He was the first black person I had ever met. I was a Canadian teenager and it was Sunday night church: time for the sermon. A tall, poised black preacher stood and began to speak. He had a deep, South African accent and flowing rhetoric, rich in vocabulary. I had never heard such preaching. It was evangelist Nicholas Bhengu from South Africa.
He represents an amazing spiritual revolution in Africa and the world. He and countless thousands of other national leaders flummoxed leaders of the first global missions conference which was held in Edinburgh in 1910. To this assembly, Robert Mott brought together mission leaders, mostly from Europe and North America, with a smattering from other regions of the world. One of their assessments was that in the 20th century, most of Africa would become Muslim. How wrong they were.
By 1950 Africa was home to 8.7 million Christians. Today Christians number 542 million, with estimates that by 2050 this will rise to 1.2 billion. What brought that about?
The story of the African church has layers upon layers of narratives telling about movements of the Spirit, church planting, results of life-investments of missionaries, Bible translators and visionary idealists. Some of them died in Africa; others returned home; but those who stayed implanted their hope in this vast and multi-peopled land.
This brings me back to Nicholas Bhengu, a representative story of the remarkable and rapid rise of Christian presence in the Global South. He, along with so many others, tells us of callings, skills and anointing that gave rise to today’s growing and resilient church.
His powerful story of Africa is of the ability and internal dynamic of the Gospel to attract people to its message. It was not a story of the West but one formulated in African life. As the messengers of the Gospel retold the story, the Good News would be understood and lived out by the African people.
A former member of the Communist Party, Benghu was converted in 1929, became an evangelist and, in time, started the Back to God movement. In his campaigns in the 1950s, he drew large crowds with his serious and dignified demeanor. In 1959 Time magazine described him as “a 50-year-old Zulu with a pencil-line mustache and horn-rimmed spectacles who has a knack of persuading criminals to turn in their weapons – and often themselves.” So true was this that after services a truck would haul away guns, weapons and stolen articles given up by those converted.
Time also noted: “So phenomenal is his power . . . that tributes have been paid to him by Dr Verwoerd [Prime Minister] and by police chiefs throughout the country.
Though Bhengu was heavily criticized for not taking an active role in the politics of South African liberation, his opposition to political engagement was, as scholar Terence Ranger pointed out, based on his concern that such involvement would only give whites further occasion to demonstrate their power.
From a Lutheran background, Bhengu developed as one of the most influential church leaders in Africa, heading the first multiracial denomination in South Africa. Because he was sympathetic to local dynamics and received as authentic by the people, it was just a matter of time before churches sprang up, ministries flourished, and large numbers of people came into faith.
In his lifetime Bhengu was directly responsible for planting more than fifty congregations, and influencing hundreds more that were guided by a new generation of indigenous leaders. He often likened the condition of his fellow black South Africans to the capture and containment of Israel in ancient Egypt, comparing their South African bondage to that of Israeli slaves.
He and his theology were African, and this surprised many who were still very influenced by their Western benefactors. Addressing the legislature of Ciskein, South Africa, he spoke from Second Chronicles 7:14, setting in place the significance of Africa: making connections of the Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion, and Augustine, an early church father from North Africa. He made it clear, “I’m not trying to persuade you to accept or adopt a Western God, but the God of our ancestors, the God of the Bible.”
His vision for the well-being of Africans grew out of this understanding of the Gospel. Terence Ranger (in Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Africa, p.212) described the effect Bhengu’s preaching and crusades had on the subsequent Christian community that would decades latter wrest power from whites: “That he bequeathed a moral and social legacy affecting the future of democracy – indeed, one that helped prepare the way for democracy – is clear. Individuals converted to evangelical Christianity through the Back to God movement, populated every sector of black society: teachers, lawyers, traders, clerks, businessmen, gardeners, and even politicians.”
Missiologists use the word “indigenous” meaning locally grown, in referring to Bhengu. This was an important element of his genius. He wisely created his base of funding on receiving gifting from those in his own country, and not the West. By the year 2000 his Back to God movement had close to a thousand churches with a million adherents.
His story gives resonance to the critical factor of his leadership: indigenous, supported by the people of his land and making forays into the country with the witness of Christ.
While North Africa is primarily Muslim today, Sub-Saharan Africa is now mostly Christian. Nigeria reports that 90 percent of its people attended a religious service in the past seven days, in a country where 69 percent claim Christian faith.
Africa today is a compilation of many stories. Nicholas Bhengu who introduced me to the African at work is one of tens of thousands nationally bred, schooled and anointed Africans who have made this continent a force in the global witness of Christ.
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance