Former Hub of Slavery Hosts Slaves for Christ

by Erik Tryggestad

Badagry, Nigeria-this small West African city was a place of unimaginable suffering some 220 years ago, when slave traders forced 550,000 Africans onto boats bound for the newly independent American colonies.

Blocks away from the old market, where humans were sold and shackled before slavers wedged them into the dank holds of cargo ships, Christians from across the African continent joined hands and voices, singing a hymn of praise to their shared, benevolent master.

"Proclaim this freedom in Christ for Africa. Everywhere there must be freedom. Freedom in Nigeria, freedom in Ghana . . . Let's win Africa for Jesus."

More than 460 church members, representing 13 African countries and the United States, worshiped and shared evangelism strategies at the fifth Africans Claiming Africa for Christ conference. Nigeria's Churches of Christ hosted the conference at an administrative staff college in Badagry.

"Our choosing this venue is not by accident," Peter Egure told The Christian Chronicle.

Egure, a Nigerian church elder, and fellow organizers selected Badagry as "a way of showing to the world that, yes, physically there was human slavery," he said.

"But today we are triumphant because we are slaves and prisoners to a master that is King of kings and Lord of lords."

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, is home to nearly 4,000 Churches of Christ, with a combined attendance of about 800,000, according to research by missionaries.

But many Nigerians have limited interaction with believers outside their home cities. Susan Mokobia worships with the 400-member Lawanson congregation in Lagos, Nigeria's bustling financial center. She described the conference as "a great, sweet fellowship" with brothers and sisters from across the continent.

Kennedy Abrotu ministers in Kaduna, a state in Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north. The six days of fellowship served as a reminder that "we are plenty in the faith," he said. But the conference also was "kind of an eye-opener that we still have a lot to do."

More Africans "Born than Born Again"

American Christians might find it hard to believe that some African evangelists are unsatisfied with church growth rates.

In Nigeria alone, Churches of Christ have doubled in size every decade since Nigerian C.A.O. Essien planted the first congregation shortly after World War II, said Wendell Broom, a former missionary to the West African nation.

Nonetheless, Churches of Christ are failing to keep up with Africa's explosive population growth, said George Akpabli, a native of Ghana who serves as a missionary in Benin, west of Nigeria.

"There are more people being born into the world than there are being born again," Akpabli said during a session titled "Developing Mission Consciousness in African Churches."

Although churches in Africa continue to grow, many "are losing sight of our pioneering spirit," Akpabli said.

Many members are aware of statistics compiled by Broom and other missionaries that show Churches of Christ in Africa may outnumber those in the U.S.

"Don't listen to that too much," Akpabli urged his audience, pointing to a map showing a broad, red swath of Africa's least-evangelized nations - starting in the north with Morocco, stretching across the French-speaking nations of West and Central Africa and ending on the island of Madagascar.

A Conference to Inspire Outreach

American missionaries launched the Africans Claiming Africa conferences in 1992 with hopes of developing a sense of mission among African churches, said Sam Shewmaker, a former missionary to Kenya.

Missionaries in East Africa "saw that we weren't getting the job done," said Shewmaker, who now lives in Kigali, Rwanda, and serves as facilitator for African church planting for Texas-based Missions Resource Network.

"We had to partner in a more effective way, but we didn't know each other," he said.

Church members from 16 African nations attended the 1992 conference in Nairobi, Kenya. Organizers challenged each group to develop a national strategy to reach a people who hadn't been reached, Shewmaker said.

In 1997 members met for a second conference in Zimbabwe, during which the Americans handed over organizing responsibilities to African Christians. Churches in South Africa and Ghana hosted the conference in 2000 and 2004, respectively.

Hosting this year's conference created a sense of unity among Nigerian churches, said Oji O. Oji, one of the organizers.

"Before this conference, we had never had anything that had involved the length and breadth of the country," Oji said.

The conference also gives church members a renewed sense of purpose, said Rabson Mhango, a minister in Lusaka, Zambia. Though it will require sacrifices of money and time, churches in Zambia have agreed to host the conference in 2012.

"Such a gathering opens up your understanding," Mhango said. "You move from being a local Christian to a broader sense of the church."

Reaching Every Tongue-Even Spanish

"Since we came from Kenya, things have changed," said Moses Akpanudo, a Nigerian evangelist who attended the 1992 conference. "Nigerians took charge of the ministry."

So did Christians in Ghana, who in the past 16 years sent missionaries to nations including Togo, Benin, Mali, Gambia and Senegal.

To celebrate their churches' increasing diversity, groups of believers gathered at the front of the auditorium during the conference and sang to each other in their native tongues.

After hearing hymns in languages from Ghana, South Africa and three of Nigeria's more than 400 dialects, two men stood in front of the crowd and sang in a language rarely heard in Africa - Spanish.

The men, Leonardo Bueto and Daniel Ukeafu, are preparing for ministry in Equatorial Guinea, the sole Spanish-speaking nation in Africa. Church members from Ghana and Nigeria are cooperating to bring the gospel to the tiny nation, which has no significant church presence. The crowd cheered loudly as Ukeafu proclaimed "Gloria a Dios!" ("Glory to God!").

Many Africans fail to understand the church members' zeal for evangelism, especially as increased standards of living and exposure to Western media transform their daily lives, Egure said.

"Butwe will gladly continue to be enslaved and imprisoned for the cause of Christ for the rest of our lives," he said. "Today, wherever our Lord and savior Jesus Christ directs us, that's where we go."

From The Christian Chronicle,
September 2008

Erik Tryggestad is Assistant Managing Editor of The Christian Chronicle.

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