Understanding the Contextual Realities of the Church in Liberia, Part 2

In part one of this article, we explored the unique beginnings of Liberia, including the fact that while Liberia is rooted in a strong Christian heritage, nearly sixty percent of the population is unreached. Why is this so, and how can we move forward?

Factors Hindering Mission Endeavors in Liberia
The advent of Christianity in Liberia is inseparable from the arrival of ex-slaves from South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia (USA) into Liberia. Following their emancipation, the American Colonization Society (ACS) assisted in their voluntary relocation to Africa. Some of them were churchmen who looked forward to making their newfound home a Christian community. As Joseph C. Wold records, “In 1820, the Baptist Church and Methodist and Protestant Missionary Society were organized on board the ship Elizabeth,”1 which brought the first settlers to Liberia.

Relationship between Settlers and Natives: A Poor Beginning
With regards to evangelization, the gospel had a very poor beginning among the natives. That is, the initial Christians who brought the gospel to Liberia did everything but proclaim Christ to the natives. These pioneer missionaries restricted themselves along the coast and remained socially, politically, religiously, and culturally isolated from the natives. They referred to themselves as Americo-Liberians,2 meaning Africans with the prejudices and predilections—the biases and aspirations—of white men, and would have nothing to do with the natives.

Wold shares that, “(Christianity) became one of the marks of being an Americo-Liberian, which distinguished them from the tribal people. To them, it was incredible that an uncivilized tribesman, who could not even speak English, might be a Christian.”3

The settlers’ (including the Christians) only attempt to relate to the natives was to exercise political control over them. That attempt was often met with stiff resistance and resulted in warfare. A patriotic Liberian, E. Wilmot Blyden, lamenting the socio-economic, political, and religious disparity between the settlers and natives, describes the situation:

A group of returned exile-refugees from the house of bondage (USA) settled along a few hundred miles off the coast of their fatherland, attempting to rule millions of people, their own kith and kin, on a foreign system in which they themselves have been imperfectly trained, while knowing very little of the facts of the history (and culture) of the people they assume to rule…and taking for granted that the religious and social theories they have brought from across the sea must be adapted to all the needs of their expatriated brethren.4

Peter Falk also observes that the separation of the settlers from the indigenous population “caused a political and social difficulty and even…obstructed the evangelization of the indigenous population.”5

Wold provides reasons why the gospel initially failed to make any positive impact on the indigenous people, thereby laying a foundation of superficial Christianity in Liberia for many decades:

First, the wars between the pagan tribes and settlers kept the former geographically isolated from the Christians. Second, the tribesmen never considered Christianity a real possibility for themselves, because it was identified with a foreign culture. Third, unfortunately, the moral laxness and social injustices of the settlers in their relations with the tribes did not commend Christianity as a way of life.6

With such a poor beginning, the indigenous people perceived a negative impression of the gospel—it was not a message of liberation, but one that enslaved. Hence, superficial Christianity became a way of life for more than a century. Even today, Christianity in some major cities of Liberia still bears the brunt of a Christianity that has “a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5).

Later, when Christians attempted to reach the natives with the gospel, the settlers brought along with them Freemasonry and, mixing this with traditional secret societies, this became a pervasive influence against the Church. As a result, traces of syncretism are still prevalent in some churches in Liberia today.

The Western cultural lifestyle of the settlers greatly influenced the kind of Christianity and political system they introduced in Liberia. Instead of emphasizing repentance of sin and conversion through faith in Jesus Christ as the basis for salvation, they emphasized the “sitting on a mourner’s bench” until one had an ecstatic experience. Another means of becoming a “Christian” was to replace one’s African name with a Western name. This practice was largely responsible for the kind of superficial Christianity that characterized the Church and several of its leaders in Liberia until about three and a half decades ago.

Because these settlers were at the helm of political affairs, heads of the Church, and simultaneously involved in the Masonic and other kinds of secret societies for more than a century, the Church became a toothless bull. It was voiceless against the social, economic, and political ills that oppressed and marginalized the natives. Since many top church leaders were deeply rooted in secret societies, the Church tolerated the practices so much so that they co-existed with worship services in almost all traditional churches.

While the fourteen years of senseless and devastating Liberian civil war (which claimed more than 250,000 lives) can never be justified, it is important to note that the unhealthy silence of the Church regarding the resulting immorality, corruption, oppression, and marginalization of the ordinary people contributed to the anger, hurt, bitterness, and retaliation. The ordinary people warmly embraced the 1980 military coup and the 1989 popular rebellion.

Because the Church failed to be “salt” and “light” in Liberia when darkness was covering the people—and because the Church compromised the integrity of the gospel by refusing to advocate for righteousness in the land—Liberia today is degenerated and classed among the poorest of the poor nations of the world. Yet, because God has promised that “if my people… pray…I will heal their land still” (2 Chronicles 7:14), there is hope for Liberia.

Our Challenges
These ugly developments, however, have left the nation, its people, and the Church with numerous challenges with which to deal in post-war Liberia. Among them are:

  1. The need for God-fearing, honest, credible, and accountable leaders (in both the Church and society) who will uphold the rule of law and restore the lost image of the nation.

  2. The challenge of rampant corruption that has invaded every sector of Liberian society—a situation that is now worsened by the high rate of unemployment, poverty, and joblessness.
  3. The high illiteracy rate, coupled with an inadequate educational system. Liberia’s current illiteracy rate stands at about seventy percent.
  4. The need for sound theological education that is holistic in nature and promotes the propagation of biblical Christianity with cultural relevance and sensitivity to the African culture.
  5. The need for viable indigenous mission thrusts that will train and equip godly men and women for the task for evangelizing the rest of Liberia and contribute toward global mission initiatives.
  6. The need for research in missions in order to have a genuine picture of the state of the Church in Liberia—and the extent of the harvest field.
  7. The need to strengthen partnership and networking among churches and para-church organizations for the mission mobilization of the Church in Liberia. For missions to be prioritized and facilitated successfully, it would require the combined effort of all mission-minded churches and their willingness to cooperate, collaborate, and coordinate their resources, expertise, skills, and abilities for its realization.
  8. The need for the mainline or traditional churches in Liberia to see scriptural reasons to abolish and dissolve the so-called Inter-religious Council of Liberia—or discontinue its involvement therein (Amos 3:3; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18). The continued existence of this organization (which includes some leading traditional churches and some sects of Islam in Liberia) has more damaging effects to the integrity of the gospel and the role of Christianity than benefits for Christianity.

The Liberian traditional churches, now organized into the Liberia Council of Churches, certainly had a strong basis for the formation of the Inter-Faith Mediation Council. It is alleged that during the Liberian Civil War some unscrupulous Islamic warlords informed the Islamic community that the civil war was a war between Christians and Muslims. This was a scheme to solicit funds from the Arab world for personal aggrandizement and to invite the sympathy of the Islamic international community.

Hence, the Inter-Faith Mediation Council of Liberia was established to provide a forum for informing the international community that the civil war in Liberia was not a war between Christians and Muslims. However, given the time lapse since the civil war ended, and the level of political stability achieved, I am of the opinion that the purpose of that establishment was long ago achieved.

Furthermore, the Church and other social and religious groups may need to meet occasionally to address socio-economic and political issues confronting the nation whenever it becomes necessary to do so for the common good. But the effort to do so does not necessitate the continued existence of an inter-religious alliance which has the propensity to promote a pluralistic gospel which denounces the exclusive claim of Christ as “the only way, truth, and life” (John 14:6).

The Way Forward
Having critically analyzed the challenges of missions in post-conflict Liberia, I see one primary need that seems to stand out among others as the way forward to overcoming this nightmare: the development and empowerment of quality spiritual leadership to serve both the Church and society. For decades, the Church was primarily an identity of the elite social class of the Americo-Liberians, while the indigenous people languished in their traditional worship and practices. But that is now an issue of the past.

God did provide one blessing in disguise as a result of the civil war: corridors were opened for many Liberians to seek refuge in neighboring countries. While in exile in Nigeria, for example, many people (including me) had the opportunity to acquire quality theological education with specialized skills in missions, leadership, and development. Many such skillful Liberians are returning home by the thousands with a deep passion for the holistic development of post-conflict Liberia. Hence, the nation is now well-situated to respond to this need.

Conclusion
Our nation has a great Christian heritage laid down by our forefathers, who today form a part of the great cloud of witnesses that are watching to see how well we will build upon the foundation they laid out for us. Even though some of them made some wrong decisions which adversely affected our socio-economic, political, and spiritual life, there is still hope for the spiritual cleansing and healing of the land if we will repent and take seriously our responsibility to do missions. The clarion call to all Liberians is: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you” (Isaiah 60:1) to advance the Kingdom God in your generation.

Endnotes

1. 1968. God’s Impatience in Liberia. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Eerdmans, 53.

2. Lynch, Hallis R., ed. 1971. Black Spokesman. London: Longman Group Ltd., 85.

3. Wold, 53.

4. Lynch, 119.

5. 1979. The Growth of the Church in Africa. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Zondervan, 115.

6. Wold, 59.


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