the USA and one in the UK, rightly seeking to counter a stereotype of African Christianity as “a mile wide but an inch deep.”

One plea comes from the Mission Yearbook of Presbyterian World Mission, the global mission arm of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the yearbook being a daily circulation of a short meditation or anecdote.  Today’s is entitled simply “Africa”.  After citing the Great Commission as rendered in Matthew 29.19, it goes on to just one paragraph:

Have you ever heard the words “the church in Africa is a mile wide and an inch deep?” While, as is the case in America, there are areas where this is true, in even more places the African church is deep and wide. Countless congregations exemplify a deep understanding of the gospel as they obey Jesus’ commands to evangelize, heal, and proclaim justice in an integrated manner.

The other citation of the stereotype comes in a Church Times commendation of the Lenten mission study program, “Growing the Church,” offered by the Anglican Communion’s oldest missionary society, USPG: Anglicans in World Mission. In an e-mailed publicity piece, David Wilbourne is quoted as writing:

I was moved by congregations’ being tear-gassed, manhandled, and threatened; challenged by the description of Christianity in Africa as a mile wide but an inch deep; and amused by the Bishop of Niassa being introduced to a pagan audience as the chief witch doctor.

I’ve devoted a good deal of my life to encountering, trying to understand and writing about African Christianity, which I have found to be different from Christianity in North America and on the Indian subcontinent in ways that have prompted me to grow in my faith, my preaching and in my stewardship of the life of congregations and the church as a whole.

In sharing gifts from African Christianity with others, I’ve encountered three kinds of skepticism:

1. “Since African Christianity has grown so rapidly, it must not have been able to develop depth as well” – This view refers to the fact that in 1900 Christians constituted 9% of the continent’s population, whereas in 2000 they constituted 46%.  Behind the question there is often also a sense that since such a high proportion of Africans were illiterate in 1900, the Christianity that took root could not have developed deep roots.  The marvel, in fact, is that Africans experienced profound resonance between their own world and the world they heard and read about in the Bible, and the gospel “took” in their lives in a remarkably integrated way.  For instance, their historic openness to the power of the world of spirits prompted them to grasp and be grasped by the power of the Holy Spirit.

2. “Yes, but are the new forms of Christianity in Africa really Christian?” – This is a contemporary form of some old missionaries’ suspicion that if the converts’ Christianity turns out to be different from their own then it might not be authentic Christianity.  I have prayed and worshiped with African Christians who walk on fire, who live in polygamous relationships, who interrupt each other’s sleep to get accounts of dreams through which the Spirit may be speaking, who put out bottles of water to see which ones attract the ants, who climb up mountains in pilgrimage at night, who draw pictures that are supposed to be the Spirit’s word to devotees.  None of these practices are part of my regular spirituality, and I wonder myself about the ants and the pictures.  But are these folks Christians?  My own discernment in the Spirit yields an emphatic Yes.  Jesus is normative for them.  Although some don’t use a creed, they would affirm all aspects of the Nicene Creed.  These are people with whom I have experienced genuine and powerful Christian community.

3. “Ah, but African Christianity is simple to the point of being simplistic” – If the second critique comes from conservatives, the third is common among progressives who are disappointed that many African Christians do not share their views on certain social issues, homosexuality in particular.  The most notorious quote along this line is from John Spong, former Episcopal bishop of Newark, who was reported to have said after the 1998 Lambeth Conference that many of the African Anglican bishops were no more than “animists with miters.”  As a progressive myself, I take strong exception to the condescension and ignorance expressed in many progressives’ dismissal of African Christianity on account of its conservatism on some issues.  After all, there is disagreement on the same points within European and North American Christianity.  If we truly have moved beyond imperialistic mission, then these are matters for theological discussion among peers, not finger-wagging by those who imagine themselves sophisticated at those they imagine to be untutored.

So, what of the stereotype of African Christianity as shallow?  It’s, well, shallow.  So it’s good to see USPG and PC(USA) trying to dispel it.

Here’s the prayer the Presbyterian posting closes with – may it be our own:

Gracious God, our hearts sing praises to you as we hear about the tremendous growth of your church in Africa. We are thankful for our African brothers and sisters and PC(USA) mission workers [and mission companions of other churches] who are faithfully telling and living out the gospel in contexts of war, poverty, and disease. May your Holy Spirit empower and equip them so that your love for the “least of these” may be evident. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(My most extended and in-depth exploration of a particular stream of African Christianity is found in Transfigured Night: Mission and Culture in Zimbabwe’s Vigil Movement (Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1999), available at Amazon.

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Responses

  1. […] Christianity:  “Countering Stereotype of African Christianity as Shallow” (Titus Presler, Feb. 12, […]

  2. A well balanced article.

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  6. Great posting, Titus. Thanks a lot!! I’ve been enjoying the blog.

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