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David Martin

Africa: A Mission Accomplished?

Where Christianity is thriving

Everyone agrees that the great shifts in the social geography of Christianity over the past half century have been the redistribution of demographic weight southward, and the inundation of the Christian south by Pentecostalism and its charismatic penumbra. However, most of the attention so far has been focused on Latin America, where the Catholic monopoly has collapsed in a welter of competition, rather than on Africa, where even more important developments are in train.

Whereas in 1900, Christians in sub-Saharan Africa were a small minority, they now number about one third of a billion, and the Pentecostal wave that took off in Latin America in the Sixties swept across Africa about a decade later. There is, of course, no monopoly in Africa outside the Islamic north, but there are major emplacements of Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism that feel their massive political influence threatened by born-again Christianity and its increasing emphasis on health and wealth. In a continent where the state is corrupt, weak, and often ethnically divided, the churches and associated NGOS constitute what there is of civil society and are the arbiters of the moral arena. Born-again charismatic Christians represent a new generation and can provide an alternative source of political legitimation, on occasion it must be said to the benefit of autocratic rulers.

Africa is not just a continent but a diaspora which through slavery includes Brazil and the Caribbean. If one traces the origins of Pentecostalism to the confluence of black and white revivalism in the United States, then what is going forward in Africa itself is as much a homecoming as a visitation from elsewhere. It is no wonder then that opinion is divided between those who trace a gospel of healing and prosperity to the United States and those who see it as characteristically African. Lots of Americans celebrate prosperity and clearly lots of Africans would like to.

There are similar conflicts of opinion over the origins ...

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