Indigenous Christianity and the Future of the Church in South Africa

By Oosthuizen, G. C. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Indigenous Christianity and the Future of the Church in South Africa


Oosthuizen, G. C., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


The value of other people's perspectives can be destroyed by ignorance. The movement known as African Independent Churches (AIC) in South Africa provides a case in point. Initially - from about 1890 to 1920 - the movement received considerable attention, but it was largely ignored in succeeding decades. It is past time to revisit the AIC to see what there is to learn from the indigenous Christianity of South Africa.

In recent decades the AIC movement has grown into the most dynamic church movement in South Africa. It is proliferating among black South Africans, attracting adherents of traditional African religions, and drawing into its fold many former members of mainline churches (i.e., churches that trace their origins to Western churches and missions). In 1950, fully 75 to 80 percent of all black South African Christians were members of mainline churches; only 12 to 14 percent were members of the AICs. By 1980 the mainline share of the black Christian population had dropped to 52 percent, while the AICs had increased to 27 percent; by 1991 the figures were 41 percent and 36 percent. This dramatic shift has occurred despite the apparent absence of any kind of AIC missionizing program. It would appear that traditional religionists and mainline church members flock to AIC churches simply for what they are and what they do. If present trends continue, by early next century most black South African Christians will be members of AIC congregations.

There are some 6,000 denominations within the South African AIC movement (many consisting of a single congregation). They range theologically from evangelical to syncretistic; some groups mix Christian beliefs with ancestor reverence and other animistic practices. Almost uniformly, however, a Christian sense of sharing and caring is their distinguishing mark. Many congregations gather in houses, shacks, shelters made from wooden boxes, or in open spaces in the cities and towns. Here the spirit of the traditional extended family finds expression in an ecclesiastical context, along with the basic aspects of traditional culture and religion. The venue is not important as long as there is fellowship, spontaneity in worship, mutual discussion of problems, healing services that provide spiritual and physical refreshment, and empowerment rituals that deal with malevolent social and spiritual forces. In most mainline South African churches, these features are poorly represented or missing altogether. It is not surprising, therefore, that many South African Christians in the mainline churches attend AIC healing and exorcism sessions and that they are reappraising the traditional approaches. Both the theology and the structure of mainline churches have become progressively more suspect.(1)

There are two major strands within the AIC movement of South Africa, designated by the terms "independent" and "indigenous." Churches that split off from Western-oriented churches are referred to as independent; churches that were initiated by Africans themselves, never having had ties to Western missions, are referred to as indigenous. The former tend to selectively retain certain features of the churches from which they seceded, while the latter are more oriented to traditional African religions. As is common in discussions of these two strands, in this article both will be embraced by the abbreviation AIC - African Independent Churches.

The movement is also characterized by three types. Ethiopian churches were inspired by Ethiopian-type churches in the United States at the turn of the century, especially the African Methodist Episcopal Church.(2) South African Ethiopian churches reacted strongly at the end of the last century to ecclesiastical colonialism; they also played a part in the formation of the African liberation movement. A second type is known as Zionist. The Zionist movement resulted from contacts with the Christian Catholic Church, based in Zion City, Illinois. Zion City was founded around the turn of the century by John Alexander Dowie as a Christian "restorationist" community where faith healing was practiced. …

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