CHALLENGES AND PROSPECTS FOR RESEARCH

                INTO AFRICAN INITIATED CHURCHES IN SOUTHERN AFRICA

Allan Anderson

 

Paper read at the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World, University of Edinburgh, January 1996, and published in Missionalia 23:3, November 1995 (283-294)

 

Introduction

The study of African initiated churches (AICs) is a vital component in the preparation for mission in Africa. It is no longer a minor and somewhat inconsequential area in the field of missiology, but one of the most important components of religious and theological education in Africa today. In discussing the relevance of and prospects for research into AICs I shall be drawing upon my personal experience in research over the past several years. One of the dominant expressions of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa is what I have elsewhere described as "African pentecostal" churches (Anderson 1992:2-6). In brief, this term refers to those Christian churches in Africa which emphasise - and some would suggest to the exclusion of all else - the working of the Holy Spirit in the church, and it includes the many Zionist and Apostolic churches in Southern Africa as well as African pentecostal churches of "Northern" origin. My own interest in research into African pentecostals and African initiated churches (AICs) grew out of my involvement in these churches during the past 24 years. Research that focuses on Africans and their Christianity cannot be remotely pursued in some academic ivory tower as some sort of curious hobby - it requires genuinely personal participation and commitment.

 

The question of terminology

There is some controversy about terminology and the correct typology to be used in discussing AICs. For this reason an initial explanation of terms used is always essential. In my previous studies (Anderson 1992:2-6, 64-72; 1993:5-6), the term "African pentecostal" was a general term referring to three different groups of churches: firstly "pentecostal mission churches", those churches originating from predominantly white pentecostal missions (the majority of whose members are Blacks); secondly, younger African initiated pentecostal or charismatic churches, not very different from pentecostal mission churches, but founded and governed by Blacks and independent of white control; and thirdly, the vast majority of AICs in Southern Africa related to the pentecostal churches, including the so-called "Zionist" and "Apostolic" churches, quite different in some respects from the first two groups, and called "pentecostal-type churches". The term "African pentecostal" included these latter churches because of their historical and theological continuity with the pentecostal movement (Anderson 1992:20-22, 28-31). They are sometimes as old as pentecostal churches, and are founded, governed and propagated exclusively by Blacks. Most of these churches (but by no means all of them) use the words "Zion" and/or "Apostolic" in their church name. These are the churches that form the main thrust of this article.

 

The common historical, liturgical and theological roots that these different church groups have in the American Holiness movement and in the pentecostal and Christian Zionist movements (Anderson 1991:26-29; 1992:20-32) means that they still have much in common, despite significant and sometimes striking differences. Hans-Jürgen Becken (1993:334), finds this use of the terms "African pentecostals" and "indigenous pentecostal-type churches" to be "problematic". He points out, quite correctly, that Zionists and pentecostals "parted ways", and that "South African Zionism grew in a different context and found its own forms of expression." Becken (:334) has similar difficulty with the inclusion of the Zion Christian Church under the category "indigenous pentecostal-type churches". In fact, the semantics of the terms used should not unnecessarily detain us. It is true that the churches referred to have developed their own distinctive African expression of Christianity. But so have African churches whose origins are in Europe or North America, whether pentecostal or not. There is much about all types of Christianity in Africa that is contextualised. A romantic notion of distinctiveness and indigenity that belies our essential unity as Christians does not help us in this discussion. We have much more in common with AICs than we are often prepared to admit. This terminology is not an attempt to claim ownership of Zionist churches by pentecostals, but simply to describe the fact of affinity between pentecostals and Zionists. These commonalities have roots in history that are so significant that they may not be ignored or wished away. It is really not so important whether one calls them "pentecostal-type", "African pentecostals" (Hollenweger), "Zion-type" (Sundkler) or "Spirit-type" (Daneel) - all this terminology suggests links with the pentecostal movement. My use of "pentecostal-type" to describe the majority of AICs in South Africa is an attempt to avoid generalisations and an overlooking of the obvious differences that exist between these churches and pentecostals, acknowledged by members themselves. The term should not detract from their distinct character in liturgy, healing practices, their different approaches to African folk religion, and their unique contribution to Christianity in a broader African context. The churches discussed here are mainly "pentecostal-type" churches, including the largest AIC in Southern Africa, the Zion Christian Church.

 

The problem of subjectivity

All research into a new religious movement must begin with honest and humble attention and a willingness to be absorbed in learning about the movement for a long period of time before making any evaluations. This is particularly important when the researcher hails from a different cultural and ecclesiastical tradition. The danger of misinformation is much greater when the researcher has made quick judgements based on superficial information. When conclusions are eventually made they will at best be tentative, they should never be a reflection of an observer's cultural or ecclesiastical biases, and should be subjected to the scrutiny of those being observed. Research into new religious movements usually involves an interface between the so-called "Northern" and "primal" world views, and (particularly in the case of AICs) between "historical" and "pentecostal" Christianity. Inevitably, this research often becomes subjective. Many of the people described in my publications are personal friends, and as I have been a participating member of an African pentecostal church for many years, their beliefs are often also mine. Researchers will discover that their own theological and (particularly) liturgical and cultural traditions are inhibiting. One needs to detach oneself from these restraints as much as possible if real participation is to be enjoyed. Despite this subjectivity, however, a certain degree of detachment should be maintained if scientific objectivity is to be ensured. A genuine and open rapport (with no ulterior motives) between the researcher and the receivers of the research is essential if this encounter is to be authentic.

 

In reviewing Tumelo (Anderson 1993), Tinyiko Maluleke (1994:61) pointed out that the observations made there were not based merely on the bare statements of the church members themselves, but that behind them "Anderson is sifting, analysing and prescribing". This I freely admit. I have tried to begin my writings with an acknowledgement of my personal limitations as an western observer of African phenomena (1991:3-4; 1992:1; 1993:3). I also agree substantially with Maluleke's (1994:62) observation that there may be a "continuous rather than discontinuous relationship between African pentecostals and black mission churches". The whole continuity-discontinuity debate must acknowledge the ambiguity of the discussion, because usually in any particular AIC there is a mixture of both the "old" mission church and the "new" African pentecostal elements. Thus, both continuity and discontinuity with mission churches exist at the same time in AICs. In addition, some AIcs would exhibit more discontinuity with mission churches than would others. Once again, the fundamental question is not how Maluleke or I (or any other observer) understand these churches, but how the members of these churches understand themselves compared with their fellow Christians in black mission churches. The need for ongoing, face-to-face dialogue with the AIC movement and further research by black theologians (like Maluleke) in particular will do much to answer these vital questions. One of the frustrations in this research is that there is little serious research into AICs by black South African theologians being conducted.

 

The Soshanguve survey

In 1991 the survey conducted in the South African township of Soshanguve, near Pretoria indicated that African pentecostal churches comprised some 41% of the total population then. As indicative of the trends within South African townships, this is a significant factor to be reckoned with in African Christianity. New religious movements should be taken seriously, and not be viewed as some marginal and curiously eccentric groups on the periphery of Christianity (as past researchers had often regarded them). This exploratory church survey interviewing 1 633 families by means of questionnaires was described and tabulated in the publication Bazalwane (Anderson 1992:12-15, 121-164). The 1991 official census figures corresponded significantly with these figures. In surveys of this type the statistics can usually only be regarded as of local significance. Although the results of this survey could be taken as indicative of trends in the black urban areas of South Africa generally, it was not assumed that they accurately represented the entire urban black population of South Africa. And yet, there were remarkable similarities. For instance, the largest AIC in South Africa, the Zion Christian Church has its biggest support amongst Northern Sotho speakers. Because of the large Northern Sotho speaking population in our area of research, this church would be expected to be stronger in Soshanguve than in other areas of South Africa. The 1991 census figures (CSS 1992:122) however, showed this only to be marginally so, as 9,7% of the black population of South Africa who gave their religious affiliation were members of the ZCC (compared to 10,3% in our survey). Although the 1991 census excluded the so-called "TBVC states" (those homelands given "independence" by the white South African regime), this probably would not significantly alter the proportion of members of the AICs, which are also prominent in these areas.  The official figures showed that AICs accounted for 46% of the black population of South Africa in 1991 (CSS 1992:121-123), compared to 33% for the older, so-called "mission churches". Throughout South Africa today, significantly more people belong to churches originating with African initiative than to those originating from Europe or North America. This has important ramifications for anyone engaged in research into new religious movements.

 

In conducting research in Soshanguve we wanted to identify what characteristics might be typical of different types of church, and what people constituted the members of these churches. We sought as much as possible to identify the churches through the eyes of the members themselves. We therefore went directly to ordinary people rather than to church leaders, so that we might get as close as possible to the grass-roots, gut feeling of church members. It may be difficult to make a scientific analysis on the basis of the views of leaders alone. In the case of at least one prominent AIC leader who was interviewed, I was given standard answers that did not always correspond with the views of members of the church, and I suspected that these were pat answers given to outsiders for the benefit of the public image of the church. This case was, however, more of the exception than the rule.

 

During the second phase of our research, tape-recorded interviews of answers to questionnaires were conducted with church members in Soshanguve. The purpose of the questionnaires was to discover whether some of the presuppositions held by researchers concerning these churches were supported by the convictions of the church members themselves. Members were able to talk freely and in as much detail as possible about their beliefs and practices. The dominant theme of the interviews was the accommodation and confrontation between the churches and the African traditional world view. One cannot study new religious movements in Africa without seriously reflecting on this issue. What were the similarities and the differences that emerged between the people who came from a pentecostal church with a "Northern" influence, and those whose churches resulted from a purely African initiative? It soon became apparent that the differences were meaningful; but at the same time, within one particular church would be found the entire spectrum of opinion relating to these issues. Thus it was necessary to probe the concepts people had of their churches, and why they went there. Did it have anything to do with the African character of church life, and in what ways had their particular brand of Christianity attained a truly African expression in the minds of its adherents? How did African Christians deal with the fears and insecurities inherent in their world view, in the realm of ancestors, evil spirits, sorcerers, and diviners? To what extent did their responses reflect that they had been "Westernised", "Christianised", or "secularised" - or did these three influences have little or no effect? These are some of the themes that must be considered in this type of research. The report on this research formed the basis of the publication Tumelo (Anderson 1993).

 

Important questions for missiology

Research into AICs raises some important questions for mission which need to be addressed. For example, what does the remarkable growth of African pentecostal churches and the corresponding decline in membership among the older churches mean to our mission methods? There must be something that African Pentecostalism is "doing right", and from which we can learn in our ongoing task of proclaiming the gospel in Africa.

 

The study of missiology is partly concerned with the historical process of church growth. Thus, research into new religious movements should also pay attention to historical factors contributing to the origin of these movements. African Pentecostalism is essentially of African origin, and has its roots in a marginalised and underprivileged society struggling to find dignity and identity. It expanded initially amongst oppressed African people who were neglected, misunderstood, and deprived of anything but token leadership by their white pentecostal "masters". The white pentecostals had apparently ignored biblical concepts like the priesthood of all believers and the equality of all people before God. But despite these important social factors, fundamentally it is the ability of African Pentecostalism to adapt to and fulfil African religious aspirations that is its main strength. Research should define what precisely these aspirations are, and whether the same needs are being met by the church in its mission today. And to what extent have African pentecostal churches contextualised and indigenised Christianity in Africa? With this question comes the complex, controversial and somewhat hackneyed issue of syncretism - are these churches genuine and living churches of Jesus Christ, or has the Christian witness been obscured beyond recognition? The answer to this question often depends on the researcher's presuppositions and sometimes, prejudices. Inus Daneel (1989:54) speaks of how AICs have achieved the "spontaneous indigenisation of Christianity". Harold Turner (1979:209) suggests that the AICs offer solutions to problems that exist in all of Christianity:

 

            The independents... offer missiology a series of extensive, long-term, unplanned, spontaneous, and fully authentic experiments from which it may secure answers to some of its most difficult questions. This is a unique contribution that we are only beginning to appreciate and use.

 

One of these missiological questions is concerning what symbols found in the older Christian traditions are retained by the newer movements, and what symbols are borrowed from folk religion and culture - and why these symbols are retained whilst others are discarded. Why, for example, in the Zionist and Apostolic AICs of Southern Africa is there a preference for adult baptism by immersion, for an abundance of symbolic liturgy (such as the sacramental use of water) and for episcopal leadership? Why is traditional divination mostly rejected, and why has the prophet so effectively replaced the diviner? Why have some churches rejected the ancestor cult whilst others adopt a certain ambivalence towards it, and still others accommodate it? These questions in turn raise further questions concerning the problem of continuity and discontinuity, the intercultural communication of the Christian gospel, and the encounter between Christianity and another living religion. Research into new religious movements should attempt to give answers to these and other missiological questions. Of great importance to the proclamation of the gospel in Africa is the pneumatological emphasis given by these churches to the mission of the universal church, meeting felt needs in Africa. As Turner (1979:210) observes:

 

            ... it is the independents who help us to see the overriding African concern for spiritual power from a mighty God to overcome all enemies and evils that threaten human life and vitality, hence their extensive ministry of mental and physical healing. This is rather different from the Western preoccupation with atonement for sin and forgiveness of guilt.

 

African Pentecostalism has now become the major force to be reckoned with in Southern African Christianity. This growth has largely been at the expense of mission churches, so that the latter are in danger of becoming irrelevant. The fact that more people in South Africa belong to churches which originated in African initiative than churches originating in European and American missions, and that in the past three decades the percentage of people belonging to the older "mission churches" has declined from 70% in 1960 to 33% in 1991, raises disturbing questions about the content and relevance of theological training and the curricula of most theological colleges, seminaries and university faculties. In most of these institutions in South Africa AICs in general and African pentecostal churches in particular hardly even feature, either in terms of the content of the curricula or in the theological student intake. The trend towards religious pluralism and relativism in our theological faculties does not make these institutions more relevant to the majority of African Christians. This needs to be redressed.

 

The unique contribution of the pentecostals in the early years of this century to a multitude of AICs in South Africa, and their common historical, cultural, theological and ecclesiastical roots are highly significant facts. The Zionist and Apostolic AICs have in turn made their own distinct contribution to African theology, to the extent that these churches have developed along quite different lines from the more "Northern" -influenced pentecostal churches. A study of African Pentecostalism is a study of what happens when pentecostal spirituality encounters the traditional spirituality of Africa, and what African people, when left to themselves, do with pentecostal spirituality.

 

Africans have found in Pentecostalism a "place to be at home" (Welbourn and Ogot 1966). African Pentecostalism has Africanised Christian liturgy in a free and spontaneous way that does not betray its essential Christian character, and has liberated it from the foreignness of European forms. This sympathetic approach to African life and culture, to African fears and uncertainties, and to the African world of spirits and magic, has been a major reason for the attraction of these churches for people oriented to the traditional thought world. This is accentuated in modern South African townships and the proliferating informal settlements, where rapid urbanisation and industrialisation have thrown many people into a strange, impersonal, and insecure world where they are left groping for a sense of belonging. The African pentecostal churches, with their firm commitment to a cohesive community and their offer of full participation to all, provide substantially for this universal human need. For this reason, among others, they grow even faster in an urban environment than they do in a rural one.

 

Inadequate growth theories failed to recognise that this was essentially a religious movement, with religious reasons for its burgeoning strength and growth. African people, like all people everywhere, have a spiritual hunger which needs to be assuaged, a spiritual vacuum which only a God incarnate in Africa can fill. There are spiritual reasons for the popularity of the pentecostal message in Africa (Anderson 1991:30). And yet, African Pentecostalism purports to provide for more than just the "spiritual" problems of life. The role of divine healing and exorcism especially, and the receiving of the power of the Holy Spirit, seem to present a new and vigorous Christianity which offered help to all of life's problems. The spirituality of Pentecostalism was in fact a new and holistic approach to Christianity which appealed more adequately to the African world view than the old Christianity had done; and in many respects it was also more satisfying than the old traditional religion had been. Furthermore, African Pentecostalism was more meaningful precisely because it had continued some religious expressions which were also truly African.

 

Contextualisation and syncretism

The question of "syncretism" is a vexing one for researchers of new religious movements, and one that is often the result of too hasty "Northern" generalisations. We must take the utmost care when evaluating movements in the Two Thirds World according to European criteria. Schreiter (1985:145) asks whether the AIC movement should be seen as "the ultimate outcome of contextualization rather than as some aberration". This he says is one of the "hard questions" to be faced by "local theology". Schreiter (1985:150) asks very pertinent questions concerning the relationship between what Westerners too easily write off as "syncretism" and contextualisation:

 

            If contextualization is about getting to the very heart of the culture, and Christianity is taking its place there, will not the Christianity that emerges look very much like a product of that culture? ... are we going to continue giving cultures the equivalent of an artificial heart - an organ that can do the job the culture needs, but one that will remain forever foreign?

 

In any case, one cannot judge an essentially religious phenomenon (like AICs) as if it is in its final, static form. Even that which appears strange to our particular sensitivities, coloured as they are by our theological and cultural presuppositions, may be a dynamic and fluid movement on the way to becoming a truly African expression of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. As Turner (1979:166) has reminded us, "Any evaluation of the independent churches must begin by recognizing certain ways in which many of them have made a radical departure from pagan worship". This, he says, amounts to a "radical breakthrough... to worship of the one true, living, loving, and all-powerful God of the Christian Scriptures". One of the central features of many of the African pentecostal churches has been the rejection of key elements in traditional religion, particularly traditional divination and the ancestor cult. Daneel (1987:26) has reminded us that the AICs teach us "how the gospel is adapted to or presented in confrontation with existing indigenous customs and values". He considers the approach of the AICs to traditional religion and culture to be one of the main contributions of these movements to African theology (1990:56). Contextualisation is not "a simplistic adaptation to traditional thought", nor is it "accommodation in the Roman Catholic sense of the word", but is rather "an adaptation that, while displaying parallels with traditional religion, essentially implies a continuing confrontation with and creative transformation of traditional religion and values" (1990:56). The common roots of the different types of African pentecostal churches, the African style of their worship and liturgy, the holistic Christianity that is evident in their offer of tangible help in this world as well as in the next - all these factors combine to form a uniquely African contextualisation of Christianity that meets needs more substantially than does the often sterile Christianity imported from Europe and North America.

 

The challenge to the mission of older churches

If African pentecostals are gaining in strength at the expense of mission churches, then what are the implications of this for the mission of these churches in Africa generally, and in South Africa in particular? Important questions will be raised about the relevance of the faith and life of the older churches in Africa and other parts of the Two Thirds World. If their teachings and practices are perceived by people as powerless to meet their everyday, "this-worldly" felt needs (and sometimes, their "other-worldly" needs too), then how can they continue with "business as usual" in the face of such obvious shortcomings? The older churches are therefore challenged with the need to seriously rethink their mission strategy in Africa. We may pontificate about the need to engage in ecumenical comity arrangements and to desist from "sheep-stealing"; but if the sheep are not receiving satisfying food, they will seek greener pastures!

 

If these older mission churches are to return to the cutting edge of missions in Africa they will have to address and remedy these shortcomings or else continue to minister to an ever decreasing membership who are content to practise their Christianity side by side with African folk religion or worse, who have succumbed to a secular society and no longer practise Christianity at all. African pentecostal churches provide what Turner (1979:19) called "a salvaging or rescue function" in relation to the mission churches, by "preventing dissatisfied members from reverting to paganism by providing a recognizably Christian and easily available alternative spiritual home". Schreiter (1985:151) has remarked as follows:

 

            One cannot ask questions about evangelization, conversion, religion, and the like without calling into question the nature and quality of the identity of the existent Christian community. To resolve the questions about syncretism... will mean, no doubt, some significant changes in the way of life for those churches who perceive the problem. That... may be one of the great challenges and gifts that these younger churches can give to their older counterparts.

 

The importance of studies of these new religious movements is that they take seriously the African world view and the Christian response to that world view such as is found in the "enacted theology" of the African pentecostal churches. Pneumatological observations of healing and exorcism, and other manifestations of the Holy Spirit illustrate what Daneel (1990:221) has called "the relativity, if not futility, of our neat Western theories when confronted, in practice, with the belief systems and stark pastoral realities of Africa". African Pentecostalism has an "enacted theology" which is "a vitally significant component of a developing African Christian theology" (:221). This does not in any way imply that this "enacted theology" is one primarily focused on a rural world view that is fast disappearing and being displaced by a more secular, urban and Western world view. The fact that the African pentecostal churches are growing more rapidly in urban areas, and that the traditional African world view still predominates in the African cities belies that theory. Most of my research has been conducted amongst thoroughly urbanised people.

 

Any theological reflection that is done in this type of study should be made with extreme caution and tentativeness; it can never be definitive when the phenomena under discussion are dynamic and under a constant process of change. Pentecostalism as it has been incarnated in Africa is a dynamic, constantly adapting, and vigorously growing phenomenon that is fast becoming one of the major manifestations of Christianity in the world. The one who would wish to better understand Christianity in Africa must reckon with the fact that the African pentecostal movement is already becoming its most substantial expression.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anderson, Allan 1991. MOYA: the Holy Spirit in an African context. Pretoria: University of South Africa

Anderson, Allan 1992. BAZALWANE: African Pentecostals in South Africa. Pretoria: University of South Africa

Anderson, Allan 1993. TUMELO: the faith of African Pentecostals in South Africa. Pretoria: University of South Africa

CSS 1992. Population census 1991. "Summarised results before adjustment for undercount".Pretoria: Central Statistical Service

Daneel, M L 1987. Quest for belonging. Gweru, Zimbabwe: Mambo

Daneel, M L 1989. Christian theology of Africa. Study guide 1 for MSB301-F. Pretoria: University of South Africa

Daneel, M L 1990. "Exorcism as a means of combatting wizardry: liberation or enslavement?", in Missionalia 18:1

Maluleke, T S 1994. Review of Anderson 1993 in Missionalia 21:61-62

Schreiter, R J 1985. Constructing local theologies. London: SCM

Turner, H W 1979. Religious innovation in Africa. Boston: G K Hall

Welbourn, F B & Ogot, B A 1966. A place to feel at home. London: Oxford

 

(c) Allan Anderson