A massive growth in Christian presence in the southern continents meant that by the middle of the twentieth century Christian faith had developed into a “non-Western religion.”1 With the rise of churches and prophet movements of African provenance at the turn of the twentieth century, Christianity grew by leaps and bounds in sub-Saharan Africa.
These developments, together with the emergence of Pentecostal/charismatic varieties of the faith, led to seismic changes in the African Christian landscape from the dominant era of historic mission Christianity. With increasing global trends in migration, Christianity in Africa has now gone international.
Today, some of the largest congregations in Europe—Western and Eastern—are either founded by Africans or are led by people of African descent. Discussions on African immigrant Christianity usually focus on churches whose memberships tend to be constituted by Africans or people of that descent. A good example is the Kingsway International Christian Center (KICC) in London, led by the charismatic Nigerian pastor, Matthew Ashimolowo.
My research has taken me to the doors of another type of African-led church whose membership is entirely European. This means the designation of these churches in the diaspora as “African churches” is no longer tenable. For example, Sunday Adelaja’s Church of the Blessed Embassy of the Kingdom of God for all Nations is based in Kiev, Ukraine. Founded some fourteen years ago, it has a membership of approximately twenty-five thousand adults.
Mission, Migration, and Diaspora
In African hands, mission and evangelization have truly gone international and African diaspora Christianity is at the forefront of the new initiatives. Originating in the Jewish biblical tradition, the term “diaspora” now enjoys growing importance in the study of religion precisely because of some of the developments relating to the dispersal of African Christians in the modern West.2
For many of these people, however, the word “return” usually associated with the diaspora does not exist in their vocabulary. Although it is possible to encounter a significant number who may fall within the categories of academic and political migrants, a majority of Africans in Europe are economic migrants. Gerrie ter Haar, a pioneer in the study of Christianity among Africans in Europe, has noted that human migration is something of all times and ages and that “religion has always been a significant aspect” of it.3
Into whichever category they fall, African migrants have always carried their faith with them to the diasporas.4 Unlike the cries of diaspora Jews who, out of exilic despair, could not fathom singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, modern migrants are doing just that with the formation of churches.
Witness of Presence
Although African churches in Western Europe do not attract many Europeans, there is such a thing as the “witness of presence” in mission studies. The very presence of African-led churches in Europe is a testimony to the dynamic quality and significance of the African evangelical witness. This, to use Pauline language, testifies to how God chooses “the foolish things of this world” to serve his purposes:
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak thing of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)
It is not insignificant that Africa, a continent despised, deprived, trampled upon, marginalized, and shamed in many ways, has emerged as the beacon of Christian mission and evangelization in the global spread of the faith. This does not render European Christianity irrelevant; rather, it shows that at a time when the faith is under siege in its former heartlands, God has placed its destiny in the hands of the people of the South. Thus, for many African Christians in the diaspora, the recession of Christianity among westerners is a call to evangelism and the re-establishment of kingdom values in the lands of nineteenth-century missionaries. Mission is in reverse.
Varieties of Churches in Mission
In African hands, mission and evangelization have truly gone
international and African diaspora Christianity is at the
forefront of the new initiatives.
African-led churches in Europe come in different varieties and categories. The earliest ones began as fellowships among migrants who felt unwelcome in the established churches of Europe on racial grounds. These interdenominational fellowships served a second purpose of making up for the spiritual and liturgical poverty of worship life in the European Church. As the churches of the missionaries continued to lose their spiritual fervor and sense of the supernatural, the Africans took their spiritual destinies into their own hands and reconstituted fellowships into churches where faith could be expressed in ways that resonated with African and biblical pieties. To quote Jehu Hanciles:
Varieties of Churches in Mission
In Western Europe, the rise of African immigrant churches and other non-Western Christian congregations has been dramatically visible because of the stark contrast between the dynamism of new immigrant Christian groups and the often moribund tone of the traditional churches.5
The first immigrant churches to form in Europe were the African independent churches known in Ghana as Spiritual churches and in Nigeria and South Africa as Aladura (“praying people”) and Zionist churches, respectively. African members of mainline denominations in their home countries initially joined similar denominations in Europe, particularly in the UK and Germany. With time, many have pulled out of these communions and throughout Europe today, one encounters Ghana Methodist, Nigeria Anglican, or Ghana Roman Catholic churches operating under the pastoral leadership of their own kind often posted from the home countries. The meaning of this development is that Methodism, Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, and Presbyterianism have all, in African hands, acquired new ecclesial identities, liturgical structures and styles of worship that differ markedly from those inherited from nineteenth-century missionary endeavors.
In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the range of churches filled with African migrants broadened widely. Africa-based classical Pentecostal churches such as Ghana’s Church of Pentecost and Nigerian William F. Kumuyi’s Deeper Christian Life Bible Church brought together their own and established congregations throughout Europe. In more recent years, African neo-Pentecostals have also taken Europe by storm. Ashimolowo’s KICC and Adelaja’s God's Embassy belong to this category; however, as stated earlier, the former attracts mostly Africans and the latter is filled with Europeans.
Neo-Pentecostal churches that have burgeoned in Europe include A.A. Adeboye’s Redeemed Christian Church of God and many other autochthonous charismatic churches that are completely transforming the European religious landscape through the mission of “presence.” The primary intention of these churches is not to establish congregations for only Africans, so those belonging to the independent category usually cast themselves as “international churches.” Thus, my preferred designation, as evident in the title of this article, is “African-led churches in Europe” in order not to create the impression that these communions are not intended for non-Africans.
Social versus Religious Roles of Immigrant Churches
The questions of ethnic and cultural identities are important for people in the diaspora; however, African immigrant Christians “see themselves as international churches, thereby consciously labeling themselves not in exclusive but in inclusive terms.”6 Quoting Gerrie Ter Haar,
African Christians in the Netherlands generally identify themselves first and foremost as Christians and only secondly as Africans or African Christians. In their own view, their public adherence to Christianity constitutes the most important element of their identity.7
There is no questioning the fact that the immigrant churches in Europe founded and dominated by Africans provide members a social safety net from the harsh immigration conditions that are worsening by the day due to the reconstitution of the European Union. For many of them, “their religion helps them to achieve a degree of security and inner strength” within a hostile European environment.8 Some even see parallels between the pains of being “aliens” in a foreign land and the experiences of Jesus Christ. Christ’s own life and ministry, as Hanciles shows, included the travail of a refugee, the pain of uprootedness, and the alienation that comes with being a stranger. Even the emptying of status to take on the form of a servant has its parallels in the migrant experience.9
Mission and Evangelism in the Diaspora
Painful experiences notwithstanding therefore, African Christians and African-led churches in Europe interpret their presence in terms of a call to mission and evangelism. In his book, The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and Christian Mission, John V. Taylor defines mission as “recognizing what the Creator-Redeemer is doing in his world and doing it with him.”10 I have often revised this definition to read, “knowing what the Creator-Redeemer is doing in the world and allowing him to engage you in the enterprise.”
For the purposes of this work, I use mission and evangelism as synonymous expressions encapsulating the active prosecution of an agenda to restore and reconcile a broken world to God in Christ. That has been God’s business, and the African-led immigrant churches in Europe are meeting a deep-seated religious need that lies neglected in the evangelism efforts of the churches belonging to the former heartlands of Christian mission. The Spirit of God seems to have chosen the Church in Africa for a spectacular advance. I believe that the ministries of immigrant churches are serving the purposes of the Spirit in his work of renewal and mission. There are five reasons for this:
Christianity in African hands serves to challenge the moral relativisms in European culture by getting people to offer their lives to Christ in ways reminiscent of what occurred in the Book of Acts. The people reached by Sunday Adelaja’s God’s Embassy, for example, are predominantly former drug addicts, prostitutes, and leaders and members of mafia gangs who have now, under the powerful influence of the Spirit, turned to Christ. The state of Ukraine has been forced to take notice and the authorities are now too happy to turn over drug addicts to the church because clinical psychology and expensive rehabilitation programs have proven inadequate in dealing with them. Under the powerful influence of the Spirit, however, lives that were being destroyed by evil have now been turned around for Christ.
Through these churches, the Bible has returned to the life of the Church as the authoritative Word of God. It is the main book from which preaching is done and is considered sufficient for teaching, rebuke, and training in righteousness.
African immigrant churches take the worldviews of Africans seriously as far as pastoral care is concerned. Thus, as Ter Haar believes, African Christians find ample evidence for their beliefs in the Bible, which represent forces of good and evil as having power over life and death. African churches in the diaspora, irrespective of their particular persuasion, address the issue of spiritual forces explicitly.11 Right from missionary times in Africa, worldviews of spiritual causality had been dismissed by white missionaries as psychological delusions and figments of people’s imagination. Not so with African churches in Europe, who, irrespective of whatever abuses may be associated with those worldviews, do take them seriously and articulate Christian responses to them in ways that may look alien to Western rational and cerebral Christianity. The sense of fear, uncertainty, and insecurity associated with being an immigrant makes the ministry of spiritual warfare an important aspect of the mission of diaspora churches.
Diaspora churches are experiencing liturgical renewal. African churches generally prefer worship life that is experiential, expressive, exuberant, and dynamic in nature. Whether they belong to the Pentecostal/charismatic stream of Christianity or not, renewal seems to be an important element in the lives of these churches, the point being that the active presence of the Spirit is what gives the Church of Jesus Christ its identity.
The churches in the diaspora provide much-needed moral and physical support for their fellow “aliens in the foreign lands of Europe.” The African immigrant lives within a very precarious and difficult European world, and spiritual and material support from the churches cannot but be considered high priority on the agenda of the Church. In that respect, these churches have chosen a path of evangelization that is not discontinuous with what we encounter in the Book of Acts, where the believers bonded together to provide for each other’s needs in the Spirit of Christ.
There are many rough edges as far as churches in the diaspora are concerned. Several of its leaders have been accused of using the enterprise for personal and material gain. Others blatantly abuse their position by playing on and exploiting the fears and insecurities of people whose lives are full of uncertainties.
But perhaps one of the greatest lessons we learn from the “ministry of presence” associated with the African diaspora initiatives is that through these immigrants, God may be preserving the life of his Church. It recalls the days of his birth when the life of the baby Jesus came under threat from Herod and his henchmen. Under the direction of the divine messenger, the child and his parents took refuge in Egypt until the time when it was considered conducive for mission to resume.
In African hands, Christianity has virtually returned “home” to the continent that granted refugee status to the Lord of mission when his life was in danger. With the recession of Christianity in the modern West and the siege under which the faith has sometimes come, immigrant churches may well be the institutions through whose efforts God would like to keep his presence active in the West.
1. Bediako, Kwame. 1995. Christianity in African: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
2. Walls, Andrew F. 2005. “Mission and Migration: the Diaspora Factor.” Journal of African Christian Thought 5(2): 3-11.
3. 2001. Religious Communities in the Diaspora. Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 2.
4. Hanciles, Jehu J. 2003. “Mission and Migration: Some Implications for the Twenty-first Century. International Bulletin of Missionary Research 27(4): 146.
5. Ibid. 150.
6. Ter Haar, 6.
7. Ibid. 47.
8. Ibid. 49.
9. Hanciles, 150.
10. Taylor, John V. 1972. The Go Between God: The Holy Spirit and Christian Mission. London: SCM, 37.
11. Ter Haar, Gerrie. 1998. Halfway to Paradise: African Christians in Europe. Wales: Cardiff Academic Press, 51.