“Multicultural”: of, relating to, or representing several different cultures or cultural elements.*
Ican’t say how often I’ve been asked the question, “Do you know this person from Africa?” Perhaps you’ve heard it too. Many people means many—and often diverse—perspectives, and as the question suggests, many are uncertain and more when it comes to Africa’s continent, a body of land larger than Canada, China, and the United States combined; one that numbers 54 countries, diverse peoples and languages, and complex cultures. Thankfully, the Seventh-day Adventist Church may be seen to be prospering in many of its nations and regions despite the diversity and complex cultural challenges that confront us. The statistics in the adjacent box1 show that three African divisions of the Adventist Church may soon comprise half of the world church’s population. Understanding and sustaining their progress involves much more than African color, stature, language, norms, or taboos: for the Christian it must be about the intentional engagement of cultures.2
As the Bible states: “There is one body and one Spirit” (Eph. 4:4, NKJV),3 on which Ellen G. White comments that “unity in diversity is God’s plan. Among the followers of Christ there is to be the blending of diverse elements, one adapted to the other, and each to do its special work for God.”4 The world’s interconnectedness makes it increasingly clear that believers in the church need to work together for a common purpose. There is unique gospel power in a diversity of people—different races, cultures, religions, nationalities, and communities—coming together for the one and singular mission of preaching the good news.
Global success in such a venture will largely depend on positive and dynamic commitments to engagement “across cultural boundaries beyond the mere tolerance and appreciation associated with multiculturalism.”5 In fulfilling the gospel commission the Adventist Church continually confronts the challenge of providing worship that is biblically sound and culturally relevant to worshipers everywhere. This article asks the question, how does the church in sub-Saharan Africa accomplish that?
According to the best records I know of, Seventh-day Adventism was first introduced to sub-Saharan Africa in South Africa in 1887.6 The church since then has made huge and significant strides in membership growth. Today, after 133 years of presence in the continent, the Adventist Church claims a membership of more than 9,565,645 as of December 31, 2019.7 It now has established congregations in most parts of the region and is still growing faster than many other Christian denominations, with congregations large and small, in areas urban and rural, all stimulating further question: How does Adventism in Africa spread as rapidly as it has, despite the challenges that confront it?
One significant answer, I believe, is family. Individuals in this part of the world generally view the church as an extension of the immediate family. So believers tend to spend much time with each other. I allow for both of these possibilities, and perhaps others not here suggested, because despite the significant data on African Adventism already collected, none has as yet settled this “chicken and egg” question on African Adventist fellowship patterns: Is it because we’re a family that we spend so much time together? Or is it because the business of the church brings us together? What seems safe to hold is that “doing it the African way” in Africa has helped believers stick together in the church, especially the youth, despite the continent’s diverse cultural environment.
Many believers virtually spend the whole Sabbath together. Longer hours spent together at church and in church activities, including eating together, certainly help members bond in a more meaningful way. Bonds wrought through faith and fellowship may turn out to be stronger than those wrought by attending political rallies, sports events, or other gatherings to which attendees come or go because of already known, established, and diverse allegiances. Adventist believers, though, understand, practice, and deepen the concept and feeling of family and community irrespective of individual cultural orientation.
The varied cultural backgrounds of African Adventists prescribe individual elements of the Adventist family as individually strong units each having its own intricate role to play during moments of joy and times of sorrow.
Africa’s Adventists have a deep commitment to, and a profound sense of ownership of, the church. They perform a substantial portion of the work of evangelism and other outreach activities for the church on their own initiative without waiting for the larger church—the “higher organizations”—to introduce its latest program.
African Adventists view life wholistically; therefore, religion and faith must speak to all aspects of life. They consider themselves Adventists just as much at home in their villages, or at work in the farm, office, or city, as they do when on their way to, and actually attending, church programs and services.
Adventism thrives within the complex cultural environment because, across many different contexts, local societies can see that Adventists are seeking to address their communities’ practical problems. This may mean public health, access to clean water, improved farm yields (often through ADRA’s contributions), or ways to involve the youth by developing their character and increasing their self-esteem. Pathfinder clubs, uniforms, parades (often done before local and national political dignitaries), and other Pathfinder activities contribute much in this regard. Pathfinder honors develop abilities in everything from reading the starry skies to cultural diversity training.
Most important, though culturally diverse, African Adventists have often, though not always, believed that all they have is each other, and will stick with each other in spite of cultural background. Spending time in the church all Sabbath day from morning to evening immerses them into a deeper level of common hope and common courage, so that by the time the Sabbath is over, they emerge reconstituted and attuned to embrace the next day’s tasks, united and aware of each other’s support as they face those new tasks.
Some African challenges are common to the world everywhere—simple and pervasive matters of individual preference or temperament; some are not common to the Western world—established ethnic groups with their long-entrenched tribal practices; some are creations of the Western world from a time when our independence was a parody of borders imposed to define us by division across ethnic groups. African Adventists see the blunders of our earlier years and the tragedies that sometimes followed. We are resolved to learn from those times of clash and confrontation that led to deeper crisis. But we act not only to avoid. We also clearly see the beauty in cultural diversity and wish to let it shine and make us shine for the glory of God.
Like any other people in the world, Africans’ perceptions, convictions, and attitudes are shaped by their African experiences and histories, including those linked to colonization. Africans believe in worship that is deeply embedded with the society and addresses elements of survival. Being an African often means living on the edge, and one crucial identifying mark of believers in Africa, which has also brought the church to its current state, is resilience.
Resilience in the various facets of life contributes appropriate adaptation in the face of adversity and hardship, allowing Africans to bounce back from difficult experiences and empowering them to grow and improve their personal lives. Demanding situations of drought, famine, and civil war have not in the past determined the outcome of the life of an African. The external input of food and development aid is usually welcomed. Bureaucracy, corruption, and logistics have prevented that from always being as helpful as possible. Beyond that, many survive and achieve through positive coping with limited means, resiliency in the face of adversity, support from brethren, and other possibilities, including already mentioned development initiatives either home-based or supported by international agencies and entrepreneurs.
Given the diversity of language, people, culture, and other challenges, the church in Africa gives testimony to God’s grace in how it has turned the potential obstacle of a multiplicity of diverse and even hostile cultural environments into an instrument for mission: when a Tutsi woman forgives the Hutu who murdered her husband,8 it is a testimony to God’s grace and illustrates how the potential obstacle becomes the preaching platform. Through witness such as this, the multicultural church’s current standing in Africa is such that congregations have sometimes transcended cultural divides to attract and nurture members into an inclusive Adventist identity.
ADRA digging wells, Pathfinders marching in smart salute past a dais where the country’s president stands—these are evidences of the modern Seventh-day Adventist Church meeting its society’s wholistic needs. The church must be consistent and intentional about this. There must be inclusivity, belongingness, and respect for all believers and church entities, and equal respect for those whom we hope to win to the Lord. The full potential of diversity can be realized only when all Seventh-day Adventist members as well as their friends and neighbors feel included and respected for who and what they are in the sight of God in spite of their cultural background.9 Today’s world is becoming more complicated than ever, so the multicultural church will seek to celebrate, encourage, accommodate, and engage as best it can according to Scripture’s guidance.
We must also be aware of the challenges, and be sober-minded about the barriers to multicultural calling. It requires humility and Christlikeness to pursue unity among diverse cultures. It means experiencing discomfort as we face the complexity relating to multiculturalism. Still, we are reminded that it is a means to grow in more profound empathy for others, as our witness is not primarily about us and our needs, but about the love of God and the salvation of others. In moving the multicultural church to its final destination, we must know that a reconciling church calls people to die to themselves for the love of God and others. This surrender will give us the power to point people to Jesus, the only hope we have. There is diversity around God’s throne, and He wants us to welcome our cultural diversity as believers and use it as a blessing and asset for His church. The question is personal to every Adventist: Am I willing to do what it takes to move my church in a more winsome direction?
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is called to become a symbol and instrument of God’s kingdom for spreading the good news to a broken and hurting world. It is God’s agent on earth to witness to the love of God to the world. When people look at the church, they must see the kingdom of God. It is appropriate, desirable, and pleasing to God that our multicultural church, from international and intercontinental institution to pastoral district and local congregation, be a sign of the kingdom of God today in an increasingly complicated, multicultural environment. As Adventists our goal is to propagate the gospel to all nations, tribes, tongues, and people. Culture is an inevitable medium, and we will be most useful in the hands of God if we embrace it intelligently. A multicultural church is a foretaste of the family of God that we will experience in eternity. The first angel in Revelation 14:6 has “the everlasting gospel to preach . . . to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people”(NKJV). This involves a diverse multicultural group working together, tied together, respecting and validating each other’s contribution to advancing God’s global mission as we await the second coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Daniel Ganu is the dean of the School of Postgraduate Studies, Adventist University of Africa, Nairobi, Kenya.