Distinctives of African Theology in Britain

African theology has come a long way since its emergence in the African post colonial era of the late 1960s. Back then, its main pre-occupation as articulated in West Africa or Anglo-phone West African countries was the inculturation of Christianity to African worldviews. The particular concern of this discourse considered the nature of African Traditional Religion (ATR) and its relationship of continuity rather than discontinuity with the Christian faith. Part of the argument was that just as the Jewish religion was a Praeparatio Evangelica (Preparation of the Gospel), that is, Judaism prepared the way for the gospel to be received so did ATR prepared Africans for the reception of the Gospel. This makes Christianity a continuation rather than a discontinuation of ATR.  While various African theologians articulated this point of view, nevertheless their voices were far from identical.  The exponents of this new theology who were pioneers of their time are the late Professor Bolaji Idowu (1913-1993), former head of department of Religious Studies, University of Ibadan, Nigeria and former Primate of the Methodist Church in Nigeria), Christian Baeta (1908-1994), former head of department of Religious Studies, University of Ghana, Professor John S Mbiti, An Anglican Canon and former director of World Council of Churches Ecumenical Institute, the late Professor Kwesi Dickson (1929-2005), former President of the Methodist Church in Ghana and Professor of New Testament at the University of Ghana, Legon and the late Canon Professor Harry Sawyerr (1909-1987), former principal of Fourah Bay College in Freetown, and former Vice Chancellor of University of Sierra Leone.

While the task of relating Christianity to African Religions and culture pre-occupy the beginnings of African theology by the beginnings of the 1970s it began to consider liberating Africans in terms of socio-economic development and political emancipation. The former was the case in the apartheid situation in South Africa where South African Black Theology of Liberation was developed by the likes of Basil More (a South African Methodist theologian), Steve Biko (A Lawyer and an activist who died campaigning for the freedom of black people in South Africa) and later Desmond Tutu. In other parts of Africa, including West Africa developed African Theology of Liberation which began to articulate for political and economic freedom of Africans. The main task here was to free Africans not just from neo-colonialism but also from the many African dictators. One of the African scholars who was articulating this is the late Rev. Canon Burgess Carr (1936-2012), former General Secretary of All Africa Conference of Churches (AACCC). Since the mid 1980s we have also seen the explosion of African Women’s Theology through independent scholars such as the Ghanaian Mercy Amba Oduyoye, women’s theological events, organisations and publications. The main concern of this theology is the liberation of African women from European and North American women as well as from African patriarchal heritage.

The current state of African theology is that while in the past there was a distinction between African Theologies of Inculturation and African Theologies of Liberation, but now due to many changes in the continent, this is no longer possible. In addition to this is the fact that African Charismatics and Pentecostals have dominated the Christian scene in the continent in the last 30 years. This has given rise to a distinct African Evangelical theology which has raised the question whether this theology should be considered African given the Western historical heritage of Evangelicals. Those in favour of African Charismatics and Pentecostals contributing to the theological scene in Africa are arguing on the basis that the numerical explosion and their contribution to renewal make it necessary.  One of my own observations is that one of the pioneers of African Theology was the late Dr Kato Byang (1936-1975) who advocated against all his peers at that time a distinct African Evangelical Theology. His theology is one that would be welcomed by many African Charismatics and Pentecostals. Byang was one of the few voices who argued for a discontinuity between African Religions and Christianity.

Whether African theologians agree or not to include the Charismatics and Pentecostals in the current theological scene in Africa; one thing that is clear is that African Pentecostals have taken the lead in Reverse Missions. They are now among the numerous Christians from the Global South who are planting Churches and doing missions in Europe and North America. The history of African Churches in Europe is still in the making but within a period of about 40 years they have made an impact and contributed to global Christianity. As African Churches or this case African Pentecostal Churches are growing in Europe what is their theology? Or what are the distinctives of their theology in Britain? In answering these questions I want to consider 7 beliefs and practices of African Pentecostal Churches in Britain.

  1. Reverse Mission: The rhetoric and language of reverse mission is one that is found in the mouth of some African pastors. “we are re-evangelising Europe” “Europe is a dark continent” “Britain is no longer a Christian country” “We want to preach the Word of God in Britain” “I am called by God to start a Church in Britain” These are few examples of the sentiments expressed by African pastors about Europe or in our case Britain.  Whether we agree with what is expressed here, the conviction and dedication that God has called and sent them here to preach is of importance. Important because this has translated to the proliferation of African Pentecostal Churches in the major cities of Britain. Secondly, their understanding of God and experience is that they have been sent by Him to preach to a country that is fast forgetting who God is. This is one reason why they are keen about evangelism and of recent social action.
  2. High View of Scripture: Due to the religious background of Africans as opposed to the so called “enlightenment worldview” of Europeans, Africans love and respect the Bible. African Pentecostal pastors are not as critical of the Bible as many British pastors who have been brought up on enlightenment critical analysis would be. This is not to say that African Pentecostal pastors do not think, it only means that their religious upbringing aids them to see their journey as a continuation of the biblical narrative. In essence, while a British pastor will engage in hermeneutics and exegesis to understand the context of the text, an African pastor as a result of his/her religious background already understands the narrative and only needs to apply to current situations.
  3. Healing and Deliverance: African worldview and culture is so religious that it affects every sphere of life. This is why there is no sacred and secular divide with African religions and culture. Another implication of this religious worldview is that every problem or issue have a spiritual cause therefore it can be solved by a spiritual solution. If someone is therefore sick the understanding is that there is a spiritual force behind the sickness or if someone is poor perhaps there is a curse of poverty. In the Traditional Religion people will consult the witch doctors or herbalists whenever they have any problem. Muslims will consult the Imams when in need, while Christians will take their troubles to their pastors. This means if someone is sick let the pastor pray for healing or if someone is believed to be possessed by demons let the pastor pray for deliverance. The understanding that God can heal and deliver people is part of the teachings of the New Testament (James 5:13-16).
  4. Prayers: A significant part of the Sunday and mid-week services of African Pentecostal Churches is prayers. African Pastors believe and are confident that God answers prayers. This belief drives them to organise various prayer events in order for people to commune with God. They also believe that prayer can effect positive changes in any situation. The various prayer events will include night-vigils, watch-night services, prayer and fasting and so on. A typical African style of praying is someone leading the prayer topics after which the whole congregation pray together loudly.
  5. Prosperity: The belief that God can prosper his people financially, materially, in education and in health is very strong in African Pentecostal Churches. The Yoruba tribe from Nigeria has a saying which captures the aspirations of Africans “Owo, Omo ati Alafia” that is “money, children and peace” This is similar to the Hebrew concept of Shalom which mean wholeness or completeness. The three things mentioned represent wealth, success and health. Having children represents success or status because barrenness was and is still in certain respect considered a curse in Africa. The Traditional Religions promotes prosperity through its advocacy of health and wealth. Even though today in Britain Prosperity message have been abused by some of its preachers, this has not stopped African Christians from pursuing success and excellence. Part of the argument for the teaching of prosperity is the examples of the people that God prospered in the Old Testament such as Abraham, David and Solomon.
  6. Praise and Worship: The understanding that God is the Supreme Being, the creator of the Heavens and the Earth and the creator of men and women and their destinies implies for African Pentecostal Churches that God deserves to be praised and worshipped. Majority of African Pentecostal Churches have adopted the praise and worship style as oppose to singing of hymns or singing in a reverential manner. The reflective nature of considering the words sang in hymns is not the emphasis in an African Pentecostal Churches. This is partly because African spirituality is emotive rather than cerebral. The expressive nature of African spirituality makes the option of praising and worshipping of God more attractive. This is done through various means such as dancing, loud singing, clapping of hands, chanting of God’s names in African languages and singing in tongues. People dance and sing praises to God thanking Him for what he has done and for what he will still do.
  7. Hope:  Part of the greetings I have observed among African Christians in Britain is the expression of hope or survival. Expressions such as “we go survive” (that is I will survive), “We are still alive” “We are still here and well” all demonstrate hope. This is because these expressions are used amidst the realities of struggling to pay mortgages or bills, still trying to settle their immigration status, living in poverty or sickness. These expressions is simply confessing that even though my current situation is that I am sick or poor but I am trusting God that things will change. It therefore expresses hope. It also expresses faith in God’s ability to intervene in our daily circumstances.  This means God is not remote or removed from our predicament he is immanent (Emmanuel: God with us).

About israelolofinjana

Rev Israel Oluwole Olofinjana is an ordained and accredited Baptist minister and has pastored Crofton Park Baptist Church (2007-2011) and Catford Community Church (2011-2013). He is currently the pastor of Woolwich Central Baptist Church, a multicultural church in south east London. He is Nigerian coming from a Pentecostal background. He holds a BA (Hons) in Religious Studies from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and MTh from Carolina University of Theology (CUT). Israel is the editor of “Turning the Tables on Mission: Stories of Christians from the Global South in the UK” and author of “Reverse in Ministry and Missions: Africans in the Dark Continent of Europe” and “20 Pentecostal Pioneers in Nigeria” He has spoken in a number of conferences regarding reverse mission and Black Majority Churches (BMCs) and has also contributed to academic journals and Christian magazines on the subject of Black Majority Churches (BMC) in Britain. He is an Honorary Research Fellow at Queens Foundation, Birmingham and a trustee and visiting lecturer at Redcliffe College. Israel is also one of the Directors of Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World an initiative design to train and equip pastors and missionaries from the South. He is a member of the Global Connections council. When he is not preaching or writing he is playing with Lego! He is happily married to Lucy who works as the Media and Communications Officer with Churches Together in England. She is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), earning a BA in Social Anthropology and International Development. Lucy loves baking and watching movies! They are blessed with one son, Iyanuoluwa (God's miracle)
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