Light in the DRC’s darkness
In the early 1900s many considered Africa to be the ‘dark continent’. What was then called Belgian Congo was thought to be at the heart of this darkness. So missionary pioneers like C. T. Studd and Peter Cameron Scott sought to create a chain of mission stations, to reach the many tribes who had never heard of Jesus Christ and counter the advance of Islam from the north.
It is 100 years since their arrival and 50 years on since the DRC became an independent nation. What has God been doing in this area, so marked by wars, atrocities and crimes against humanity?
Africa’s world war
Africa’s world war, fought in the Congo from 1998-2003, was the deadliest war since the Second World War in scale. It involved eight nations, cost 5 million lives, and has had a profound effect on the church, for good and bad.
On the negative side, as well as the awful death and displacement, many have grown up without going to school and are unable to read. There is a dearth of Christian literature appropriate to the people of Congo, and this limits serious discipleship. Bible translation has been hindered by the evacuation of the missionary force, and poverty continues to hamper the church’s development.
But on the positive side, the war has had a purifying effect and revealed many who remained strong in faith in the midst of the chaos. The church too has had to take on the responsibility for carrying out many tasks that previously belonged to missionaries. For example, national Bible translators have accepted the challenge of providing the Bible in mother tongue versions for many of the Congo’s 220 languages.
While some missionaries still advise and train translators, the work of translation is being accomplished by trained Congolese who, as mother tongue translators, are doing an excellent job.
Also, national Christians have taken full responsibility for training Christian leaders at Bible colleges and Christian universities in the DRC. Generally, this has resulted in stronger and more vibrant national institutions.
One school that used to have 40 students training for the pastoral ministry has in the last four years become a Christian university with over 700 students. Such progress has not been without growing pains. While there are increasing numbers of qualified leaders, there never seem to be enough.
The number of Christians in the Congo began to increase rapidly in the 1950s and now the DRC, infamous for African corruption and war atrocities, is in theory 80 per cent Christian. Of these, a quarter are considered evangelical, but it is difficult for people to make the transition from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, where their primary allegiance is to Christ rather than tribe and family. Tribalism and power struggles in the churches remain major problems.
To help address such problems, the church in Congo has established a number of Christian radio and television stations that reach into the cities. City churches are centres of ministry with 1,000 or more in regular attendance and they can host international conferences to respond to the need for national leadership and post-war reconciliation.
But in some rural areas, still cut off by terrible roads or continuing militia activity, the Christians are in great need of encouragement. Other areas have not yet had their first church planted among them. So the DRC remains a country of spiritual contrasts.
What can western Christians do to help? The church tends to be strongest when it is a synergistic blend of different cultures. For example, the church in Jerusalem grew more after Greek Christians were incorporated into its leadership (Acts 6).
Thoughtful African leaders today are not calling for more funds from the West. Rather they would like to liberate Africa from its dependence on external aid. But they are asking for help to create a new sense of Christian identity in the DRC’s church.
Education is crucial for moving individuals and society out of poverty. Western Christian educators could work with and help the African church to deepen its roots. This can be accomplished through training young leaders in the emerging Christian universities, in a training that is more than theological education.
A welcome assistance from the West would be for Christian professors to teach what it means to be a Christian as part of the various programmes in management, mining, agriculture, forestry, law, medicine, politics and so on. This would help address the ethnic conflicts and poverty besetting the African church, as well as its theological issues.
The church in Congo wants to reach out. During and after the war, it was the only remaining functioning institution, in many places. Now Christians want to build on that legacy and take Christ into the marketplace and world.
So another way western Christians can help is by forging business partnerships with African Christians, and so adding value to the raw materials plentiful in Africa. Many have prayed for Africa. Now is a time for investment there and synergism between Christians in the West and Africa. This would help to refresh the western church and empower the church in Congo.
One such project is ‘Business as Mission’ (see www.businessasmissionnetwork.com). It is one way to help the church in Congo overcome its poverty without creating new dependence. Anyone interested?
Theodore B. Witmer