As a seminary student in the US, I see something foundational to the church in Africa that I had earlier on been oblivious to.
I am deeply convinced that one of the problems in the African church is the absence of the gospel. Now, you might read that and go like: “Nah, I don’t think so, my pastor preaches to us every Sunday, how then can you say that there is no Gospel in our pulpits?” And I would reply by telling you that the problem is more complicated than that.
Let me explain.
How the Bible Defines the Gospel?
You see, according to the scriptures, the Gospel when defined is so different from what many people hear every Sunday while they sit in those hardwood pews.
According to Paul, the gospel is from God the Father “Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead:…” (Romans 1:3-4) Paul, in 1 Cor 15:3-4 also explains what the Gospel is to his hearers “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:…”
In a different passage, Paul rebukes that Galatians for accepting a gospel different from the one he delivered to them when God chose him and set him apart “To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen;…” (Gal 1:16)
You can see that the constant in all these definitions is that the Gospel concerns Jesus Christ. And that is what he preached. In fact, while writing to the Corinthians, he confesses to them that he “determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2)
There are two things to note here. One, the Gospel is an announcement. It falls under the category of news. The Gospel is something announced, as news—Good News—not a set of rules or advice passed along as good advice.
Two, it seems like to preach the Gospel is to announce Jesus Christ as the Son of God and his work (life, suffering, death, burial and resurrection) on behalf of sinners for the forgiveness of sins and divine reconciliation. Anything aside from that is ‘another gospel’, which is a nice way of referring to a false gospel.
Now I will ask again, does that sound like something you hear week-in, week-out? Or every time you go to church, do you get a to-do list of things you have to do so you will make yourself worthy in the eyes of God?
Most of what is preached as Gospel in many of our pews are a set of virtues and things we need to do or laws we need to keep. At some point, we came to convince ourselves that we are supposed to do particular things if God is to accept us, and love us more.
That is not the Gospel. It is law, in fact, the Bible calls it “justification by works.”
We at Vertical Life believe that if we are going to be the people God has called us to be, we have to hear the Gospel—what he has done for us in his Son—not what we can do for ourselves. Because it is from the root, which is what has been done for us in Jesus that the fruit, our loving service to neighbour sprouts.
There can be no fruit without the root. And the challenge is that we have for a long time preoccupied ourselves with the fruit while ignoring the stuff from which the fruit finds its life. We have spent so much time trying to manufacture water instead of merely digging wells.
That said, there is another problem.
A Westernised Theology
Another challenge plaguing the African Church is one that I was only made aware of when I relocated from Uganda to the United States of America to pursue theological training.
This is so delicate yet an essential area that the church needs to address urgently.
Most of what looks like theology in Africa is an imported version of either European or American theology, which is unaware of the histories, struggles, and aspirations of the African people.
I will give you an example. If you follow the social justice debate in the American evangelical church, you will notice that it is the white churches that say that social justice is not a gospel issue. The African American (Black) church thinks otherwise. I think the reason the white church has adopted such a position is that that church has gone through a history of closing their eyes, and sometimes enabling injustice when it should have at least identified with the sufferers.
The African-Americans went through periods of slavery, lynching, and now systemic discrimination yet through all those years, the white church pretended that things were okay when their black brothers and sisters were being treated as lesser humans and killed at will by anyone who would do it for the enjoyment of the white community.
The African-Americans, on the other hand, are strong advocators of justice because they have suffered so much injustice over the years. It is part of who they are and therefore cannot be erased from their understanding of the Gospel. For them, there can be no understanding of the Gospel unless it comes down into their communities and struggles to redeem them.
This is not the whole thing, but just a simple example to show you how cultures, histories, struggles and human aspirations shape our understanding and reception of the Gospel.
What does African Theology look like? If you went to speak to an African that has never heard the Gospel and your goal is to sound distinctly African, with the aid of African images, illustrations, theologians, histories, struggles and aspirations, how would you communicate the Gospel to that person?
That is a hard question to answer because a distinctly African theology is a rarity.
While we need to preach the Gospel of Christ’s redeeming work coming to sinners and sufferers through nude faith, we desperately need to do it in a manner that defines us as Africans. The gospel has to answer our most profound questions—the ones unique to Africa and the black world.
That is where Vertical Life comes in. We seek to communicate the liberating power of the Gospel without renouncing our African-ness. We will be doing this through articles, and a podcast; and later, as resources allow, we will roll out more resources in a bid to fulfill our mission.