Why African Christianity is "a mile wide and an inch deep"

I bristle every time I hear someone make this statement, “African Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep.”

  1. So-called “Christianity” everywhere could be labeled shallow. I don’t think “Christianity” that happens to be located in Africa has a corner on the shallow market.
  2. Examples cited are often comparing apples and oranges – e.g. seminary students in the West to the uneducated churchgoer in Africa.
  3. The underlying assumption is that depth seems to be measured on certain intellectual articulations of “sacred” – especially Reformed – theologies. I’ll take lifestyle Christianity over intellectualized faith any day.
  4. The depth of faith I have seen in many Africans – East and West – puts any other Christianity I’ve seen to shame – especially the petty Christianity I’ve seen portrayed by so many “deep theologians” of the West.

I sometimes laugh (or cry?) when I hear Americans say that they have come here “to help strengthen the faith of the Africans.” I think to myself, “my friend, you have no idea. I hope you pay enough attention to let the African saints show you what deep faith really looks like.”

Having stated that strong caveat, I do think there is a reason Christianity hasn’t taken root to the depth that it could have. Bottom line: I think we have tried to grow the Gospel on the imported the rocks of Western and modernist cultures and have neglected the fertile soil of the African cultures. My mind was going in several directions at this point when I read Mark at Under the Baobab Tree’s review of David Smith’s Mission After Christendom by David Smith. I’ll pull out a few quotes, but you’d do well to read the whole post

. . . the modern missionary movement of the last 200 years has been very much tied to Christendom – Europe and North America – and the modernist worldview . . .

. . . Missions were from the western church to the heathen nations, who were seen as backward and in need of the religion and civilisation of the west. As such, they often went hand in hand with colonial power and ideology, sometimes with the justification that “the heathens get saved, and in return we get their natural resources”. . .

. . . The main message of the book is that when mission is strongly tied to christendom and modernism (or to any one particular culture), the message it spreads is a poor version of Christianity, . . .

The best form of Christianity:

is . . . as for the Saxons in ninth-century Europe, a mass movement toward Christianity resulted not in the abandonment of traditional culture, but in its revitalisation. . . [emphasis mine.]

. . . reflects a dynamic inculturation of the gospel among a people whose world-view is strikingly different from that of other churches . . . which simply adopted imported Western patterns of spirituality and worship. . .

. . . “We no longer want you to come and teach us the Bible. We want you to come and read the Bible together with us”. . .

The Gospel will always critique the elements of a culture that are bent away from God’s intentions and distort the image of God that humans bear. Unfortunately, many of the critiques that came in the name of the gospel were simply against things with which Westerners were either unfamiliar or uncomfortable. As a result, many of the Christianities in Africa became schizophrenic. On the one hand, we have the “church world” where we can say and sing all the right things. On the other hand, we have the rest of the world which we know to be true from our basic worldviews. Sometimes the two worlds never met.

If we truly understand the contexts of Scripture, we will see that God’s Word has always been presented in the language and images that resonate with the worldviews with which they come in contact. (Andrew Walls and Kwame Bediako show us how this was done in the ear of the early church.)

A couple clarifications:

I don’t ever want to diminish the self-sacrifice and compassion of the self-sacrificing, pioneer missionaries, but I do wish that there had been more cultural awareness and appreciation for where African cultures reflected the image of God. There are many examples of missionaries who did this brilliantly.

This is also not to deny that there are many gross distortions of the Gospel here. But the bottom line is that African cultures and many manifestations of African Christianity have a lot to offer the West when it comes to deeply rooted faith.

This is a subject I’m bound to return to many times.

16 thoughts on “Why African Christianity is "a mile wide and an inch deep"

  1. steph says:

    I couldn’t agree more that the faith of non Western, non intellectualised Christians is far deeper and more intense than that of the scrapping high brow theologians of the west, bitching over details in dogma and theological interpretation – stuff to which Jesus would have turned the other cheek.

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  3. Rombo says:

    Ever come across this particular law of average:

    “then there was the man who drowned crossing the stream with an average depth of six inches.”

    It’s what scrolls above my head often when people are counting down statistics about Africa.

    I particularly like that you’ve discounted something as fundamental as a supposed “like with like” comparison between seminary students in the global west and in the global south.

    There’s a story that I heard Kwame Bediako tell more than once about a rural ghanian woman who composed some of the most spiritually profound hymns he had ever come across. He’s written about it, I’m certain.

    I used to be of the school of thought that we ought in the first instance to reconsider what measuring tools we use. Now I just wonder why we’re so keen to compare and contrast and to declare the one superior and the other inferior.

    Thank you for talking about this, though. It’s important.

  4. Sean says:

    I’ve been having an afternoon of looking at blogs while it rains & was fascinated to read yours in conjuntion with Arnau Van Wyngaard’s blog at http://missionissues.wordpress.com/2008/11/24/celebrating-the-gift-to-serve/

    “When we were through and we had had lunch, I could barely contain my emotions. I look at the church of today and see how they struggle with deep theological questions. And then I look at these people, content with what they have, with no concern at all about the deep theological questions church leaders are discussing, merely doing what they believe God has called them to do. And, as far as I can see, they are much happier than most Christian leaders I know.”

    I say great job to both of you for thinking through issues like this and allowing others to not be wieighed down by ‘having’ to think about them!

  5. Ben says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Steph, African faith is intellectual and detailed in it’s own way as was Jesus’ teachings; Jesus certainly did a lot of reframing along the lines that you mention. It would be nice if we recognized all our cultural biases. Maybe I should start with me ;-).

    Rombo, Diane Stinton of Daystar University (attends Nairobi Chapel) quotes (significantly) the Ghanian poet you mention in her book The Jesus of Africa.

    “Now I just wonder why we’re so keen to compare and contrast and to declare the one superior and the other inferior.” I love it.

  6. Rombo says:

    Jesus of Africa, of course. Diane’s a fan also, I remember this. And I remember reading that and hearing her talk about it too. She probably should have been who I quoted on that, actually.

    Off to re-read and remember.

  7. paul merrill says:

    My 5 years in Africa taught me that nearly every African believer I met had a LOT more faith than I.

  8. lionelwoods7 says:

    Great post brother! You see this problem exists for many African Americans also. Not to change the subject; however, because of a more experiential faith with less emphasis on the abstract thoughts of Christianity (mostly reformed) they are labeled secondary or sub-par to most of White Reformed Americans (there also seems to be a couple of blacks, I was one, who fell the same inferiority of the black experience).

    But back to Africa. To stare, death, starvation, mutilation in the face daily, to live off of much faith and little head knowledge, takes a work of the Divine homeboy and you are spot on!

  9. Gerri says:

    Thank you for this post. My husband and I spent a year in Kampala and Gulu, Uganda, and found many African Christians with such deep faith despite some of the terrible conditions and the sickness and death they experience.

    They love the Lord and He is real to them in their everyday life in a way that I had never seen before. What a blessing it was for us.

  10. Ben says:

    I really appreciate your comments. It’s great to see how the personal experiences of so many of you have born this out, Paul and Gerri.

    Lionel, I credit African-Americans in the US first teaching me to see the world differently in this way. They opened my many of the distorted ways (racism) I saw myself and other expressions of the faith.

    Thanks for the link, Sean

    Rombo, I’m laughing now that I added qualifiers to Diane’s name – as if you didn’t know her ;-). Sometimes the mind plays funny tricks on us

  11. Joe says:

    Can I suggest another reason is that christianity is relatively new in many places, missionaries were/ are eager to please tribal chiefs, kings and colonial masters thus unquestioned obedience was taught above other doctrines and virtues. Add to this we the gospel has been and remains largerly under contextualized. Kingship and salvation of God often misundertood. Sucess is only in changed lives, not in numbers looking for something other than true life in god. John 6

    Serving in Rwanda
    Mentoring and teaching pastors.

  12. Odogwu_Aganaga says:

    one american lady denounced her Christian faith after visiting nigeria and discovered that nigerians are nothing but mass-church-goers and not Christians at all.

    • Ben says:

      Interesting. I’m sure a few African brothers and sisters felt like denouncing the church-going type of Christianity they met in the US as well.

      • Odogwu_Aganaga says:

        oga ben; the difference is “less religiosity more Christianity” in America; but “little Christianity and too much religiosity” in nigeria.

  13. Hey Friend, I really appreciate your post. I have been working with church and para-church organizations in Africa (southern, west and east) since 2006. I have always been richly rewarded by my fellowship with my African Friends and neighbors. I think a lot of western churches are sitting on their hands with their answers to last centuries problems which have been codified and fossilized. Africa is dynamic, people are doing theology and seeking answers to the questions facing Africa today with the expectation that Jesus and the Holy Spirit will join us in the process.

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