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Working Through the Local Church

NOTE: This analysis relates to evangelical Protestant Churches. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches have a very different structure that leads to different potentials.

Relating to the church type

There is a tendency to share models that are successful in one place to a different situation where the model that is good for one area may not relevant for another. By more careful thinking of the circumstance of the church, it should be possible to be more discerning in determining what model will transfer well. Of particular significance in this respect is how well established and influential a denomination is in an area. In Africa, denominations tend to be structured in relation to people groups (tribes, or in some cases smaller or larger groupings), and the degree of influence a particular denomination has in a people group is very significant for thinking on relevant development approaches. The relevant type of development approach must depend on the potential of the denomination while accepting the constraints or limitations that it faces. These, in turn, have a close correlation to the nature of the church in a particular people group.

We may be able to identify four main church situations:

1. Where one denomination is dominant and a majority of the population have allegiance to that denomination, which is therefore respected and has a potentially almost universal influence.

  1. Where the church is very well established with second and third generation Christians. The structure is indigenised. Much in the culture has been Christianised. However, Christians may now be moving towards a model of life that is more conformist rather than distinctive. e.g. Wolaitta Kale Heywet Church, The Episcopal Church of Sudan in Moru and Kakwa areas of Sudan, The Church of Uganda in Kigezi, DCT in Dodoma Region Tanzania.
  2. Where one particular church denomination has spread fast recently but most Christians are the first generation. Rapid growth means that teaching is probably still limited so that Christian values are only beginning to penetrate the culture. However, people are wanting to know what it means to live as a Christian in practical matters. e.g. The Episcopal Church of Sudan in Bor Dinka area of Sudan, The Presbyterian Church of Sudan in Nuer area of Sudan.

2. Where the majority of the population have allegiance to one or other of many denominations, but there are many different denominations competing for allegiance. Most of the people share the same respect for the Bible and the church, but structurally they belong to many different denominations. Identity is often more in being a member of a particular denomination than being a Christian.

  1. Although there are others, one denomination is particularly associated with this people group. It may be well known as the church of this people group by outsiders. e.g. Methodist Church in Meru area of Kenya, Church of God in Bunyore area of western Kenya, United Church of Zambia in some parts of Zambia.
  2. Because there are so many different denominations you cannot predict what denomination a member of this people group is likely to belong to. There may or may not be interdenominational contact and working together. e.g. Much of Anglophone Africa: South Africa, Western Kenya, Central Kenya, Northern Tanzania, Ghana etc.

3. Where the church does not yet spread to the majority of the population but one or only a few denominations are having a significant presence in the area. The church is respected but does not have the allegiance of the majority of the population.

  1. Christians mainly belong to one denomination but not yet reaching a majority of the population. e.g. Presbyterian Church of Sudan in Anuak and Shilluk Kingdoms of Sudan, KHC in some areas of southern Ethiopia.
  2. One evangelical church is dominant in an otherwise Catholic or other non-evangelical church areas in a country that is not predominantly Roman Catholic. e.g. Africa Inland Church in Acholi and Madi areas of Sudan.
  3. One Evangelical church is sharing significance with either Catholics or Muslims in a non-Catholic and non-Muslim country. e.g. Church of Uganda in Lugbara area.
  4. A number of different denominations are competing in the (relatively large) people group but one may be significant in a particular area. This may also be linked with the people group being cross-border e.g. Many Maasai areas in Kenya, The Turkana in Northern Kenya, AIC in North Mara in Tanzania, CEE in CAR and ECS in Sudan among the Azande.

4. The evangelical church is a minority group in a culturally antagonistic environment. There is often persecution. This may be from Muslims, Majority Orthodox or Catholic cultures or where Witchcraft is active. e.g. Some areas of KHC in Ethiopia (e.g. Chencha), the Protestant church in much of Francophone Africa, and EER in Rwanda,

This analysis has many implications on the nature and the most appropriate way of working of the church in a particular people group. Some of these factors have been summarised in the following table:

Click here for table

It is important in any situation that the involvement of the church in development be tailored towards the overall church situation in an area. The church must play to its potentials. For any church, motivation from the Bible must be a significant resource but how this is used in development will depend on the influence of the church locally and the degree of competition or cooperation.

Looking at the significance of the church to the different people groups is entirely relevant in Africa as it is the way that the church is structured, and is the way that spirituality is expressed. Looking at the reality is different from the negative aspects of tribalism that can be xenophobic and competitive. This model is looking at the potential that a church can have in a particular area and basing relationships and interventions on that reality.

Where one denomination is dominant the existing church structure is easy to work through, but when there are many competing denominations a more sensitive approach may be needed in order to be able to share the common message.