Understanding the Contextual Realities of the Church in Liberia, Part 1

Marcus Garvey, a great son of Africa, once said, “A people without a knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without a root.”1 A Liberian historian also observed, “A people who lack appreciation for their culture and fail to factually document their history and culture is like a palm tree with its palm cabbage removed.”2

It is therefore with great delight that I attempt to unfold some of the challenges facing the Church in post-conflict Liberia in the area of Christian missions as it endeavors to contribute toward the task of rebuilding a nation which was socio-economically, politically, and spiritually devastated by fourteen years of civil war. My hope in this article is three-fold:

  1. to remind the Liberian Christian community of its evangelism and missions challenges;

  2. to facilitate network, partnership, and collaborative efforts among its peoples in the mission enterprise in Africa; and
  3. to solicit the moral and prayer support of our friends and partners abroad in our effort to reclaim our place among the comity of nations.


Before the advent of Christianity in the nineteenth
century, Liberia was also a land of “strongly
entrenched and institutionalized secret societies”
involving almost every people group.

The prerequisite for mobilizing the mission enterprise of the Church in Liberia is to provide relevant information to the Christian community on its current status as far as mission involvement is concerned. I am therefore delighted to share a brief history of missions in Liberia with the hope that the Church, whose divine mandate it is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, will be motivated to take seriously the challenge of missions and thereby advance the Kingdom of God in Liberia.

To do this, I shall endeavor to answer the following four questions:

  1. What are some basic foundations upon which Christianity was established in this nation, and who were the pioneers?

  2. What were some of the major socio-political, cultural, and religious challenges associated with the advent of Christianity in Liberia?
  3. What are the current contextual realities of the Church in Liberia in regard to missions?
  4. What are our challenges, and what is the way forward?

The Founding of Liberia: A Unique Beginning
The Republic of Liberia is black Africa’s oldest independent nation, with independence declared 26 July 1847. Thus, unlike the rest of Africa, Liberia was never colonized.

Liberia is located south of the Sahara, on the west coast of Africa. It is bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea, La Cote d’Ivoire, and the Atlantic Ocean.

It is a small country with an estimated population of 3.5 million: 95% are natives; 2.3% are Liberians of American descents; and the remaining 2.7% are Lebanese, Indians, and other Africans residing and working in Liberia.

Liberia has sixteen major ethnic groups divided into three language families: the Mande, which make up 47.2% of the population; the Kru, which make up 41.3%; and the West Atlantic, which make up 7.9%.3 Approximately 48.3% of the population are traditionalists; 38.33% are Christians; 13.0% are Muslims, and 0.30% are Baha’i.4

Since its existence, Liberia has been a land of rich cultures and traditions.5 Before the advent of Christianity in the nineteenth century, Liberia was also a land of “strongly entrenched and institutionalized secret societies”6 involving almost every people group. While the culture and tradition of the Liberian people were the connecting link enabling them to maintain their common identity and life, there were (and still are) elements of the culture which impeded their socio-economic development and kept them in spiritual darkness.

Our Christian Foundation
Although its current constitution (revised in 1985) declares Liberia a secular state, it is indeed a Christian nation. There are several reasons for this assertion:

1. The birth of the nation. Unlike other countries in Africa, Liberia was birthed from the womb of the Church. Eleven churchmen signed its declaration of independence on 26 July 1847 in the Providence Baptist Church, thus making Coast of Grain (now Liberia) a sovereign state.

2. Monrovia, formerly, Christopolis. Because of her Christian heritage, before independence the capital city of Liberia was first called “Christopolis,” meaning the “City of Christ.” The name was later changed to “Monrovia” in honor of America’s fifth president, James Monroe, who, it is said, significantly contributed to the formation of the American Colonization Society, which was responsible for the repatriation of emancipated slaves to Africa. In appreciation of his generosity, some unspiritually-minded settler leaders changed the name of the capital city.

3. National Day of Fast and Prayer. Unlike other countries in Africa, Liberia celebrates a national holiday called “Fast and Prayer Day,” which is set aside to mobilize national prayer for the spiritual cleansing and healing of the nation (see 2 Chronicles 7:14). This national day was birthed out of a political crisis between Liberia and the British colonial parents of Sierra Leone in the mid 1800s out of which Liberia, along with its political leadership, was delivered only by the power of prayer. Since then, this National Day of Fast and Prayer has been annually observed.

4. Christian symbols. The contents of the national anthem, the national flag, the pledge of allegiance, and the first constitution of Liberia (1847-1985) all point to the fact that Liberia’s forefathers had assumed Liberia was a Christian nation.

5. Past and present heads of state. Almost all of Liberia’s twenty-three presidents, interim presidents, and transitional chairmen have been leaders from the Church. Several were even clergy.

The Realities
But what is the current state of the Church in the context of missions? Given the huge presence of church leaders in national government since the birth of the nation, why is the population still predominantly animist or traditionalist? Why has the nation performed poorly in global missions?

With such an undisputed Christian heritage, one would have expected that Liberia would be the vanguard of spearheading an indigenous mission thrust to the rest of Africa and the world.

However, that has not been the case. One would have further expected that all of Liberia’s people groups would by now be adequately evangelized and discipled with functioning, multiplying congregations which are capable of reproducing themselves in cross-cultural missions. But, sadly, this has not been the case. Liberia still lags far behind in mission endeavors, and many of its unreached people groups stand vulnerable to the rapid, silent invading forces of Islam and other religious groups which are scrambling for a place in Liberia.

There are not yet authentic, national research statistics on the Church in Liberia to help determine the extent of the harvest field and harvest force in the land. It is not that the Church does not have the capability to carry out such research. The fact is that something is terribly wrong with the mission vision of the Church in Liberia.

However, according to Patrick Johnstone and Jason Mandryk, 38.33% of Liberians are Christian, (and have an annual growth rate of +8.6%); 13% are Muslim (and have an annual growth rate of +11.3%); and 48.37% are traditional ethnic groups (and have an annual growth rate of 7.8%).

These statistics reveal the following alarming facts:

  1. Over sixty percent of Liberia’s population are still unreached and waiting to be evangelized, be discipled, and have Bible-believing churches established among them.

  2. Islam is growing at a faster rate in Liberia than Christianity. If the Church continues to ignore her responsibility to do missions, most of this large, unreached population will be claimed by Islam and other religious groups and taken into a Christ-less eternity.
  3. The Church in Liberia has not yet prioritized indigenous mission work. The concentration of the Church is primarily in the cities, while the larger population in the interior of Liberia remains unreached or without the teaching of sound biblical Christianity.
  4. The primary medium of communication (languages/dialects) of traditional people in Liberia is still largely ignored by the Church. The gospel has not yet begun to be proclaimed with cultural relevance in a way that makes sense to the rural people and, hence, encourages their acceptance of it.

The cultural understanding of any people group is the most significant and effective means of reaching them with the gospel. As Richard W. Bowie points out, “Any proclamation which does not take seriously man in his environment is not true proclamation. The gospel may be said to have been truly preached only if it has been made challengingly relevant to the people in their situation.”7

All these realities point to the wrong beginnings of the Church in Liberia.

In part two, we take a look at factors hindering missions in Liberia—and how we are seeking a way forward.

Endnotes

1. Quoted in Caranda, Doughba C. II and William B. Harris. 1993. Liberia’s Legacy: “Our Heritage” Yesterday, Today. U.K.: SCP Third World Publisher, 12.

2. Ibid.

3. Johnstone, Patrick and Jason Mandryk. 2001. Operation World, 21st Century edition. U.K.: Paternoster, 405.

4. Ibid.

5. Glover, Robert Hall. 1960. The Progress of World-wide Missions. New York: Harper & Row, 265.

6. Johnstone, Patrick. 1993. Operation World. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Zondervan, 352.

7. Bowie, Richard W. 2000. Light for the Nations: A Biblical Theology of Evangelization. Singapore: Haggai Institute, 4.


Jerry P. Kulah is district superintendent of the Monrovia District of the Liberia Conference.