The Challenge Of Developing A Strong Indigenous Church Planting Movement In Africa

From the picturesque thatch-roofed villages to the bustling metropolises Africa is a study in contrasts.  Africa is the continent where the number one killer is still mosquito-born malaria1 yet it is the place where the first heart-transplant2 was successfully carried out.  Twenty-first century Africa is dominated by Islam3 in the north and Christianity across the central and southern regions yet African Traditional Religion4 remains the primary theological grid.

Challenge of Urbanization:

Robert Moffat once told young David Livingstone, "In the north I have seen in the morning sun, the smoke of a thousand villages where no missionary has ever been."  That statement lit a fire in Livingstone, he would spend most of his adult life pushing across the southern and central regions of Africa with the gospel of Christ.  In Livingstone’s Africa of the 1800’s there were a few cities in coastal regions, but the majority of Africans lived in rural village settings.

Not so today.  Africa is the most rapidly urbanizing continent in the world.  The rapid urbanization of Africa is producing great challenges to the social and cultural fabric of African society.  Though traditional village life remains a large segment of Africa society, it is steadily declining as people move from villages to towns and cities at a rate of 3.5% per year.5

Over one-third of sub-Saharan Africans currently live in urban areas and in the next thirty years that figure may swell to over half the continent’s population.6 The United Nations Population Fund projects that sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population will double between 2000 and 2030.  Of these people the bulk of urban dwellers in Africa will reside in cities with a population of 200,000 or less.7

The face of Africa is changing before our very eyes!  With urbanization comes the challenge of reaching new and rapidly growing cities with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Consider the urban challenges for the African church planter:

First, Africans in urban settings quickly develop an appetite for material things.  Second is the disintegration of the traditional African family structure.  Urban pressures on the traditional African family is immense.  Instead of the focus being on family relationships the focus shifts to the demands of a job and the family unit begins to break up, traditional family connections and responsibilities begin to disintegrate.  Third, with urbanization comes exposure to education, philosophies and ideas from the western world.  Urbanized Africans increasingly embrace a plurality of ideas relating to God. These ideas are often syncretized in one way or another with African Traditional Religious beliefs.  Finally, over time urban communities buy into the idea that everything is relative, that there is no absolute truth.

Challenge of strengthening weak existing churches:

Modern missiologists claims that Africa has the fastest growing church in the world.  Yet a careful look at that claim gives cause for great concern.

Consider the findings of a recent study done among 250 church plants with the Baptist Union in South Africa:8

  • Over one-third of these churches are pastored by “remote control,” meaning the pastor does not stay locally with their church, but either travels there on Sundays/weekends or only visits two Sundays or less per month.
  • Less than half of the pastors believe that preaching verse-by-verse through God’s word is the best food for their flock. Over half say they would rather choose what to preach along more subjective guidelines or just preach evangelistically.
  • Only one-third of the pastors say they are sure the majority of congregants have a good understanding of the gospel.
  • Over half of these churches still do not have a capable pastor or leader who has received or is receiving adequate training (even if it is non-formal).

Sadly here in Africa this is not an isolated problem.  A leader in one of the older evangelical missions in Zambia shared with me that their denomination has 700 churches across Zambia but only 33 of those churches have pastors (21%)9.  Our own movement has far too often failed to produce reproducing indigenous African churches.  It could be that the legacy of fundamental missions in Africa will be church plants that are dependent, unproductive and slowly dying off.

In his book, The Theological Task of the Church in Africa, African theologian Tite Tienou writes, “Africa has the fastest growing Church in the world; it may also have the fastest declining Church! Numerical growth far outpaces spiritual depth and maturity in African Christianity”10.  Tienou later wrote, “I consider the deepening and the nourishing of the faith of those who identify themselves as Christians [in Africa] to be of the utmost urgency”11

What is the answer?

One theory for developing strong indigenous churches in Africa is for the American church to financially support African missionary pastors for a minimal amount each month. The popular line of reasoning is that this will provide for the gospel to be preached and churches to be established across Africa.  The sad reality is that many of these churches simply join the ranks of the theologically weak that already abundantly exist on the continent.

While in the short-term the gospel may be preached and a church established, the majority of these churches become “terminal churches”12 (Heb 5:12).  Their congregations never own the ministry, the people become spectators instead of participants.  All of the teaching and discipleship is left up to the missionary pastor.  New converts are not expected to “teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).  One church planter in Africa observed, “These churches are like seedless grapes - delightful to taste but without reproductive power. They are neutered churches, delightful and productive in their own immediate context but without the ability to be reproductive.” (VanRheenan)

If the African church is to take up the mantle of planting reproducing churches in the cities, towns and villages across Africa, a generation of theologically trained African leaders must be prepared for the task. “There is an increasing need, especially as the process of urbanization continues and standards of education rise, for Christian ministers to exercise in the teeming cities of the developing world a systematic expository preaching ministry, ‘to proclaim  the Word . . . with all teaching.’”13

The training needed to prepare the next generation of leaders in Africa must take three forms:  Formal, Non-formal and Informal.  Formal training takes place in a structured classroom setting.  Non-formal training is deliberately organized for the purpose of educating through experience.  Informal training uses life activities as the basis for training in mentoring relationships.  Among the rural people of Africa the majority of training is done through non-formal and informal methods.  Though some formal training is carried out, the lack of access to books, materials and the often poor educational background of the people is a barrier to formal training.

Our commitment to a church planting movement must include strengthening existing churches by providing continuing training for the current generation of pastors leading these churches.

Second we must commit to training the next generation of African pastors and missionaries by providing a rich word-saturated classroom experience with real-time ministry opportunities in the context of mentoring relationships.  This is the educational and ministry goal of Central Africa Baptist College.  Our burden is to prepare men for ministry across Africa who have a biblical philosophy of pastoral ministry and New Testament passion for the fulfillment of the Great Commission.  We desire to train men who will plant “germinal” churches across Africa - churches that will become reproducing fellowships of believers.

Africa yet needs missionaries who will pioneer and take the gospel to unreached areas many of which exist in the lower portion of the 10/40 window which runs through North Africa.  But the long-term answer for Africa’s spiritual need is African missionary church-planters who have been equipped for the task, sent by African churches that sacrifice to carry the gospel to these needy regions.

If we are to see a truly indigenous church planting movement across Africa we must commit to the theological training of God-called African leaders.

1 Malaria: A Reemerging Disease in Africa.

2 Christian Bernard performs Worlds’ First Heart Transplant.

3 Islamic Countries in Africa.

4 African Traditional Religion.

5 The Challenges of Urbanization in Africa.

6 Urbanization in Sub-Saharan Africa.

7 State of the World Population.

8 Launching Church Strengthening Movements in Africa, Tim Cantrell, EMQ, October 2006

9 Personal interview with missionary leader of the Evangelical Church in Zambia, 2003

10 Tienou, Tite. 1998. “The Theological Task of the Church in Africa. Issues in African Christian Theology.  Nairobi, Kenya: East Africa Educational Publishers Ltd.   Quoted in “Launching Church Strengthening Movements in Africa”, Tim Cantrell, EMQ October 2006.

11 Tienou, Tite. 2001. “The State of the Gospel in Africa.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 37(2): 154-162, Quoted in ‘Launching Church Strengthening Movements in Africa,’ Cantrell, Tim. 2006. Evangelical Missions Quarterly.

12 Van Rheenan, Gailyn. 1996. “Missions: Biblical Foundations & Contemporary Strategies.” Zondervan Publishing House: 148-149.

13 Stott, John. “Guard the Gospel:  The Message of II Timothy,” p. 109.  Quoted in lecture notes by Dr. Steve Hankins, Central Africa Baptist College. 2008.

Written by Philip Hunt, Used by Permission of Frontline Magazine