Monday, April 13, 2009

Mission From Africa

April 12, 2009

PASTOR DANIEL AJAYI-ADENIRAN is coming for your soul. It doesn’t matter if you are black or white, rich or poor, speak English or Spanish or Cantonese. He is on a mission to save you from eternal damnation. He realizes you may be skeptical, put off by his exotic name — he’s from Nigeria — or confused by his accent, the way he stretches his vowels and trills his R’s, giving his sermons a certain chain-saw rhythm. He suspects you may have some unfortunate preconceptions about Nigerians. But he is not deterred. He believes the Holy Spirit is working through him — aided by the awesome earthly power of demographics.

Africa is the world’s fastest-growing continent, and Ajayi-Adeniran belongs to one of its most vigorously expansionary religious movements, a homegrown Pentecostal denomination that is crusading to become a global faith. In the course of just a few decades, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, founded in a Lagos shantytown, has won millions of adherents in Nigeria while building a vast missionary network that stretches into more than 100 nations. “The rate of growth,” Ajayi-Adeniran says, “is becoming exponential.” As the man coordinating the Redeemed Church’s expansion in North America, the pastor spends his days shuttling from his home base, a storefront church in the Bronx, to the denomination’s continental headquarters, a 550-acre compound in Texas, and to mission outposts scattered from Vermont to Belize. This places him at the vanguard of a revolution in worldwide Christianity, one that it is quite literally changing its face, as a faith that was once exported by white missionaries from Europe and America comes to draw its strength from the peoples of the Southern Hemisphere.

Revival is an eternal theme in the history of Christianity. Time after time, evangelical fervor ignites, burns itself out and then re-emerges in some altered and surprising form, in constant cycles of migration and renewal. The ferment of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation sent Puritans to New England, Quakers to Pennsylvania and Jesuits into the wilds of South America. The missionary movements of the 19th century inspired pious adventurers to travel to Africa and spread, in the famous formulation of David Livingstone, “Civilization, commerce and Christianity.” Today the process is reversing itself, as the population of churchgoers dwindles in Europe, remains fairly static in the United States and erupts in the “global south” — a geopolitical term that encompasses Africa, Latin America and much of Asia. Seven years ago, in a book titled “The Next Christendom,” Philip Jenkins, a Penn State religious scholar, predicted that the global south would eventually come to represent Christianity’s center of gravity. Now it appears that phenomenon is starting to manifest across a broad spectrum of Christian belief, challenging patterns of leadership and notions of religious identity that in some cases have stood for centuries.

Take, for example, the Anglican Communion. Spread along with the British Empire, its membership now tilts heavily southward: Nigeria alone, with some 20 million adherents, makes up around a quarter of the entire Anglican Communion. The church’s recent schism over gay rights, which pits liberal white bishops against traditionalist counterparts from Africa, has upended old colonial lines of authority, leading to the odd spectacle of dissident conservative ministers in America formally shifting their affiliations to authorities in faraway countries like Uganda.

The story is similar within the Catholic Church, the world’s largest Christian denomination. Roughly a third of the College of Cardinals currently hails from the global south, lending support to predictions that someday, perhaps quite soon, they will elect a non-European pope. If that were to occur, it would only echo what is happening in Catholic parishes throughout the developed world. In the United States, where a shrinking number of young men are willing to accept the sacrifices required for ordination, one in six of all diocesan priests, and one in three seminarians, are now foreign-born. The world’s largest Catholic seminary is in Nigeria. When I went to my childhood home in South Carolina for the holidays last year, a visiting Nigerian priest celebrated Christmas Mass at my own family’s parish, surprising his passive audience with an upbeat, stemwinding, almost evangelical homily on God’s glory.

Christianity is practiced differently in the global south, and especially in Africa, where it has been invested with cultural values that long predate the first missionary efforts. During the 20th century, the population of Christians in Africa grew from 10 million to around 360 million, and that could double by 2025, by which time demographers project the continent will be home to a quarter of all believers. These Africans are making Christianity their own, in ways both subtle and profound. This is evidenced in political debates over subjects like homosexuality, which is scorned throughout the continent, or condom distribution, which — despite the current pope’s opposition — some local Catholic bishops have countenanced as a practical response to AIDS. But it can also be seen in a style of worship: colorful, musical and suffused with a belief in the presence of the supernatural in everyday life.

This Africanization is obvious in Pentecostal sects like the Redeemed Christian Church of God. Here again is a story of revival. The Pentecostal movement is said to have begun in 1906, in a rundown church in a Los Angeles ghetto, where a black preacher gathered a multiracial congregation to pray in a fashion that contemporary critics saw as radical and strange, maybe even possessed. Today there are around 600 million Pentecostals worldwide, the vast majority of them in developing nations, and Africa is a hotbed. Pentecostalism is not so much an organized religion — it has no central authority — as a set of beliefs and practices that can be adapted by local entrepreneurs. It is perfectly suited to harness the modern forces of global crosspollination.

1 comment:

Akin said...

What this reminds me of is the parable of the mustard seed, Matthew 13:31-32 (NLV):

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches.”

All sorts of birds find refuge in a large audiences.