8 things you should know about African churches and their Christianity

Photo: Christian Today

Last October, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York set up a Racial Justice Commission headed by Lord Paul Boateng. The commission's task is to recommend how the Church of England can "identify, respond to and root out systemic racism" as the Church is committed to doing so.

The commission will report in May, but in the meantime, it's worth looking at African Christianity as it now forms the majority of Black Christians in Britain, and if it continues to develop at its current rate, it will significantly affect the way Christianity is viewed in Britain.

Black Africans make up the majority of Black people in Britain today, with around 1.2 million. It is even more pronounced in London as Black Africans are now 7% of the population, and Caribbeans about 4.2%.

Recent research shows that although there has been a 5% national drop in church attendance, there's also been a corresponding 18% increase in Black church membership. The result is that according to the Evangelical Alliance's Census, 'Ethnicity and Regular Church Going', this growth is reflected in Black church attendance being at least three times their proportion in the population.

London is the best place to see this as 48% of all churchgoers are now Black, with the London Borough of Southwark having the largest concentration of African churches anywhere in the country. It has an estimated 240 Black Majority churches, with over 20,000 congregants.

But what do we know about African churches, their Christianity and their rapid growth? Here are eight things I think it is worth knowing.

1. African Christianity is an active one

Africans see their Christianity as an active faith rather than a passive one, and not just one that adheres to rules, rites, rituals and ceremonies. They expect their members to become fully engaged and involved in the life and activities of the church.

For them, what matters, is not about going to church on a Sunday or a weekday and passively taking part, but getting involved, whether it's part of a group, meeting and making friends, proclaiming the gospel publicly, volunteering or being part of any of the church activities.

The Eucharist is not the centre of their worship but a part of it, and as such, it's not the focal point of any service or the core part of their belief. What's more important is that their Christianity is part of everyday life, every aspect of it, and not just reduced to a few hours on Sundays or at special services.

Their faith is practised both privately and publicly, and as Pentecostals, they emphasise a personal experience and relationship with God, which involves an active response.

2. African Christians have a positive outlook on life

African church leaders are generally inspirational and often are charismatic with strong personalities. The Church demands and gets a high commitment from its members who volunteer their time and effort. As a Church, their members are generally aspirational and have a positive outlook on life. They see prosperity as God's blessing and as a reward for their commitment and sacrifice. Consequently, they don't have any problem giving 10% of their earnings to their church as a tithe.

3. African churches know how to grow a church in the modern age

African Christians think big. They love the term 'my God is a big God', which shows the limitless power of what God can do. Many of their churches started with a few members and in record time have grown into big churches. The Redeemed Christian Church of God is one Church that actively and even aggressively pursues church growth. The Church aims to have a Redeemed branch 'within ten minutes walking distance of anywhere in the country, and it is this strategy that has seen the Church grow its parishes from 10 to over 800 within twenty years, and a membership today over 80,000.

4. When African churches put on events and conferences, they are likely to be on a grand scale

Kingsway International Christian Centre's 'Gathering of Champions' and The Redeemed Christian Church of God's prayer meetings attract tens of thousands of people to both events. African Christians apply this same positive idea of doing things on a grand scale even when looking for a church. They are the first to look for warehouses, abandoned buildings, bingo halls, and former churches to buy.

Once they have found a place, they refurbish it to a high standard, kit it out with the latest technology, and turn it into a place of worship. Some of their buildings are undoubtedly impressive, and their interior can psychologically affect members or anyone visiting the church for the first time. Its 'wow' factor communicates that something good, important or even 'big' is happening in the church and they should be part of it.

5. 'Reverse Mission'

This is a concept prevalent among many African Christians, especially those from the Redeemed Christian Church of God, who see their mission in Britain as a reversal of how the missionaries once brought Christianity to Africa. They now believe Britain needs re-evangelising and are committed to doing so. One way they're doing this is to 'aggressively' establish and grow their churches so that, especially in the inner cities, it's not unusual to see African churches flourishing as Indian corner shops once did.

'Reverse mission' also means proclaiming the gospel in the public square as the early Caribbeans did. Today, on most Saturdays, you'll find African Christians holding regular 'open-air' services in many of the large shopping centres in London and the big cities. They also spread the word of God by giving their shops and businesses overt Christian titles, such as 'God's Blessing Shop', 'Abundant Life Shop', 'I Am Services', 'Grace of God Store,' and this all helps to publicly spread the word of God.

6. Africans market and promote their church relentlessly

African churches have a good grasp of modern communication and information technology. Typically, they are on all the leading social media platforms and use technology and modern communication tools to grow their churches and attract young people to their services. Usually, they equip their churches with the latest PA systems, lighting, multimedia technology, and the latest musical instruments and facilities to provide a modern worship experience.

They also use artistic expressions in their services, including dance and drama, and many young people are beating a retreat to their churches and want to be part of a modern-day worship experience.

7. African churches use modern communication technology to grow their churches

So much has changed today, and social media now presents many possibilities for churches. Africans, more than most, seems to grasp this and grasp the opportunities social media offers. You will find most African churches have their own websites, YouTube channels, livestreaming their services – even before the pandemic, and present on all the leading social media platforms.

They know that almost anyone, especially young people visiting them for the first time, are likely to have had an online experience before going through the doors. Their church also effectively uses all the social media tools and uses them extensively. For example, some of their members post updates throughout the services, message and occasionally Face Time visitors and other members. They tweet and use the search engines to make plain anything they do not understand, and now that we have entered the area of podcasting, African churches are right up there, adding to their ability to reach the unchurched and spread the gospel.

8. Most African churches preach a prosperity doctrine

Most African churches preach a prosperity doctrine that their members find aspirational. Although many churches reject this theology, what is important to note is that Africans find it empowering, and use several scriptures to justify their stance.

"And my God will supply all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus." (Philippines 4:19)

"But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today." (Deuteronomy 8:18)

"But seek Ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." (Matthew 6:33)

"A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children, and the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous." (Proverbs 13:22) 

The last quote is a favourite, with often the second part quoted far more than the first.

Personally, I believe that there is nothing wrong per se with acquiring wealth and riches, providing the intention is to make effective use of them. But what is also important is that both Africans and Caribbeans have historically been denied the opportunity to make, create and access wealth; therefore, it is not surprising that they should look to do so now that they can.

A final observation is that without question, African churches are now at the forefront of a new wave of Black Pentecostal worship in Britain. They are leading the way and have given a whole new meaning to the idea of 'doing Church' in the modern age. Some cynics say that this is primarily 'in-house' and applicable only to Black people, and not generally to white Britons. While this may be true, and many white people are unlikely to go into an African church, what cannot be denied is the psychological impact they are having in their communities.

Look on Sundays, and you see what any parish priest would envy: large numbers of Africans coming off trains and buses, and parking up their cars going to church.

White people know that African churches in their communities are there for good, and that's why I think they are generally accepted. However, the reverse can also be true because if residents do not want an African church in their locality, they can be very vocal in making this known as a few African churches have found out to their cost.

Roy Francis is an award-winning former BBC 'Songs of Praise' producer and the author of 'Windrush and the Black Pentecostal Church in Britain'.