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Christian Pluralism and the Quest for Identity in African Initiated Churches in Germany

by Benjamin Simon (University of Heidelberg)
Paper presented at The 2001 International Conference in London. Preliminary Version - Do not reproduce without the consent of the author

I. Christian Pluralism in Germany

If you try to approach the Federal Office of Statistics in Germany to get details about religious communities or Christian denominations you get hardly more than a sweeping statement or even lack of understanding.
Religious Communities are mentioned under Christian, Islamic, Jewish and those without religious affiliation. All smaller communities are simply added to this latter category.
But: On German ground about 600 religious groups practice their faiths!
Germany developed from a Christian up to a multi-religious society. The Christian interpretation of life as given by the churches is but one besides many others.
The same dilemma - this lack of transparency - shows the statistics of the main stream churches. The only division is between Roman Catholic, Protestant-Evangelical and so-called Free Churches. More precise distinctions as to the Protestant Churches and Free Churches are not made.
So it happens that Christian churches composed by people from the Philippines, Korea, Finland, Indonesia, Japan or Africa are subsumed under Evangelical Church of Germany. The consequence of this is the lack of distinctive attention and the deduction of Church tax for the main stream churches.
German society has not become more secular or even without religion, but what is demanded is more consciousness for religious pluralism within our very own borders.

II. African-Initiated Churches in a new Context

During the past 30 Years African Churches and Communities settled more and more down on the European Continent. As much as we know it was the Celestial Church of Christ ( CCC ) from Nigeria which was the first genuine African Church on German ground which started out in Munich as early as 1974.
Since the number of African Initiated Churches (AIC) has grown rapidly, especially by students, workers and people who asked for asylum. At the moment the estimation runs up to 200 Churches. In Cities like Berlin or Francfort there are more than 20 Churches and in Hamburg even more then 40 of them. In the Rhine-Ruhr-Valley there have been discovered over 1oo churches.
This big number of AICs which have so different origins, sociology or even theologies makes it necessary to find a certain system of categories to get an overview over this phenomenon. Especially since this development was disregarded during the last 30 years by German authorities, Churches and scientific Institutions. Yes, they even omitted them.
To get a very first impression I would propose a division into three parts following a kind of "Geography of foundation".
First we have African Churches in Germany which have a home in Africa where they have been founded. Their German branches were founded by active members here or even by missionaries sent from Africa. They were sent to found new churches in secularised Europe!
Secondly there are many Communities and Churches founded specially in Germany. Consequently they are limited to Germany in general. Very often they grew out of Biblestudygroups with students which grew and became churches finally. Very often they become - following the German law - registered societies ( "eingetragener Verein"/ e.V. ).
A third category may be seen as well: These are Churches founded by Africans in Germany which founded branches back home in Africa. May I quote as an illustration the " Christian Church Outreach Mission " in Hamburg.
Again: The three categories of AICs in the European diaspora are :
a) Motherchurch in Africa. It founds churches abroad in the Diaspora.
b) New foundations of churches in the Diaspora. They exist but there.
c) New foundations of churches which have their "headquarters " in the Diaspora and try to found communities back home in Africa.
This division into three parts helps us to gain an overview. But: If this was all we had to say it would not count for the individuality of these churches. It would remain too superficial and not being precise enough.
In dealing with the question of identity it proofed helpful to check this division into three parts under linguistic and denominational points of view.
Let's begin with the linguistic point of view:
In each of these three categories we discover churches which use different languages (English, French, African languages, Portuguese. Occasionally there are translations into German.). The language used has a direct influence on the public acceptance and publicity of the church concerned. A church which is based totally upon the traditional mother tongue has to deal with problems of acceptance as well as problems of tolerance. Furthermore the missionary outreach is limited by language barriers. Easier might appear the situation for those churches which are francophone or anglophone, French or English speaking. Nevertheless a French speaking church might have more difficulties to find German members than an English speaking one. By these linguistic barriers result different sociological structures which are influencing size and acceptance of these churches in the Diaspora.
Furthermore I want to mention the denominational point of view. Most churches comprised under the AICs represent a kind of Pentecostal theology.
This is the case as well for those which have their home in Africa as for foundations in the Diaspora. Experience and practical life have a most central place in these churches. They are more important than any kind of dogmatics.
The second denominational group may become subsumed under the historical, former Missionchurches. Yet African members in historical German Missionchurches are minimal.
More often African Christians have the tendency to form African Churches under the roof of an historical German Missionchurch which sent missionaries. Take for example the Methodist Ghanaen Church in Hamburg which convenes under the roof of the "United Methodist Church Germany " (Evangelisch-Methodistische Kirche in Deutschland).
They share common rooms with their sister church and celebrate the worship service together on regulated occasions.
Moreover, there are as a third category those African Churches which are organised by an African Pastor hired from a German Landeskirche (Member of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland/ EKD ). These churches are not based on a denominational level. They are open to all African Christians who must not leave their own denomination.
The division into three parts following the geographical point of view already, as the additional division into several linguistic and several denominational groups may show the diversity, the pluralism and the complexity of the AICs in the Diaspora.
The search for identity of these churches as of their members find its expression in the many theological and sociological differences which can be found as soon as we inquire the AICs under a systematic aspect. As soon as people have to life under the condition of Diaspora the question for identity is becoming eminent. AICs show clearly how much they refer in this new situation to their roots, yet don't forget the orientation towards "forward ". The ties to the family as to the Church back to Africa are of central importance even now, but the new situation in a foreign country with all it's challenges are taken into consideration as well. It may proof that identity is constituted by: roots and goals, origin and purpose, past and future.
Now I want to show three churches as models. They may help us to understand how finding an identity is working in a Diaspora situation. These churches are: Eglise de Jésu Christ sur la Terre par son envoyé spécial Simon Kimbangu (The Kimbanguist Church - which comes from the Democratic Republic Congo - Kinshasa ((Ex-Zaire)) , The Church of the Lord (Aladura - Worldwide (CL) which comes from Nigeria. And the All Christian Believers Fellowship (ACBF) which was founded in Germany.

III. Three models for the quest for identity in African - Initiated - Churches.

The theology and sociology of the Kimbanguist Church, the CL-A and the ACBF hold together and show clearly: In a Diaspora situation - in a German setting especially - the AICs follow a common concept of search for identity as described the following way:
First they start out with a stadium of seclusion. This is followed by a stadium of opening. And in a third stage you may speak of Inculturation.
The Kimbanguists are an AIC which begun in the 20th of the last century and were founded by the Prophet Simon Kimbangu. He lived in Congo, the Democratic Republic Congo of our time (former Zaire). He preached a short time only - about 6 month - in public. Then he became imprisoned. His sermons concentrated on renunciation of violence, healing of the sick and the works of Jesus for the Blacks in Africa.
The real foundation of the Church took place in 1959 only. This was the date of legalisation of the church. Since this church grew up constantly and may comprise today more than 5 Million members. It developed in the Congo basin and the neighbouring countries. Since 1978 it arrived in France and Belgium and since 1991 we know of 5 communities in Germany. In spite of its presence in Germany since 10 years the outreach - say missionary work - of this church in Germany is zero. Out of political reasons the membership is in constant fluctuation. New members arrive from home others leave. But all of those - or at least most of them - are Kimbanguists already.
The Kimbanguist communities in Germany speak up to 2/3 rd of their meeting time Lingala, the traditional language from home. Only 1/3rd French is being used. Lingala is of great importance since - contrary to French - people from Congo and Angola speak it. In this stadium of search for identity it is important for parishioners to speak and pray the mother tongue, sing in their own language and exchange news from home about political and church events in their vernacular. They are bound to their home country closely and like to keep up the relationship to their families at home.
But on the other side - besides the sense of feeling of security and identity - sticking to these languages proofs to be an impediment. In Germany this is a fence, even an impassable barrier which does not allow an opening to outsiders or even a kind of missionary enterprise.
But in future the Opening and consequently an entering into the second stadium of finding an identity may occur. For, contrary to the first generation the second one - who is about 15 years by age now - speaks an impeccable German. Either this new generation refrains from any church affiliation at all or they use the new mother tongue in the worship services. And then the inculturation process will begin.
The second stadium of search for identity - the Opening - may be observed with the Church of the Lord (Aladura) - Worldwide (CL).
As shown with the Kimbanguists the CL - as well - was founded in the 20th of the last century by an African Prophet, J.O. Oshitelu. He came from an Anglican background. A central place in the self-understanding of the CL takes the prayer. Even the name "Aladura" which says: "Prayermeeting" shows it. Besides the prayer, healing is of great importance. Blessed water may become used for this.
This Church with about 5 million members can be found all over Westafrica , in the USA , in Great Britain and in Germany.
Since the membership underwent a high fluctuation here in Germany out of political reasons this church- which is in Germany since 1994 - has changed its membership permanently. It enjoyed a widespread internationality even before it arrived in Germany. English is the spoken language and there is found much openness to other nations and cultures. But not only the English language, much more the theological message to carry the gospel even over the oceans was implanted into this church from the very beginning. At a conference about "African Christian Diaspora" the Primat of this Church spoke about mission :
"The mission of The Church of the Lord (Aladura) in Europe is therefore to win all new, lukewarm and lost souls for Christ . The mission has been reversed because those to whom Christ Jesus was once preached are now back on the territory of the former preachers to preach Christ Jesus to them in all his goodness. What a 'mission reversed' indeed!" Since in the CL by using English the biggest barrier has been lifted away this contributes to the openness of this church. Since its arrival in Germany it experienced ups and downs. At times the church had about 100 members, now there are not more than 30. To avoid a relapse in her stadium of seclusion the church tries to present itself in the public by missionary activities and looks out for ecumenical contacts.
Besides the Kimbanguists who still remain in the stadium of seclusion and the CL which is taken as an example of a church in the stadium of openness, I want to present the All Christian Believers Fellowship (ACBF) as example for Inculturation.
The ACBF is one of the many churches initiated by Africans in Germany which are part of the neo - pentecostal movement. Their theology stresses glossolaly, the ecstatic speaking in tongues, baptism of the born-again and healing. The Holy Spirit is playing an important role in the life of the believers. Since 1993 the founding members met in a biblestudygroup of students, composed of several persons from Ghana and one German lady. This community was structured on an international level from the beginning and had to decide whether to use Twi, German or English. Although some German members had difficulties with English: This became the language used in this Church. Since 1998 the ACBF is a registered society in Germany (e.V.). In Karlsruhe - the place of foundation - this church has 120 members.
The third stadium - the Inculturation - may not be misunderstood as a complete adaptation of African Christians to the German culture! Inculturation in this stadium of search for identity indicates nothing but certain elements, some customs are taken into church life, nothing else.
Three factors contribute to this development:
First: In the ACBF as well, the next generation is coming up. It attends German schools, speaks German perfectly and mixes elements of their African tradition with those taken from the German environment. Second: Many Germans are integrated into this church and they have the same rights as well in the ruling bodies as in the session of elders, etc. Third: This church wants to do missionary work under Germans and does not hesitate to organise "Crusades" which require necessarily to adapt oneself to a certain extend to German customs. One example: English sermons are translated into German in general. By these sermons problems of German every day life are touched, which have to do with the life of Africans in Germany as well as with the German situation in general. There are many festivities, food is brought with from the members home and you may find African and German kitchen side by side.
I believe it of eminent importance to have German elders in this church who take over responsibility for a long time. Once a week this church is having a German bible study group.
This is a pregnant example for inculturation within the search for identity.
Van Dijk speaks about the "global claim" of these Pentecostal churches - for they are never limited to their national borders, but they grow over their national and cultural limits to get richer and wider by this inculturation and the gifts of other contexts. By this they make the Pentecostal experience of a Holy Spirit which may be found everywhere.

IV. Further outlook

Churches in Germany founded by Africans are an important phenomenon already.
They established themselves in the second half of the last century. Slowly, German church Governments get aware of this, and Politicians and Scientists develop a certain sensibility for this development. Nevertheless Africans experience much prejudice and aversion in a psychic and physical sense.
In this situation of a political, social and religious hostility much energy and confidence are required to develop an own identity. That is the reason why most Africans in the Diaspora find their identity in a religious setting. The desire for a religious community becomes even stronger in a foreign culture. Africans look out for a group which gives them an identity since the patterns of life there and the symbols used might give security! I tried to describe this quest for identity through three stages: Seclusion, Openness and Inculturation. As model served three AICs.
No doubt about it: The Pentecostal theology with its flexibility has quite an advantage. It is able to adjust to any context and is able to give to people searching religious satisfaction and social stability a liturgy and type of worship service which can easily be followed. Harvey Cox speaks in his book Fire from Heaven referring to the Pentecostal movement of a "primal spirituality " . Pentecostal Theology now is the basic, primal spirituality, the common basis of African Christians in the Diaspora which allows them to gather more easily.

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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