During the 2020 GC Annual Council, it was reported that two of the largest contributors to Adventist Church growth were divisions in Africa: Southern Africa Indian-Ocean (19.23%) and East-Central Africa (27.49%), whose combined contribution exceeds 46% of global church growth. To add further perspective, the then General Conference Executive Secretary G. T. Ng shared a chart showing the global composition of the Seventh-day Adventist Church based on membership statistics during that time (shown below). Without debating the limitations of the presentation, we celebrate the numerical growth of Adventism in places like Africa. However, we also acknowledge that numbers—be they demographic or financial—are not an indicator of spirituality or faithfulness. In fact, Adventism’s growth in Africa is not homogenous. There are places contending with very little growth, and we also need to factor in high fertility rates as a determinant of church growth on the continent. Just like other regions, the continent is not spared from the high member attrition rates of 4 in every 10 members that are reported by the General Conference. So, what are some of the emerging issues for the future of Adventism in Africa that the church needs to pay attention to? Some of these issues, of course, may apply to Adventism in general.
Post-COVID-19, Adventism in many urban areas in Africa is struggling to make inroads in mission or attract interest. Traditional approaches to evangelism characterized by attracting people to a venue or tent meetings for a weekly series of doctrinal sermons and the random distribution of printed material in people’s homes and public places are making less of an impact. Adventist churches, especially in many urban areas, are struggling to attract interest—even Adventists are not attending their own meetings! The church finds herself facing a world that seems not to care about what she is saying. Instead of investigating the reasons behind the decreasing success in mission, we continue using methods borrowed from 19th-century rural America in a different world. Not only are these approaches evidently less efficacious, they are harmful in a world where religious exclusivism is repulsive. Facing diminishing interest in their immediate neighborhoods, many have shifted to distant and often poor rural communities, often bypassing churches in those communities that could be more effective if equipped. Like 19th and 20th century missionaries, we have urban churches “owning” congregations in rural or distant areas in the name of mission. This opportunistic approach not only confirms the challenge with urban mission but also points to a denial of the need to reconfigure approaches, especially in urban areas. The brand of Adventism we have been holding on to is struggling to appeal to middle incomers who are asking different questions.
The urban church in Africa risks being irrelevant, self-serving, and unable to impact its neighborhood. Many urban dwellers behind the high fences and closed curtains are either too busy or skeptical and tired of doctrinal arguments that fail to speak to their practical concerns. It is not religious content that they seek, because that is easily available online. They want to belong. They want a community that attends to the things that matter to them such as parenting, health, drug abuse, debt management, career guidance, etc. Thus, the Adventist Church has begun facing missional paralysis, increasingly struggling to speak to a world asking different questions. Conferences need to work with churches on exploring ways in which they can better impact their communities and share expertise to deepen their impact, rather than contest territory. Some church buildings may need to be reconfigured into community centers. Church workers may need to be retooled to better serve their constituencies. But as long as there’s no intention to change, we will reach a point where we will be preaching to ourselves about ourselves.
A Tyranny of Homogeneity
One feature of many Adventist churches in Africa is the penchant to comply with General Conference directives. There’s a strong commitment to complying with the GC calendar of special emphasis days, but sometimes to the detriment of local needs. This results in a globally aligned local church that is often locally detached or irrelevant to its community. Many local churches exert their energies in trying to be Adventist through conformity to an agenda set elsewhere. I have seen local elders being reduced to mere program coordinators, with conferences and unions playing a policing role. Because they are now measured by the extent to which they comply, many of our churches are very program-centered. In these churches, for anything to happen it must be a program on a calendar, which means nothing or very little grows organically. This rigidity is further entrenched by a GC leadership that places emphasis on homogeneity across the churches even to the detriment of local initiatives. Many of these initiatives are repetitive and experimental because they are never evaluated for their efficacy or impact. They often come with recommended guidance materials from the GC, which in a compliance-driven culture choke out creative local adaptation. While the intention behind them is noble, the damage and implications to the local church should not be ignored. The church in Africa needs to resist the urge to measure herself by the extent to which she complies with GC initiatives but rather by her local impact. The impact of a church should be more horizontal to its community rather than vertically focused on internal compliance. Churches that focus on churning out religious content risk creating a disengaged audience rather than a community.
Beyond Church Planting
On a continent characterized by a large youth population, high rural-to-urban migration, urban poverty, crime, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, and lack of access to services such as health and education, Adventism in Africa is at a crossroads. While it is important to plant churches, what is now more urgent is an investment in social services such as rehabilitation centers, vocational education, digital media centers, health facilities, and schools. The focus should be on empowering young people, women, and girls, as well as providing services where they don’t exist. The drive to be opening new church buildings is not only narrow-minded but is becoming self-serving, as these buildings open for only one day a week. The future of urban mission in many places in Africa and other parts of the Global South lies in practical impact, being an island of relief and hope in a sea of the various challenges facing society. Church should not be a place where people are reduced to passive consumers of information but rather be where they are engaged and empowered in practical ways. This is also an opportunity for Africans in the diaspora to explore ways in which they can contribute skills, expertise, and resources in deepening the work of the church on the continent. At a time when people are giving more directly to causes rather than institutions, African Adventist diaspora networks need to be formed that engage with church leadership in their home countries on how they can support the work of the church. On the part of church leadership, more accountability and transparency will be needed.
One honest conversation that is needed in Adventist circles is on the idolization of marriage and family—and the demeaning of singleness. Many churches only talk to single people with marriage in mind, especially women who are taught how to be wives and mothers rather than how to serve God in and through singleness. The situation worsens for those over 30, who are treated as potential homewreckers or portrayed as being punished for promiscuity in their younger years. Because being single is often associated with being needy and incomplete, such people are even excluded from serving in certain roles. In the same list are the youth, single parents, and the divorced and the childless, who are becoming a majority in our congregations. Members are robbed of the opportunity to cocreate and exchange across age or gender.
As the church in Africa enjoys a large youth population, it should be forward-looking rather than defending tradition at the expense of practicality. Young people should not be content with definitions of involvement that are limited to them performing in front of adults in church. We can't allow church to continue being a bastion of misogyny, discrimination, and toxicity where the Bible is manipulated to exclude women and young people from reaching their full potential. The diversity that exists in our churches means that we need to see more women, singles, youth, young families, empty nesters, couples, divorced, widowed, etc., treated as family who equally deserve community outside of their home unit. More importantly, there’s a need to accept that there are single Christians who don’t want partners, not because they have failed to get any but because they intentionally choose to be single. Rather than trying to contest the reasons behind their choices or investigating their sex life, we should focus on dismantling processes and attitudes that perpetuate exclusion.
The African Theologian
The Adventist Church has seen many African pastors obtain higher degrees. This has seen the continent enjoy a large pool of master's and doctoral graduates in various disciplines related to theology. The next step is how this capacity can be harnessed to facilitate their contribution to biblical scholarship in Africa. The current setup is that many of these graduates see these qualifications as a path to some higher office, which is self-defeating. Africa needs more thought leadership, more locally generated publications that interrogate contextual issues, and spaces for intellectual engagement. The complexities facing Adventism on the continent require that the African theologian and scholar moves from reacting to issues raised by theologians from other parts of the world to us setting the agenda. Ellen White’s writings should not be used to fence in biblical scholarship but ignite it. The habit of waiting for General Conference Sessions or Annual Councils to react, oppose, or contest what others are raising is disingenuous. Critique, learning, and unlearning should be the hallmarks of Adventism; no one should be ostracized for asking questions. The call here is for institutions of higher learning and theologians on the continent to self-organize and invest more into creating opportunities for intellectual reflection on theological issues pertinent to the continent. Africans should not be content with being seen as a mere voting bloc by church politicians in other parts of the world. The church should also be flexible enough to allow pastors to study for degrees outside theological disciplines, such as law, economics, finance, psychology, strategic management, information technology, etc., that can benefit the church.
A Call to Reform
The stagnating growth of Adventism in Africa is a call for its development. The continent is blessed with young intelligent, passionate, and resourceful members whose usefulness is often stifled by outdated Adventist culture. But the world is changing. For many of us who are over the age of 25, the world into which we were born no longer exists. The risk we now face is that of being out of touch, operating under outdated assumptions, developing products that no one consumes, speaking a language that no one understands. Even within Adventism, there’s peeling off, a questioning of some of the things we considered definitive to Adventism. Many are no longer satisfied with a church that cares more about projecting and protecting her reputation even at the expense of her members. They no longer find fear and shame or the shortness of time as strong incentives to be Adventist. The problem is not in our doctrines as such but our failure to make them speak to the questions many are asking. The suffocating formality—in addition to tradition at the expense of practicality, emphasis on behavior rather than belonging, celebrity culture, and toxic pulpits—does more harm. Therefore, it is very disingenuous to make calls for revival or renewed spiritual commitment while ignoring the need to disrupt systems, processes, attitudes, and structures that shackle us. Adventism in Africa needs to rise. It needs more doses of reformation than ever. As aptly put by Ellen White:
“Revival and reformation are two different things. Revival signifies a renewal of spiritual life, a quickening of the powers of mind and heart, a resurrection from the spiritual death. Reformation signifies reorganization, a change in ideas and theories, habits and practices. Reformation will not bring forth the good fruit of righteousness unless it is connected with the revival of the Spirit. Revival and reformation are to do their appointed work, and in doing this work they must blend.”
Notes & References:
 Ellen G. White, Christian Service, 41–42.
Admiral Ncube is an Adventist Zimbabwean writing from Gaborone, Botswana, where he is a humanitarian and development professional.
Photo illustration by Spectrum. Source images from the Adventist University of Africa.
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