Folk Christianity and Mission Training

A few years ago I set out to help make sense of African Christianity since not all therein was healthy (see 'An Aspect of a Character of Christianity in Africa', Journal for Theology in Southern Africa 132 [2008]: 38-52).

I tried then, in a scholarly way, to describe African Christianity by talking of Africa's world as enchanted. By enchanted I meant a world encompassed by spirit beings: ancestors, spirits, supernatural forces, and divinities or deities. To Africans this higher spirit world is in constant interaction with the material world of humans, greatly influencing its fortunes. I argued then that African Christianity was a product of the interface between the Christian faith and the "enchanted" world of Africa.

Unfortunately, and this is where the problem is, there is evidence that much of Christianity in Africa is influenced more by Africa's enchanted world than by the Christian faith. We could call this form of Christianity Folk African Christianity. Folk African Christianity is the kind summed up in the words of a certain theologian years ago: 'a mile wide but an inch deep,' that is, a Christianity popular with many Africans but without biblical depth!

Folk African Christianity can be witnessed in evangelistic preachings in which content may not really be about a creating loving God who sent his Son to this world to graciously redeem humanity and restore the world to his original design and glory.

It also may not be about the wretched state of human beings who have fallen short of God's ways, and are thus in need of His forgiveness and salvation from His righteous judgement.

It may also have nothing to do with the future hope of all who believe in Christ to live and reign with God eternally when His Kingdom is established fully and all His enemies are destroyed.

But the evangelistic preaching, and popular they are, may be about coming to Jesus so that you may have power, good health, and riches in this world; so that you may protect yourself from the evil eye and those who may wish you harm; so that you may excel in your job, do well in your business, or pass your exams and so on and so forth.

Bottom line: biblical content only superficially informs the evangelists' sermons. In actual fact, Africa's enchanted world is superimposed on the Bible, and this is presented as the gospel. I know I am speaking in very general terms but I hope you get my point.

The above shows the importance of mission training at Carlile College. We are striving to train evangelists to grapple with the content of the gospel and at the same time understand their world within which they must preach the gospel and apply God's word. Our efforts, can contribute to a biblical Christianity, one which is not 'a mile wide but an inch deep'.

Dr. Peter Nyende


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