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Mission as Theological Education in Africa: 2. The Healthy Church, Growth, and Ministerial Training


The changing demographic of the Church in Western countries is a microcosm of the changing demographic of the global Church itself.  Mainline denominations in the West have been in serious decline in the West since the 1960s, but that does not mean that the Church is in decline in the West.  As David Goodhew and others point out, churches are multiplying and growing most everywhere.  Generally speaking, much of the decline, where it is happening, is due to a lack of health. The question to ask is, 'What makes for a healthy church, whether in the West or Africa, and what ministerial training will contribute to it?'

Church Growth and Decline in Britain

What is happening in, say, Britain is not simply a story of secularization and Church decline but rather a changing of the guard for the Church.  The mainline denominations are declining (with Baptists the exception): it was announced this year that attendance at worship in the Church of England has fallen to below 1 million—to 760,000, which is less than 2% of the population of England.[1]  The Diocese of Rochester has recently been declared insolvent.[2]  The castle is clearly crumbling.  While such statistics enflame the arthritic pains of oldline denominations, new churches (i.e., fellowships and denominations started within the past 100 years) are growing in certain areas.  

The real story, David Goodhew argues, is that one has to stop focusing on a narrative of secularization in the West and start focusing on what sorts of churches are growing and show health.  In my view, both seem to be true: ‘secularization’ seems, in fact, far too mild a term for what is taking place in the West, but surely Goodhew is correct to argue that there is an alternative story of healthy churches and growth in the West.  Where oldline churches became increasingly part of the establishment, they became perpetrators of the culture.  Then, when the culture became post-Christian in its morality and convictions, so did the oldline churches: they were agents of culture rather than Christian faith.  The new churches, on the other hand, are becoming the real ‘Church of England’ even as the Church of England is increasingly becoming a division of English Heritage[3]--a relic of English culture.  These ‘new churches’ share features in common with the growing Church in Africa; indeed, some of the growth in England is directly attributable to ‘African’ (often by way of the Caribbean Islands) immigration.

A forthcoming book edited by David Goodhew will explore trends of growth and decline in Anglicanism overall—a denomination of some 80 million in the world: Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion, 1980 to the Present (Routledge).  This follows an earlier publication edited by Goodhew on Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present.[4]  The major thesis of the latter work is that one should not associate the decline of mainline denominations in the West with the decline of Christianity in the West.  There are even some areas of growth within the Church of England despite how church attendance overall is in rapid free fall.  In particular, the diocese of London grew over 70% since 1990.[5]  Outside the Church of England, black majority churches and new churches are growing.  Some 2 950 new churches were started between 1989 and 2005.  Several denominations have been growing, such as the Baptists—although growth has slowed since 2002.  Goodhew’s conclusion is that the real shift in church attendance has to do with a shift from obligation or duty to choice, a distinction that also separates classes: the elite once associated with the Church of England as part of their duty as Englishmen, whereas the commoner more likely associates with a church by choice.

The story of church growth in England tells the story of church growth in the 2/3rds world: healthy, growing churches share common features wherever they are to be found.  Health is not the only feature leading to Church growth, as the Prosperity Gospel churches and Mormonism, for example, quickly demonstrate.  Church growth can also be attributed to immigration (hence the growth in black churches) and population growth in London and areas of economic growth (the more people, the more churches).  One should not forget that every country in Europe has a negative population growth for its natural citizens when examining Church statistics: immigration accounts for various factors of growth in such contexts.  More to our point, however, the Church is growing where the Church has life.  Where it is dying in structures and attendance is where it is already dead in spirituality, ministry, and mission.

Some Factors of Health for Growing Churches

In ‘A History of Fresh Expressions and Church Planting in the Church of England,’ George Lings makes some very helpful observations about how this old, traditional denomination has found possible renewal and growth. He identifies six developments prior to 1980 that contributed to this:[6]

1.       The Ecumenical Movement—a sense that we belong to something bigger

2.       The small group movement, rising from the base communities of the 50s in S. America, expanding into cell groups—communal learning/discipleship, lived outside the control of the clergy

3.       The Lay Leadership movement—lay leaders planted churches

4.       The Charismatic movement, 1964 onwards, and the recovery of ‘body ministry’

5.       Liturgical revision in the 60s, moving us beyond individualism

6.       The Church Growth movement, coming from the US through the Bible Society and being Anglicized by Eddie Gibbs

Lings identifies two insights from David Wasdell in 1974/5 that contributed to an understanding of church planting and fresh expressions of the church.[7]  First, a minister can only minister adequately to, at most, 180 persons.  Therefore, development of lay leadership for smaller units within a parish is necessary.  Second, multiplication (the ‘missional church’) rather than addition (the ‘church growth’ paradigm) is the healthy way to pursue church growth.  Lings identifies five marks of a missional churches: they are Trinitarian, relational, incarnational, disciplemaking, and transformational.

The Church in Africa (Broadly Speaking)

Church decline in the West is not as much a feature of growing secularism as we might think.  Churches can and do grow in very secularized countries such as England.  What better explains church growth or decline is the health of the church, characterized by, if we might so summarize points brought out by George Lings: a Kingdom versus institutional perspective, life on life discipleship, development of lay ministers, Spirit-filled churches and gift-exercising laity, a communal rather than individualistic focus in worship, and an emphasis not on maintaining and growing large churches but on mission and multiplication (planting more churches).

The Church in Africa has certain cultural or contextual advantages.  It is not part of a national identity but still stands over against tribal religions: it has a healthy distinction from culture rather than being a feature of culture.[8]  Poorer communities are naturally more relational and holistic.  The culture is far more communal.  The Church has not been beaten down by a materialistic, Enlightenment history; Africa is very aware of spiritual forces and the miraculous.  Worship is not dominated by aesthetics, whether buildings or professional music.  It is in the hearts of the people rather than being a performance by some professional band on a stage.  Large churches are only options in cities with transportation—and Africa has its share of them, with all the problems of large churches in the West.  Africa is probably more susceptible to ‘big man’ leadership and personal power politics than the West.  Yet many, smaller churches that have a great deal of life can be found.  The church is also missional, being the recent product of missions.  This may be less so in more developed parts of Africa, particularly in South Africa.  In East Africa, however, the revival of the 1920s and 1930s is still bearing fruit.  The Anglican Church in Africa numbers about 55 million—out of 80 million worldwide.  It has grown from about 8 million in the 1970s.  The vibrancy of Spirit-filled worship, moreover, can be found in Pentecostal (the major example of ‘new churches’) and Anglican churches alike.

Conclusion: Toward Ministerial Training for the African Church

All this relates to ministerial training in Africa.  How we understand the healthy church will affect what we consider to be good training for ministers—including lay ministers.  Theological education must not simply train according to the academic disciplines: it must also train for the healthy church.  

A theological education that has produced a dying Church in the West is hardly something the Church in Africa should want to develop for itself.  The African Church faces many problems of its own, and yet it has certain characteristics of a healthy Church that must not be undercut by introducing aspects of Western models of ministerial training that favour professionalization of ministry, institutionalization of the Church, cultural distortion of the Gospel, and secularization of the faith.  It must train ministers that engage and develop the community of faith, not scholar-pastors who spend more time on their weekly sermon than around the kitchen tables of parishioners.  It must not become training in Academia but use academic study for the purpose of ministering the faith once for all delivered to the saints by the apostles.  It must not focus on liberation ideologies addressing merely the socio-political concerns on the continent but rather focus on orthodox theology that challenges and undercuts every human institution with the message of the Kingdom of God.

[1] Harriet Sherwood, ‘Church of England Weekly Attendance Falls Below 1m for First Time,’ The Guardian (12 January, 2016); online at: (accessed 30 July, 2016).
[2] Cf. George Conger, ‘Diocese of Rochester Insolvent,’ Anglican Ink (8 July, 2016); online at: (accessed 30 July, 2016).
[3] Cf. Ruth Gledhill, ‘Millions of Pounds Given to England’s Flourishing Christian Cathedrals,’ Christian Today (22 July, 2016); online at: (accessed 30 July, 2016).  The story is about how the English Heritage, which protects cultural buildings in the UK such as castles, has given 14 and a half million pounds to over 30 cathedrals for renovation.  While the story also notes that cathedrals tend to have growing congregations, the relationship with the Heritage Foundation is an acknowledgement that the buildings attract international visitors (some 11 million annually) to the point of contributing 220 million pounds annually to the national economy.  With some 16,000 Church of England churches in England, an average worship service would comprise 47-48 people on Sunday morning.
[4] David Goodhew, ed.  Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present (Ashgate Pub., 2012).
[5] Alison Morgan’s review of David Goodhew’s (editor) Church Growth in Britain 1980 to the Present, in Fulcrum (March 30, 2013) (online:; accessed 30 July, 2016).
[6] Ibid.
[7] David Wasdell, ‘Let My People Grow’ (London: UCP, 1974) and ‘Divide and Conquer’ (London: UCP, 1975).  A presentation of his arguments may be found at (accessed 30 July, 2016).  The reader might compare some of the same concerns in church planting stated by the New Anglican Mission Society (see:
[8] This is not to say that there are examples to the contrary, but enculturation motivated not by the concern to make the Gospel understood but to transform the Gospel to support African culture over against colonialism is not a prescription for a healthy Church.