November 9, 2006

Out of Africa

2006 1531 page5 cape are living through a transforming moment in the history of Christianity, as the peoples of Africa embrace Jesus in unprecedented numbers. For Seventh-day Adventists the sea of change that is occurring has profound implications.
A century ago about 10 million Christians lived on the continent of Africa—only 9 percent of the population. Today the total stands at 360 million, or 46 percent. By 2025 it is estimated to increase to 633 million; one out of four Christians worldwide will be African.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is witnessing corresponding growth. We count more than 5 million members in Africa, that is, more than one third of our world membership. But census reports reveal that many other people consider themselves linked to our church, and with huge numbers pressing in I can see the day when one out of every two Adventists will live in Africa.
Let’s be quite clear about this exploding growth: it has come about since the missionaries handed over the work to nationals. Missionaries planted the seeds; some continue in support roles; but it’s the sons and daughters of the soil who, using approaches adapted to their culture, are the instrumentalities the Lord is using in today’s abundant harvest.
2006 1531 page5Africa will stretch the thought processes of Adventists outside the continent. Especially those of us who come from the traditional “home bases” of the church and who have white skin—especially we will have to adjust our thinking. We will be members of a church that is largely non-American and non-European, and where Africans predominate.
Will we, by the Lord’s grace, rejoice in the new global Adventist family, or will we feel uncomfortable?
It’s high time we began to see Africa and Africans in a new light. Our views have been shaped by the history books, which were written by non-Africans who portrayed Africa as “the dark continent.” We have been conditioned by the grim record of the thousands of Africa’s sons and daughters who were shackled and sold into slavery. We have thought of Africa as a place of superstition and witchcraft, an intellectual and spiritual abyss.
This Western stereotype, paternalistic as it is, does not match the biblical and historical evidence. In the Old Testament we find many references to Egypt, Ethiopia, and Cush (the upper Nile region), and also this intriguing prediction: “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God” (Ps. 68:31, KJV). The New Testament likewise has frequent references to Africa, including “Out of Egypt I called my Son” (Matt. 2:15, KJV), Simon of Cyrene (Matt. 27:32), the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip baptized (Acts 8:26-39), Simeon Niger and Lucius of Cyrene (Acts 13:1), and Apollos of Alexandria (Acts 18:24). Moreover, in the early Christian centuries Africa played a prominent role, with Alexandria in Egypt a center of Christian learning, and the famous Augustine coming from Carthage. And how many of us realize that three popes came out of Africa?
With Elder Charles E. Bradford, retired president of the North American Division, as inspiration and guiding light, a group of Adventist scholars is probing the history of Christianity in Africa, with particular interest in the Sabbath.* Their research, which is beginning to attract the attention of historians beyond our ranks, is rewriting the history of “the dark continent.” Far from being “dark,” it was a place where concepts of the Creator God were preserved for centuries, and where His holy day was marked and maintained by a variety of peoples. Today, in fact, at least 20 million in Africa are Sabbathkeepers. In their research these scholars have been stimulated by Ellen White’s comments about Africa and the history of the Sabbath in Ethiopia (see The Great Controversy, pp. 63, 577, 578).
What if Africa, rather than being a place of darkness, turns out to be a place where biblical truth was preserved?
We serve a big God. He is bigger than our thinking. He is bigger than the Seventh-day Adventist Church, special as it is. He has used, is using, and will use a myriad of means to bring His work to a glorious fulfillment. And Africa will play a major role.
*The Sabbath in Africa Project was conceived by Bradford in 1991. His own book, Sabbath Roots: The Africa Connection (General Conference, 1999), is a key source for research. The Project has published several other books and scholarly articles, and conducts seminars on the topic.
William G. Johnsson is editor of the Adventist Review