April 2018 – Many long-held assumptions about Christianity in Africa and the African Diaspora were challenged during the Frederick A. Shippey Lecture at Drew Theological School.
The speaker, Dr. Afeosemime Adogame, addressed a broad range of historical, sociological and theological themes related to African Christianity across centuries, noting, “We are witnessing a transformation of religiosity.”
Adogame, an expert on Christianity in Africa, is the Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Christianity and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary. He spoke on the 30th anniversary of the Shippey series, which honors former Theological School Dean Frederick Shippey. Shippey’s children, Melda Shippey Pike and Stuart Shippey, enthusiastically support the talks and attended this year’s event.
One assumption that Adogame challenged is the belief that Europeans brought Christianity to Africa. Christianity, he reminded the audience, has been in Africa since the beginning of its expression, spreading along the northern and northeast parts of the continent.
African Christianity adapted and evolved separate from other expressions of Christianity, the professor added, and some of the earliest and most influential church fathers were African, including Antony, Augustine, Origen and Tertullian. European influence came centuries later, with both the missionary movements and colonialism that characterized it.
Today, Africa is home to 40 percent of the world’s Protestants, and there are more Christians there (520 million) than in the United States, Canada and Mexico combined (380 million), Adogame noted. What’s more, almost a third of the 862 delegates at the United Methodist Church’s 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis will come from Africa.
“There has been a shift in the center of gravity for Christianity,” said Adogame, who further wondered, “What does this mean for global Christianity? What implications does this have for how we understand our faith tradition?”
One significant change already unfolding is that northern nations are being evangelized by Africans, with African churches deploying missionaries to the secular West, according to the professor. And missionaries called to those nations are not just from Africa, but also Korea, China and Brazil, among other countries.
Currently, about 47 percent of Africa’s population is Christian, and much of Christianity’s growth there came after decolonization, Adogame noted. One trend that bears watching, he added, is the Pentacostalization of African indigenous churches, which he further described as “Christianity brewed in African pots.”
It is not uncommon in Africa, he said, for people to go door-to-door evangelizing. And they also do so in places that may not be welcome in northern nations, like public transit.
African churches see it as their divine commission to spread the gospel, according to the professor. They are missioning in northern nations because of falling church membership, and what they understand to be liberalization, secularization and moral decline.
“It is complicated,” Adogame said. “We have to disentangle the notion of mission from being simply about conversion. The project is bigger than that.” This reversal of missionary zeal is no longer about mission flowing one way, he added. Indeed, religiosity itself is not simply being diversified but transformed. As the professor put it, “It’s about mission from everywhere to everywhere.”