Incarnational Mission in Africa

Isaac Phiri 02 Apr 2010

A Response to Joel Van Dyke and Kris Rocke’s ‘The Beautiful Question of the Incarnational Gospel

The evangelical church in Africa is thriving. The numbers are phenomenal. In Lagos, Nigeria, almost every other street has a church, and every other evening features a ‘revival’ or an evangelistic rally. The same is true in Kampala, Uganda; Nairobi, Kenya; Lubumbashi, Congo DR; Lusaka, Zambia; Harare, Zimbabwe; Johannesburg, South Africa and in many other big and small cities across the continent.

All these events are crowd pullers. Hundreds jam wobbly wooden temporary structures, tiny churches and bare classrooms. Thousands gather in large churches, public halls, or dusty soccer stadiums. The exuberance at these events is electrifying. Singing, clapping and dancing reverberate. Teaching and preaching provoke and invoke. In some cases, the visible manifestations of the gifts of the Holy Spirit top everything.

Numerical growth has necessitated additional church facilities, from thousand-seater mega structures to unfinished classroom-sized buildings.

However, while this growth – at least in numbers – is exciting, there are still lingering and disconcerting questions about whether and how the incarnational mission of Christ is being fully delivered. Joel Van Dyke and Kris Rocke’s article gets to the heart of the issue. Are evangelical Christians singing the Lord’s song in Babylon, or are we exhibiting manifestations of faith in more comfortable Jerusalem? Is the ‘concern to incarnate Jesus among the least, last and lost’ an integral part of contemporary African evangelicalism?

While evangelicals manifest a great and desirable energy to reach individuals with the transformative spiritual message of Christ, there is more to the Gospel. The whole Gospel addresses the whole person who has both soul and body needs.

God once said ‘away with your singing’ to the Children of Israel (Amos 5:23). Why? Because they were occupied with the festivity of religion while the widows and orphans among them went without food.

Sometimes one wonders whether the same could be said to us as we gather in our church events and enjoy the music and dance and listen to the tantalizing sermons. As we claim and proclaim health and wealth, millions are struggling with HIV and AIDS. Orphans and widows sleep on empty stomachs. Women are raped while children are forced into war. Street children line the roads along with prostitutes. The inefficient and corrupt justice systems let the guilty go free but send the innocent into prisons where they are fed like pigs and packed like sardines. It is a strange land.

A gospel that does not address the whole person is not the gospel lived and preached by Christ. He did feed the soul but also cared for the needs of the body. It is written that he felt compassion for the crowds that followed him. ‘What can I do for you?’ he asked individuals with illnesses and disabilities. That is God incarnate at work. We are called to do the same.

The call to incarnation is not just to minister to the needs of the individual but to society as a whole. To say African nations are in need of salvific intervention is to state the obvious. But, ironically, many African national leaders claim faith. It is not unusual for African leaders to attend church services with flaunted flamboyancy. And, as per cultural norms, they are often given opportunities to ‘greet’ the gathered ‘in Jesus’ name.’ They will often also call for more prayer for their governments.

Zambia, from where I am writing this, is a good example. In 1991, the newly elected President Frederick Chiluba tearfully and repentantly declared Zambia a Christian nation ‘under God.’ However, by the time his two-term presidency ended, the country was wallowing in corruption. It turns out there was a lot of corruption during Chiluba’s ‘Christian’ presidency. Many of his close associates were jailed. He himself was accused of gross mismanagement of public funds. Therefore, the idea of Zambia being a Christian nation is rarely taken seriously today.

The evangelical church in Africa needs to hear and absorb the call to incarnational ministry of the Center for Transforming Mission (CTM). Statistical growth is welcome and a source of much praise when churches in other parts of the world, such as Europe, are empty. The fanning of spirituality that often accompanies evangelical fervency is much needed by the soul. But now it is time for African evangelicals to sing the Lord’s song in the strange lands of disease, hunger, poverty and political upheavals. Let us incarnate Jesus among the least, last and lost.

Isaac Phiri is lecturer in post graduate studies in media at the University of Zambia, and former director of international training programs with Cook Communications Ministries International. He writes widely on the role of the church in Africa.

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)