Africa and the Christian Mission

Jonathan J. Bonk

The one thread linking the essays in this issue is Africa. A continent that frequently elicits but ultimately defies generalizations, Africa is geographically immense, culturally complex, and religiously diverse. Most of its fifty-three discrete nation-states trace t
heir boundaries to an 1884 conference in Berlin where European powers carved up virtually the entire continent among themselves. The simplicity of the resulting scheme obscured then, and acerbates now, more complex cultural, linguistic, and topographical realities on the ground. To those whose familiarity with the continent is derived primarily from the daily news, this polyglot continent—home to a staggering 2,100 mother tongues—is a byword for wrenching poverty, vampire heads of state, savage civil wars, and crushing pandemics. Despite decades of well-intended “development” efforts fueled by nearly $700 billion in aid since the 1960s, standards of living for most Africans continue to decline. Thirty-three of the forty countries at the bottom of the World Bank’s 174-nation human development index are African.

As though all of this were not enough, the 2006 consensus report of the 120-plus-nation Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—watered down to make its political, social, economic, and ethical implications more palatable to powerful countries such as the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia—concluded that the continent of Africa will bear the brunt of a looming apocalypse that will entail acute water shortages, drought, and catastrophic collapses of food production.
And yet, and yet . . . by self-confession Africa is today a predominantly Christian continent—whatever that means. Who just one hundred years ago could have anticipated that Christianity would become the majority faith on that continent? Even the most sanguine soothsayer would have been reluctant to venture such a prospect. In terms of sheer numbers, the growth of Christianity in Africa over the past fifty years is without historical parallel. The most recent “Statistical Overview of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians and their activities,” prepared by David Barrett, Todd Johnson, and Peter Crossing for the January 2009 issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, estimates Christian numbers in Africa to exceed 447 million. According to figures provided three years ago by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, between 1900 and 2000 the Catholic population in Africa increased by a phenomenal 6,708 percent, from 1.9 million to 130 million. Since 1960 Catholic membership has grown by 708 percent. Overall annual Christian population growth in Africa is estimated to be 2.4 percent.
A century ago there were four times as many African Muslims as there were Christians. Today Christians compose 46 percent of the total population, by most conservative estimates surpassing the continent’s Muslims. Furthermore, while African countries currently host nearly 96,000 foreign missionaries, almost 19,000 African missionaries themselves serve abroad. Just how many African evangelists and missionaries are at work within their own countries is difficult to estimate. Suffice it to say that, by all appearances, evangelistic and church-related organizations might possibly be the continent’s number one “growth industry.”
By Barrett’s estimates, there were some 247,000 Christian congregations across the entire continent in 1970. Twenty-five years later, that number had grown to almost 552,000 congregations in 11,500 denominations, the vast majority of which are unknown in the West, with ecclesiastical and theological roots lacking any historical connection with European Christendom and its various reformations. Many of these churches are thoroughly pre-Christendom and unabashedly pre-Enlightenment in their impulses, behavior, and orientations.
While most of the growth has come since the continent shed its colonial administrators in the 1960s, in his lead article in this issue Paul Kollman argues convincingly that the phenomenal expansion of Christianity in East Africa, whether Catholic or Protestant, can be traced to the earliest practices of evangelization—in his words, “a church being born.” In West Africa, meanwhile, the birth of Christianity in one region was tended and recorded by “obstinate” pastor and historian Carl Christian Reindorf. While his baptismal name neatly obscures his Ghanaian identity, he was a remarkable leader and historian who, by openly challenging mission control, “gave Africans a voice and the ability to actively shape history.” He was at the same time indispensable to the survival and progress of the mission, as Heinz Hauser-Renner so ably recounts in his masterful article. As was so often the case, European missionaries resented Reindorf’s independent streak, misconstruing it as obstinacy. Three months before he died, at the age of eighty-three, they recommended that the Basel Mission suspend him from preaching and from the Holy Sacrament!
Each of the other essays in this issue—Timothy Yates’s assessment of David Bosch’s universal missiology; John Bowen’s sensitive recounting of ongoing ministry among the Maasai after Vincent Donovan left Tanzania in 1973; the autobiography of Harold Kurtz, whose life was permanently affected by his immersion into Ethiopian life and work beginning in 1955; and the legacies of Franz Mayr and Vincent J. McCauley—is inextricably connected with the great continent of Africa. And each in its own way attests to the aptness of the title chosen for the September 2005 issue of National Geographic: “Africa: Whatever You Thought, Think Again.”

Jonathan J. Bonk is executive director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, Connecticut, and editor of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research.