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Christianity is Not Exploding in Africa

Nov. 18, 2016By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

I have read, heard and said many times that “Christianity is exploding in Africa.” I now believe I am wrong. In 2010, The Pew Forum released on interesting report titled: Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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One part of the study was to look at the current rate of conversions to Christianity and Islam. What you find on the chart above is that there are very few conversions in the countries where data was collected. Part of the reason there is no conversion might be because there is no one left to convert (see Zambia and Rwanda). But - it still calls into question our frequent saying that Christianity is exploding in Africa.

I think it would be helpful to qualify Africa’s growth by noting three things:

1. Christian faith did explode in Africa, especially between 1900-1970. There was also growth up until 2000, but at that point it seems to have flatlined.

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2. Very few try to qualify the kind of Christianity that is being converted to. Would you consider a person who claims to be Christian and sacrifices animals a believer? What about someone who denies the Trinity, or Jesus as the Son of God? What about the prosperity gospel? These type of unqualified statistics, which also appear in the US on a regular basis, don’t really tell the whole story. I once read a book on the history of missions in a West Africa country and not one time did the author address the kind of gospel that was being preached. Notice on the chart that it seems that the majority of people who converted to Christianity were converting from Traditional African Religions. One wonders whether Christianity was just tacked on.

 3. This is just speculation, but I wonder how much growth can be attested to family size. It seems that little conversion from Islam is currently happening, so why is Christianity still growing numerically so quickly. Could it be the size of families have something to do with it? This would not necessarily have an impact on the % of the population if it could be shown that everyone is having large families, but it certainly impacts the overall numbers.

So - let’s be careful. Let’s rejoice in what the Lord is doing and the fact that we can actually know what He is doing around the world. Let’s rejoice that people are turning to Christ. But, let’s also be careful and not exaggerate what the Lord is doing and in so doing undermine the very report we can rejoice over.

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Training Pastors in Ghana

Nov. 6, 2015By: Paul Smith

For the next few months, TLI will be highlighting one of our teaching sites around the world. This first installment highlights our work in the west African country of Ghana.

When companies, the government, and even churches in southern Ghana want to punish someone, they send them to the north.  In general, the south is more populous, richer, and at least nominally Christian.   

sasto_under_domamaIn the Upper East Region (the equivalent of a state) where our training is held: 72% of the population is non-Christian (46% Traditional Religion; 23% Muslim; 3% Other), 16% Catholic, 6% Pentecostal, and 4% Protestant.  Both Christianity and Islam are experiencing rapid growth, and we see new churches and mosques every time we are in Ghana.  There are areas within the Upper East region that are primarily Traditional Religion and there are areas primarily Muslim, but there are no areas that contain a Christian majority.  Traditional religion still exerts a strong influence in the area.  To give one example, one of our students' grandfather built a community altar and his father continued to take care of it.  Now, as head of the family, our student is facing social pressure to continue to maintain and practice the religious rites.  Whenever something bad happens, such as a drought, it is seen as evidence that the community is being punished for our student's failure to appease the spirits, having abandoned them for a "foreign god."

We began teaching in this area in January 2015 in partnership with Community Life Church in Forney, Texas.  Community  Life Church had been interested and involved in northern Ghana since 2006.  When Community Life Church first began supporting ministry in northern Ghana, they found Christianity rapidly expanding both in numbers of conversions and number of churches being planted. 

However, the rapid expansion of the gospel was beginning to cause difficulties for the churches in Northern Ghana.  While a good problem to have, so many churches were being planted that there were not enough biblically literate people to pastor them.  Newer Christians were being called upon to be leaders.  The nearest place where Christians could receive biblical and theological training was Accra, a twelve hour journey by car.  In addition to the distance, because Accra was comparatively richer than the north, many who went south for education never returned.

In the vacuum of theological and biblical training, false teaching and errors began to creep into the church.  In the absence of biblical knowledge, many were filling in the gaps with their previous religions' beliefs about God(s).  Works oriented views of salvation and relating to God are especially prevalent.  Each of the four times we have been to northern Ghana, we have been asked questions about earning your salvation based on Philippians 2:12 (it is quite impressive how students managed to work in a question about Philippians 2:12 in a class on Genesis 1-11). 

Community Life Church wanted to help meet the need they saw for theological education in northern Ghana.  They had the desire, resources, and determination.  They saw themselves as lacking an effective curriculum and knowledge and experience of how to be effective at training leaders in an international setting.  So they asked to partner with Training Leaders International in order to help train pastors in northern Ghana.  Training Leaders International has benefited from Community Life Church's knowledge and experience in northern Ghana, as well as their pastors and staff who have made wonderful teachers.

Our students are hard at work strengthening the church in northern Ghana.  In a little over a year and a half, our students have planted 18 churches.  Most of our students are either recent church planters or are being prepared to be church planters.  So many church leaders have requested to take our training that in January 2016 we are adding two additional classes, which we project will bring our total number of students to over 100. 

One last, quick story illustrating the importance of our training.  One Sunday I was preaching at the church of one of our students.  Like many preachers, I began by saying something along the lines of "if you have your Bibles please turn to..."  I would estimate of the two hundred or so people there fewer than twenty had a Bible.  After the service, I asked the pastor about it to see if my observation was correct.  It was.  For various reasons, including illiteracy, poverty, and the difficulties in getting a Bible in their own language, fewer than 20% of the families in his church had access to a Bible.  That means, for the vast majority of his congregation the only thing they knew about Christianity comes from the pastor's sermons.  That puts a huge responsibility on the pastor to be able to preach the Bible well.  As a result of our work in northern Ghana, are students are becoming better at reading, understanding, and preaching the Bible.  The churches in northern Ghana are strengthened because of it.

Paul Smith is an International Trainer with TLI and Site Director for Ghana. TLI has teaching trips to Ghana scheduled in January and June of 2016. If you are interested in teaching in northern Ghana, click here. For a list of other TLI trips and needs, click here .

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You Are Not Serving in Africa

Aug. 19, 2015By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

We are serving in Africa.  

That is statement I often hear from missionaries or when short-term teams arrive back in the US.  In one sense it is true, they may have traveled to the continent of Africa.  However, I think more precise wording is in order.

Imagine for a moment three short-term teams from Kenya come to the United States to serve.  One goes to Dallas, TX, another to San Francisco, CA and the other to Lake Placid, NY.  The trips go well and when they return they tell everyone what North American culture is like, how North American people act and how the church is flourishing and struggling.

Can one location really tell you what a country is like, and even more, a whole continent?

Africa consists of 47 countries (the UN says 54 and the African Union says 53).  There are around 2000 languages spoken and an estimated 3000 people groups on the continent.  To the north, Isalm dominates the religious and political landscape. To the south, most countries have a majority of professing Christians.  Have you considered that Kenyans and Egyptians are both African?!

When we live and travel overseas, we only get small pictures of the overall culture of a country.  Honestly, on short-term trips we probably come to understand the culture of a neighborhood, not a county, a province/state, a country or a continent.  Even missionaries, who live in one location for many years, may live among one tribe in a country or they may live is a major city. It's not enough to say "we serve in Africa." 

Let's be more precise in our wording. 

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Would You Pay People to Go to Church - Part 2

Jul. 29, 2015By: Jeff AtherstoneAuthor Bio

Yesterday, we asked the question “would you pay people to go to church?” After a few quick thoughts the answer was obvious “no way!”

Then we turned the tables and asked, “Would you pay pastors in Africa to attend the conference your STM team is hosting?”

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Here is why I  (as a missionary) would discourage you not to:

1) African’s are relational. They want to meet you, ask about your family, share about their family and get an individual picture with you. This doesn’t happen for them in a crowd of thousands. This type of experience might be satisfying for our western individualistic culture but for a relational society it leads the crowds feeling empty. Ultimately, the only national the STM teams connect with are their drivers – who are also there just to be paid!

2) As leaders go – so goes the church. If the leaders are only motivated to learn, study and worship because they are getting paid they will produce the same type of churches. Sadly, church growth in Africa has become “whoever gives out the most wins!” This means that churches are growing because they sponsor children, provide free medical care, and pass out free clothes and bibles not because the gospel is preached, discipleship is taking place and the body is functioning according to the gifts. This pulls many people away from Bible-teaching churches and into prosperity gospel churches simply because the prosperity church has money.

3) It harms the ministries that last longer than a STM trip! Passing out things for free while receiving high-fives, hugs, smiles, cheers, testimonies and praise for a week or two is an amazing rush which motivates tens of thousands of STM teams to come to Uganda and surrounding East African countries every year. It’s a rush that has become a yearly “must –do” for churches around the US. Then when the money runs out everyone feels great because it is time to board the plane.  But for the churches that meet every Sunday, Child Development centers that open every day and Bible Colleges that meet year round there just aren’t enough resources to pass out free gifts and provide transport every day – so when the visitors leave so do the crowds. This forces many ministries to host teams year round which leads to the same types of visitors, the same messages and the same activities year after year, which African's fully show appreciation for – because it’s their job – there are getting paid!

4) What would you do? Ultimately as a pastor in the US you don’t go to every conference. You pick conference(s) based on what you can afford and when you pay for that conference you know that your elders, deacons committee or whoever else paid for the conference are counting on you to use that time to get what you need most to satisfy your soul and prepare you to lead your church. Treat your brothers in Africa the same way – let them come because it is what they need most not because you are picking up the tab!

At our University we host 5-8 conferences a year and charge anywhere from $5 – 50 per participant and it works. The pastors that need it come and those who don’t are free to stay and faithfully serve in their churches. Our conferences are well attended and I have never heard from anyone that wanted to attend and couldn’t because of the money. We’ve yet to have 10,000 attendees but then again we never had to pay anyone to come…

There is a cost to discipleship – let’s make sure we aren’t changing the gospel call by making everything free!

Jeff Atherstone is the President of African Renewal University and has served as a missionary in Uganda since January 2006.

 

 

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Would You Pay People to go to Church?

Jul. 28, 2015By: Jeff AtherstoneAuthor Bio

With all the emphasis on church growth and attendance numbers I am sure that someone has considered this before:“ Why don’t we just pay people to go to church?”

It’s simple – offer people $20 / $50 or $100 a Sunday to come to church.  $10,000 and you could have a thousand member church over night. Mega-church here we come!

Obviously, I’m not the first pastor to think of this so let’s examine the reasons we don’t do this (I reasons why I hope you’re not doing this).

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1)   It gives people the wrong motivation to come. They aren’t coming to learn, worship, service or give – they are coming to receive, profit and do their time.

2)   It gives people the wrong view of the gospel. Didn’t Jesus tell people to count the cost of discipleship rather than tell them to count on the profits that come from following?

3)   It harms the people who do want to come. How would you feel if you came to worship and the guy next to you keeps asking “when’s this over” and “what’s the time?” How would you feel if you came to learn and as the pastor comes to preach the whole crowd around you pulls out their iphones and ipads to start playing games?

4)   It gives the pastor a false sense of his influence, impact and following. Bigger isn’t always better (just ask your friend who failed their summer diet). Your ego might feel better having a big crowd but ultimately you are attracting a crowd that cares more about the coffee and doughnuts than they do about the gospel.

5)   It is a waste of the churches resources. If I need to explain – stop reading here because you’re not going to like me at all as I’m about to turn the tables.

Here is where I am going:

As a missionary I am shocked at how many short-term missions teams pay the nationals to attend their conferences, trainings and seminars.

Not only do they pay for the conference, food, lodging, gifts (bibles, books, etc) but many of the conferences in East Africa now as part of the registration pay the transport of the pastor to and from their conferences.

Now imagine if we do this in the US. Catalyst, Desiring God National Conference, Gospel Coalition and every other conference dropped their conference fee, paid for your hotel, meals, and gifts at the bookstore and then reimbursed your plane ticket or fuel. Pastors would become professional conference attendees and the churches would suffer without their leaders.

This is exactly what I see happening in Uganda and hear from other missionaries in surrounding countries. Pastors are turning into professional conference attendees and the church is hurting.

The argument against this is “the church in the west is rich and the church in Africa is poor why can’t we help them”

There are plenty of answers – let me tackle that in part 2 tomorrow…

Jeff Atherstone is the President of African Renewal University and has served as a missionary in Uganda since January 2006.

 

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