Sustaining Evangelical Christianity

In 1976, Byang H. Kato wrote,

In the African church’s search for theological identity, evangelicals have a great potential for keeping the church evangelical. Practically all the mission societies that have been working in Africa started out as evangelicals. Many of them are still evangelical. Most of the Protestant churches are still evangelical. If adequate leadership is produced now through missions and churches within the evangelical sphere, the church in Africa will have a proper biblical perspective to hand on to forthcoming generations of African Christians.[1]

This statement is the reason I believe that theological education is key to the future of the church in Africa and other parts of the world. When Kato wrote this in 1976, his dream was to see foundations for evangelical theology laid, such that future generations will not drift from it.

For the same reason, the Association of Evangelicals of Africa and Madagascar (AEAM) was formed in 1966.  Their goal was to “act as a service organization to promote the evangelical stance of the churches.” Both the AEAM and Kato believed that to achieve such a goal, the training of Africans had to be top priority. Kato said, “Widespread cooperation from evangelicals abroad will boost the cause of evangelical Christianity in Africa.” Unfortunately, Kato died shortly after he wrote these words.

The vision of Kato remains true today both for Africa and any mission context. If evangelical Christianity is to take root anywhere (like Africa), the training of nationals has to be top priority.  Yet, this is exactly where we encounter a problem. In the same article, Kato identified a problem area that remains today. When Kato wrote his article, he was struggling to see young Africans trained in order to provide a theologically sound future for the churches of Africa. This is where he met with resistance: Kato found that the promotion of any theology, liberal or evangelical, depended on available finances. He wrote,

Receiving money indiscriminately is one economic advantage of the ecumenical movement. For example, ecumenicals recently received $10,000 from Vatican City for organizing the fifth Assembly in Nairobi. The state church of Germany contributes large sums from its church-taxed funds to promote WCC programs.

Seeing the promotion of ecumenical theology through the availability of finances, he saw the need for evangelical North American churches to adjust their approach to missions in Africa. His suggestion remains true today:

Evangelical churches in North America should take their mission to Africa more seriously. North American churches contributed $393 million in 1972 in support of four thousand missionaries in Africa. By contrast, an appeal was launched by African church leaders in early 1973 to collect $1 million for theological education among the leadership of the ten million evangelical Christians in Africa. . . . Three years have passed, and the contributions from North America are still below $50,000.

This was not a picture that encouraged Kato. One may be tempted to think that this was only a problem in the years 1973-1976, but that is not so. It remains the problem today. It is easier for North American churches to spend more in support of missionaries than to invest in the training of nationals. Yes, sending missionaries can be seen as training of nationals, but this would be to miss Kato’s point. His point was that in addition to the presence of missionaries, Africans should be trained.  This would cost a fraction of what it costs to support missionaries, because these Africans hold the key to a stable evangelical African church. One can understand why he concluded;

How can a biblical evangelical theology be promoted in Africa if evangelicals do not catch the vision of developing African leadership in Africa? Just a tithe of the income of an average evangelical church in North America would be enough to put one student through three years of theological training in Africa.

Indeed, Kato was right. It is a good thing to send missionaries and spend millions of dollars to support them in Africa and other places. At the same time, the sending churches can adjust their mission focus such that there is also a push to train national leaders. This is the only way that evangelical Christianity will take root and remain. Looking at the African context, for example, evangelical Christianity is at a low percentage (17.7%). This is not due to lack of missionaries but the lack of well-trained Africans in Africa to promote such a theology.

There is definitely a need to rethink our mission strategies. There can be a balance between supporting missionaries and also making funds available to train nationals who will carry the flag of the gospel and reach the unreached.

Kato’s point that available finances promoted theology in Africa remains true. The widespread liberal theology found in African theology books is a result of funds made available for the training of Africans in liberal schools abroad. For this to be combated, evangelicals must necessarily care enough to invest in the training of nationals who will in turn promote evangelical theology in their various contexts. This can be done by bringing qualified Africans and training them in evangelical schools in America or more importantly, by training them in their own contexts.

Training Leaders International is a single-focused mission agency that seeks to promote evangelical Christianity by training national church leaders in biblical interpretation, theology, and expository preaching. This is done on site without removing the church leaders from their ministry contexts. This is one way to begin to meet the needs identified by Kato.

 


[1] The quotations here are taken from Byang H. Kato, “Theological Issues in Africa,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 133 (1976): 142-152.

When Statistics are Misleading – Part 2

Here is something else to consider: who is a Christian in these statistics? The statistics fail to explain their definition. Is one counted as a Christian because he or she says he is, or because there is evidence in the life of the individual that shows the presence of the Holy Spirit? Usually the numbers are based on self-proclaimed Christians rather than those who are truly converted. This is my rationale:

  • The countries with the highest percentage of Christians have a low percentage of evangelicals. Take, for example, Angola, in which 94.1% of the population are Christians but only 22.5% are evangelicals. Cameroon claims that 53% of the population is Christian but only 9% is evangelical. Rwanda boasts that 89.1% are Christians, but only 26.9% is evangelical. While the percentage of Christians is high, when looked at from an evangelical perspective, it is low (17.7% of the total population of Africa compared to the 48.8% who say they are Christians). The question is, are evangelicals serious enough about their values to be disturbed about this low percentage of evangelical Christians in Africa? Or, are we so misled by the statistics of growth that we assume all is well? It is time that when we hear the word “Christian” we should also ask, “Who is a Chrsitian?”
  • Statistics measure the external (numbers of Christians) but not the internal (the heart of the person). The high percentage of Christians in Africa does not quite fit with the evils that we have seen over the years. How can we explain the genocide in Rwanda which is almost 90% Christian? What about the wars of Angola (94% Christian), and the corruption in most of the African nations which have a high percentage of Christians? It seems that there is a discrepancy between being identified as a Christian and actually being a Christian. Statistics that only measure the external are good for human consumption but unhelpful for the kingdom work. We are misled by statistics that say all is well (external appearance of Christian growth) when all is really bad (internal nature of the heart).
  • Although Mandryk gives these high statistics on the growth of Christianity in Africa, in country after country he highlights the need for leadership development and the problem of corruption. The church continues to be permeated with false belief and ignorance of the Bible. Witchcraft and animistic practices continue to be a problem in the life of the church and individuals. Nominal Christianity is a problem for many African churches. Again, these problems beg the question of definition. “Who is a Christian according to these statistics?”
  • The need for theological education and leadership development raises a question about the statistics. If 48.77% of Africans are Christians, with Africa being the fastest growing context for evangelical Christianity, why is there such a shortage of evangelical leaders and teachers? What has the Church been growing on? Operation World emphasizes the need for theological education as key for the well-being of the church in Africa. So, although there is supposed numerical growth, there remains a need for solid theological foundations to be laid for the Church. We see that the percentage of Christians does not reflect the theological context of the African Church. Yes, 48.77% of Africans is Christian, but how healthy is their theological context?

Statistics on the growth of Christianity in Africa are amazing at first but are actually misleading. They tell the story superficially. Statistics look at the outward growth of institutions, but what is needed is the inward growth of the individual Christians. The question is not what percentage of Africans say that they are Christians, but rather what percentage of Africans is truly born again? When we focus on the nurturing of the heart, and on the need for firm theological foundations for the Church, we begin to see that statistics do not matter so much as having healthy churches in Africa, filled with God-fearing people, taught by God-fearing leaders, eager to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who do not have it.

When Statistics are Misleading – Part 1

Statistics do not tell the whole story, and can even tell the wrong story.  It is estimated that 48.77% of Africans  (503,742,508) are Christians.[1] Of this 48.77%, 17.7% are evangelicals (182,442,247 people), 13.7% are charismatic (141,357,535 people), and 5.8% are Pentecostal (59,803,540 people). Between 1900 to 2010, the number of Christians in Africa grew from 9.1% (7.5 million) to 48.77% (503,742,508) of the population. The figures are even more spectacular for evangelical growth, from 1.6 million (1.5%) in 1900 to 182 million (17.7%) in 2010. This gives Africa the largest evangelical population of any continent.  It is said that “African evangelicals are increasing at a faster rate than any other continent” (Mandryk, 33).

Other readings on the growth of Christianity in Africa confirm Mandryk’s analysis. One can conclude from these statistics that Christianity is taking deep root in Africa, and that therefore the African church is strong. Yet, the reality on the ground (the spiritual nature of the African churches) and other statistics paint a different picture, and raise serious questions about those statistics on the growth of Christianity in Africa.

A comment often made about the church in Africa is that it (the African Church) is a mile wide and an inch deep. There is truth to this statement. For example it is surprising that the statistics above are true, and yet, “Africa has 13 of the world’s 20 least-evangelized countries by percentage” (Mandryk, 38). So, although the growth of Christianity is apparently vast, there is a disconnect between that growth and the mission of the church to disciple nations (Matt. 28:18-20). The success of the growth of the church in Africa needs to be measured not only numerically but evangelistically as well. As the church grows, is there growth in the mission of the church to reach the unreached of Africa?


[1] The statistics in this post are taken from Jason Mandryk, Operation World: The Definitive Prayer Guide to Every Nation, 7th ed. (Colorado Springs: CO, 2010).

Biblical Theology: A Necessary Course for Theological Training on the Mission Field

In some mission contexts, there are pastors and believers who know a lot of the Bible. They can quote portions of it very well. However, one is often amazed at their failure to see how the Bible as a whole fits together. These pastors are serious about their ministry of preaching and teaching. Yet, something is lacking in their understanding of scriptures. Portions are taught well, but there is sometimes no clear picture of how the whole Bible fits together. As a result, Christians go without knowledge of how God has revealed himself throughout Scripture.

 

It seems that biblical theology would be helpful and would enrich their teaching ministries. Whenever students see that the whole Bible fits together neatly, they are amazed and happy and want to know more. They want to know more about God having their own nation in his plan from the very beginning (Gen 12:3). It makes more sense to them that Jesus Christ did not just appear on the scene one day but that his coming was in fulfillment of God’s promise of a Messiah. They want to know more about how God faithfully kept the promise he made to Abraham (Gen 12:3) until its fulfillment in Christ (Gal 3:7-14). In light of this, Biblical theology, as part of the curriculum for training pastors overseas, is non-negotiable.

 

Here is a story that illustrates the importance of biblical theology in the training of pastors overseas. In 1987, I started attending a Bible school in Africa. My knowledge of the Bible was very limited. Infact, I did not own a Bible and the only Bible I had read was a Gideon New Testament. Interestingly, I had previously played a significant role in teaching and preaching in several churches, despite this poor preparation.

 

On day in my OT Prophets class I realized that there were things that I had read in the NT. This was most pronounced in Isaiah. I wondered how that could be. In my mind, I saw no connection between the Old and New Testament. I knew that two testaments made up the Bible but I did not know how the content fit together.

 

So, wanting to be enlightened, I asked the teacher to explain how Isaiah relates to the NT. I remember clearly her response: She said, “. . . where you will live and work, you will not need to answer that question.” In other words, she did not see any need to explain to me how the OT relates to the NT. She was wrong in thinking that the context of my supposed future ministry was so remote that such a question was never going to be asked. This is how I know:

 

Fast forward 8 years (1995). I was back at the same school teaching. One weekend, I traveled with a student to a village church to observe him teach and preach. During Sunday School, he taught on “Jesus as the only way to God” and that no one will be saved without trusting Christ. One old man sat at the very back, chewing his gums and shaking his head in disagreement the whole time. When it was time for questions, the old man asked this: if salvation is only in Jesus Christ, what does that say about our ancestors, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and all the other people that we know God used. They did not have Jesus then. Will they not be in heaven? The student was unable to answer the question. On my part, I wished my teacher from 8 years before was there to hear an old uneducated man asks the most pertinent question about the Bible. His question was a question about biblical theology. Fortunately, I had already thought it through, and could answer the man’s question.

 

In teaching and training pastors, it is important to have in our curriculum a course on biblical theology that will help them see how the Bible fits together, how God has progressively revealed himself through out the history of the Bible, and how the Old Testament points to the New. They need to see how their own faith is part of a history going back to the very beginning. If these matters are not taught, we leave behind a church that is not fully informed about the whole counsel of God.