Is African Adventism Still Under the Shadow of the Missionaries?
by Alvin Masarira | 10 February 2022 |
About 20 years ago an American Adventist preacher came to my town to conduct an evangelistic series. As I was driving him to the guest house after our first meeting he asked me a question that has been ringing in my head all these years: “Why do you guys sing like us in America? I was looking forward to some African style of worship”. I mumbled a response, but I am sure I didn’t give an adequate explanation.
Historical accounts as confirmed by Andy Hanson show that the first Adventist in South Africa was a transplanted Nevada miner named William Hunt, who arrived in the late 1870s to work in the diamond diggings in Griqualand West. He made his most celebrated convert in 1885, Beaconsfield businessman G.J. Van Druten. In 1886, Van Druten and another convert, Peter Wessels, appealed to the General Conference for a Dutch minister to further instruct them and baptize them. Van Druten enclosed about $250 to help cover expenses.
Over the past 130-plus years, the Adventist Church has grown significantly in Africa. Our continent is one of the fastest growing regions, in terms of numbers of believers, compared to other parts of the world. The three African divisions of the General Conference contribute almost 40% of the global membership, and are home to hundreds of Adventist schools, colleges, universities, and health centres.
Under the shadow
One would expect that such a significant segment of the world church would have moved out of the shadows of the culture of the founding European and American missionaries. However, a review of the general condition of the Adventist church in Africa still shows significant evidence of Eurocentric domination.
For example: the recently held Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division (SID) Bible & Mission Conference 2022 under the theme “The Remnant Church: Theological Challenges and the Role of Pastors, Teachers and Leaders”. This three-day conference was on the online (Zoom) platform, and those invited to attend were pastors and spouses, teachers, and leaders.
Of the fifteen presenters only two were resident in southern Africa. The rest were either Europeans or Americans, including the General Conference (GC) President and one of his general vice presidents.
Only those who planned this conference would know how the presenters were selected: whether this was an event planned by SID leaders and they decided on the presenters, or if it was a GC event imposed on the SID. Either way, it raises questions about the shadow of the West on the African church.
Although no one questions the role of the General Conference in defining Adventist doctrine and ensuring the global movement has common positions on matters pertaining to our fundamental beliefs, the selection of the presenters who would spend three days speaking to the pastors and spouses, teachers, and leaders in southern Africa gives a strong impression that the organisers and the General Conference do not believe that there are local theologians, scholars and leaders who have competencies, capacity and authority to speak on these issues.
When I saw this Bible & Mission Conference invitation, I asked myself the following questions:
First, do African speakers get invited to speak at equivalent events in North America and Europe—e.g., Trans-European Division (TED) or North American Division (NAD) Bible & Mission Conferences?
Second, when will the Adventist Church in Africa move out of the shadows of the Euro-American influence in the church?
Everyone knows that it was the Europeans and Americans who brought the Adventist faith to Africa. But there are also Africans who live in the diaspora, e.g., African Americans. It would be worth comparing how these two groups—African Americans and Africans on the continent—have adapted the Adventist faith and its practices.
There can be no easy and direct comparison between the African American experience that began in trans-Atlantic slavery, which saw their ancestors shipped from the African continent in the 17th century, and that of Africans on the continent who were visited by European colonialists and missionaries. Although the contexts are different, what is common is that the Judeo-Christian faith was foreign to both groups and had to be understood and assimilated in the context of their African culture, tradition and world-view.
A look at how the Christian faith is experienced and practiced in the African American community reveals some distinct features that are different to the Eurocentric community. Although the fundamentals of the Biblical faith are similar, the African Americans—including Seventh-day Adventists—have made strides in contextualising it to suit and address their own needs and lived realities.
Two of the main features of the church in the African American community are liberation and empowerment. Given the history of slavery and Jim Crow laws, as well as existing segregation and racial discrimination that exists in America, the question of liberation still looms large. Faith and worship therefore are a celebration of freedom (already experienced and freedom still to be achieved, given that it’s still incomplete). People enter and experience freedom through the liberating presence of the Holy Spirit.
Some even argue that it is this liberating theme that leads to the refusal by the black church to be victimised by the tyranny of the clock. Black worship services can last for extended lengths of time. Black music—singers and instrumentalists—aren’t necessarily governed by the written music notes, but are rich in improvisations.
Empowerment is also key in light of current and future struggles. The black church is an agent of social cohesion, economic cooperation, a space for political activity and a hiding place in a hostile world. Church leaders teach about social, political, and religious structures that seek to continue to oppress and rob them of their God-given rights. The infusion of liberation and empowerment in the African American faith community resonates with the African understanding of life: we Africans tend to view life holistically, where the secular and sacred are not mutually exclusive or in tension, but are interconnected realities.
One of President Barack Obama’s most searing speeches on race relations in the United States was at the funeral service of the late Reverend Clementa Pinckney on June 26, 2015. Reverend Clem was the pastor of the Mother Emanuel African American church, and was gunned down together with eight of his members in a racially motivated crime. President Obama said,
Clem was often asked why he chose to be a pastor and a public servant. But the person who asked probably didn’t know the history of the AME [African Methodist Episcopal] church. As our brothers and sisters in the AME church know, we don’t make those distinctions. “Our calling,” Clem once said, “is not just within the walls of the congregation, but…the life and community in which our congregation resides.” He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the “sweet hour of prayer” actually lasts the whole week long—that to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it’s about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.
This is an excellent summary of the philosophy of the African American church.
There is more that can be said to describe how African American Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists, have made strides in domesticating their faith, as well as moving away from the shadows of Eurocentrism. Even the whole question of regional conferences in the NAD is part of this narrative.
On the continent
The Adventist Church on the African continent has made less progress in this regard. A typical Adventist service on a Sabbath is comparable with an ordinary church service in the United States, as our American guest preacher noted 20 years ago. There is a sense—dare I say a belief?—that Adventism is not authentic unless it mirrors that which was brought by the missionaries in the late 19th century. There are variations here and there, but in general nothing much has changed in the last 140 years.
Of course, the Sabbath worship does not reflect the entire spectrum of the lived experience of people, but it is indicative of our fundamental belief system.
As an Adventist living in Africa, that the recent SID Bible & Missions Conference 2022 was dominated by General Conference and American presenters did not surprise me. The African church is still deep in the shadow of the American church. There is very little that has been contextualized to reflect the local conditions, nor our mindset and culture. Over the century since the missionaries arrived, there are still arguments about whether the African drum belongs in an Adventist worship service. There are still many parts of Africa where African traditional clothing (which is modest and decent) is not seen as appropriate for church on Sabbath.
Church leadership is seldom intentional about encouraging local leaders to develop an authentic African Adventism. There is a perception among many that anything that deviates from the Adventism that came within the European context and packaging is a denial of the faith.
It needs to be reiterated that the questions around Euro- vs. Afrocentrism in Adventism are in no way a criticism of Adventist fundamental tenets of faith, but rather an issue of how they are interpreted and experienced to speak to the specific characteristics of each culture and society.
Making African Adventism relevant
I propose some possible ways to assist in the growth of the Adventist Church in Africa as it seeks to be more relevant to the community it operates in and seeks to serve.
First, there is a need for more robust conversations driven by lay Adventists, since conversations inside the organisation led by church workers and leaders tend to be characterised by fear of reprisal—whatever that means. Church workers seem frightened that they will be seen as criticising and challenging the organisation, for obvious reasons. The Adventist Church is fond of reminding us that it is we members who make up the church—and in this case the burden for change rests on the shoulders of us lay members. Any changes will have to be lay-driven, because the organization is reluctant to self-critique.
Thanks to the COVID pandemic, these conversations have already started taking place in the two years since the church moved from church buildings to private homes, or to Zoom and other online platforms. The conversations need to continue. We should be intense and intentional about coming up with practical, implementable proposals. Implantation can happen at local levels, local churches, small groups and communities, even if it initially brings no changes in the thinking of those at the conference or union conference levels.
Second, we should continuously challenge church leadership, especially in Africa, to do things differently. Strange as it might sound after what I’ve just said, it is my experience that some church leaders are open to proposals and ideas on how to improve the church and make it more relevant to the world, more effective in its mission. Church leadership knows that a lot of good ideas come from the grassroots of the church. Even if leadership lacks the boldness and courage to make tough decisions that lead to real change, some are willing to listen. That should encourage lay members to keep talking and engaging with leaders.
Finally, there is a new generation of young Adventists in Africa that is no longer willing to accept things as they have always been done. The youth are asking difficult questions around this interface between their Adventist faith and who they are as Africans, their lived experiences and their community identity. The church needs to take these questions seriously because young Adventists might not have enough loyalty to the organization to remain in the church if they don’t experience it as reflecting who they are.
We can no longer ignore that the African Adventist Church has been living under the influence of a Eurocentric cultural cloud for way too long.
Alvin Masarira is originally from Zimbabwe, and is a structural engineering consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife, Limakatso, a medical doctor, have three children.