Self-theologising In The Diasopra

Liberating Theology: Can Africans Self-theologise in the Diaspora?

In the mid–1800’s, two missionary leaders, Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson, suggested that the new churches that came out of the Western missionaries’ work in Africa and other places needed to be self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting in order to be considered mature enough to be left on their own while the missionaries moved on to plant other new churches. This became the “three-self formula” for missionary work around the world: self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting.

These three “selves” have been widely discussed in theological discourses in the past 150 years. However, I agree with such scholars like Roland Allen who have pointed out that the three-self formula has been largely overlooked in missionary work. Some have observed that the formula is impossible to translate into practical terms on the mission field. Of course, when we look back at the history of the twentieth century missionary enterprise, it is hard not to see that they were never really accepted in the missions praxis as the church developed and Christianity spread around the world. Colonialism, among many factors, made it difficult for the missionaries to trust the new churches to be able to stand on their own. As John Gatu (with his famous Moratorium), and others argued in the 1970’s, the process of decolonizing the church in Africa was a much harder and longer process than political decolonisation. Incidentally, in the case of African Christianity, it was only after this process of decolonisation that African Christianity began to explode.

This explosion of non-Western Christianity around the world has highlighted the need to rethink the entire missionary enterprise. For instance, recent conversations in missiology have suggested the need for a fourth self–a self that is just as important as the other three, but was not part of the original conversation–that of self-theologising (or self-educating). I believe that this fourth self is the most relevant to us today. Christians from different parts of the world have to engage theology using their own cultural lenses and narratives. An intentional mutually critiquing theological cross-pollination among Christians from around the world will help us “understand God better” and thus strengthen theology as a whole.

Theological education among Africans in the Diaspora is a subject that is only beginning to be engaged with some intentionality. So far, Africans in the Diaspora have tended to go to African initiated bible colleges, most of them denominationally based. A few have gone to Western seminaries, while even fewer have gone to Western universities. There is yet very little cross-pollination between these streams. It looks like there is no middle ground between being a self-theologising and a Western theologised church. Some of the Western institutions are still colonial in the way they deliver theological training to Africans–as if Westerners know it all and have only to offload this theological knowledge to Africans who know nothing at all–a scenario one friend of mine described as telling Africans in the Diaspora, “thou shalt not self-theologise.” Of course, African Christianity is taught by Western theologians who have spent a few years in Africa, and have thus qualified to be experts on the subject.

The way forward for theological education in the African Diaspora is going to be tricky, but this is true of all African theology, even for the entire theological enterprise in the world. There is need for a self-theologising African church (even in the Diaspora), but this self-theologising must be done in partnership and intentional conversation with non-African theologies. When Westerners teach theology to Africans both in Africa and in the Diaspora, it has to be done with the understanding that African Christians will not be helped by a Western reading of theology that is not faithful to their African worldview. Of course, Africans will not read Martin Luther, Karl Barth, N.T. Wright and many other famous Western theologians in the same way Westerners read them.

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