by Doug Ward

MAY, 2013-When you hear the phrase "Christian missionary", what images pop into your mind?


Perhaps you are picturing an American serving in Africa or Asia. If so, you are not alone, but be aware that this picture is far less representative than it once was. There are still many Western missionaries, but there are also large numbers of missionaries from places like Nigeria and South Korea who travel to the West.


Over the past century the center of world Christianity has shifted from the West to the global South.1 How did this shift occur, and what implications does it have for the future of Christianity?


One scholar who has investigated these questions, with a particular focus on Africa, is missiologist2 Jehu Hanciles. Dr. Hanciles, who comes from the African nation of Sierra Leone, is the D.W. and Ruth Brooks Associate Professor of World Christianity at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. On March 21, 2013, he discussed the growth and international impact of African Christianity in a lecture delivered at Miami University.


Dramatic Growth

Professor Hanciles began his lecture by presenting a perspective from 1910. From June 14-23, 1910, a World Missionary Conference was held in Edinburgh, Scotland. The number of delegates in attendance was 1215, representing various missionary societies in proportion to the size of their incomes. Most of the delegates came from Europe and North America, the centers of Christianity at that time. Only nineteen came from outside the West, and only one was from Africa.


The prospects for evangelism in Africa and Asia were discussed at the conference. In 1910, there were about ten million Christians in Africa, compared to about sixty million Muslims. It therefore appeared to the delegates at the conference that realistically, Islam had the upper hand in Africa.


As it turned out, the missionary societies of 1910 were overly pessimistic. During the next century, Christianity experienced huge growth in Africa. By 1970, there were a hundred million African Christians. By 2000, that number had risen to over 300 million, and the total was up to 360 million in 2006. In 2010, over sixty per cent of Africans were Christians, and twenty four per cent of the world's Christians were Africans.


The 1910 conference underestimated Christianity's prospects in Africa, Dr. Hanciles said, because it was only thinking in terms of Western agency. What the Western missionaries in Edinburgh failed to take into account was the great success that African evangelists would have in spreading the Gospel to their own people. He commented that it is still too common for people to think of Christianity in Africa as a Western imposition, while viewing the spread of Islam in Africa as a natural development. In fact, Christianity has been spreading rapidly in Africa largely through indigenous means.


Increasing Global Influence

Growth in the number of African Christians has occurred both in traditional Western denominations and in independent charismatic groups. African members may play a major role in determining the futures of several denominations. For example, the Anglican Church in Africa has grown rapidly, while the number of Anglicans in England and Episcopalians in the United States is declining. Since Anglicanism is more biblically conservative in Africa than in England or the United States, it seems likely that African influence will move the denomination eventually in a more evangelical direction. Analogous remarks can be made about the United Methodist Church, which for some time has been growing in Africa while losing members in the United States. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, a denomination founded in the United States, has not quite a million members in the United States but over four million in Africa.  African membership in churches of the Stone-Campbell tradition, another American branch of Christianity, equals or exceeds North American membership in 2013.


Dr. Hanciles asserted that African migrants are having a growing impact on Christianity in both Europe and the United States. In Britain, he noted, the largest Baptist congregation is largely Ghanaian in composition. In London, Nigerian Matthew Ashimolowo pastors Kingsway International Christian Centre, a church with over 12,000 members.


The influence of African Christians even extends to countries with few African immigrants. In the Ukraine, Nigerian Sunday Adelaja founded the Embassy of God, which has become the largest megachurch in Europe with over 20,000 members. Adelaja has planted several hundred churches around the world.


According to Hanciles, immigrant churches are the fastest growing segment of Christianity in the United States. Many churches of African immigrants start as house churches and, with great dynamism and missionary zeal, grow quickly from there. Such groups are characterized, he said, by vibrant worship, an emphasis on personal piety, and an openness to the supernatural-e.g., divine healing.


Hanciles discussed one prominent example, the Bethel World Outreach (BWO) Church of Silver Spring, Maryland. BWO was founded by a Liberian pastor, Darlingston G. Johnson. Johnson, who had come to the United States for some advanced university courses, was prevented from returning to Liberia by the outbreak of civil war there. Praying about how to proceed, he concluded that God had called him to be a missionary rather than a refugee. In ten years, BWO grew from seventeen to 3000 members. It now has services in French and Spanish as well as English. All together, Johnson's ministry has founded some 200 churches with a total of 30,000 members.


As Dr. Hanciles observed, immigrants have always played a major role in American religion. In recent years about seventy five per cent of immigrants to the United States have been Christians, a trend that could lead to a Christian resurgence in America.  Perhaps African immigrants will help spark another Great Awakening.  Christianity does not just go from the West to the rest of the world; now it is coming back in the other direction. Global evangelism now has come full circle.


1See, for example, Philip Jenkins's The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Oxford University Press, Third Edition, 2011.


2Missiology is the study of Christian missionary activity.



File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 28 May 2013, 14:44.