Reformation in Africa: Reaching Africa for the Gospel

One hundred and fifty years ago, Africa was predominantly pagan in the south, and Muslim in the north. Yet incredibly, today most of the world’s Christians are found in Africa. There are presently an estimated 680 million (and rapidly growing) professing Christians on the continent. This is undoubtedly fruit of the great missionary endeavors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which saw the faith take root, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Nevertheless, even though Africa is home to most of the world’s Christians, it is the quality of this Christianity that is at question. Unfortunately, in recent times, the African church has been proselytized by some of the very worst expressions of American Christianity.

The prosperity gospel is the predominant expression of Christianity on the continent. Personalities like Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, and Joyce Meyer are venerated as Christian superstars in these parts. Thrown together into this mix is a cultural context which is predominantly pre-modern. This means that there is much lingering paganism in the form of African Traditional Religion, superstition, syncretism, and false teaching that pervades the African church. The result, unfortunately, is not pretty. Though the African church is large in number, it is very shallow in theological depth and poor in health.

At the same time, because much of African culture has been relatively untouched by modernism and postmodernism, we are largely free from the skepticism and hostility toward faith that is often experienced in the West. This means that there is generally an openness to the gospel in the public sphere in Africa.

Why should other Christians care about the state of the African church? One simple reason: the African church will shape the future direction of the global church. As Christianity continues to decline in the West, the growing church in Africa will increasingly set the theological trends going forward. As it stands, Africa is set to reproduce more Osteens, Jakeses, and Meyers and will very likely continue to propagate the false teaching of the prosperity gospel.

The truth is that our context is not too far from medieval Europe on the eve of the Reformation, with its pre-modern superstitions, its version of the prosperity gospel (think indulgences and Tetzel) and unbiblical teaching. The great need in the African context is, therefore, a reformation—a recovery of the centrality of the gospel. There is presently a perfect opportunity to influence the trajectory of African Christianity toward the Reformed faith. The result we pray for, is that in years to come the Lord will raise up African Luthers, Calvins, and Knoxes from our continent, and in turn influence the global church in a biblically orthodox direction.

How do we go about achieving this? It goes without saying that the Lord is sovereign and we trust and pray that he will bring about a reformation in Africa by the power of his Spirit. Yet the Lord also uses means. The means he has used historically in bringing about reformation are training and equipping pastors to faithfully preach the gospel (theological education) and the establishment of biblically orthodox churches (church planting).

Allow me now to introduce myself: I was born and bred in Durban, South Africa. I grew up as a covenant child in the Anglican Church. After awakening to faith in my early twenties, I sensed the call to ministry and was involved in young adults’ ministry in the Anglican church for nine years. During this time, the Lord began to open up the world of Reformed theology to me, which eventually resulted in me studying for my Master of Divinity at Westminster Seminary California.

After I graduated in 2017, having become a Presbyterian, I returned to Durban. Durban is South Africa’s third largest city, and home to some four million people. The state of Christianity in Durban is indicative of the state of Christianity on the continent—there is a broad cultural Christianity, yet it is largely influenced by the prosperity gospel, African Traditional Religion, and Pentecostalism. As is the case in most of the continent, there are very few faithful gospel-preaching churches, let alone Reformed churches in the city. When I moved back, there was not a single confessional Presbyterian church in the city.

Realizing the huge opportunities in my context, I set out to plant a Presbyterian church from scratch. I got connected to a small confessional, biblically orthodox denomination called the Presbyterian and Reformed Church of South Africa (PARC SA). The denomination is connected to Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and its mission sending agency, Mission to the World (MTW). They agreed to support my efforts to plant a church in Durban.

In late 2017, I started a Bible study with five of my friends in my home. This slowly grew by God’s grace, and eventually we began our first Lord’s Day services in September 2019. The church plant was launched as Covenant Waterfall Presbyterian Church, Waterfall being the suburb in which we are located. In 2020, I was ordained as a minister of the Word and sacrament in PARC SA.

From the outset we were committed to continue the legacy of the Reformation: the faithful preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and prayer. We realized that the simplicity and power of the means of grace would prove a stark contrast to our cultural context saturated with superstition, the prosperity gospel, ancestor worship, and witchcraft.

By God’s grace, he has added to our number and we have a growing congregation of both young and old. Apart from the Lord’s Day service, we run a catechism class and children’s ministry, as well as being engaged in outreach to our community. This year we received our first two interns, both of them graduates from Westminster Seminary California, who have been a great help in assisting in the ministry of the church.

As well as planting and pastoring Covenant Waterfall, I was employed by Mukhanyo Theological College to establish and manage a campus in Durban. Mukhanyo is one of the few Reformed theological colleges in South Africa, and certainly the only Reformed college in Durban. The first campus was established thirty years ago near Pretoria, and the institution has a long track record of providing quality, biblically orthodox theological education across southern Africa. Mukhanyo Durban launched in 2020, offering an accredited Higher Certificate and Bachelor of Theology degree. We now have fifteen students who are training with us, being taught the original languages, being instructed in Reformed theology, and equipped to faithfully preach the gospel and pastor Christ’s church.

The ministries of Covenant Waterfall and Mukhanyo converge in this vision for a reformation in Africa. Due to the few number of Reformed churches in the area, our vision is to plant more confessional Presbyterian churches in the Durban region and to form our own presbytery. To serve this vision, Covenant Waterfall is developing an internship program for prospective church planters among the students at Mukhanyo. While doing the internship, the students will study theology at Mukhanyo and receive training in Presbyterian polity and practical ministry experience at the church. Together, these students will be equipped for effective gospel ministry and sent out to plant biblically faithful churches across the region.

Despite the great obstacles we face in Africa, there is no greater joy and privilege than being able to minister Christ’s gospel on the continent. Thankfully, it is God in his sovereignty who we trust to bring about a reformation by the power of his Word and Spirit. In both the church and theological education, the incredible reassurance we have is that God’s ordained means of grace are indeed the primary ways in which he accomplishes his redemptive purposes in this world. He does what only he can do—transforming hearts of stone into hearts of flesh! Indeed, Christ Jesus himself will build his church, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt 16:18).

Here are some ways in which you can pray for us:

  • For Covenant Waterfall Presbyterian Church, that the Lord would add to our number, grow and strengthen our congregation in the truth of his gospel.
  • For our two new interns, Alex Hewiston and Brendan Stamper.
  • For Mukhanyo Theological College, that the Lord would draw more students to us to study theology and that they would embrace the Reformed faith and be sent out to faithfully serve the African church as church planters and pastors.
  • For our church planter internship program, that the Lord would send us the right men.

Church website: https://covenantwaterfall.co.za/

Mukhanyo website: www.mukhanyo.ac.za

©Antonio Coppola. All Rights Reserved.

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10 comments

  1. Thank you, Antonio, for your post. I too work in Africa, (WSC grad too) but in French speaking West Africa. We see the same sad church and theological situation here, though the big names are not really so known here, Think French civilization as opposed to British civilization. The prosperity and the prophet movement is huge here. Further, there is little confessional reformed witness here. In the country where I live, protestantism is represented by the Assemblies of God, the Christian Missionary Alliance, and SIM churches, though there are other small groups. The vast majority of Christians see no conflict with the so-called prophets and a high view of scripture.

    Our team works with two Presbyterian congregations in the capitol city, but in a place where the NO ONE has heard of reformed theology or even Calvinism, we are seen as something foreign.

    Please be in prayer for a reformed witness here and for a concerted effort to plant new churches. We have one or two leaders who we would consider confessionally reformed, one who will be ordained soon, but the need for leadership is great.

    Like in SA theological education is a huge need but due to the vast range of people’s education, literacy rate, and the nature of the French educational system adopted here, there’s no easy solution. Founding a theological college like Mukhanyo just isn’t practical. We are using the resources of MINTS.EDU which uses a local study center model. Please take a look at the website to see this unique approach to global reformed theological education.

    • Hi Keith, so good to hear of the work you are involved in in West Africa! Will be praying for you, brother!

  2. I am a SAFFA living in the USA. I salute you for your work. I was also raised Anglican and later discovered the Reformed faith. I had to come to the USA to be part of a Reformed congregation. I just could not find one in Gauteng. I cannot donate materially but I will most certainly be praying for you and the missionary organization.

    • Thank you so much for your encouraging words Vivienne, I really appreciate your prayers! Come visit us when you are back in the motherland 🙂

  3. This is incredibly accurate. Even across Sub-Saharan Africa (speaking as an East African). Pre-Reformation is exactly where most people really are. It’s difficult for missionaries coming to the continent because of the history of missions here. But there has been syncretism and hesitation to appropriate the creeds and confessions of Protestantism for ourselves. We have to our detriment prioritized unity for unity’s sake and the role of the pastor in society is perceived as being that of a glorified social worker. It greatly confuses many of us here trying to hold the fort for historic Protestantism why the West is overly enthusiastic about the future of Africa’s Christian witness being dominant when the state of Christianity here is dire and troubled. I’m glad to read this article because it proves I’m not seeing my own things.

  4. Another thing I may add or clarify to my last comment: when some Western especially American missionaries come to Africa, they perceive that due to the success of previous missions in the 18th and 19th century, that therefore they have little to offer besides debunking the prosperity gospel. Of course there are some off-putting fundamentalists who thump their chests and try to Americanize rather than evangelize but as far as those from ostensibly Reformed backgrounds, they tend to be bashful. My subjective and limited suspicion is that because many are Caucasian, any insistence on Reformation first principles and Reformed theology, will be perceived as ideological colonialism or worse; racism. It could not be further from the truth.
    But I do wonder why those who know better and are convinced of essential and transformative realities such as the distinction between law and gospel, are always looking to dumb things down as a first resort. It’s as though they are convinced but ashamed to be Reformed. There is no greater pressing need in Africa than to articulate the law and the gospel as expressed in the Reformed confessions. And you don’t need to be a certain ethnicity to do so.

  5. @TLSE, Amen brother! Thank you for your insights and great interaction, much appreciated! Lots of work needed here in Africa…

    • Yes, there’s lots of work to be done. I will be praying for your church and hope to visit someday when I come down south.

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