African Independent Churches

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Most Western Christians are accustomed to dividing world Christianity into three branches, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. It would now appear, however, with the recent rise and rapid growth of religious movements in Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas, that identifiable new forms of the Christian tradition are taking shape. A 1984 survey indicates that in Africa alone nearly 7,000 distinct indigenous denominations have come to life in 43 countries. All together they claim 71,000 places of worship and a total membership approaching 28 million, with more than 800,000 new members joining each year.

These movements—in many ways the "stepchildren" of the modern missionary era—are almost entirely local and indigenously African in polity, program, leadership, and finance. There exists among them a wide spectrum of religious understanding, ranging from neotraditional (African traditional) movements to christocentric, biblically-oriented independent churches.

American Mennonites have since 1959 responded to calls from a variety of these churches requesting recognition, fraternal relationships, and opportunities for Bible study and leadership training. The Mennonite Board of Missions, (now Mennonite Mission Network), beginning with the pioneer efforts of Edwin and Irene Weaver, has worked primarily in West African settings (Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast], Liberia, and Benin). Mennonite Central Committee, the Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, and Eastern Mennonite Missions have variously carried on both separate and combined ministries with churches in Central and Southern Africa (Zaire, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Transkei).

Equipping leaders through biblical instruction has been the major Mennonite thrust in most of these ministries. Teaching patterns, determined by local needs and context, have varied greatly, ranging from the more formal seminary and training-center approach to itinerant village-based theological education by extension (TEE). Retreat days, weekend outings, and week-long seminars have been particularly popular in many settings.

Other significant Mennonite ministries have included medical and educational work, agricultural and water development, translation projects, sewing classes, literacy programs, literature development and distribution, the compilation of liturgical materials (hymnbooks, catechisms, etc.), and the collection of documentation and resources for use by churches being served.

Independent churches in increasing numbers express the desire to be a part of the larger world Christian fellowship. Yet many remain suspicious of outside overtures, fearing loss of identity or even takeover. It has been important in Mennonite initiatives to abandon all empire-building intentions, to respect and serve local structures, and to develop models of ministry based on mutual sharing, where the teacher becomes the learner and the learner becomes the teacher.


Turner, Harold W. Bibliography of New Religious Movements in Black Africa. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977.

Turner, Harold W. Religious Innovation in Africa. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979, collected essays.

Oosterval, Gottfried. Modern Messianic Movements. Elkhart: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1973.

Barrett, David B. Schism and Renewal in Africa. Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Lusaka: Oxford Press, 1968.

Sundkler, Bengt. Bantu Prophets in South Africa. London: Lutterworth Press, 1948.

Shank, David A. "Mission Relations with the Independent Churches of Africa." Missiology 13 (Jan. 1985): 24-44.

Shank, David A. "A Survey of American Mennonite Ministries to African Independent Churches." Mission Focus 13 (March 1985): 1-5.

Shank, David A., ed. Ministry of Missions to African Independent Churches. Elkhart, IN: Mennnonite Board of Missions, 1987.

Shenk, Wilbert R. "Mission Agency and African Independent Churches." International Review of Mission 63, no. 251 (Oct. 1974): 475-91.

Weaver, Edwin and Irene. The Uyo Story. Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Board of Missions, 1970.

Weaver, Edwin and Irene. From Kuku Hill. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1975.

Nussbaum, Stan W. "Toward Theological Dialogue with Independent Churches: A Study of Five Congregations in Lesotho." PhD thesis, U. of South Africa, 1985.

Unpublished papers presented at the Abidjan (Ivory Coast) Pan-African Interdenominational Conference of Mission Agencies Relating to AICs, July 14-19, 1986. (duplicated by and available from Mennonite Mission Network), the first forum of its kind, making it possible to compare over a dozen models from ten different agencies (including Mennonite) at work in ten African nations.

Field reports and press releases describing various Mennonite ministries to AICs in:

AIMM Messenger 48, no. 3 (1981): 4-5; 49, no. 1 (1981): 8-10; 50, no. 3 (1983): 7-9; 50, no. 4 (1983): 6-8; 51, no. 1 (1984): 10-11; and 53, no. 2 (1986): 10-12.

Gospel Herald (July 20, 1982): 489-91, (May 21, 1985): 362.

Missionary Messenger (Dec. 1976), 10, an 1979): 8, (Aug. 1981): 14-15, (Aug. 1983): 6.

Mennonite Weekly Review (Dec. 5, 1985): 6.

Sent (Feb. 1979): 8-11, (Apr. 1983): 1-3, (Sept. 1986): 1-5.

Author(s) James R Krabill
Date Published 1990

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Krabill, James R. "African Independent Churches." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 21 Jan 2019.

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Krabill, James R. (1990). African Independent Churches. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 January 2019, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 8-9. All rights reserved.

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