Doing Theology in Today’s Africa – Issues and Trends in Nigeria
Since the mid-1950s, African theologians like John Mbiti, Edward Fashole-Luke, Desmond Tutu, Vincent Mulago and Harry Sawyerr, Bolaji Idowu, Byang Kato and others have made it their mission to bring the gospel to bear on Africans’ lives and thought-worlds — to make Christianity indigenous on a continent that first heard the gospel in New Testament times. It would therefore be a misleading oversimplification to state that Germany, America, Britain and Africa respectively created corrupted, corrected and copied theology. Africa has something meaningful to offer. This provides supportive evidence for a realistic assessment of the issues and trends of the Church in Africa.
The term contextualization could be defined as simplifying, clarifying and giving ownership to the Bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a specific community of faith. If the system for doing so is therefore only understood by the stranger or alien, then one has closed the channels for incarnation of the Word. The researcher was impressed when he visited several churches in Lagos, Nigeria during a field study and noted areas of contextualization. The Anglican and Aladura churches have some programmes in the native language. Even the Catholic church is no longer conducting the service in Latin but English. African instruments were used and African choruses were ministered. Dancing and clapping are not uncommon. An assessment of Christianity from the Portuguese explorations in the fifteenth century to the middle of the seventh century reveals that there was a relative failure on the part of the missionaries in the presentation of the gospel. They did not take the culture of the people into consideration. The Roman Catholics demanded monogamy from their converts, but they did not show how the unwanted wives could be resettled. Christianity was portrayed as a European invention. Usry and Keener (1996) provocatively titled their text Black man’s religion: can Christianity be Afrocentric? It is so titled, not of course to imply that non-Blacks are excluded, but to point out that biblical Christianity is a Black religion as much as a white one. The issue of slavishly accepting or rather adopting any thing from the west should be treated with caution. The article, Halloween in a cross-cultural perspective, is a passionate account of the vulnerability of children which the Harry Porter series is taking advantage of. The new repacking of witchcraft in a fictitious novel is attractive to children (and adults) since it is user friendly.
Schreiter (1985) presents an excellent and very relevant text that clearly teaches how one can understand culture so that the gospel message takes root. Ownership of the Bible must be given to a community of faith in a given place. For instance, an Igbo and by extension, an African, will clearly understand the humiliation Christ went through since the writer clearly expresses that to humiliate someone who is either popular or rich is worse than to kill him, a message which the African understands. The cultural sensitivity of Dan Wooding in Blind faith in cross-cultural perspective, Part 1, enabled him to reasonably establish intercultural rapport in the men’s breakfast meeting at the Pasadena First Church of the Nazarene. In responding to this invitation and willingly giving generously, an individual eventually received five fold merely out of his blind faith rather than a display of supernatural acts like speaking in tongues.
Boer (2003) identifies two major issues which are affecting the Nigerian church; “the first is corruption which has penetrated every level of society…” (Boer 2003, 31). One must however note that corruption is an issue facing both developing and developed nations. The church continues to be guilty of many of the kinds of corruption which characterize the society as a whole, an issue that shocked Dr. Eze as he observes in his article Worldview issues on corruption…. He realistically argues however that “the survey of CPI (Corruption Perceptions Index) on the levels of corruption in countries they researched is not based on hard empirical data… (but) on the experience and perceptions of those who are most directly confronted with the realities of corruption” (Eze 2004, 1).
The second issue facing Christian spirituality according to Boer is Islam. The subject of his book Nigeria’s decade of blood, vol.1 is Christian-Muslim relations. “If corruption has demonized Nigeria”, Boer argues “Christian-Muslim relations have bedeviled it” (Boer 2003, 1). He steers Christianity and Islam into positive channels for national building and suspects that there is a great risk that Nigerians will grow tired of religious riots and either return to a sanitized form of traditional religion or to an African version of secularism. Every Christian should read his text and note that Christians in western nations are now fighting the very secularism they produced through their infighting.
African Traditional Religion
Any realistic attempt to do theology in Africa must take into consideration the influence of African Traditional Religion in the lives of the people. Dr. Eze did a very relevant study of several manifestations of God among the tribes of Lardin Garbes. The assumption that God was introduced to Africa by the Europeans is a misleading oversimplification. In addition to the family and village deities, the Kamwe people believe in a transcendent and universal God. Dr. Eze (2004) argues that Africans knew about the Creator or the Supreme God inspite of their polytheistic understanding and used his grandfather, Mr. Muogbo Eze as supportive evidence. Even though they have the faulty notion that He is far away thus justifying appeasing the lesser deities to reach him, the concept of the way to the Creator is still present among them. Paul uses the belief in the unknown God to minister to his audience. Christians should also use this concept of the way to the Creator already present in the worldview of the Kamwe to present Jesus to them. God amazingly works within human cultures (irrespective of different language, race or ethnicity) to unfold His plans. This is in consonance with the philosophy behind the phrase ‘redemptive analogy’ which is so-called because it facilitates human understanding of redemption within human culture. Its God-given purpose is to precondition the mind in a culturally significant way to recognize Jesus as Messiah. Outside of Scripture, it appears that God’s general revelation is the source of redemptive analogies worldwide. It is relatively easier for one to use the supernatural orientation of the African to win him to Christ.
Growth of cities
Perhaps the most urgent issue facing the church in Africa today is the rapid growth of cities. The clash of cultures, and religions, desperate poverty, AIDS, horrific numbers of street children, pressures on traditional morality, problems of temporary and unstable work, and the lack of training for what few jobs there are brought home to the reader in moving and perceptive accounts of the people with whom Shorter has direct contact. A case in point is the city of Lagos whose population of over twelve million is more than that of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Gambia combined.
Numerical growth of the church
At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was estimated that about three percent of the people on the African continent professed to be Christians and that this number significantly increased to about fifty percent towards the end of the century. There is every reason to believe that the church will continue to record significant growth. Ajah (1996) even attributes this ‘swollen membership’ to the church’s wise use of music which is seen as an outstanding highway into the hearts of most Africans. All the churches visited by the researcher during the field research were packed full. During the researcher’s stay in Nigeria (2002-2005), it was observed that churches with more musical instruments and skilled instruments generally attracted more worshipers than those with few.
A contemporary trend to avoid suffering at all cost has led to the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ which stresses faith in claiming blessings as they name them. At the risk of oversimplification and distortion, this gospel teaches, among other things that:
1. Every Christian is created to be materially and financially buoyant.
2. Christians who are in a state of prolonged financial predicament are ignorant of God’s design.
3. For the manifestation of the reversal of breakthrough, the aspirant must demonstrate his expectancy by blessing the ‘man of God’ first.
Christians are therefore encouraged not to accept suffering as their portion. Anyone who is suffering is either living in sin or is not standing on the promises of God for his showers of blessing. This teaching was reflected in the Pentecostal church visited during the field study. The number of offerings raised in the Pentecostal and Anglican churches was astonishing.
Training of church leaders
The church in Africa has made amazing progress during the twentieth-century. It has grown from just a handful of training institutions to hundreds of seminaries. This is an indication that the African church in the twenty-first century is going to be much more educated church. In the churches covered in the field study, the researcher observed that the pastors of the Aladura and Pentecostal Churches visited, Superior Evangelist E.M. Babatunde and Rev. Mike Ohiorenoya, are doctorate holders. It is indubitable that Catholic and Anglican priests are academically trained.
The role of women
The central message of the Christian mission is that of salvation, and by implication, liberation. With this message, the church should take cognizance of the ‘imbalance’ in the male-dominated African culture. In the second part of The agony of the ‘passion’ in cultural lenses, Dr. Eze (2004) analyses the concept of a theology that is culturally driven. He realistically argues that any image of manhood outside the Messiah is culturally driven and misleading. The church should learn the African concept of muntu, that is, person. Societal changes demand that the church make some modifications in women’s role. The dynamics which women now exhibit in the wider society and in the Aladura church visited in particular have challenged the subordinate roles offered by some other churches. The researcher observes the role of women at West Africa Theological Seminary where they serve in very important capacities such as Registrar, Missions Director, Ag. Director of Spiritual Formation and lecturers. More and more women are going to become pastors as more seminaries are opening doors to more female students and lecturers. With the ascension of women into leadership positions, perhaps the church will see a gentler and softer style of church leadership.
Mediocre spiritual growth
Indubitably, a visible trend is a continuous and explosive growth of the African church. However, there is a very big challenge associated with it. This has already started manifesting itself in contemporary Christianity. The problem is numerical without a corresponding spiritual growth. For instance, the dressing of church members, if not checked, would lead to serious problem in the church. In the Pentecostal church visited, the researcher was so happy when he was moved from the seat he was occupying to a special seat reserved for visitors since the dressing of the lady sitting in front of him was indecent. She was putting on a bandless trousers which exposed a considerable portion of her pink underwear. The preaching was very loud and emotional but devoid of substance. The church must resist mediocrity with the same commitment that it resists compromise. The researcher observed that the churches visited did not have a very clear discipleship training programme. Winning souls for Christ without a systematic discipleship programme is to some extent equivalent to begetting sons for the devil.
In several churches today, the service is incomplete without a few prophecies, a healing or two, and a few demons cast out. Churches and ministries ‘compete’ with the most dramatic advertisements such as ‘Divine Explosion’, ‘Mountain of miracles’, ‘Supernatural sensation’ and similar expressions. Though it is good to stress the supernatural, the African church must realize that the daily occurrence of miracles is not the focus of the Bible. Building the church in Africa around the miraculous may tend to lead to a wrong emphasis. The primary commission of Jesus was to preach the gospel. Leaning on the miraculous in every service could therefore lead to fanaticism and deviation from the truth. In the Celestial Church of Christ visited during the field work, the researcher was called out of the service and taken to the back of the outside altar where visions and revelations, mostly untrue, from a prophetess about him were penned by a recorder. For instance, the prophetess observed that the researcher’s wife sometimes suffered from stomach ache. The question in one’s mind then is: how many normal women do not normally suffer from bellyache?
The education of the church is steadily improving. There are many Bible colleges and seminaries in Nigeria alone. Many of the universities and colleges of education have departments of religious studies. However, as more and more Africans are exposed to re-packed western ideas, African Christianity should fight very hard to avoid the anti-supernatural rationalism of the western church. Starting with the ‘Age of Reason’, the western church has gradually been more and more influenced by an anti-supernatural bias which arises from rationalism. Even though this has not yet really become a serious problem, a serious note of caution is that African Christians need to balance faith with reason.
In an attempt to ‘protect’ the Gospel, European missionaries under contextualized the message. As the church is now becoming more African, care must be taken so that the message is not over contextualized which could lead to syncretism (the mixing of religious beliefs). For instance, the overstress on visions and dreams in the Aladura church. Contextualization without syncretism is one of the major challenges facing the African Church in this century. The typical African, unlike his western counterpart has a supernaturalistic orientation. The African society gives more attention to religion while the west emphasizes on economics and material culture. One of the reasons why Pentecostalism has been well received in Africa is because many of the basic tenets are consistent with the African worldview. Some of these includes the supernatural, demons/evil spirits, divine healing, and emotional and physical expressions of worship. Dr. Eze clearly reveals that the Kamwe/Mubi in Nigeria (including Christians) go to animist priests. As he noted, “felt needs for supernatural power for solving certain problems that defy solution still drive people to animist priests” (Eze 2005, 5). The lesson to be learnt is the attitude of the Christian community that prayed for rain (with God honouring). This is a clear manifestation of the fact that the Christian God is alive or active in the affairs of men. If theology in Africa is to be meaningful, this point must be seriously noted otherwise the church will not be relevant and would be like Rip Van Wrinkle, the legendary character in Gulliver’s Travels who slept for decades only to wake up to find a completely changed world.
An unfortunate tendency within Christianity throughout church history is that whenever Christianity has achieved the majority status within a culture, it has become intolerant and sometimes abusive of other religions. The Crusades in the 10th century onwards could testify to this. The thin line between evangelism and tolerance of other religions has been a tightrope which Christians have not always walked very well. Several writers encourage tolerance between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. Although Boer for instance blamed the latter for most of the religious conflicts, he also argues that there are some instances in which the former sometimes started later riots. The essence of his message to Christians and Muslims is respectively wholism and pluralism. Christians need to repent of their flirtations with the language and concepts of secularism in an environment shared with Muslims and move away from it by developing a more comprehensive worldview. Muslims, on the other hand, need to update their sense of pluralism. Nigeria is marked by a pluralistic situation that no longer allows the domination of one religion over all the people. Boer argues that the situation calls for changes in the attitude of Christians and Muslims ? they need to move from hostility to respect.
THE OUTLOOK OF THEOLOGY IN AFRICA/OPPORTUNITIES
Any attempt to do theology in Africa must seriously take note of the afore-mentioned discussion. From the foregoing, it could be argued that not all the issues and trends are negative. Although care should be taken to avoid a church that is heavily inclined towards rationalism, prosperity, syncreticism, to mention but a few, the African church must be commended for its conscious effort to contextualize the Gospel and emphasize on training of its clergy. However, the rest of the paper further discusses several opportunities which must be wisely utilized for theology to be meaningful in Africa.
The age of the church
A significant proportion of the contemporary church is made up of young people. The estimated average age of churches visited during the field work is thirty. There is a possibility that this trend is not going to change. The church in Africa will continue to be a young church. This age group is going to continue to give to it much energy and enthusiasm. It will enable the church to have the strength to evangelize and impact the society. However, it could also make the church more susceptible to fanaticism, intolerance and unwise decisions. One must not forget that Nigerian proverb which states that the child on top of the tree cannot see what the elder sitting on the ground can see.
The church and the theological school
An increase in the number of theological institutions is a welcome development. However, the church and theological school have to work as a team to impact society since “the position between the two has almost become that of the church versus the theological school” (Turaki 1991, 31). Turaki evaluates areas of strengths and weaknesses in the assumed roles for each, and the theological implications of the dichotomy, together with the resulting competition, isolationism and assertions of autonomy to doing theology.
It is necessary for theologians to revisit the curriculum in the seminary. It is questioned whether African seminaries should review, retrieve the history of western thought and the western church or instead launch into the depths of their own culture and tradition and correlate Scripture and tradition with African culture, roots, sources and riches. There are areas where the west could also learn from Africa. It is against this background that it is observed that “instead of competing or claiming superiority for various approaches, we need to exchange and share experiences, we need to understand one another and learn from each other” (Turaki 1991, 29). It is reasonably argued that, contrary to popular thought, Africa has had a definitive and significant effect on the development of the ecumenical movement in general and its mission made in particular. It was against this background that the Edinburgh Conference in 1910 introduced the idea of the whole Gospel by the whole church to the world.
Emphasis on justice
Justice is one of the most fundamental concepts of Christianity (and Judaism). It is a theme that must receive more emphasis in the African church. A society cannot be healthy without justice. In 1995, a group of Nigerian leaders became concerned about the injustice in the Nigerian society. This led to the Congress on Christian Ethics in Nigeria (COCEN) which took place in Abuja in November 1997. It was stressed that Christians are also guilty of ethical violations. Christian principles must be properly contextualized for Africa. There must be a clear understanding of the close link between religion and social/political issues, and faith and justice. The social teaching of the Church must not only to be studied and known, but also applications to the myriad problems facing Africa must be formulated and tried.
Respect for individual human rights
The rights of individuals must be protected. Refusing to grant a person a job because he or she is from the ‘wrong’ ethnic group is a violation of that person’s fundamental human rights. The researcher has observed for instance that Christians don’t normally come out in a unified force to clean the environment when the government gives the command every last Saturday in Freetown and Lagos. Night vigils can be conducted without necessarily using loud speakers that would disturb the peace of citizens who are resting.
Assistance to the needy
The teachings of the church should not unnecessarily emphasize on giving from congregation to the church but the other way round. One of the clearest teachings and examples of Jesus was related to compassion for the poor. It must be viewed as a fundamental responsibility of every culture to take care of its weak and needy members. Just giving a little money to a poor person must not satisfy Christians. Christianity must be involved in identifying the causes of poverty and addressing these problems. God has not called all Christians to be rich. Prosperity teachers must take note. However, He has called us to help meet the needs of the poor. Helping the needy require adequate housing is not just a governmental responsibility but also a responsibility of the church. The researcher was impressed when an appeal was made to assist the poor in the Aladura church visited. Free computer training was offered which enabled several youths to be empowered. The entire congregation was fed after the service. The researcher learnt that this is a regular occurrence.
A biblical fact of which theology must take account is that if God indeed is concerned with all peoples, then there is a theological continuity between the people of Israel and others (including Africa).
If the Christian faith is to have any real effect on African life, it must accept and address the spirit world. A Christianity that has no place for the supernatural speaks in alien tones. The culture of Africans must be realistically studied if any meaningfully impact could be made. Kalu brilliantly quotes P.O. Ajah’s summary of the expectations of the theology of the African church :
African theologians should programme towards realizing answers to what African theology has to say concerning witchcraft, black magic, demonic influences, occultism, spiritually induced sicknesses, spiritual guidance through divination or future predictions, divine healing, deliverance from and casting out of demons and evil spirits, appreciation of cultural values, liberation of the oppressed, relief from poverty and deprivation, human rights, democratization, ozo title and secret societies, reincarnation, death and the resurrection, the last judgement (Kalu 1978, 123).
Books and articles
Ajah, Paul. 1996. An Approach to African theology. Uburu : Truth and Life Publications.
Boer, Jan H. 2003. Nigeria’s decades of blood, Vol. 1. Belleville, Ontario : Essense Publishing.
Eze, Herbert. 2004. The agony of the “Passion” in cultural lenses (part two).
Available (online) : http://www.assistnews.net/stories/2004/s04040016.htm. 9th March 2005.
_____________. Halloween in a cross-cultural perspective. Available (online):
http:www.assistnews.net/stories/2004/s04040016.htm. Accessed 11th March 2005.
Kalu, Agwu. 1978. The lights and shades of Christianity in West Africa. Umuahia : Charity Press.
McCain, Danny. 2000. The church in Africa in the 21st century. Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology.
19(2) : 105-130.
Schreiter, Robert J. 1985. Constructing local theologies. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
Turaki, Yusufu. 1991. The quest for cooperation, renewal and relevance in theological education. Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology 10(1). 29-38.
Utuk, Efiong S. 1989. A reassessment of the African contribution to the development of the ecumenical
movement : Edinburgh, 1910. Africa Theological Journal 8(2) : 85-103.
Celestial Church of Christ, Mafoluku, Parish I, Wulemotu Agbo Road, Off International Airport Road,
Mafoluku, Oshodi, Lagos, Nigeria. St. Paul’s Anglican Church, 1-9 St. Paul’s Church Street, Mafoluku,
Oshodi, Lagos, Nigeria. Visited by researcher on Sunday 1st May, 2005.
Church of God Mission International Inc., Victory Miracle Centre, 10 Oludegun Street, Off International
Airport Road, Mafoluku, Lagos, Nigeria. Visited by researcher on Sunday 10th April 2005.
St. Jude Catholic Church, 47 Old Ewu Road, Mafoluku, Oshodi, Lagos, Nigeria. St. Paul’s Anglican Church,
1-9 St. Paul’s Church Street, Mafoluku, Oshodi, Lagos, Nigeria. Visited by researcher on Sunday 24th
St. Paul’s Anglican Church, 1-9 St. Paul’s Church Street, Mafoluku, Oshodi, Lagos, Nigeria. Visited by
researcher on Sunday 17th April, 2005.
© Oliver Harding 2008
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Doing Theology in Today’s Africa – Issues and Trends in Nigeria