In the north the barbarism of the ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’ (LRA), originating from Uganda, has brought havoc to vast and impoverished areas of Congo.
The Congolese army and UN forces struggle to deal effectively with the situation, while the outside world shows scant interest in the faraway and faceless people of that remote region. Even in the last few weeks rebel forces were able briefly to seize the airport in the major town of Mbandaka, in western Congo.
Inevitably, Congolese churches have suffered along with the rest of the population from the effects of the continuing conflict. Some believers have lost their faith.
Recently there were reports that professing Christians living near Mahagi, on the border with Uganda, have returned to traditional practices of ancestor veneration. They claimed that the Christian faith failed to protect them from war and all its consequences, and instead exposed them to their ancestors’ anger.
In areas hardest hit by fighting, entire congregations disperse as people flee from undisciplined troops. A few months ago, residents of Assa, a significant church centre in isolated northern Congo, fled to Zemio in the Central African Republic to escape the LRA. Tragically, they are now under threat again from the same group, which crosses borders at will, and is also active in southern Sudan.
Economically, even at the best of times — and the best has never been good in Congo’s recent history — churches have struggled to pay their pastors, maintain their buildings and support those sent for training to theological and Bible schools.
The financial situation of denominations and congregations is now often desperate, especially when faced with the cost of rebuilding infrastructure damaged or destroyed by war.
In addition, the conflict has occasioned a large-scale departure of missionaries, who served Congo in significant numbers before the outbreak of conflict in 1996. As they have gone, the financial resources they brought with them have dried up as well. This is often accompanied by a sense among Congolese Christians that churches in the outside world have abandoned them.
Nevertheless, despite all the chaos and challenges, church life continues to be vigorous. The survival of the various Christian denominations has helped foster some sense of cohesion in a society torn apart by conflict.
Church schools continue to teach children and church medical facilities persevere in caring for the sick and injured with whatever resources they can muster. The persistence of the churches and their various ministries gives them credibility in the eyes of society as a whole, and people look to them as all else fails.
And the gospel is preached. Across the whole of sub-Saharan Africa there is a ferment of religious activity, not all of it healthy or biblical, but amidst it faithful believers are holding out the word of truth and growing in their grasp of it.
In parts of Congo, there is a relatively new and developing interest in mission, and a growing concern that many of Congo’s 250 or so ethnic groups have still to hear the good news of Christ in ways they can understand.
There are institutions of theological and biblical education that have matured through the years of war. In eastern Congo, for example, the Shalom University of Bunia, which has an evangelical theological faculty at its heart, is training larger numbers of men and women for ministry than it did before 1996.
It was providentially spared the savage looting and destruction that afflicted Bunia during ethnic violence in 2003; and in the last few years has opened new, strategic departments in missiology and Bible translation.
Even the departure of expatriate missionaries, despite the obviously negative material implications for the church, may help believers rediscover the truth that ultimately they depend on Christ, and him alone. It is Jesus Christ — not expatriate personnel or finance — who builds his church; and he is sufficient.
Africa Inland Mission