On Monday, January 25, Professor Agbonkhianmenghe Orobato, S.J. spoke in a series of lectures on “21st century Christianity in Africa: Promises, Prospects and Pathologies”. The first of his five lectures is called “The miracle of a century: promises and myths of African Christianity in the World Church,” and examined the history of Christianity on the continent of Africa as a whole.
Orobato is originally from Nigeria and is a Professor of Systematic Theology at Hekima University College in Kenya. He was introduced as a scholar who has “absorbed the best of western and African Theology.” As the first lecture in a series, it was the beginning of an exploration into the changing and evolving Christianity in the heterogeneous continent of Africa. He began by stating that “Africa” is an “epistemological invention,” as it is incredibly diverse and thus has diverse strains of Christianity running throughout its history. He spoke about African Christians placing themselves and their lands within the context of Christianity, in saying that the Holy Family fled to Egypt, where the early church or Mark later developed. Orobato said this element of myth-making shapes the unique character of Christianity in Africa.
In North Africa, this early church of Mark developed into the Coptic Church in which theological scholarship and monasticism developed, as well as early debate on the establishment of Christian doctrine. Although this early church is extinct, it is an example of Africa’s role in Christianity. After the near elimination of Christianity in North Africa, missionaries from Europe traveling with merchants began a “Christian court civilization” strain of Christianity. This strain was popular among the native rulers who saw that this connection to Europeans could advance trade in their regions and thus their wealth. Often, they traded their own people for European goods, making them complicit in the slave trade. Ultimately this strain of Christianity proved weak and died out.
The strain of Christianity that Orobato said was most successful was the one introduced by independent missionaries from European countries colonizing the continent. According to Orobato, this missionary work was “a denominational scramble” that coincided with the carving up of Africa by European powers. Sub-Saharan Africa was especially receptive to missionary work by both Protestants and Catholics. Interestingly, Orobato said that African Christian communities focused more on the Old Testament which the people perceived to record the history of a nation and culture similar to theirs.
Within 100 years, from 1910 to 2010, Christianity had a 70 fold increase in Africa, and is still on the rise. On the one hand, Orobato gave statics such as this and that the number of Catholics is approaching 2 million, but also warned against strictly focusing on statistics when studying Christianity in Africa. While the “reverse evangelization” of African priests being exported to the west is becoming more common, this is a recent phenomenon that has only come about after a long period of evangelization and training native Africans to be in charge of their own communities. Orobato describes Christianity in Africa as a Christianity of the people, of the poor, and of developing communities; people learned the Bible in their own languages and applied it to their own contexts. Some who focus on statistics think that Christianity will decrease in Africa as its nations develop and acquire material wealth, as was the case in the west, but Orobato does not agree, calling Africa the “continent of the converted,” and believes it will retain the energy and enthusiasm for the Christian faith and not fall to the apathy and materialism in the west, as evangelization continues to appeal to the poor and common person an is a “double guarantee” of prosperity since Christianity is “aspirational” and looks to the development of its people. Thus, when Africa rises, Christianity can expect to have a even more solid base.