“Africa your time has come.”
Bishop Efraim Tendero, Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), delivered this prophetic proclamation during the opening celebration of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa’s (AEA) new state-of-the-art plaza located in the heart of Nairobi, Kenya. I had the honor and privilege of representing Sojourners at yesterday’s grand opening and dedication of the plaza, which will serve as an office, resource center, and hub for evangelical witness and ministry across the continent. But the event was not simply about a new building, as impressive as it may be. What made this moment so groundbreaking was the degree to which the building and how it came about represents a symbol and testament to the growing influence, sustainability, and independence of the evangelical church in Africa.
According to the Pew Center, “if demography is destiny, then Christianity’s future lies in Africa. By 2060, a plurality of Christians – more than four-in-ten – will call sub-Saharan Africa home, up from 26% in 2015.” In 1910 there were 2 million Christians in Africa. Today there are 650 million, with an estimated 200 million evangelicals. The explosive growth of the church across Africa represents a trend that far too few Christians in the West fully understand and that will likely reshape and over time transform the face of Christianity globally. Experiencing the AEA Plaza grand opening and participating in a range of side meetings and conversations over the past three days with African evangelical leaders has left me with greater hope about the future of the evangelical church and the future of Africa.
Despite my hopefulness, it’s important not to gloss over or ignore the significant challenges facing both the African church and continent. The continent has become the epicenter in the fight against extreme poverty and inequality, housing over half of the world’s people who are living in the quicksand of extreme poverty. Conflict, corruption, illicit financial flows, gender-based violence, exploitation, the impacts of climate change, among other challenges, have long stunted Africa’s growth and suffocated human flourishing. Evangelical churches across Africa continue to be heavily influenced by various forms of the prosperity gospel and the Gospel Coalition. Less than 20 percent of evangelical pastors have received seminary training, which poses both a challenge and an opportunity. According to the AEA “biblical illiteracy and heresy still remain a major challenge in the global Church.” But a revitalized and more vibrant evangelical church that is increasingly committed to both evangelism and holistic transformation will be an essential force in overcoming these and other challenges.
Founded in 1966, the AEA comprises 40 National Evangelical Fellowships as full members, serving as one of the regional associations of the global evangelical movement through the WEA. AEA and its members “join in common concern to live and proclaim the Good News of Jesus amongst all nations and peoples, seeking holiness, justice, and transformation at every level: individual, family, community, and culture.” To date, the AEA has founded the Bangui Evangelical School of Theology (BEST) in Central African Republic for the Francophone region and the Africa International University in Kenya for the Anglophone region, Christian Learning Materials Centre (CLMC) in Kenya, Africa Christian Television (ACT/PEMA) in Cote d’Ivoire, and the Accrediting Council for Theological Education in Africa (ACTEA). These projects focus on promoting sound theological and Christian education from childhood to the highest level of scholarship at university level, for effective evangelization and discipleship of the church in Africa. The two theological schools were the first graduate theological schools in sub-Saharan Africa in the modern history of the church.
At the opening, Bishop Tendero fittingly noted that because Africa has been the victim of colonialism and the exploitation of human and natural resources, it is both ironic and deeply inspiring that the center represents the first of its kind in the world, “which means that Africa is now being used by God to export the gospel and the values of the kingdom of God across the world.” Bishop Dr. Goodwill Shana, president of the AEA echoed this theme saying that this is a moment in which “the church must rise above the spiritual, political, and economic challenges facing the continent.” He talked about being “tired of seeing Africa being viewed as having a hand out begging. Instead, Africa is doing something for Africans and laying the stones for future generations.”
Just three years ago the AEA had fallen on hard times due to financial struggles and existed without a General Secretary for four years. Rev. Dr. Aiah Foday-Khabenje took over in 2009. The AEA was able to use proceeds from the sale of a piece of land to secure seed money to start the construction of a 10-story complex to house their new headquarters, which they hope will generate ongoing income. Dr. Foday-Khabenje managed to push through the project even though he faced significant resistance and criticism that this bold project was too risky and that investing in the construction of a new headquarters was too worldly.
Many African evangelical churches have traditionally been reticent to engage in advocacy and worldly engagement, in part due to their own comfort and desire to work with greater autonomy. A day before the launch of the AEA Plaza I had the opportunity to join Carol Ng’ang’a, founder of Msingi Trust, to visit a social justice center just outside the slums of Mathare. Msingi Trust mobilizes, inspires, equips, and networks Christians and community leaders toward social justice and social transformation. We met with a group of incredibly inspiring community volunteers who run the center, which has been focused on addressing a range of social justice issues confronting the community, including an alarming trend of extrajudicial killings of young people in the area. As per reports by Amnesty International and the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), between 122 and 152 deaths of civilians were reported at the hands of police in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The center is one of 13 centers across Nairobi where volunteers, who call themselves human rights defenders, are demonstrating courageous leadership to combat police violence and address other social injustice. While there are some exceptions, by and large the defenders reported a lack of church engagement in their inspiring advocacy work and activism.
I’m hopeful that the AEA will help to change this trend as they further equip and empower the church to engage in greater transformation. According to Dr. Foday-Kabenje, “if I care for the vulnerable, I must talk politics. It is not a question of whether but of how.”
One particularly encouraging example is an initiative called “The Africa that God Wants.” Building on the African Union’s Agenda 2063, the AEA hosted a continent-wide theological consultation in 2015 around that theme. The AU’s AGENDA 2063 is Africa’s blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future. It is the continent’s strategic framework that aims to deliver on its goal for inclusive and sustainable development and is a concrete manifestation of the pan-African drive for unity, self-determination, freedom, progress, and collective prosperity pursued under Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance that outlines “how the continent should effectively learn from lessons of the past, build on progress already made and strategically exploit opportunities available in the short, medium and long term, so as to ensure positive socioeconomic transformation within the next four years.” The AEA sees this as an opportunity to develop a biblical vision espousing “The Africa God Wants” based on the gospel and the ability of the church to lead in transformation of policy and societal engagement, discipleship, and reaching the unreached in Africa and beyond.
Over the next year the AEA will be engaging with the church across Africa to shape a biblical vision that mirrors Agenda 2063, which will be discussed and approved at the next General Assembly in 2020 in Kigali.
These and other efforts make me increasingly hopeful that Africa has arrived, particularly as the evangelical church strengthens its commitment to advancing peace, justice, and righteousness.