Growing up in the city of Oyo, southwestern Nigeria, as the son of an evangelical Baptist minister, I had the privilege of following my father to Christian ecumenical gatherings and prayer meetings in the city. In those assemblies, I recall how other denominational adherents treated the African Indigenous Churches (AICs) and their members (white garment members, as we used to call them) with mistrust. The AICs generally attracted this negative reaction due to their dissimilar religious expression to most of the other churches. Some Western observers in the 1970s and 1980s also disparaged AICs as separatist, sectarian, and syncretic movements. However, this perception seems to be changing today as the AICs’ Christianity now receives better reception. In fact, AICs are critical parts of the phenomenal growth of Christianity in non-Western continents today. So, in this article, I reflect on the historic shift of Christianity from the global North to the global South and highlight some of the unique contributions of AICs to this development.
From Western Christianity to Global Christianity
It is now common knowledge that Christianity has witnessed a radical transformation in its demography from the 1910s to the 2010s. In this period, the Christian centre of gravity shifted rapidly from the Western heartlands in the U.S. and Europe to non-Western contexts in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Before the early twentieth century, Christianity was undoubtedly Western in outlook, the white man’s religion, and a representative of world Christianity. Indeed, in 1900, 82% of world Christians lived in the West, while the remaining 18% lived in the non-Western world. Europe was home to two-thirds of the Christian population at that time. Hence the famous statement from the Catholic poet and writer, Hilaire Belloc, “Europe is the faith, and the faith is Europe.”
However, within the last century, the Christian faith has assumed a new look. A higher percentage of Christians now live in the majority world, with Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans more typical representatives of Christianity than Americans or Europeans. Sadly, the Christian population in the West has dropped from 82% in 1900 to 33% in 2020, while the percentage of Christians in the non-Western world has gone up from 18% to 67%. By implication, since 2020, about two-thirds of all Christians, at least, now reside in the Global South, with only one-third in the North. The rapid decline of Christianity in Europe and North America, the great efforts of Western missionaries in the majority world, and the subsequent reception of the gospel throughout the non-Western globe, all together contribute to the shift in global Christian demography and the rise of global Christianity.
Of the Shift: The African Snippet
In the reshaping of the Christian face, the growth of Christianity in Africa is even more significant. Over the last 100 years, Africa has experienced a meteoric rise in its Christian population, both on the continent and in the diaspora. The eight million African Christians in 1900 had exploded to over 350 million by the turn of the new millennium, and 600 million, by 2020. As 2.6 billion Christians are likely to be from the global South by 2050, research has suggested that 1.3 billion of this number would be Africans. The Scottish theologian and Missiologist, Andrew Walls, is right to observe that “Sub-Saharan Africa is now one of the world’s principal theatres for the Christian faith.” Indeed, Africa is now the home of a large and growing proportion of the world’s Christians, and it is beginning to take a more visible position in worldwide Christian discourses.
The AICs’ Contribution
In the demographic shift of the Christian base in favour of the global South and Africa, the role of AICs is significant and deserves spotlighting. The AICs emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the African strand of the development of Christianity. They constitute one of the most remarkable phenomena of church growth in global Christianity, especially from the twentieth century into the twenty-first century. Below are some thoughts on the important contributions of AICs to global Christianity.
1. Church Expansion in Africa
AICs are one of the fastest-growing churches in Africa today. They command adherents to the tune of millions, spread all over Africa. For example, in Southern Africa, there are more than 5,000 estimated indigenous churches. The largest of these churches include the Zion Apostolic Church and the AmaNazaretha Church in Southern Africa, with membership sizes of about 5 million and 4 million, respectively. The Aladuras in Nigeria and West Africa are another large indigenous Christian movement in Africa. For instance, the Celestial Church of Christ (the CCC), claims more than 5 million members worldwide. Other AICs with huge followership include EJCSK (popularly known as the Kimbaguists), Akan AICs, the Harrist Church (founded by Willam Wade Harris), and the East African Roho and Akurinu churches, among others. In 2010, of the 450 million population of African Christians, AICs numbered between 100 and 120 million. Of course, the figures would be higher today, between 120 and 150 million.
2. Renewal of Christianity in the West
Not only are AICs spreading all over sub-Saharan Africa, but they have equally proliferated to many parts of Europe and North America with their religious peculiarities. This is made possible through migration. As AIC adherents migrate from Africa to the rest of the world, they take along their Christianity. AIC members are not ashamed to don their white sutana on the streets of London, Manchester, Paris, and New York on a Sunday morning. The import of the diasporic spread of AICs is that they make up a significant part of the African Christians now engaging in missions in European cities and other countries that once sent missionaries to Africa, less than 100 years ago. These churches are fulfilling the Blessed Reflex—helping to bring renewal and reinvigoration to Christianity in the West.
3. Global Pentecostalism
In the 20th century, global Christianity experienced not only a geographical shift but also a change in character. Global Christianity witnessed a dramatic growth in Pentecostalism alongside the geographical dislocation. Just as the proportion of Christians has changed from the global North to the global South, the number of Pentecostals has increased in the same direction, and Africa has contributed immensely to this. One chief reason for Africa’s critical facilitation of Pentecostalism is the continent’s cosmological spiritual worldview. AICs play a central role in the growth of African Pentecostalism. More than most church traditions in Africa (perhaps except for African Pentecostal churches), AICs prioritise the experience of the Holy Spirit in their religious activities and proffer solutions to people’s challenges. The AICs’ charismatic devotion to prayer, prophecy, healing, and the free manifestation of the gift of the Holy Spirit introduce dynamism to global Christianity.
Indeed, the growth of the church in the global South and in Africa has been one of the surprises of the past century. The AICs have continued to represent one of the most impressive stories in this surprising history of Christianity. Without a doubt, AICs will remain an important Christian movement that shapes and influences global Christianity for the foreseeable future.