Nowhere in the world is Christianity growing so rapidly -- some 6,000 conversions a day -- as it is in Africa. Nowhere else do the future prospects for Christianity look so promising. This is the assessment of religious institutions, theologians, sociologists, and commentators on Africa.
Because the decline of Christianity was thought to be inevitable as African countries became independent and threw off their colonial trappings, today's expansion is regarded as one of the most surprising developments of postcolonial Africa.
Experts say Africa is the most fertile area for the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II recently ended his third tour of the continent, a sign of the Vatican's commitment to Africa.
There are uniquely African factors that facilitate the conversion of Africans to Christianity, says Prof. Lamin Sarneh of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University.
One is the African love of healing -- they can readily identify with the healing works of Jesus.
Another is the close identification that Africans have with water, which is regarded as a symbol of life. Thus the African has a natural affinity for the Christian rite of baptism.
``It is reckoned that by the end of this century there will be 350 million African Christians, which would make it the largest concentration of Christians in the world,'' says Professor Sarneh.
Such a development, religion experts say, will have profound implications for the shaping of Christianity. The number of Catholic conversions is exceeding the church's capacity to fulfill all its priestly obligations as the ratio between members and priests widens.
``An enormous increase in the number of nominal Christians'' in Africa is reported by J. D. Y. Peel, professor of sociology at Liverpool University, who has studied religions in Africa.
Professor Peel says there are large areas in Africa -- in southern Ghana, eastern Nigeria, Zaire, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and South Africa -- ``where virtually everyone claims to be a Christian.''
Most converts were previously animists, a religion that regards all objects as animate, or possessing a soul. The reason why so many Africans are turning to Christianity is attributed to a number of factors include disillusionment with political systems and a natural attraction to religious worship. Another factor is the rapid urbanization that has left rural but highly communal Africans disoriented because of separation from their locally-based tribal religions.
``There is no fear there to spread the Gospel,'' says Lesley Edmonds of the British and Foreign Bible Society. ``There is a spiritual hunger on the continent whether it is for the Christian or one of the tribal religions.''
This hunger is reflected in the demands made on the Society, which distributes 15 million to 16 million items of Scripture, including Bibles, to Africa every year. The Society reports demand for the Scriptures in Africa is so great that work is going on to translate the Bible, or portions of it, into 238 different African languages.
``If the old family structure is broken or pulled away, then one effect of African Christianity has been to produce alternative family or community structures. Christianity is one way people are able to cope with new influences,'' says Prof. Andrew Walls, director of the Center for the Study of Christianity in the non-Western World at Scotland's Aberdeen University.
Christians, according to Professor Sarneh, enjoy a crucial advantage over Islam in winning recruits. He argues that Christianity has a much greater identification with the vernacular setting: Africans are able to translate Christian values and practices directly into their own language and cultural values.
``When a Nigerian Yoruba Christian prays to God the Father he prays to Olorun,'' Sarneh says. ``This Yoruba word has all sorts of important cultural connotations for him, and with which he can readily identify. When a Yoruba Muslim prays to God, he prays not to Olorun, but to Allah, the God of Islam.''
Sarneh believes the reversion to Muslim orthodoxy of many Arab states, such as Libya and Saudi Arabia, will act as a brake on the further spread of Islam in black Africa precisely because it lacks this vernacular identification.
The penetration of Africa from the north by Muslims has not resulted in the erosion of Christianity. On the contrary, the reverse has happened in some cases.
Christian missionaries, often equated with Western cultural and political imperialism, were viewed in some political quarters as holdovers from the colonial era. Yet theologians claim that on the whole, postcolonial Africa has been tolerant of the Western missionary.
Today, there are more missionaries in Africa than there were before independence came to most of the countries. By the end of World War II there were 22,000 missionaries in Africa. By 1970 the number had jumped to 36,000, and today's figures are thought to exceed that.
The profile of a typical missionary has undergone some radical changes. There has been a sharp decline in the number of missionaries from the older, main-line churches. But this decline has been more than offset by the sharp increase in the number of missionaries from American evangelical churches.
Missionaries have also tended to shift their emphasis from evangelizing ``the heathen'' to welfare work, development plans, and assisting in the dispersement of international aid.
The rapid growth of Christianity in Africa has been without major challenges.
Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg and a leader in the black political struggle in South Africa, has spoken in the past about the Christian dilemma for many Africans: ``The African Christian has suffered from a form of religious schizophrenia. With part of himself he has been compelled to pay lip service to Christianity as understood, expressed, and preached by the white man. With an even greater part of himself, a part he has often been ashamed to acknowledge openly and which he has been
struggling to repress, he has felt that his `African-ness' was being violated.
``The white man's largely cerebral religion was hardly touching the depths of his African soul; he was being redeemed from sins he did not believe he had committed; he was being given answers -- and often splendid answers -- to questions he had not asked.''
There were, of course, many questions Africans did have about Western Christianity. And because the so-called independent churches had answers for those questions, those churches grew rapidly.
They were founded not necessarily because they were anti-white or anti-West, but because blacks believed that those churches were more in tune with the African character. Since their establishment in the 19th century, they have shown phenomenal growth. In 1925 there were 130 independent churches; by 1948 the number had risen to 800. Today there are more than 3,000. As many as a third of them are in South Africa. Soweto, the huge African township near Johannesburg, has as many as 900 independent churches .
But scholars point out that their growth in the white-ruled republic was not so much a reaction to racial policies as it was a reflection of the country's enormously more advanced urbanization.
Edward Norman in his book ``Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere'' suggests that the independent churches ``are a black response to the alien world of urban values by those seeking integration yet whose language and culture ill-prepare them for urban living.''
The thrust of the independent churches appears to have stabilized. In some areas the more mainstream Christian churches are winning back support they had lost.
This is true in Zimbabwe, where, just after independence in 1980, the Methodist Church lost ground. Methodist Bishop Abel Muzorewa was the nation's first black prime minister but was subsequently overwhelmed at the polls by Robert Mugabe. The strength of the religion and the fate of the bishop apparently were closely related. Anglicans also suffered because of the church's close connections with the former white-power structure.
Zimbabwe's Catholic Church was not similarly compromised. Today, however, the Anglican church, freed of a connection with a repressive white government, is gaining new members. Methodist membership, on the other hand, has not grown.
First of two articles