It is said, by those who have done proper study and investigation, that Christianity has shifted its geographical center of gravity from the global north to the global south, (Latin America, Africa, and Asia).
Of these three regions, only Latin America would be experiencing the rise of Christianity in its context for the first time, because Africa and Asia already witnessed a tremendous Christian movement in the early five centuries AD. Christianity, after all, started in Asia and consumed the most substantial part of North Africa centuries before it found root in Europe and more than a millennium before it came to the Americas and Africa again.
The first Christian movement on the African soil was through evangelistic endeavors of anonymous traders and travelers, owing to the openness of Jerusalem to the coastal cities of North Africa. Of those who found personal faith in the Messiah, many were of African origin. After all, as we remember, it was Simon the Libyan who carried the cross of Christ (Mark 15:21).
Africans were among those who witnessed the great outpouring of the Spirit of God on the 120 in the upper room at Pentecost (Acts 2:10), and we would not be speculating by supposing that of the 3000 who gave their lives to Christ through Peter’s preaching that day, some were Africans.
The Ethiopian eunuch will himself find the saving faith through Philip, the evangelist, and on commissioning of Paul and Barnabas for ministry in Acts 13, Africans will have a say as well. Meanwhile, Rumor has it that St. Mark himself was Libyan.
As this new faith expanded on the African soil, it produced some of the most influential, notable men and philosophers like Clement, Cyril, Alexander, Origen, Athanasius, all from Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, Cyprian and Tertullian of Carthage. All this is to say, that Christianity has always found a home in Africa. Even with the Islamic invasion of North Africa that almost wiped out Christianity in that region, the Coptic church in Egypt and Ethiopia stand as a testimony to the resilience of Christianity.
The Case of Christianity in Uganda
The second wave of Christianity in Africa, especially in the south, central and east started in the nineteenth century with the coming of Protestant missionaries from Britain and French Roman Catholic Priests. Uganda was evangelized through the efforts of Lt. George Shergold Smith, Alexander Mackay sent by the Church Missionaries Society, and as well as some of the Roman Catholic Persuasion like Mapeera. Because of these efforts, and despite all challenges, Uganda is now one of the most ‘Christian’ countries in Africa, and by 2050, it will be among the top ten in the world.
The curious case of how Christianity in Uganda took root so quickly is understood best by considering the overlaps and the interaction between the gospel and culture. Christianity continues to grow in Uganda, and indeed Africa, despite the fact that colonialism flew on its wings during its second wave in this land.
Of course, there is no simple response as to why this is so. But, I think, the communal nature of our cultural heritage is one ground upon which the gospel flourishes. The Gospel affirms community. The Apostles join over meals, care for one another, and the gospel narratives report that Christ often did His evangelism through shared meals. A communal approach to life resonates with Africa indeed. ‘Oluganda kurya,’ and thus we assert; ‘I am because we are.’
And then also, Africans are spiritual. We have not known how to live without God or gods, and the concept of God is not alien to our thought. I suppose, despite other hardships that missionaries faced in Uganda (language barrier, health issues, hostilities from governments, etc.), the Ugandan people were receptive to the message of the cross, because spirituality speaks to their hearts.
Whatever reasons one may find for the surge of Christianity here, what is real and genuinely glorious is that the message of the cross continues to take root in Uganda.
The East African Revival
As is the case with every movement, it is either contaminated or purified with time. In Uganda, the time for a purification and clarity of the message of the cross came in the early 20th century. Something beautiful happened to Christianity in Uganda.
Many of us have heard about or perhaps been impacted by the East African revival. This revival is remarkably one to reminisce about, cherish, talk about and recall. Its beginning was as unexpected as its impact. No one sat to plan it, no one envisioned it, and no one can fully comprehend the impact it has had on African Christianity.
At the center of this revival were men and women who were willing to sit at the foot of Christ, just like Mary sister of Martha, listen to God as they read their Bibles and prayed. As they maintained this discipline of personal and communal Bible study and prayer, the passion for holiness and purity captured their hearts, yearning to live a lifestyle of confession. It is this lifestyle that Martin Luther had mention in his 95 Theses in the early 16th century.
The first two individuals at the core of this revival were Dr. Joe Church, a British missionary to Rwanda who, in dejection, had visited Namirembe Cathedral in Kampala to take a break and reflect on the next step we would choose in his calling. Fearing his fiancée might not be passed fit to join him in Africa for ministry, and having himself failed his first language examination, Joe stayed at Namirembe Cathedral with his friends for a moment of reflection.
It is here that he met Simeon Nsibambi (the father of the former Ugandan Prime Minister Dr. Apollo Nsibambi). The two men devoted themselves to prayer and bible study, and the impression for the need of personal sanctification begun. Joe went back to Rwanda, and the seeds for the East African Revival were birthed, sweeping through Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya.
Men like Festo Kivengere, Kivebulaya, Nsibambi, William Nagenda (father to John Nagenda), Yosiya Kinuka are men to be known and studied worldwide. Here at the seminary, I have found people enthusiastically researching the East African revival. It was sweet to see men like John Piper quote Kivengyere, and others make mention of the East African Revival with such warmth as uncharacteristic of most Ugandans. It is sad indeed that this Revival was in our very home, and yet most of us know almost nothing about it.
Michael Harper in his article entitled New Dawn in East Africa: the East African revival noted the difference between this Revival and others, concerning the emphasis of unity within the mainline church. As opposed to some revival movements that produce schisms, ‘the mainstream remained firmly within the existing church.’
Time For Another East African Revival?
In the same article mentioned above, Michael Harper mentioned the circumstances that warranted a revival. He says: ‘In East Africa, at this time there was much nominal Christianity, with low moral standards and a great deal of corruption.’
He then speaks of how the practical exercise of revival brought about inward healings of racial tensions between Europeans and East Africans, removing the wall of separation, the superiority/inferiority wall that was created by colonialism. The gospel was bearing practical fruits.
Even now, the church in Uganda is still grappling with nominalism, low moral standard and corruption, both within and without.
The hunger for holiness and purity lacks, with Christianity looked at as a cultural identity. People identify as Christians even with no understanding of Christian doctrine and commitment. In the words of Christ, ‘these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’ (Mark 7:6-7). The need to walk the talk is apparent even now. We are thankful for the East African Revival, but we maintain that yesterday’s fire cannot cook today’s food. We must rekindle the fire anew. We must rediscover the power of prayer, the power of believing scripture, the power of confession of sin. We must.
‘The revival did not spread wider than the Protestant churches. It’s teaching centered on the cleansing Jesus achieved for us when he died. But perhaps its finest contribution has been the evangelistic zeal which has characterized it. It has played a crucial part in the expansion of the church in Africa.’
As we celebrate 500 years of the Protestant Reformation, we must remember the revival that took place in our backyard. We must reflect, weep, rejoice, pray, and heal. We must be enthusiastic about evangelism. We must be outward looking people, people consumed with the passion of the cross, doctrinal accuracy and love for neighbor. We must shine like the stars in the kingdom without being self-conceited. Jesus must set our hearts on fire for Him.
The next revival need not be denomination-bound. It must shatter the boundaries, and the community of believers must reveal the unity of the body. Because Ugandans are communal and spiritual; since Christ is with us and God’s word is available to us in almost every language, there is nothing that should stop the next revival. It may not be another Athanasius or Augustine or Cyril. Revival leaders need not be named on the worldwide scale as long as souls saved and changed by the grace of God.
Uganda needs a revival. A revival back to the supremacy of scripture to guide and transform. Again to the knowledge of the power of the Gospel to change lives. Once more to an individual commitment to the cross of Christ in doctrinal simplicity and purity. The revival must be personal, then social, political, and economic. It must be practical rather than theoretical.
It begins with just one man, who is broken, or perhaps two men who share in scripture with complete openness. And then three, and four, and ten.
Multitudes do not often begin Movements. Just a few individuals, broken for the nation, or city, or village. We must decide how we will live, whether as nominal Christians or as men and women captivated by the Great Commission, surrendering all earthly pleasures and comfort for the sake of the kingdom. After all, God is pleading through us with the world for an eternal reconciliation in His Son.
We have the Good News, we have the Spirit of God, but are we willing to lay down our lives for the salvation of humanity? I believe the harvest in Uganda is ready, but where are the harvesters?
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