by Admiral Ncube  |  11 January 2021  |

Adventism globally is enjoying phenomenal growth, with membership now in excess of 22 million. While acknowledging that numbers—be they demographic or financial—are not an indicator of spirituality or faithfulness, the numerical growth of Adventism globally should be celebrated.

Statistics on accessions through baptism and profession of faith presented at the GC 2020 Annual Council revealed that four of the largest contributors were divisions in the Global South: Inter-America (14.30%), South American (15.82%), Southern Indian-Ocean (19.23%) and East-Central Africa (27.49%). Their combined contribution exceeds 76% of global church growth.

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In his presentation at the same meeting General Conference Executive Secretary Dr G.T. Ng shared the thought-provoking pie chart reproduced here, showing the global composition of the Seventh-day Adventist church based on current membership statistics. Without delving much into the limitations of the presentation, some in the Global South celebrated this as political ammunition in the fight for greater representation and voice in church governance. Equally, it should also ignite a concern about the state of the church in Western, secular and post Christian contexts.

To suggest that God is working more in areas like Africa than other parts of the world, or simply to attribute this to higher levels of commitment to mission, would be irresponsible. Totals in many of the divisions are far from accurate. Though challenges facing the church in the secular and post-Christian West have been documented, the story of Adventism’s growth, especially in Africa, requires further thought. This article attempts to provide more perspective and depth behind the growth of Adventism on that continent, and further explore some of the emerging challenges.

Adventism is not alone

Church growth in Africa is not unique to the Adventist Church. There is substantial growth in Christianity on the African continent among Catholics, Methodists, and Pentecostals. Adventism has been a beneficiary of Africa’s demographic dividend. Projections on the future of Christianity indicate continuing declines in places like Europe, while Sub-Saharan Africa will see substantial growth in the foreseeable future. This explains observed trends on Africa’s contribution to the global growth of Adventism.

If indeed Adventism’s growth on the continent is part of a normal trend in Christianity, then an analysis is needed on where these accessions are coming from. Why would someone in Africa be more inclined to accept our message than someone in Europe or North America? That Adventism is not the only growing church in Africa challenges us to rethink mission in a religiously congested context, where doctrinal correctness is no longer the only factor. Instead of using statistics to accentuate our corporate ego, there is a need for an honest look at our growth in the context of the growth of other religious organisations.

The question is: who are we baptizing, and why?

Born in the church

In an attempt to explain the growth and future of Christianity in Africa, the Pew Center notes that, “If demography was destiny, then Christianity’s future lies in Africa.” High fertility rates that translate into population growth have been cited as a major driver of Christian growth in Africa. While Christian fertility rates are lowest in Europe (1.6), they are highest in sub-Saharan Africa (4.4) where on average Christians are relatively young and have more children than counterparts in other parts of the world, who are older and have fewer children. By 2060, it is expected that 4 in 10 Christians will be living in Sub Saharan Africa.

For many Africans, religion is communal, a family affair. That means that for a child growing up in a Christian or Adventist family, there is little room for freedom to be oneself, at least before adulthood. Children automatically become church members at an early age in the same church as their parents.

That is to say, a great deal of the celebrated growth in Adventism may be attributed to children born in the church. High fertility rates in Africa mean that children born to Adventist parents are more likely to become church members. Only a careful membership study would reveal who it is we are baptising.

The potency of religion

For an African, religion is a force permeating every aspect of life. It is not merely abstract beliefs, though: religion outlines the rules of conduct that guide life within a social group. Faith is not an individual or personal matter,[1] but is embedded in a community.

In secular cultures, religion is distanced from the socio-economic and political spheres. For an African, life cannot be compartmentalized, with religion divorced from daily life. For Africans the influence of religion is pervasive, shaping values, identity and outlook.[2]

For example, whenever there is a crisis or calamity or any other problem, the first response is not to do a physical analysis of the situation, but a spiritual diagnosis of the spiritual powers that have been offended. Conversely, success in any endeavour is not attributed to a person’s acumen, but to the special favour of the ancestors, or spiritual powers,[3] or the Higher Being.

This is deeply embedded in the culture, which means that Africans were already religiously inclined to an extent which even early missionaries may not have fully understood.

Adventism, like other denominations in Africa, finds an already soft ground in these religiously inclined communities. That Africans are notoriously religious is explained by what Doss (2009) refers to as the traditional African map of the universe that defines the transcendent to include a Supreme Being, lesser gods or divinities, ancestors and objects of power.[4]

Another important aspect of African thinking is what termed “dynamism” or power-centeredness,[5] whereby the effectiveness of a religion is determined by how much power it makes available to its adherents. When a religious system becomes ineffective in terms of its power, it is soon abandoned for a more powerful one.[6]

Emerging challenges

In Africa, Adventism encounters a people longing for solutions to the practical issues they face. But Africans are also prone to a syncretism or dualism, which is an attempt to adhere to Christian principles while resorting to traditional religion when confronted with issues they cannot resolve.

The challenge lies in the quality of Adventism in a context where poverty remains pervasive, social injustice prevails, and syncretism and fundamentalist influences are still observable. Where basic health care and education remain a challenge, the church needs to go beyond the pulpit, to challenging social injustice and setting up institutions that address material conditions.

Many are longing for connection, a sense of belonging where not only do genuine relationships thrive, but deliberate attention is given to challenges they face in the African context. A theology that addresses issues facing the African is overdue. Will the Adventist Church on the continent rise to the occasion?

References

  1. Mbiti, JS 1999. African Religions and Philosophy. 2nd ed. Oxford: Heinemann.
  2. Clarke, G. and Jennings, M., editors, 2008: Development, Civil Society and Faith-based Organizations: Bridging the Sacred and the Secular. Hampshire and New …
  3. Wari, G., 2009, Role and function of religion in Africa: An Adventist response, Journal of the Adventist Mission Studies 5(2), 34-40.
  4. Doss, G R. 2009. An Adventist Response to African Traditional Religion. Asia Africa Journal of Mission and Ministry 1:81-90
  5. Okorocha, C C. 1992. Religious conversion in Africa: Its missiological implications. Mission Studies 9, no. 2 (1992): 168-181
  6. Okorocha, C C. 1992. Religious conversion in Africa: Its missiological implications. Mission Studies 9, no. 2 (1992): 168-181

Admiral Ncube (PhD) is from Zimbabwe. He is a development analyst based in Botswana. He is a father of three and husband to Margret.

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