Mission in an African Way

Review of:

Thomas Oduro, Hennie Pretorius, Stan Nussbaum, Bryan Born. 2008. Mission in an African Way; a practical introduction to African Instituted Churches and their sense of mission. Wellington, South Africa: Bible Media and Christian Literature Fund

Submitted to AICMAR for inclusion in the AICMAR Journal.

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‘Mission in an African Way’ is a guide to and promotion of AICs (African Instituted Churches) aimed at MICs (Mission Instituted Churches). The book is written in simple English. It includes Bible studies, prompts for discussion, field exercises and challenges to consider. Thirteen chapters consider an AIC perspective on diverse areas of church life, and especially mission.

This book is designed as a class text. Many exercises require students to contact and talk with AIC members and leaders. Clearly the authors intend the book to be used on the African continent. It could be suitable at secondary level, but more particularly for theological and ministry training programmes.

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The apologetic orientation of the text is overt. Members of MICs are encouraged through the pages of the book to take note of AICs, to take them seriously, and to recognise their part and role in the universal Christian church. Fellowship with AICs, learning from AICs and encouragement of AICs are advocated.

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This does not mean that the problems of AICs have been ignored. Many of the practices that have made especially Western missionaries wary of AICs are graphically articulated. These include their overt orientation to countering witchcraft, their reference to dreams including those in which the dead have a voice, and the tendency for AICs to splinter frequently. The above and more weaknesses of AICs are mentioned and discussed, but the overall orientation is clearly pro-AIC. AICs think that they are “replacing the Christianity of the missionaries with a deeper and more genuine Christianity” (p49). AIC services are described as “exciting” (p90). On the other hand, MICs “made the form of Christianity they brought look strange, insulting and unbiblical” (p48).

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The use of stories, case studies and testimonies in this text is appropriate and admirable. Elsewhere in the text the voices of AICs are not heard directly, but through the writings of scholars – often professors. When AIC leaders are quoted, they all seem to use English, and the fact that African languages dominate AICs is totally ignored. The apologetic of the text seems to be oriented to Westerners and not Africans – many of whom may already be very appreciative of many AIC practices. This is a book on AICs as viewed by outsiders and not the kind of book that AICs may write about themselves.

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While clearly a part of the anti-modernist polemic, this book positions itself with that which it seeks to critique, and uses the parameters of the ‘modern’ to evaluate the extra-modern. Yet, the reader must ask himself, how could this be avoided? If the book did not please Western scholars, then it would not be published. If it was not in English, then it could not be used in the many training courses in Africa that are strongly rooted in English. As a result it is as if AICs are compromised in being moulded to an acceptable shape for a Western readership, in the very course of their being promoted. The ways in which this text, as it attempts to speak with the West, distorts the very African Christianity that it seeks to describe, is its defining feature, its strength, and its weakness. It is hard to see how such could be avoided.

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In conclusion – this is an admirable and groundbreaking attempt at engaging with the realities of African expressions of Christianity. It deserves to be widely used in English based Christian training on the African continent and beyond. One hopes that it may engender a respect for local reality that will lead to more serious engagement with the issues raised. Such engagement could lead to debate in African languages, and future texts that take the perspective as well as the content of AIC practices even more seriously.

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By: Jim Harries, May 2009.