African Instituted (Independent) Churches

The following article by John S. Pobee is the entry on African Instituted (Independent) Churches from the revised edition of the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement published jointly by the World Council of Churches and the Wm. Eerdmans in 2002.

The initials AIC, as the designation of a genre of African expressions of Christian faith of a great variety, are themselves understood in different ways: “African Independent Churches” signals that they are independent in their origin and organization, though since the historic churches founded by missionaries in Africa are at least juridically independent from their mother churches, this description is somewhat confusing. “African Instituted Churches” signals that they came into being by the initiative of Africans.

A range of other names indicates the variety in the genre. “Separatist churches” underscores that they have broken away from historic churches, e.g. the Church of the Lord (Aladura) broke away from the Church Missionary Society in Nigeria. “Spiritual” or “Pentecostal” emphasize the Holy Spirit and experiencing Pentecost anew, and offer a range of techniques for the emotional enhancement of religious experience (e.g. Musama Disco Christo Church, which broke away from the Methodist Church of Ghana). The “Ethiopian movement” emphasizes the importance of Africans controlling their own affairs in both religious and secular spheres. “Zionist churches” (e.g. the Christian Catholic Apostolic Holy Spirit Church in Zion, founded between 1917 and 1920 by Daniel Nkonyane) are primarily interested in the adaptation of Christian teaching and liturgy to indigenous cosmology and ways of worship; they stress expressive and emotional phenomena and cater to the strong fears of witchcraft among Africans.

Scholars have suggested other interpretative names for AICs of different types, such as “Witchcraft Eradication Movement”, because of this preoccupation with exorcism by the power of the Holy Spirit.* “Messianic movements”, built around a messianic leader, serve both as compensation for thwarted social aspirations and as an agency of socialization. In fact, except for Limba, founder of the Church of Christ in South Africa, such leaders have not normally claimed the title Messiah. “Prophetic movements” are so called because they are built on a strong leader, a prophet. This is possible in part because of the scarcity of leadership, which encourages persons with initiative to claim authority. Some AICs are called “apostolic churches”, and the Church of the Twelve Apostles of Ghana, for example, includes apostles in its ecclesiastical polity. “Syncretistic movements” reflects a judgment that these churches mix Christian beliefs with traditional African customs and ethos; the designation “naturistic movements” similarly highlights the mixture of Christian belief and traditional African cosmology. These names are not mutually exclusive; two or more may be applied to the same church.

In 1981 AICs constituted 15 percent of the total Christian population in sub-Saharan Africa. At present, assuming a growth estimated at more than 2 million per year, their adherents probably number over 83 million, thus constituting a significant section of African Christian demography.

The AIC represents first of all “a place to feel at home”. Western missionaries were largely negative about African culture and Africans were alienated from the gospel dressed in European garb. To that extent, the AICs represent an indigenizing movement in Christianity. They in effect protest the verbal and cerebral mode which puts Western Christianity beyond the reach of people’s comprehension and experience. Instead, the AICs offer a celebrative religion, making considerable use of symbols, music and dance. Thus they represent cultural renaissance in reaction to the cultural imperialism of the mission work of the historic churches.

Second, while Western churches emphasize Christology, the AICs make the Holy Spirit the focus of belief and practice. While they firmly believe in the person of Jesus Christ,* they appear more at home with the Holy Spirit, especially since Christ has ascended into heaven. This affirmation of the Holy Spirit does not just emphasize sanctification,* as in Methodism, but also points to the Spirit as power made manifest in healing, exorcism, glossolalia and mission. This emphasis on the Spirit asserts both continuity and discontinuity with the many spirits of the heritage of traditional African religious epistemology and ontology. It also represents an experiential supernaturalism which takes seriously the promise of Christ to send his Spirit. To that extent, the phenomenon is a protest against the tendency of the historic churches to institutionalize every manifestation of the Spirit.

Third, the AICs represent a radically biblicist movement. Taking off from the Protestant claim that the Bible is an open book for individual interpretation, the AICs have seen the Bible as a source to legitimate a wide variety of basic Christian patterns, often of special relevance to local conditions or of special appeal to local people. Thus in Southern Africa the biblical stories regarding the bondage of Israel have become a paradigm for their circumstances. Old Testament accounts of polygyny (e.g. Solomon) and taboos are very much of interest to them. The importance of dreams, visions and trances as media of God’s revelation* (cf. Gen. 40; Matt. 1:18-24) is stressed. The penchant for such visitations reflects the mysticism of the AICs, an experience of the divine on earth.

Fourth, the churches of the West and their daughter churches in Africa have the stamp of individualism, which characterizes society after the industrial revolution. That goes against the ethos of African societies, which proverbially view life in communitarian terms. The AICs thus act as a surrogate or auxiliary tribe, creating a self-selected community (e.g. Holy Apostles of Aiyetoro in Nigeria). This sense of community is manifested in pilgrimages to their holy cities, mutual aid in resources, and the sharing of a common vocabulary.

From the foregoing, it can be argued that the AICs represent a renewal movement, particularly in terms of effective evangelism,* better communication of the gospel than was received from the churches founded from the West. For the Pentecostalists in particular, glossolalia is a supernatural way by which God wishes the so-called heathens to be converted to Christianity. Indeed, the expectation of a speedy parousia of Christ is a reason for Pentecostal missionary engagement.

Since the historic churches have at best been suspicious of AICs, regarding them as a heathenization of Christianity, it is not surprising that they have rarely found a place in the ecumenical movement. The WCC currently includes only two: the Church of the Lord (Aladura) from Nigeria, which claims a membership of over 1 million, and Eglise du Christ sur la terre par le prophète Simon Kimbangu (EJCSK, Church of Christ on Earth by the Prophet Simon Kimbangu), or Kimbanguist Church, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which claims a membership of 5 million.

In South Africa the Interdenominational National Ministers have sought to bring together ministers of historic churches with those of AICs. However, there are some notable obstacles. Many AIC leaders are unable to participate in the business of regional ecumenical bodies because of the language used (English or French). On the other hand, AIC leaders complain that they are seldom if ever elected to executive positions in these bodies. Ecumenism for the AIC is based on a different model: the masses of people who unite in prayer, rather than the institutional leaders. Ecumenical relations between historic churches and the AIC are thus largely limited to cooperation in specific ventures.

On the other hand, African Instituted Churches have made efforts to create their own ecumenical networks. For instance, in Zimbabwe in 1972 independent churches created the ecumenical movement of Zimbabwean independent churches known as Fambidzano (cooperative of black – Shona – churches). These churches train their pastors through theological education by extension programmes. In 1978, the Organization of African Instituted Churches (OAICs) was founded in Cairo and registered in Kenya as an international organization. The OAICs works through seven regions, with its headquarters in Nairobi. The regions are represented in the governing body, the general assembly. The OAICs has four programmes: theological education by extension, participatory development, women’s issues, and research and communication services. OAICs is an associate member of the All Africa Conference of Churches and is in working relationship with the World Council of Churches.

The phenomenon of AICs on the world ecclesial stage poses a number of issues. Their vibrancy and growth call for a new approach to the tests of being church. How may we find appropriate categories to describe and evaluate their life and mission? There are difficult epistemological considerations to be taken seriously when making abstractions about the meaning of a belief system, especially by those who do not subscribe to it. Second, their presence is a reminder of the limits to well-worn theological approaches. The AICs’ constituency is largely non-literate and poor, and they do not respond to neatly defined and articulated theological positions.


Recommended reading:

  • A. Anderson, “The Hermeneutical Process of Pentecostal-Type African Initiated Churches in South Africa”, Missolonia, 24, 2, 1996
  • M. Assimeng, Saints and Social Structures, Tema, Ghana Publ., 1986
  • C.G. Baëta, Prophetism in Ghana, London, SCM Press, 1962
  • D.M. Barrett, Schism and Renewal in Africa: An Analysis of Six Thousand Contemporary Religious Movements, Nairobi, Oxford UP, 1968
  • Consultation with African Instituted Churches, WCC, 1996 n M.L. Daneel, Quest for Belonging, Gweru, Mambo, 1987
  • P. Makhubu, Who Are the Independent Churches?, Johannesburg, Skotaville, 1988
  • M.-L. Martin, Kimbangu: An African Prophet and His Church, Oxford, Blackwell, 1975
  • H.B.P. Mijoga, “Hermeneutics in African Instituted Churches in Malawi”, MIS, 24, 3, 1996
  • G.C. Oosthuizen, Post-Christianity in Africa, London, Hurst, 1968
  • J.S. Pobee & G. Ositelu II, African Initiatives in Christianity. The Growth, Gifts and Diversities of Indigenous African Churches: A Challenge to the Ecumenical Movement, WCC, 1998
  • B.G.M. Sundkler, Bantu Prophets in South Africa, London, Oxford UP, 1961
  • B.G.M. Sundkler, Zulu Zion and Some Swazi Zionists, Uppsala, Gleerup, 1976
  • H. Turner, Church of the Lord, Aladura, Oxford, Clarendon, 1967
  • H. Turner, African Independent Churches, 2 vols, Oxford, UP, 1962
  • A. Wolanin, “African Independent Churches”, Omnis Terra, 271, 1996.