African Diaspora Christianity and Its Problem of Nationalism

It bothers me to some extent that almost all the boundaries that shape most African countries – or better, nation-states – were not made in Africa but in Europe, not by Africans but Europeans, in Berlin, Germany, in 1884. The boundaries were designed to serve the interests of Europeans, and were created with no regard to the location of people groups on the continent. Often, boundaries were drawn right through villages or communities, breaking them apart in the interests of their colonial masters. Almost overnight, families were separated, some members in one country and others in another. And today, over 130 years after the Berlin Conference, and 50 years after the end of political colonialism in most of Africa, the boundaries (which I believe is the greatest symbol of colonialism in Africa) remain intact. While European countries wanted the mine the resources of whatever colonies they ended up winning, their best take from the partitioning of Africa was the “divide-and-rule” strategy that kept the continent subservient for almost one whole century.

 

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Photo courtesy of TheRedish.

 

But it bothers me even more that African Christianity, especially in the Diaspora, is shaped almost in its entirety by some form of ecclesial nationalism. We have Nigerian churches, Ghanaian churches, Zimbabwean churches, Kenyan churches, and many other “nation-shaped” churches. And those churches hardly mix. In Britain, for instance, the Redeemed Christian Church of God is a Nigerian denomination (and some have suggested it is a Yoruba movement, and thus has only reached a portion of the Nigerians in Britain). Unverified statistics suggest it is over 90% Nigerian. The Church of Pentecost is also a Ghanaian movement (with over 95% of their attendance in Britain having originated from Ghana). The Apostolic Faith Mission is a Zimbabwean and South African movement. We have Malawian churches, Congolese churches, Ethiopian churches, Eritrean churches, etc. For some reason, African Christianity in the Diaspora has been shaped by national identities. In most cases, those churches do not speak to one another.

In a sense, I have wondered whether we can actually talk about African Christianity in the Diaspora. It would make more sense to talk about Nigerian Christianity, Ghanaian Christianity, Ethiopian Christianity, etc.

I understand that establishing such “national churches” is very pragmatic and ensures church growth. I have also been made to understand that Africans love to worship in their vernaculars and are, therefore, not keen to worship with others of foreign nationalities. And, of course, others have said they are suspicious of any pastor who is not from their country of origin. Excuses unending.

While not focusing on the political implications of the “divide-and-rule” that led to the partitioning of Africa, and how it continues to paralyse Africa’s economy (yes, I believe Africa will be stronger when it ditches those boundaries), I wonder what this “division” means to our missional presence in the West. Is it possible to rise up above nationalism in our Christian identity?

Maybe Missio Africanus could help get some of those questions started.

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African Diaspora Christianity and Its Problem of Nationalism

The Faith of the Second Generation 2

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I have wrestled with this post for a while because I started something in this line in a post the was published in August, and when I did that, even though I knew there is a lot to talk about concerning the faith of second generation African immigrants in Europe, I thought I should not return to that topic for a while. However, for several weeks now, every “African Christianity in the Diaspora” conversation I have has culminated with concerns about how the baton of the faith is being passed on to the younger Africans poorly — with no intentionality at all and in a manner that is not careful of contextual issues that they face in their daily walk.

Pastors realise there are two “problems” ahead.

One: They wonder, “Will our churches exist after we are gone? Will our children pick up the mantle?”

My answer to this is usually straightforward. If they continue what they are doing — gathering fellow countryfolk for church-as-we-knew-it-back-home — their churches will not go beyond their generation. Simple. When their children move out of the house to go to college, etc., they are not coming back to their churches. Most of them seem not to understand that their children are not culturally African, and are thus foreigners in their African-cultured immigrant churches.

Two: They all ask, “Who will disciple our younger generation for missional effectiveness in their generation?”

My answer to this is usually that it is the duty of the first generation to disciple their children. And if they take that responsibility seriously, their “ecclesiologies” have to show. They need to show that the cultural identity of their young ones is important enough — just like any cultural group — to warrant a rethinking of their entire strategy. Of course, very few of the first generation leaders are able to do this. The cross-cultural fluency needed to help them negotiate the faith as (black) British children of African immigrants needs intentional cultivating. Sustaining their faith needs a different approach from what the first generation did in Africa. The secular worldviews that shape their life growing up in Britain need a radically different approach from what most immigrant parents are equipped to engage.

And forming youth churches will not do.

I met up with a very well-respected pastor of Jamaican descent in London recently. Having grown up in Britain and witnessed the growth and plateauing of Carribean churches in Britain in the past forty years, he had one statement for me: African immigrant churches are not learning from the experiences of the Afro-Carribean churches who have been here since the 50’s, and if they continue what they are doing, they will end up struggling the same way they did, losing the second generation in the process. I think that plateauing has already started in African churches.

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The Faith of the Second Generation 2

A Wandering Syrian Was My Father: The Scandal of an Immigrant God (Part 2)

And thou shalt speak and say before the Lord thy God, A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous ….

Deuteronomy 26:5 KJV

This little confessional statement of faith that appears at Deuteronomy 26:5-10, scholars say, was a creed that was central to the Feast of Pentecost (First Fruits) where people brought the first portions of their harvest to the Lord’s house. Participation in this extremely important festival started with reciting this creed. Each individual was to declare something like, “My father was a wandering vulnerable and impoverished Syrian ready to perish.” Thus, God wanted this piece of information engraved on everyone’s conscience, and consequently, on the community’s collective conscience. They had to remind themselves at this festival every year that they descended from wanderers who had often depended on the merciful hospitality of strangers to survive. This is their history. This is their identity. Deuteronomy 26 is talking about Jacob (whose mother was a Syrian, married two Syrian women, and raised up his children in Syria for a long time). But, at a distant, we can tell they would have Abraham in mind for he was a Syrian by birth. There is no telling of Jewish history apart from migration.

Earlier in Leviticus, God had reminded them that in addition to being descendants of migrants, they — themselves — were also once migrants in Egypt. They had to remember their own “migranthood” for they would have to identify with the stranger (migrant, alien) that would wander into their land some day. “Treat them well,” God said, “for you were once strangers in Egypt.” Lev. 19:33-34.

Christianity, being an Abrahamic faith, is grafted into Abraham’s story. Christians, no matter where they are, are children of Abraham by faith. Thus, as Christians, our father in the faith was a wandering immigrant from Syria. And, of course, as I have argued here, we follow an immigrant Messiah. Therefore, as Christians, migration is not just a part of our story, it is the story. We are sojourners (aliens, migrants) on earth. If anyone is to be sympathetic to immigrants, it has to be Christians and their churches, for our history tells us, “our ancestors were once strangers.” We have all the theological reasons to do so, even though such theologies will generally be heard only at the margins of Christianity.

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Migration is a natural human condition. Populations of people will continue to redistribute themselves in search for resources and safety. As long as there are gross inequalities, injustices, and conflicts in the world, migrations will occur. If birds and fish and termites and many other animals migrate in search of a better/safer life, even just for a season, attempts to stop humans from migrating do not make sense.

Most of my European and North American friends do not seem to know their own history that in the 19th Century, between 20 and 25% of Europes population (between 60 and 80 million Europeans) migrated from Europe to the rest of the world mostly as economic migrants. Of course, they ended up colonising most of the places they went to. That political colonialism, followed by economic colonialism (or neo-colonialism), continue to facilitate the transfer of wealth to the West, enlarging the economic divide between the West and other parts of the world (the Middle East and Africa, for instance). We have ended up with a world where many who want to do better in life and live in relative safety seek their way to Europe and North America. Thousands who have died in the Mediterranean Sea are portrayed in a negative light by the Western media. We have to keep reminding the BBC, Reuters, DW, and others that what we currently have is not a migrant crisis but a refugee crisis.” But many thousands more have died in Syria and the Sahara — and they will never get any press.

There are many factors behind current mass-migration patterns. And to address the perceived problems coming out of migration, we need a better approach. Building walls along the Mexican border, beefing up security at Calais, and closing up train stations in Budapest will not do.

But more often than not, I wonder what the Christian community — the Church — is doing help. Where are the Western Christian voices reminding the faithful remnant in this post-Christian West that “our father was a wandering Syrian?” That our faith is the faith of the migrant — or that of a migrant community? That we are admonished to entertain strangers? That our Lord was once a refugee? How many sermons just this past Sunday mentioned the mass-grave that has become the Mediterranean Sea? Or prayed for the many refugees stuck on the Greek Islands? How many would speak truth to power that many of the problems in the Middle East and Africa are a result of unfair policies established and enforced by Western governments?

A Wandering Syrian Was My Father: The Scandal of an Immigrant God (Part 2)

Hope for the Second Generation

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Last week, I attended a week-long Youth Conference of the Church of Pentecost – UK at Nottingham University. (The Church of Pentecost is a Ghana-originated Pentecostal church that has spread to over 90 countries and has 125 churches and 14000 members in Britain). The entire period of six days was a delightful mixture of youth and devotion. There, gathered in all their might, were a thousand young people of African heritage coming from all parts of Britain to renew their Pentecostal flame and explore what it means to be good stewards of God in their generation. As one of their leaders said, they “descended upon Nottingham with all their energy, zeal, and above all a shared love for Jesus to provoke one another to love Jesus more.”

I was reminded of many such gatherings in Africa.

And I was encouraged to see that, to some extent, that has been carried along into the diaspora. And just like those that shaped my own understanding of Christianity, this Youth Conference last wee was also powerful … more powerful than I had expected. I found the entire week invigorating. The balancing of a playful youthful atmosphere and a serious spiritual adventure gave me hope, both for the continent of Africa and for African Christianity (and this, both in Africa and in the Diaspora).

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For these younger generations Ghanaians in Britain, growing up hyphenated in between cultures (as British-Ghanaians or Ghanaian Brittons) and having to maintain their faith in a context that is not very friendly to Christianity, especially their type of Christianity, must be challenging. And yet, there they were, passionately praising, worshiping, and praying. There were 55 baptisms and the final service had around 50 young people giving their lives to Christ.

Seeing them proclaim their passionate love for Christ made me a bit more optimistic of what missional impact they can (maybe will) have in Britain. I am sure there are a lot more of their generation who love Christ as much. The Redeemed Christian Church of God has many times more young people. Other smaller networks will also have younger Africans growing up in Britain with a passion for Christ.

The subject of the second generation of Africa’s diasporic Christianity is one that catches my attention – any time. Spending time with these Church of Pentecost youth made me a bit more optimistic … there are many of them and they are on fire. However, it also made me realise the seriousness of the need for missional training for their generation. Can we contextualise the ministry for them to help them contextualise their ministries for their generation?

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Hope for the Second Generation

A Calf is Born with Ears

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Two weeks ago — on the 26th of June 2015 — we had the main Missio Africanus Conference of the year at the Church Mission Society’s CMS House in Oxford. It was a great day with excellent attendance and brilliant conversations on emerging theological themes in African Christianity (both in Africa and in the Diaspora). We had two keynote speeches; the first one was delivered by Dr. Cathy Ross and she spoke on emerging missiological themes in African immigrant Christianity in Britain. The second one was delivered by Prof. John Mbiti, and he focused on the emerging christological themes in African Christianity. (Videos and texts of the keynotes will be available at www.missioafricanus.org).

In addition to the two keynotes, there were also three breakout sessions; (1) mission and second generation Africans in Britain facilitated by Harvey Kwiyani, (2) forming multicultural partnerships by Andy Hardy and Dan Yarnell and (3) evangelism and church planting in the African Diaspora by Adedibu Babatunde.

There is a lot to share about what transpired at the conference … we will explore many of the themes that stood out as we go along. Today, we have to star from somewhere, and I have chosen to start with the proverb shared by Prof. Mbiti that says, “a calf is born with ears, horns grow later.” It is a proverb that states something that is too obvious to most of us, and yet its implications are profound. Roughly, it suggests that the formative days/years are critical for the formation of one’s self-identity. Formative seasons are generally characterised by learning (and listening) and hence the ears. Prof. Mbiti was delighted to share that as African theology (and Christianity) continues to grow around the globe, it has ears to learn … from the Bible and from other Christians. As a result, it is able to develop a robust christology (the theme of his lecture) which understands Christ in ways only an African would. For instance, see Jonny Baker reflecting on Mbiti’s on “Jesus My Bulldozer.”

Missiologically speaking, then, I see two immediate issues to contend with. The first one is African immigrant Christianity’s unrealised desire to be effective in reading Westerners. (Of course, I have come to realise that there are many who have no such desire, and that is alright). But for those who want to reach Westerners with the Gospel, the place to start is listening … to the missionary God who sent us, to the Christian leaders we find in the land, to our neighbours and host societies, and to one another. The second one comes from the fact that even Western Christians are like strangers in their own neighbourhoods … their contexts are continually changing … (for instance, culture and demographics), how would congregations embody both listening and learning to their contexts? And what would this mean to their sense of mission in their neighbourhoods?

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A Calf is Born with Ears

Would you like to know us theologically? — John Mbiti

Prof. John Mbiti
Prof. John Mbiti

Theologians from the new (or younger) churches have made their pilgrimage to the theological learning of older churches. We had no alternative. We have eaten theology with you. We have drunk theology with you. We have dreamed theology with you. But it has all been, in a sense, your theology. We know you theologically. The question is; do you know us theologically? Would you like to know us theologically? Can you know us theologically? And how can there be true theological reciprocity and mutuality, if only one side knows the other fairly well, while the other side does not know or does not want to know the first side?

John Mbiti, 1976.

Prof Mbiti is coming to speak at the Missio Africanus Conference on June 26 at CMS House in Oxford. And I can feel the excitement rising. So looking forward to an interview with this doyen of African theology.

Would you like to know us theologically? — John Mbiti

A Journal of African Missiology

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Last week, we published our first issue of the Missio Africanus journal … a journal that is dedicated to the field of missiology on the African continent … a type of missiology that is shaped by the African understanding of God’s mission — missio Dei — in the light of the African life and worldview. It is a journal that primarily wants to explore the implications of missio Dei among Africans, whether in Africa or in the Diaspora, and of course, not caring who does the missionary work, Africans or otherwise.

So far, the journal has enjoyed a warm welcome from many who have recognised the long-term significance of such a work. There are some five brilliant essays in this first issue, but we are working on raising the standard even higher in the next issue.

May I invite you to take a look at the journal … one friend said it is actually a journal you may enjoy reading.

And, if you may, give us some feedback.

A Journal of African Missiology