Where is African spirituality heading?

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KAMPALA, UGANDA – We’re driving home with African radio on, and this is what we hear. Christian tunes. Nice.

Unlike in Canada, contemporary Christian music is mainstream here in Uganda. Yes, this is the so-called Global South, the part of the planet that, if you don’t yet realize, is shaping 21st-century Christendom.

By 2025 South America is expected to have more than 600 million Christians, about double the number in North America. Asia will have 460 million, almost catching Europe. And the dynamic African Church will climb to 630 million.

Incredibly, 100 years ago, at the dawn of the modern Pentecostal movement, this continent had just 10 million believers. But these are the charismatic days of Afro-Evangelism. And they’re staggering.

Visit the Redeemed Church of God in Lagos, Nigeria and see an average crowd of 300,000. Folks meet in the open air to dance and shout and pray, sometimes all muggy night. The once evangelized Africans are now sending missionaries.

So on Kampala radio this evening, finishing the Top 7 at 7, there’s a DJ doing her thing, and singing the praises of a big, miracle service Quebec that you can’t miss. She’s repetitive and hyper, and I wonder, since it’s the holiday Easter Monday, if she’s a fill-in.

Suddenly she thunders through my truck’s poor speakers, “Jesus Christ! It’s eight o’clock! My shift is over and I’ve got to get out of here!”

Gulp. So long.

Now, I’ve heard God’s holy name tossed around in this unholy fashion by other Christians in Uganda. Here, it’s less a curse and more a casual expression of, well, I’m not sure. Annoyance? Still, there’s a significant disconnect to the third commandment, the one about not misusing God’s name.

So while Christianity is flowing here, it’s often a mile wide and an inch deep. Is that stadium rally really revival, or emotionalism? Mass hysteria?

As put by a Canadian colleague, a counsellor here who has seen the issues, “Nobody knows what to do Monday morning. They’re uninformed biblically.” Just like the Church in, say, ancient Corinth.

Growing deep while wide has always been Christianity’s challenge. And that’s interesting, because the new Christendom of the Third World is just like the early Church.

As then, signs and wonders and personal revelations dominate. There’s neo-orthodoxy and wonky spiritualism. Also, as then, there’s an array of competing sects.

Another western colleague here, a theology professor, tells me, “Something good eventually will come of it. But right now it’s like mud wrestling: a big free-for-all with no rules.”

So yes, discipleship is needed.

Christian or not, many Africans also need deep inner healing. No surprise, considering so many have held hands with sexual brokenness and AIDS, with grinding poverty, with bloody civil war.

What often lingers is a certain anger and denial, a failure to understand one’s self, and a heartbreaking inability to forgive. Rwanda, for example, was Christian during its hate-filled genocide.

The common image of Africa’s needs is different. It’s one-dimensional: a bony child with a bloated stomach and flies on the face. But spirituality, for better or worse, has always profoundly touched all of life here. The question is, what form is it taking?

Challenges of the western Church revolve more around fighting secularism. Then there’s the gulf between conservatives and liberals, mainline denominations now dying because, as one critic put it, they no longer appeal to people believing in God, but to “Wiccan, vegetarians, sandal-wearers and people who play the recorder.”

A very different set of issues is on the larger, global horizon. Come and look. Stay for a while if you can. Maybe you can help give a needy somebody a different kind of bread.

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