“Some commentators have noted that the presence of African Christians has redefined the UK’s church landscape.”
The Challenges of Being African and Christian in Britain by Rev David Shosanya
Rev David Shosanya examines the spiritual, social, political and cultural challenges that African Christians are likely to encounter as they share the Gospel in British society
In 1992 I attended a lecture, entitled ‘CRY JESUS!’ , delivered by the internationally renowned theologian, Dr Kwame Bediako. Through a series of stories, rooted in Ghanaian folk tradition, Dr Bediako masterfully drew on the unique cultural insights that indigenous Ghanaian storytelling had to offer theologians interested in discovering African perspectives on Christology (the study of the doctrine of Christ) and pneumatology (the study of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit). Dr Bediako’s lecture was, for me, a provocative introduction to research exploring the arrival, emergence and proliferation of Christianity across the continent of Africa and the UK.
Even the most inattentive or casual observer would have become cognisant of the increased numbers of African Christians and churches in the UK since the 1980s, a result of the influx of aspirational students and professionals from the continent. Some commentators have noted that the presence of African Christians has redefined the UK’s church landscape. In fact, Dr Brierley, former Chief Executive of the Christian Research Agency (CRA) once commented that, had it not been for the presence of African Christians in the UK, his book, Pulling Out of the Nose Dive, may well have been entitled Towards a Catastrophic Fall to Extinction.
There is, however, a danger that we are so transfixed by the phenomena that has widely become known as ‘reverse mission’- or the ‘Africanisation of Christianity’- that we either refuse (or fail to discerningly offer) analytical perspectives on what factors might hinder or abort rather than facilitate its further progression. In other words, the need remains for ‘critical’ perspectives that attempt to discern what the Spirit is saying, and how to negotiate the rapidly changing terrain.
There are at least three challenges that I think African Christians will face in the UK, which they will need to be proactive in addressing if the forward trajectory of rapid growth is going to continue.
The first challenge relates to issues of representation, visibility and connectivity to grass roots Black communities. Earlier, I noted that the explosion of African Christianity and churches coincided with the arrival of aspirational students and professionals. That is significant! Why? Principally because much of the social unrest between Black and White communities (the Notting Hill and Brixton Riots, etc) was rooted in and erupted out of a deep sense of disquiet about overt and sometimes extreme acts of racism by members of the public and the police.
However, the new influx of migrants from Africa had not encountered the social violence of being defined by the experience of having one’s humanity systematically and consistently questioned and undermined, by virtue of a pseudo-scientific race discourse that found its origins in the 17th and 18th century, and which expressed itself in unconscious cultural conditionings by the masses with society.
At the same time, the Black church constituency, particularly African Christians, represent the largest and most coherent organisation or institution within the UK’s Black communities. They are often asked to play a representative role. However, the ‘gap’ in social experience and lived historical perspective, which exists between the grass roots communities and the professional class of immigrants who arrived in Britain in the 1980s, raises serious questions with respect to how the latter can authentically represent the former in political, social and other forums, when their experiences are similar but not identical. It must be pointed out, though, that some African ministers have managed to negotiate that chasm with admirable skill.
The second challenge centres on inter-generational worldviews. The African-American writer, W.E.B Du Bois, spoke of African Americans having a double consciousness, living with the daily tension of having to negotiate conflicting worldviews. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that many young people, with parents born and raised in Africa but now living in the UK, also wrestle with this conflict of identity. For many, in seeking to free themselves from the clutches of certain aspects of their culture which they decide to jettison once in the UK, they inadvertently reject the Christian faith itself, as the two are so inextricably linked. However, many African church leaders are aware of this, and are proactively drawing on the necessary resources – human and otherwise – to address and resolve this challenge. This will be a hard nut to crack!
The last challenge revolves around realising the vision of being a ‘reverse mission movement’. Most African Christians self-identify as being part of a ‘reverse mission movement’ to the UK. In other words, they view their presence here as comparable to that of the missionaries who left the shores of the UK for Africa. The most successful missionaries, ie. those who sought to preach Christ – without the other two Cs, culture and commerce as a primary motivator – had to be willing to ‘lose’ themselves in order to reach the indigenous communities with the Gospel. African Christians face a similar challenge today. However, the challenge is further complicated by deeply entrenched attitudes of discrimination and suspicion about the style of Christianity espoused and propagated by African Christians. Therefore, if the ‘reverse mission movement’ is going to be effective in reaching indigenous communities here in the UK, it will be at considerable personal cost, and will require that cultural preferences, which inform and shape the practices of churches populated with Christians of African descent, will need to be reviewed. I am confident that it can happen. I am also convinced that it will be a tall order!
Rev David Shosanya is a Regional Minister & Director with the London Baptist Association