Elder of the Kithuri clan,
the Meru of Kenya
May people be well,
may they be well,
Male, female, male, female,
Goats, cattle, boys and girls;
May they multiply themselves.
Bad luck go away from us…Amen.
Picture this: You are an African in the 19th century. You’re life has not been easy since your homeland was invaded by Europeans greedy for land and control. Although colonization has taken a great toll on you and your family, you work hard to maintain your own cultural identity. You have a number of wives. This helps to ensure that you will have children who will live to adulthood. It also helps to ensure that all of the needs of a demanding life can be shared and met by a larger family. This is also the way of your elders whom you believe are the highest authority on such matters.
White missionaries arrive and tell you about Jesus who promises a new life where the oppressed are made free and peace and justice prevail. This message of liberation is exciting to you and you and your family are baptized. But then the missionaries tell you that God is unhappy with you. They say you can only have one wife or this God will desert you. But that doesn’t make any sense. You are amazed and confused by this strange requirement. Does this God really want you to destroy your family?
Then you hear from the Bible. Someone reads it to you or teaches you to read. This is strange. Why, look at all these people who had more than one wife! Look at this Abraham, this Solomon, this David. These are the heroes of the Bible? What can this mean?
The number of Christians in Africa grew from 10 million in 1900 to 360 million in 2000. In the 1990s the number of Christians leaving Christianity each year was 338,000 greater than those accepting Christianity.
Where are the Missionaries?
You would probably guess right that the United States sends more Christian missionaries into the world than any other country. You might be surprised to know that the United States is also the country in the world that receives the largest number of Christian missionaries from other country. Many of the missionaries sent her are coming from places like Africa.
How did this happen? Well not like you might expect. Here’s one example… In 1918 an African from the Congo (now known as Zaire) named Simon Kimbangu had a vision after being converted to Christianity and baptized by British Baptist missionaries. In this vision, he received a call from God to be a prophet and a healer. Like any good pastor, he initially ran away from his call and from his village. But in 1921 he returned and began to preach and to heal the sick. In just 6 months his following had grown to 10,000.
One day he stood on a hill near his village and prophesied that a large church would be built on it and that one day leaders from all over the world would come to worship there. But as his followers increased, the Belgian colonial government and the Roman Catholic Church felt increasingly threatened.
Because of Kimbangu’s and other movements, it became illegal for any minister or member of a religious movement “not under European control” to “address meetings or assemblies of natives.” Kimbangu was arrested, tried before a mock military tribunal, flogged and condemned to death. The Belgian king commuted his sentence to life imprisonment and he was deported to the other side of the country where he never saw his wife or children again and where he died in 1951.
But his work wasn’t done. His followers went underground and his wife continued in his place. When the government was finally overthrown, Kimbangu’s church emerged from hiding with millions of members. In 1969 the church applied for membership and was admitted to the Word Council of Churches. On the hill where he had once prophesied now stands a large church. In November 1981 church leaders from all over the world came to worship with the Kimbanguists, fulfilling the vision of 60 years before.
The Kimbanguist Church now numbers over five million members. It is the largest of what are called African Independent Churches, which have sprung up throughout the continent. These churches now claim a total of over twenty million followers and are probably growing faster than any other churches in Africa. The African Independent Church movement is one of the most remarkable phenomena of church growth in the twentieth and twenty first century.
African Independent Church Movement
So what exactly is an African Independent Church and where did they come from? These churches combine elements of Christianity with native religion in a way that celebrates the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ while embracing the rich spiritual heritage of people who understand a different worldview.
They were birthed out of a reaction to the racial paternalism and the European values (like monogamy) that early foreign missions attached to their message. Local people could embrace Christ, but they wanted to keep their own taboos and purification rites – not toss them out in favor of those dictated to them by Westerners.
The Christ of the African Independent Churches is not a European Christ with European values. It is a Christ who comes to them in their own tradition, speaking through their own culture, respected them and their history. And it is a Christ who calls them to transformation, allowing them to struggle with their own issues in their own time.
The African Independent Churches remind us that being Christian does not require one to be Western. In fact, African Christians often refer to Jesus as universal mudzimu. As Mudzimu Mukuru (the great ancestral spirit). He becomes incarnated within African culture and in that way people understand his role in all aspects of their life, and not just when they gather to worship or consider spiritual things.
This Christ is big enough to embrace all people – even when we as Western Christians are not. Want proof? How many of you knew anything at all about this movement of over 20 million people before you began reading this blog? Our fear continues to marginalize these Christians even after nearly 100 years.
You see, they are different. They don’t follow the pattern of the old European denominations. Doctrines and creeds are just not all that important to them. Many of them reject Western science. They just don’t believe it’s true. These are a people who don’t live their faith in their head, but in their bodies, in their hearts and in their souls. They present a rich blend of spirituality that many of us Westerners get really uncomfortable with. Rather than worrying about right thinking, they believe adamantly in the gifts of the Holy Spirit – and their gatherings are marked by dancing, healing, prophecy and the casting out of demons. The prophets and healers of the African Independent Church have taken the place of the old tribal witch doctors and medicine men. And still, Christ stands at their center.
And through their witness they also point us toward Christ. The African ideal of Ubuntu means humanity and is captured in the statement that “I am what I am because of who we all are.” It is a theology that Archbishop Desmond Tutu embraced when the white Christian church was teaching in South Africa during apartheid. The church’s claim was that one’s skin color indicated their value as a human being. Tutu pointed to the person of Jesus and his claim that all people are valuable in God’s sight.
For Tutu, the practice of Ubuntu grows out of God’s relationship with us in Christ Jesus, who sets us free from sin, making it possible to know each other. Our true human identity, he says, comes only through absolute dependence on God and neighbor, even when that neighbor is an enemy or a stranger.
It promotes cooperation between individuals, cultures and nations. In other words, if your brother or sister is down pick them up. If they are hungry feed them. If they are strangers accommodate them. Ubuntu is about a transformed humanity that thinks of others before self and empowers people to reach their full potential in unity with all that surrounds them.
Ubuntu is caring, sharing and being in harmony with all of creation. And it is a prophetic glimpse of an evolving progressive identity we can claim as we answer the call to become part of a global religious community. It is the promise of the coming of the Cosmic Christ, who transcends all of our cultural barriers and claims us as one people with many different facets and dimensions. It is the call to begin to connect with each other at a deeper level – one that insists on including everyone as we gather at the table.
As elders, we have a responsibility to pass the Gospel on to the future generation. But this passing of the Gospel calls for our global awareness that God is creator and liberator of ALL.