The rapid growth of Christianity in Africa

CNS photo/Dai Kurokawa, EPA
Young people pray during Mass in 2015 at Saint Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Nairobi, Kenya.

Pope Francis has named Abel Gabuza, the current bishop of Kimberley, South Africa, to the post of coadjutor archbishop of Durban, one of the largest cities in the nation. He will eventually replace the leadership role of 77-year-old Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, OFM. While bishops are required to submit their resignation on their 75th birthday, the pope often asks them to stay on well past that deadline to plan smooth transitions for successors. Such a transition is now firmly in place in the prominent South African archdiocese.

Bishop Gabuza has earned a reputation for supporting social justice initiatives across Africa, where he has been a tireless advocate for the resolution of violence and diminishment of political intolerance, especially in the face of rampant corruption. He has also prioritized the protection of water purity in the face of extractive coal and gold mining and its related pollution. His role on the African Bishops’ Conference’s Justice and Peace Commission has provided him a platform for speaking about ethical responsibility in a country where droughts and food shortages often cause severe human suffering.

This rise in African Christianity in the last 100 years is one of the most under-appreciated success stories in global religious history. In 1900, there were less than 10 million Christians on the continent, many of whom were non-native missionaries. A century later in the year 2000, there were 350 million. By 2025, that number is expected to nearly double, to somewhere between 630 and 700 million believers.

Any pie-chart of Christians by region makes clearly evident that the European slice is shrinking, and is being replaced by growing African and Asian ones. By 2025, nearly three-quarters of all Catholics will live in Africa, Asia or Latin America. North America is projected to remain relatively steady at somewhere between 5 and 8 percent of all Christians on the planet living here, but with declining birth rates among native-born North Americans, that is due in large part to immigration from these other regions.

As the weight of the church in terms of energy, people and influence continues to shift toward the Global South along irreversible demographic trajectories, it would behoove North Americans to become more familiar with the cultural and ecclesial modes of thought and practice that are blossoming in these places, as well as with the figures who will serve leadership roles in the future of our church. There is at least a reasonable chance that many of us will live to see the first African-born pope since Victor I in 198 A.D. (The slightly later Miltiades and Gelasius were thought to be of African descent, but likely were born in Rome — clarifying the storied narrative of immigration as part of Christian history, yet again!).

As African theologian Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator has put it, “At its core, it is in the nature of theological scholarship to adapt to changing situations, circumstances and contexts.”

“I do believe that our vocation as theologians ceases to be relevant when it becomes discourse for the sake of argumentation and disputation, or when it becomes obsessed with repetitive and deadening orthodoxy, especially when it neither affects nor reflects real life situations,” he said. “To read the signs of the times equips us with fresh tools that help us to understand the faith and its implication for the community and for society. To perform this task with credibility and integrity, we must strive to avoid the temptation to lend our service to the tyranny of elitism, fundamentalism, and rigid orthodoxy. … Our research is eminently about faith in the life of the People of God.”

The hue of the face of our People continues to darken globally — returning in many ways to its original roots, and theology and pastoral ministry must now respond accordingly.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.