Recontextualizing the Adventist Message for the African Continent

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Recontextualizing the Adventist Message for the African Continent

The Africanization of Adventism project has been raging with Africans themselves echoing different views on the necessity of this controversial move. Arguments against this are primarily premised on fears on whether this will divert the movement from the noble work of proclaiming the second coming of Jesus, whether this drive is indeed salvific, because after all Adventism has been functioning so why rock the boat or fix a moving wheel and what it means since Africa has many cultures. Embedded in this view is a fear of whether this will open floodgates to other not-so-Adventist things as there seem to be no parameters on how Africanization would look like in reality. In this debate, one thing is clear, Adventism in its current format is Eurocentric in expression, liturgy, and polity. This is compounded by the increasing uniformity in Adventism seen in the centralized devotional materials and the definitive role of the church manual. A visit to an Adventist church, one will not fail to see exasperating efforts being put to worship, dress, and behave in another culture which has been misconstrued for piety and reverence. Understandably, this is a legacy of early Adventist missionaries who sold their culture together with the gospel to African converts.

 

While the term Africanization has been used loosely, I view it not as a political project but a spiritual one, as it speaks to how Africans express and experience God. To promote one culture, its ways and preferences in a global movement defy all logic as it misrepresents God and entrenches an inferiority and self-hating complex. Arguments for Africanization find their premise in the idea that Adventism in its current format makes it difficult to integrate the “African way” in it. This makes Africans misconstrue whiteness for Christlikeness, their concept of holiness is confined to doing things in a Eurocentric way. This is the core of Africanization, of course, variations on how this is expressed in practice can be expected but the underlying message is that every culture has both good and bad elements, instead of replacing it with another culture we integrate the good within the confines of God’s word. In this raging debate, one critical issue often overlooked is outlining what an African Adventist church would look like. It is therefore my focus in this article to explore what this localization means, where do we go from here.

 

Localization Explained

For clarity, localization of Adventism refers to the expression of the Adventist faith in ways meaningful to each and all cultures. It allows for each culture to interpret and experience Adventism in culturally meaningful ways under the confines of God’s word.  Africa as we all know it is not monolithic culture but very diverse. Africanization should not be about creating one mega way but rather providing space for the expression of Adventism in as many cultures as possible. This means a move from global to local, allowing local churches to express themselves in contextually relevant ways. It is in this vein, that Africanization should be seen as a form of localization of Adventism. Though commonly referred to as Africanization because the discussion has largely been by and about Africans, in a sense it is localization. As a concept localization does not rob Adventism of its universal or global nature but rather makes it relevant and responsible to the people who embrace it. This undoubtedly is empowering to local churches as they become more relevant and attractive in their mission to their communities. More importantly, it prompts local churches to evaluate their context and bring out elements previously ignored to enrich their expression of Adventism. So Africanization in the form of localization is about Africans experiencing and expressing God in their own skin, in ways more enriching and relevant to their context.

 

From the onset, it should be accepted that the efficacy of efforts towards localization hinge on the extent to which the current organization structure and authority can be redesigned to provide greater autonomy to local churches. This should not be mistaken for advocating for breaking up Adventism into small factions but rather more emphasis on being local than global. The current set up where local churches find themselves running their programs in line with a conference or centralized institutional calendar is self-defeating as it leads them to put resources in implementing and reporting on an agenda set elsewhere.  The globalization of Adventism has meant more authority being vested in administrative structures which then legislate and micromanage local churches. A paradigm shift is needed that will see conference, union, and division structures playing a facilitating and empowering role rather than being regulatory bodies. Under the localized set up, these become lean with their role shifting from regulation, churning out devotional materials and tools devoid of context to supporting churches developing relevant frameworks for localization. This means, there is a need for administrative structures to let go, move away from regulation to facilitating. The church manual in its current format and usage has to be redefined and adapted to this setup. For years, it has taken more than an administrative role as in many cases it is not clear on what is mandatory and what is optional.

 

Localized Liturgy and Worship

Having addressed the organizational structure issues, the next stop is the sabbath liturgy and order of service. In many places, there is a standard format that begins at 9 am until sunset means that one’s sabbath hours are already programmed. The congestion that comes with this set up implies that the whole sabbath experience depends on “the church”. One positive change that has already happened due to COVID 19 is the “handing back” of the sabbath to members. Gone are the days when the Sabbath was congested with programs and routines at the expense of personal spirituality. It is now up to members to decide which and where to spend the two hours given the proliferation of virtual church services. Localization will enable sabbath observance that does not center around church attendance or a particular program script.  For example, a sermon is not necessary at 11 am on the Sabbath, churches can opt to congregate in the afternoon instead of morning or any time of the day. In the same worship service, locally composed songs and instruments can be used freely, the obsession with 18th-century hymns fades away. We have been led to regard as unholy the practice of dancing, which is steeped in African culture. Localization in this sense unleashes a refreshing worship experience where members come to participate, connect, and enrich instead of being passive viewers.

Localization also means doing away with a program centric model. Everything from prayer to evangelism, to ministry to the poor is made a program. Very little or nothing organically grows, it either has to be a directive from a higher office or compliance with an institutional calendar. Consequently, local church leaders become administrators of an already set agenda, their role focuses on ensuring programs run smoothly, members have a good time, and less engagement. Any attempts to deviate from an established program are unwelcome, there is an excessive love for numbers and attendance which creates a group of celebrity Christians who are always venerated by the church. Churches have celebrated attendance where a large section of the congregation sits like “ viewers” in a cinema. They go to church to get an experience, they hold the church leadership accountable if they don’t get that experience. Not only does it breed docility, but it also perpetuates the idea that the church owes members a certain experience.

 

Localized Spirituality

Localization also means a departure from a fixation with dressing in certain ways or making certain dress items mandatory for worship. Items such as jackets and ties, typical of Anglo-culture are not legislated as more modest and acceptable before God. Focus then will be on overarching principles on modesty and reverence which local churches can apply and adapt. Whilst appreciating how culture changes over time and benefits from interaction with other cultures, the issue here is not flexibility and autonomy to decide. Let God speak to His people without having external regulation and minute rules on how to dress imposed on them. Instead of local leaders focusing on being dress police, they let go and put their energies in nurturing and equipping saints for mission.

 

Adventism has always portrayed itself as a global movement where the order of service, production of study and devotional materials in standardized. The advantage is that this creates a uniformity which is often celebrated as evidence of how much we are one big global family. The only challenge comes when these materials are divorced from the context by being biased towards issues in another context. For example, the creation versus evolution debate is not as hot in Africa as it is in the west. So a study guide that tackles evolution is a hard sell in many places. Instead of having a contextually divorced and academic sabbath school lesson, children’s’ material with pictures of white Jesus and angels, churches can develop contextually appropriate materials for children or even opt to do a series of studies on African traditional religion and Christianity, how to navigate around this. Radical as it may sound, but it liberates members from an obsession with compliance at the expense of practicality. It makes church refreshing, responsive, and adaptable to the issues members face.

 

Localized Theology

In a continent struggling with corruption, poverty, inequality, disease, and natural disasters, it is important that Adventist theology deliberately speaks to these issues. Our current eschatological understanding is heavily Eurocentric and detached from present conditions. For example, the 2300-day prophecy needs to be problematized to speak to our context. What good would be the three angels’ messages if the focus is only on horns, beasts, dragons, and Babylon while ignoring the social injustice that resides in the same Babylon (Revelation 18)? The attitude of “ Why bother? It’s all gonna burn; let’s focus on preparing for the second advent” is an irresponsible and careless response that misrepresents the gospel. Decolonizing Adventism will see an outgrowth of a level of confidence and assertiveness that questions and confronts the status quo. Not only will it make mission more relevant and but more responsive at a time there is so much agitation around Africanising Christianity.  Never should Adventists look at bad governance, poverty, and injustice as God’s will. Africans should not be content with dying from malaria as if it is God’s will when in other countries malaria has been eliminated and interventions have been effective. So localization triggers reflection and action on these issues as African Adventists become engaged in issues affecting their communities.

Unfortunately, early missionaries made it their mission to annihilate the African religion and way of life that was synonymous with misery and superstitions in their eyes. Condescending views about Africans made them dismiss what they did not understand as mere superstition, which sowed seeds of syncretism, or a weaving of unbiblical beliefs and practices into Christianity[i]. This practice of dual or divided allegiance to both the God of the Bible and the gods and powers of traditional religion was a result of a failure to develop a culturally appropriate and biblically faithful Christianity. In the absence of contextualization, Adventism still struggles to answer to visible evidences of works of spirits, witchcraft, and supernatural occurrences. The proliferation of charismatic and African independent churches should be seen as an attempt to respond to these manifestations in an African way. As long as black Adventism continues to shy away from confronting these issues, it will render Adventism weak and irrelevant to speak to real the issues facing people. No wonder, it is not uncommon to hear Adventism being labelled powerless or spiritless all because of an absence of a coherent theology on these things. Therefore, with localization, the church can contextualize, to come up with a robust response to these issues which are a reality.

 

Therefore, Africanization opens up opportunities for localization for the African. Fears around excesses will always exist but that should not be an obstacle to progression. Localizations means letting go and letting God impress upon His people how to connect with Him. Those who see this as an empty agitation are missing the point. It is part of a bigger drive to deal with the self-hate that we have encouraged by legislating the ways of another culture upon ourselves. Of course, conferences will not drive this process, it is upon local churches to use changes brought about by COVID 19 to come up with refreshing ways to experience church. When Jesus referred to Himself as the bread of life, He was speaking in a context where bread is the staple. For us outside that context, we contextualize this to speak to our spirituality. Localization is not an option, it is not apostasy but a progression in faith.

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Notes.

[i] Doss, G R. 2009. An Adventist Response to African Traditional Religion. Asia Africa Journal of Mission and Ministry 1:81-90

 

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I am a development practitioner, Zimbabwean national based in Gaborone, Botswana. I hold a doctorate in development studies with extensive experience in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.