BOM JESUS, Angola — Churches of Christ in Accra, Ghana, are growing at such a rate that their members will account for 10 percent of the city’s population … in 1,273 years.
That number may come as a shock to Western Christians who routinely hear reports of hundreds, even thousands of baptisms from evangelists in Africa — especially Ghana, considered to be an epicenter of Churches of Christ on the continent.
But it’s a figure Charles Odoi derived using a quick-and-dirty equation. He encouraged his students to do the same, dividing the number of years Churches of Christ have existed in their cities by the number of churches planted in that time to get a rough growth rate. Then they calculated how long it would take — at that rate — to reach 10 percent of the population.
Odoi, a ministry trainer from Accra, spoke in loud, emphatic English as an Angolan minister translated his words to Portuguese. It was a hot, humid afternoon at the Luso-Africa Global Mission Gathering, a workshop for Portuguese-speaking Churches of Christ.
At a hotel on the outskirts of Angola’s capital, in a community called “Good Jesus,” the participants, some of them in suits, crowded around tables under a thatched-roof pavilion and jotted down numbers.
When the math was done, several of the preachers had figures even greater than Odoi’s 1,200-plus years.
“Jesus Christ says, ‘Go and save the lost,’ and we say we will go and do it,” Odoi said. “But if you tell someone to do something, and he tells you it will take 1,200 years, he’s telling you he won’t do it!”
George Akpabli, another trainer from Ghana, experienced great success as a missionary to French-speaking African nations. But “I was making converts, not disciples,” he said. “They come on Sundays, put money in the basket and say, ‘God, be happy with me.’ In three months, they’re gone. I’m too busy baptizing someone else to notice.”
“Backsliding,” as Africans call it, has hurt church growth across the continent. So has minister burnout — due to a belief that the preacher must provide for his flock. The pull of charismatic groups and infighting among church leaders also have taken a toll.
“The method we have been using all along, this is the result it has been producing,” Odoi said.
In a century of evangelism on the continent, Churches of Christ in Africa grew to nearly 1 million members, researchers estimate. That’s roughly half the time it took to reach the same number in the U.S. But African Christians shouldn’t be satisfied because their growth rate surpasses the rate elsewhere, Odoi said. Nor should they aim for just 10 percent of their city’s population, because “God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell.”
Among the students was Abdou Sidibeh, a missionary sent by church members in Ghana to work with a six-year-old Church of Christ in his native Guinea-Bissau. The Portuguese-speaking nation is nearly half Muslim — including Sidibeh’s mother, before he converted her. Others attend Catholic mass but use traditional healers. Evangelism is tough.
Gazing at the number he had scribbled on his paper, the young minister said, “I feel guilty.”
United by faith, language and trauma
In Africa, preacher training meetings are almost as common as baptisms.
But the Global Gathering was among the first of its kind — a workshop specifically for Christians in “Luso” (Portuguese-speaking) nations.
“For a long time I’ve had a passion to see Christians in the countries of Luso-Africa come together,” said Nathan Holland, who has served on a mission team in Angola since 2011. Stuck in the U.S. during the pandemic, “I started to have a bigger vision,” he said.
The result: Luso-Africa Mission Partners (LAMP) International, a nonprofit that equips Africans to become “faithful teachers of Scripture, healthy church leaders and growing disciples of Jesus,” according to the ministry’s website. LAMP translates and produces Portuguese Bible literature, partnering with church members in Portugal and Brazil — two of whom came to Angola to serve as translators at the gathering.
The Christians of Luso-Africa share more than a language, Holland said. Both Angola and Mozambique endured brutal civil wars after independence. Mozambique’s ended in 1992 while Angola’s lingered, off and on, until 2002. Churches in both nations have members who lost limbs, lost parents and endured trauma during the conflicts.
“The war is a reminder of sadness,” said Eunice Horácio, who was 3 months old when her grandfather, Felisberto Monterro, died in the Angolan conflict. Now 25, she worships with the Renovo Church of Christ in Huambo, Angola.
“I don’t remember him,” she said of her grandfather, “but I remember his story and his name.”
In addition to shared trauma, Luso-African preachers can suffer from ministry burnout, said Henriques Kapalo, a preacher in the Angolan city of Luena.
A minister who wants to plant a new church must leave his family to do so, Kapalo said. Meanwhile, needs arise at the church back home, including those of elderly Christians who depend on the minister for support.
Inevitably, the church planter must “run home and put out brush fires,” Kapalo said. And the new church dies.
‘Active believers, not passive receivers’
The point of the “brutal facts” about church growth wasn’t to discourage believers, said George Funk, another presenter at the gathering.
Rather than looking bewildered at the millennium ahead, he encouraged them to look back — two millennia ago.
“Look at Paul. Look at the early church,” Funk told the Portuguese preachers. “They were active believers, not passive receivers. You can be a trainer who trains others to train others.”
Funk, a native of South Africa, is best known for Gospel Chariot, a ministry of “Churches of Christ on wheels” — trucks that evangelists drive across the continent as they host gospel meetings and plant churches.
Using a simplified approach to Scripture called Discovery Bible Study, the church planter disciples the person of peace and new converts and trains them to plant new churches, starting the process again.
One student, Armindo Lázaro, said that many preachers “have the idea that evangelism is this complicated, insurmountable thing, but this training shows that it’s actually simple.” He plans to return to Mozambique and to find people of peace to reach the rural areas around his city, Nampula.
Cecília Zuze and her husband, Roger, minister for a church in Cabinda, a small province of Angola that’s separated from the rest of the country by a small strip of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They often feel isolated and alone, she said.
She said that she loved the training’s emphasis on mobilizing church members to “stand up and go,” sharing their testimony with others and “not waiting for the preacher to do it all.”
Nearly 800 miles from Cabinda is Cunene, a hot, desert-like province in southern Angola full of “cattle and crocodiles,” said Afonso Kisoka, who ministers for a church of about 120 members there. Traditional, animistic faiths are prevalent in Cunene, he said. It’s easy to become discouraged.
Kisoka journeyed 24 hours by bus to reach Bom Jesus for the conference.
“It was worth it,” he said.
Praying for God to ‘giveth the increase’
Although none of the Luso-African countries share borders, the Christians who attended the gathering said they came away with a new sense of unity.
That unity proved to be a source of healing, said Jeremy Smith, a missionary in Montepuez, Mozambique, who brought five Mozambican church leaders to the conference. As a result of the fellowship they experienced, the leaders organized a meeting when they returned home, inviting members of congregations that had been involved in long disputes over various doctrinal matters.
About 70 men attended. They confessed sins and “started working things out,” Smith said. Some washed each other’s feet in an act of Christlike humility.
“We are now hearing of meetings in many parts of the country calling for unity (among) churches that had been divided for many years,” Smith said. “Praise God!”
Photo provided by Jeremy Smith
In Mozambique, two church leaders cut a cake to symbolize a renewed sense of unity and healing. At center is missionary Jeremy Smith.
As for Sidibeh, the Guinea-Bissau minister said that the “brutal facts” inspired him to try new — and very old — methods to seek and save the lost.
He doesn’t know if Churches of Christ ever will reach 10 percent of his homeland. He knows that God alone “giveth the increase,” as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3. But he also knows that, in a time even before the “in the beginning” of Genesis 1, God had a plan — and tools in mind to fulfill that plan.
“When he created man, it meant he had a purpose for the man,” he said. “So you have a vision, and you work to create things that will carry out that vision.”
This story first appeared in The Christian Chronicle.