Where I come from, people joke that there are more churches than Christians. Since the arrival of Evangelicalism in Africa in the 1800s, churches have not ceased to multiply, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. This is encouraging, because we want to see the local church grow in Africa. But to avoid speaking past one another, let me define ‘local church.’
What Is The ‘Local Church’?
The local church is an assembly of Christians, gathering regularly for worship in a particular location. They must also have some organised shape or form. While I greatly rejoice in the evident abundance of churches, there are significant reasons for concern. The state of many local churches is lamentable.
The church is the arena where God’s manifold wisdom is displayed to the heavenly hosts
For the record, I don’t doubt that Christ has his bride in Africa. But I think she is in great danger. She is sick, injured, and confused. This concern for the local church is fitting among Christians. For the church lies at the very centre of God’s eternal purposes (Ephesians 2:11-22). Indeed, the church is the arena where God’s manifold wisdom is displayed to the heavenly hosts (Ephesians 3:10-12).
What Ails The Local Church?
I would like to highlight three points that capture what bedevils many churches in Africa. You will notice that the second and third points significantly hinge on the first.
1. A Weak Doctrinal Foundation
Many people trip over the word ‘doctrine.’ Admittedly there is much baggage associated with it. But it’s worth clarifying that ‘doctrine’ is not a bad word.
Many Christians view robust theological teaching and study with both disdain and suspicion.
Paul employs it multiple times in the pastoral epistles. For instance, a primary duty of any pastor is to teach sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). Sadly, many churches think doctrine belongs exclusively to theologians. They deem theological study unimportant for the Christian life.
Others worry that focusing on it may even be dangerous, fearing that doctrine divides. Thus many Christians view robust theological teaching and study with both disdain and suspicion.
The Bible Receives Lip Service
Consider for instance, that a quick sampling of many churches’ statements of faith reveal a vague and glib affirmation of the primacy of the teachings of Scripture alone, but that’s all. The Bible and its doctrines receive lip service. But they are not preached.
Preachers use the Bible, for sure… Yet they disown it by a lack of faithful practice.
Preachers use the Bible, for sure. However, they rarely expound it. Many churches tip their hats to sound doctrine in their creeds and confessions. Yet they disown it by a lack of faithful practice. In the end, the Bible’s authority is greatly compromised, its message distorted and it’s voice markedly muffled.
Theology Is Left Behind
A shallow doctrine of Scripture impacts all the other major doctrines of the Christian faith. The result is theologically anaemic churches across Africa. Many churches have left theology behind. And shallow theology has left many churches in disarray.
Shallow theology has left many churches in disarray.
Have we forgotten? Sound doctrine is essential for worship (John 4:24), unity (1 John 1:1-4), discipleship (John 17:17), and evangelism (John 8:32).
Churches would do well to heed the words of Thomas Aquinas. He famously, and correctly, said that theology is taught by God, teaches God, and leads to God. Instead of being custodians of sound doctrine, churches have fallen victim to unsound theology. Churches cannot shirk the responsibility to be “the pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
2. A Woeful Soteriology
This is not an attempt to sound lofty. Soteriology is simply the doctrine of salvation. This point could be subsumed into the preceding one. But its significance merits separate treatment.
A False Gospel Begets False Converts
Many churches’ suspicion of doctrine in general has dealt a fatal blow to the doctrine of conversion. If we grant that sound doctrine is essential for evangelism, and evangelism consists primarily in sharing the gospel, the outcome is obvious. A false gospel begets false converts. If we seldom preach the biblical gospel of repentance and faith we will make false disciples.
If we seldom preach the biblical gospel of repentance and faith we will make false disciples
That the ‘prosperity gospel’ is in many ways the staple, both on the street and in the local church, should jolt us. In the end, sound doctrine is a safeguard for the gospel. Sound doctrine leads to sound conversions and meaningful Christian discipleship. Without it, genuine conversions are unlikely.
This is dangerous territory. Churches are filling up. But are those Christians in the pews? Our soteriology has huge implications for the church and the watching world. Therefore the joke that we have more churches than Christians is not so funny. It is a scathing observation of ‘Christianisation’ without conversion.
3. A Warped Ecclesiology
Ecclesiology is the theological study of the church. It follows naturally from the previous points. Soteriology and ecclesiology are integrally related. If we confuse the former it will corrupt the latter: faithful evangelism births fruitful churches.
Church Is More Than A Gathering
But, there is a growing indifference toward biblical ecclesiology on our continent. How the local church is to be organised and governed is considered a matter of human prudence, pragmatism, taste, and tradition. My contention is that we must humbly listen to how the Bible conceives church. This includes both how it comes into being and what shape it takes.
Becoming a Christian entails belonging to a church. But belonging to a church does not entail being a Christian
On a basic level, the church is a congregation of regenerate people. Thus, the gospel is the wellspring of the church—Christ creates the church through it. This is at least one of the lessons to be drawn from Acts 2. For as Peter preaches the gospel, the church is created. Becoming a Christian entails belonging to a local church. But belonging to a church does not entail being a Christian. However, what we see in Africa, are gatherings where everyone belongs. Membership is undefined. Credible professions of faith are of little concern.
Two Practical Problems
Thus we encounter two problems. Firstly, churches are made up of non-Christians. Secondly, these churches are not rightly organised. This means they are unable to execute the key functions for which Christ created the church.
Without a solid, sound doctrinal base, it becomes incredibly hard to do missions and evangelism faithfully.
These functions include: proclaiming the gospel (by proper preaching); portraying the gospel (by a right administration of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper); and protecting the gospel (by the act of church discipline). Without a solid, sound doctrinal base, it becomes incredibly hard to do missions and evangelism faithfully.
Therefore many churches are unhealthy.
To this bag of complexities we might add bad methodologies. Many a local church is run like a corporation or business rather than a community of saints (Acts 2:42-47). This only worsens matters. Need I mention that countless churches are built around personalities? Others centre on causes but not the gospel.
This is all pretty grim.
Is There Hope For The Local Church?
Yes, there is hope! There is hope for Africa because the church is not a divine afterthought; it is not an accident of history. God is concerned about churches in Africa. There is lots to lament. But there is something to celebrate. It is not as though Satan has outmanoeuvred God. We don’t have to resign to fate.
The obvious thing to do is to get proper theological bearings. This is the watershed issue for many churches.
We must recover a proper understanding of what conversion is; what a church is; and what the church’s divine mandate is
Another thing would be to adopt or craft sound statements of faith and church covenants. But we cannot stop there. For we must then live out the things we affirm.
In a nutshell we must, by all means, recover a proper understanding of what conversion is; what a church is; and what the local church’s divine mandate is. As we labour to reclaim what we have lost, Christ has given a promise that we can hold on to. He says, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).