In an attempt to describe the numerical growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Africa the word phenomenal could be used. Figures from the West- Central Africa Division, East-Central Africa Division, and the Southern-Africa Indian Ocean Division tell an unequivocal story. The growth during the last two decades rises from 1.3 million in 1987 to 2.8 million in 1998 and to 4.7 million in 2007.1
However thrilling, the figures don’t reveal the challenges facing the Adventist Christian in Africa, challenges that hinder the experience of “growing in Jesus Christ.” And one of those greatest challenges comes from interaction with the beliefs and practices of African traditional religion.
The challenge from African traditional religion
In a bid to cushion Adventists from this challenge, in 2005 the General Conference session voted to provide a biblical rationale to help move Adventists away from traditional beliefs toward one closer to the biblical position, especially concerning the power of Jesus Christ over the power of Satan. Found in a publication issued by the Ministerial Association of the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventists,2 the purpose of that endeavor was “to express the church’s understanding of God’s power to give victorious life over the powers of evil to the believers in Jesus Christ.”3The need to provide the rationale comes from the realization that, in their Christian experience, Adventists in Africa get entangled with traditional beliefs that hinder their “growing in Jesus Christ.” To aid those who find themselves in this uncertain position, the organization has undertaken to provide an assuring doctrinal position.
Interesting questions that arise when considering the challenge confronting Adventists in Africa include:
The real-life situation in Africa— what the pastors say
In an attempt to answer these difficult questions, I used a questionnaire to obtain answers from a group of about two hundred pastors in the East African Union who are currently undertaking theological training towards a Bachelor of Theology degree at the University of Eastern Africa in Kenya. Being in their fourth year of training, the respondents are experienced pastors, some of whom have served as pastors for over twenty years, others perhaps only a year or so.
The results revealed that Adventists have a problem with traditional beliefs. This is particularly thought-provoking considering that Adventists have been in Africa for more than one hundred years. This is not an exhaustive study, but nevertheless it clearly identifies an issue we have to face.
I asked three questions whose answers reveal that the efforts by the Ministerial Association to offer guidance in matters of demonic forces were well-directed.
First: “How often do you confront an African cultural4 problem?” The answers were “often” 47 percent, “once in a while” 33 percent, and “rarely” 17 percent. When put together, the clusters of “often” and that of “once in a while” indicate that the occurrence is prevalent.
Second: “Have you heard of a case where a member has gone to look for the services of traditional5 beliefs, such as from a diviner, soothsayer, or magician?” I posed this question to find out if Adventists think that services of African traditional personalities are efficacious in tackling challenges of daily living. What came out was that an overwhelming 89 percent said Yes, they had heard of Adventists who had sought the services of a diviner, soothsayer, or magician.
Third: “Who are the members who get involved in traditional beliefs and practices?” This question was designed to find out if pastoral care—or the lack thereof—was a factor in the socialization of believers against attraction to traditional beliefs. The answers to this question are intriguing; being “both new and old members” 77 percent, “long time members” 18 percent, and “recent converts” less than 5 percent. We find it captivating that the percentage of those who seek traditional ways of coping with daily life constitutes a surprisingly high percentage.
Unequivocally, then, the Adventist teaching in Africa coexists with cultural African religious beliefs. At the beginning of the Adventist mission in Africa, pioneer missionaries tackled the challenge by use of Mission Villages.6 These were exclusive “Converts Only” settlements that succeeded in socializing converts. In the settlements, new believers were initiated into the new lifestyle by the resident missionary, who was assisted by experienced native converts. Converts who lived in the establishment were shielded against traditional beliefs and practices. This system lasted for nearly 50 years, ending with the onset of sensitization to political independence during the 1950s. Today, Adventists do not live in Mission Villages. They are scattered throughout the communities and members fends for themselves with little pastoral care.
In African traditional society, cultural beliefs provide the worldview and the cosmic view that inform daily living. Cultural beliefs lead society to turn to mystical personalities who are called upon to interpret situations, foretell the future, or to unfold secrets. This situation, an old one, goes back to the missionary era. It’s a thought-provoking fact that the two belief systems have coexisted over the last nearly two hundred years of Christian missionary activity on the continent.7 The challenge is not unique to Adventists, but to all Christians in Africa, and it does not seem like the problem will go away any time soon. That Christian churches continue to remove from membership those who participate and associate with African cultural beliefs remains as an adequate indication that the challenge still prevails.
Where is the Adventist Church in Africa going?
The document we surveyed acknowledges that the Christian experience is characterized by constant spiritual warfare. It says, “We are engaged in a warfare that is real and dangerous. . . .In this warfare, supernatural forces are arraigned against us.”8 This is similar to conceding that Adventists in Africa live in the shadow of African traditional religion, and the two belief systems often collide.
With the Adventist organization aware of this challenge, what remains now is to observe how Adventists in Africa will use the guidelines to help believers in their experience of “growing in Jesus Christ.” The challenge of traditional African religion goes back many years, but perhaps this will mark the beginning of the end of its hold on Adventists in Africa.
1 The figures do not include North Africa which falls under the Trans-Mediterranean Territories, whose membership is 225 in 2007. The figures are taken from the respective Seventh-day Adventist yearbooks.
2 See Seventh-day Adventists Believe, A Biblical Exposition of Fundamental Doctrines (Silver Spring, MD:
Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005).
3 Ibid., 6.
4 Throughout this brief essay, the words cultural and traditional are used to mean indigenous beliefs and practices which are not compatible with biblical teaching.
5 See previous endnote.
6 For a detailed work on Mission Villages, see Nehemiah M. Nyaundi, Adventism in Gusii, Kenya (Africa Herald Publishing House, 1997).
7 The fi rst Adventist Mission Station was opened at Solusi, Zimbabwe, in 1894, but Christian missionaries
came to Africa much earlier than that date.
8 Seventh-day Adventists Believe, 160.