A Challenge to the Adventist Church in Africa
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by Alvin Masarira, Johannesburg, South Africa, 05/05/2017
The Seventh-day Adventist church is one of the most diverse organizations in the world. The idea of taking the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue and people, as outlined in Revelation 14, was developed by the church very soon after it was organized in 1863. Only 11 years later, the church sent out its first international missionary, John Nevins Andrews, to Switzerland. By the 1890s the Adventist church had sent missionaries to faraway places such as South Africa, South America, Japan and Russia.
The Adventist Church believes that mission (evangelism) is the most important reason for its existence and therefore takes its missionary assignment very seriously. We dedicate huge amounts of resources in reaching the so-called unentered (often remote) parts of the world with the Advent message. This has led to some phenomenal growth in church membership, which we believe to be a fulfillment of the prophecy that the gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world as a testimony before the end comes.
The church has grown from a small group which was only concentrated in the Northeastern part of the United States in the 1860s to a global movement with over 20 million adult baptized members, operating in over 920 languages and 208 countries and territories. This evangelistic zeal is not waning, as indicated by the current drive for what is termed Total Member Involvement (TMI). For example, the church in Kenya has the goal of involving all its 866,000 members in TMI this year. More than 4,000 evangelistic meetings are being held there. Members are involved in community work and preaching. Their goal is to baptize more than 400,000 this year. In Eastern Ukraine baptisms have more than doubled in the past two years as members have made mission their priority.
This numerical growth and the diversity brings challenges. One is how to maintain unity in the faith, beliefs, doctrines or life-style among the membership from such diverse cultures and nationalities. The other is based on the fact that the numerical growth is more accelerated in the poorer parts of the world and less in the wealthier parts of the world. For example, Africa alone contributes over 35% of the global Adventist membership. This numerical growth is, however, not accompanied by an equivalent growth in financial resources for the world church to conduct its business. This obviously implies that the regions of the world that experience slow membership growth still continue to bear the greater burden of resourcing the world church.
One just needs to look at the Annual Statistics released by the General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics and Research to understand this. The 2014 statistics, for example, reveal huge disparities in terms of tithe returns per Division. The East Central Africa Division with 3.26 million members had $40million in tithe returns for the year (i.e. $14/member/year), the Inter European Division with 179 000 members had $245million in tithe returns for the year (i.e. $279/member/year), North American Division with 1.22 million members had $970 million in tithe returns for the year ($820/member/year) and the Southern Africa Indian Ocean Division with 3.5 million members had $92 million in tithe returns for the year ($30/member/year). Although Adventists also give free-will offerings, the amount of tithes returned is usually indicative of the financial capacity of church members. The disparity in terms of membership becomes very evident when one notices that the African country such as Zambia, for example, which has two Union Conference,s has a total Adventist membership of about 1 million, while the North American Division (made up mainly of the USA and Canada) has about 1.22 million members. The disparity becomes even clearer when one notices that Zambia has a general population of 17 million while the combined USA and Canada population is about 360 million.
These challenges generate certain dynamics and questions within the global Adventist church. Who defines the true Adventist identity? Who controls the levers of power in the global church? Who determines the Adventist agenda? Whose voice is loudest in the organization? Who shapes Adventist theological trends? Who controls Adventist perceptions? Who controls the major and influential church institutions? Although these questions are not articulated in this form and manner within the general Adventist membership, they often form the basis of the tensions experienced within the movement. While some regions of the world have large membership, others have the resources and institutions that are critical for the functioning of the world church. The membership size is, however, also critical in that the composition of many church committees that make decisions tends to be based on proportional representation, with the regions that have large church membership having more members on these committees. This has sometimes created tension when the regions that bring more money and resources to the table feel that their low membership figures reduce their influence in the decision making structures of the world church, especially at General Conference sessions or Executive Committee meetings. On the other hand regions that make a lower financial contribution to the world church sometimes look at the wealthier regions with suspicion, believing that their wealthier brothers and sister want to flex their financial muscles.
One other area of disparity is in the academic and intellectual contribution to the Adventist global conversation. Historically, it has been the theologians and scholars from NAD and Europe who have shaped the dialogue and even the theological trends within Adventism. This is of course is to be expected since the church’s world headquarters as well as the Adventist institutions of higher learning and research are mainly based in the NAD. For decades Adventists from the rest of the world wanting to further their studies and research at church institutions would go, for example, to Andrews, Oakwood or Loma Linda Universities (USA) or Newbold College (UK) or Friedensau (Germany). However in the last decades the Adventist church has established institutions of higher learning in other parts of the world, e.g. Adventist University of Africa in Kenya and Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines. Although these institutions are meant to reduce the need of prospective students (especially graduate students) to travel to the United States for their studies, the impact of American-based Adventist institutions on the world church is still very significant.
A look at the Adventist church in Africa reveals that its impact on the global Adventist scholarship and dialogue is minimal. In spite of its numerical contribution to the world membership, it makes a disproportionately minor financial and scholarly contribution to the world church. As a result, its impact on the theological direction and trends on a number of issues is relatively small. Due to the historical developments in the Adventist Church, the smaller segment of the church based in the West has the greater impact. This requires a delicate balancing act on the part of the global church leadership, to ensure that no one feels discriminated against because of either their smaller membership or weaker financial muscle.
The time has however come (I believe that time came a while ago) that the Adventist church in Africa should rise to the occasion and begin to make a much bigger contribution to global Adventism. The African church cannot simply bring membership numbers to the world church. As already mentioned, the African membership is over 35% of the global membership, but the tithe returns from Africa are about 6% of global returns. And when one follows the conversations within the global Adventist church, it is evident that the African voice is often either absent or very faint.
I would like to reiterate the fact that there are very real reasons for this. Poverty and lack of resources is a reality in Africa, and its roots can also be traced back to European colonialism. That cannot be trivialized or ignored. That also means only a few (if any) institutions similar to the ones in the West were established in Africa during the colonial era. All these factors explain some of the challenges that have dogged African societies, and indeed the church, for centuries.
However it should also be said that there is more the Adventist Church in Africa can do to make a greater impact on the world church. The African church members have capacity and resources which, if committed and utilized, would lead to a qualitative growth of the church and increase its global impact. The Adventist church in Africa needs to exploit the many opportunities available to make itself more relevant to the society in which it is located. One of the reasons African Adventism looks European or North American is because the church has in some cases not made the necessary effort to indeed become African. There has been a tendency in the past for the church in Africa to wait for instructions or take a cue from the West. This could have been a subconscious behavior, a lack of courage to define one’s own path. Only recently has there been signs that the African church is becoming bolder in determining how it can be relevant to its environment.
Another contributing factor to the challenges of the African church is (sadly) the tendency by some African church leaders, in an attempt to achieve their desired and preferred outcome, to stifle any differing or alternative views. One of the fundamental principles of the church is that the leader’s role is to facilitate consensus building within the body even if the ultimate resolution is not the leaders preferred outcome. Church leadership in many parts of Africa tends to amass for itself disproportionate power and authority, leading in some cases to a point where any differing views are viewed as disrespecting leadership, and are career for church workers. Ironically, Adventists often criticise the Roman Catholic Church for the excessive amounts of authority concentrated within a small group of cardinals or in the Vatican. But there are times and cases where the Adventist church in Africa seem not be able to resist similar tendencies. The role of local leadership and a different understanding of how it influences processes and decisions cannot be ignored if the African church is to make significant strides in it development.
I would like to challenge African church leaders, thought-leaders, and scholars to help define how the church and its theological beliefs can find practical meaning to the African person who faces a different set of challenges from a European or an American. Although the global wealth distribution favors the west, there is a need for the average African Adventist to take ownership of his or her church. It is my conviction that there is more the members could do and bring to the table. There is more, in terms of financial capacity, within the African Adventist church than what the giving patterns (tithes and offerings) seem to indicate. Although it may not equal the European or North American church, I am convinced that if the majority of church members in Africa took greater ownership of the church and “put their money where their mouths are” things would be better than they currently are. There would be more money to run programs, improve church buildings, schools and medical facilities. There would also be money available to build more such institutions and also a less reliance on subsidies from other parts of the world.
The Adventist church in Africa generally has capacity to do more than what it currently does and could play a more significant role in global Adventism. This however requires a critical look at itself, leaders willing to be challenged, accepting a wide spectrum of views as well as a greater commitment to make sacrifices and develop effective strategies in order to ensure that it just does not bring numbers to the table, but also becomes self-sustaining so as to make a greater contribution to the global Adventist conversation.
Alvin Masarira is originally from Zimbabwe, and is now a Structural Engineering Consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife Limakatso, a medical doctor, have three children.