African Theology Matters
The stated thesis of How Africa Shaped The Christian Mind by Thomas Oden is simple. African theology matters because, “Africa played a decisive role in the formation of Christian culture” (P9). I think the real impetus for this book though is a call to young Africans to rediscover the importance and influence of African Christianity. The rest of the book seeks to show why and how African theology matters.
By showing how to argue for the importance of African theology, Oden accurately proves his point. Oden shows how African Christianity led to the birth of the European university. He explains how exegesis of Scripture originated in Africa. Christian dogma was devised in Africa.The conciliar patterns of Africa informed European ecumenical decisions. Western forms of monasticism originated in Africa. Neoplatonic philosophy morphed from Africa to Europe. It was in Africa that literary and dialectical skills were refined. These seven points become seven steps toward making a case for the importance and renewed interest in African theology.
Oden challenges two assumptions about Africa that can inform two equally destructive assumptions about evangelical churches in the United Staes. The way he lumps Africa into one entity can serve as a metaphor for uniting evangelicalism in the United States.
Best: West & Big
When African theology matters, it becomes empowered to confront the false assumption that western theology is superior to African theology. This challenge to the West can make the West feel a bit uncomfortable. Owen’s challenge to the West can become a model for small churches to confront the popular American evangelical assumption that larger churches are better than small churches.
Challenging the assumption that the West is the best can be a metaphor for challenging that myth that all churches should be large and pursue satellite campuses. This is harmful for two reasons. First, there is a growing movement that is questioning whether mega churches are actually making disciples. More people are leaving the idea that larger is automatically better. Second, it is just reality that there are more smaller churches than there are larger churches. This is true in my tribe. Working with the Association of Vineyard Churches, USA last semester, I discovered that of the 611 Vineyard churches in the United States, 300 of them have under 100 members. Just like there are more christians in Africa and the number is growing, there are more small churches in the Vineyard than larger ones. This has important ramifications for pastors and models of success. The most important being the fact that every Vineyard pastor will at some point, if not their whole career, pastor a small church. Just like African theology matters, small Vineyard churches matter.
The Standard: West & Growth
When we say African theology matters, we are opposing the assumption that the West needs to evangelize Africa. With racism and the prejudice that comes with it, African theology has become part of Kipling’s White Man’s Burden. Oden not only points out that Christianity is growing explosively in Africa while it seems to be shrinking in the West, but he also points out that it is time for the West to accept missionaries from Africa. Just like the center of the Christian world is located in the southern hemisphere in places like Africa, God is using small churches around the world to expand His kingdom here on earth.
Oden reminds us that the story of the Exodus is an African story. Joseph’s odyssey took place in Africa. After Pentecost, the African eunuch from Ethiopia went back to Africa and started a movement still alive today in Africa. The point here is the importance of stories. This is true for small churches pastored by bivocational pastors. My research has taught me that at most denominational conferences in the United States, the only stories told are those of larger churches. Small church stories are rarely shared and bivocational pastors almost never take the keynote speaker’s stage. As a result, bivocational pastors tend to feel like failures. Oden alludes to this same phenomenon with African theology. It is time to rediscover the stories of Africa and the stories of bivocational pastors. As African theology matters, the ministry of bivocational pastors matters.
One Big Beautiful Mess: Africa as a Continent as a Metaphor for Evangelicalism
What is Africa? Who are evangelicals? Who is African? What is evangelicalism? There are so many different groups of people in Africa. There are so many different cultures and influences. Having traveled to Uganda almost every year since 2005, I have experienced how different Ugandans are from Egyptians even though technically they are both African. Oden answers that African identity questions with geography. Ignoring the Sahara Desert as a natural dividing space between Northern Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, Oden claims that geographers call it a continent and if it’s the continent of Africa it is African. The label of “continent” is good enough for Oden.
Like trying to lump Ugandans and Egytians into one continental tent, evangelicals are a tricky group to fit under one umbrella. I still hold to Bebbington’s “Four,” but there is an emerging movement in the United States who are questioning what it means to be evangelical. This morning I read about a filmmaker who graduated from Wheaton College and is making a documentary film questioning if every American Evangelical actually worships the same god. Just like the imperialists of the 1800s who came to Africa and drew lines on a map, there are many wedge issues in evangelicalism today that threaten to break apart the “evangelical continent.” Perhaps Oden’s approach to recover and rediscover African Christian influence in church history can pave the way for today’s evangelicals to recover and rediscover what unites us. For us today, when African theology starts to matter, evangelical theology can matter.