Digging deep to reveal a beacon of light in Africa

Africa is currently one-seventh of the world’s population, but at the end of the century, it will have grown to a third of the global population. By the end of the century, Africa’s 1.1 billion people will have grown to 4.5 billion people, according to United Nations projections.

“And if three out of every four extra people in the world are going to be African, and 35 per cent of the world’s population, we better think about Africa,” says Stuart Brooking, executive director of an Australian group whose goal is to build up the theological capacity of the 60 countries it works in.

Local Leaders International, formerly Overseas Council Australia, is an interdenominational ministry that aims to build up the “theological enterprise” in each country or region by identifying the best Bible colleges and working with them to make them better.

For the past two weeks, Local Leaders has been hosting Dr Samy Shehata, Principal of Alexandria School of Theology, a key partner in Local Leaders’ Africa Mile Deep Strategy, a 15-year vision to equip mission for Africa by Africans so that the fastest growing region in the world will become a beacon of light.

Archbishop Samy Shehata

The problem it seeks to address is the widely held assessment that Christianity in Africa is “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

“Africans look at the church and they look at what’s going on and they see the problems in the church and they say, ‘Yeah, in many places that saying is right.’ So how do you get the church to be a mile deep? You get it by good theological education,” Brooking said

Although there are many signs of deep spiritual commitment in Africa, the failure has been in creating a theology that takes account of each place and its culture, he says.

“If you don’t do that, what you have is an overlay of Western theologising. The way we think in the West is placed over the top, so you get a veneer of Christian belief. So if someone gets sick, they’ll pray to Jesus and use lucky charms – and pray to their spirits. So that’s the inch-deep nature,” Brooking explains.

“How do you get it a mile deep? You have good theological education, which takes account of the culture and brings the Scriptures and the culture into the conversation in a way that is deep rather than shallow.

“That lifts the whole capacity of a country, not a quick time necessarily, but it’s more a cascade than a trickle down.” – Stuart Brooking

Brooking launched the strategy at a meeting in Cape Town in 2018 attended by 15 leaders from six key theological colleges from across the continent who all bought into the goal of deepening the spiritual life of the African church through resourcing its leadership development.

“We don’t work with Anglicans anywhere except in Africa. But what we did was we analysed what was there. There are about 105 Anglican Bible colleges, schools, university departments. And we identified there are six main ones,” he explains.

“The smaller ones want help, and the bigger ones want to help. So we come along and facilitate that growth and development, and that lifts the whole capacity of a country, not in a quick time necessarily, but it’s more a cascade than a trickle down.”

“We need Christian leaders who are spiritually formed to deal with challenges of divisions in society and divisions in the church.” – Samy Shehata

Bringing a crucial North African perspective to the group of leaders representing six hub theological institutions, Dr Shehata has just completed a whistle-stop tour across Australia, speaking to Local Leaders’ supporters and guests about his passion for the word of God and for raising up strong Christian leaders for North Africa and the Middle East.

“There is a great need in the Middle East for the church to grow through training spiritually mature Christian leaders who are grounded in God’s word,” he said.

“We need Christian leaders who are spiritually formed to deal with challenges of divisions in society and divisions in the church, and who understand the Middle Eastern culture so that they make a difference.”

Dr Shehata is also Archbishop of the Episcopal/Anglican Province of Alexandria in Egypt, which was formed in June 2020 to cover ten countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, Algeria and Djibouti.

Living as a church in a minority environment requires setting up ways of interacting that contribute positively to society and earn Christians the right to share their faith, he believes. This theological model balances spiritual ministry with humanitarian ministry to enable church leaders to be witnesses to Christ in the African context.

“The ministry of the church, my vision for the next ten years, the vision of the province and the diocese is of being a living church for a better society,” he said.

Two key areas of work for provincial leaders were social and development work and fostering partnerships between Muslim and Christian people. For example, each year Egypt receives 40,000 refugees, mostly from Sudan and Syria, and the church helps with medical and food aid. Our agencies also gave out parcels of food to families during COVID-19, and put a lot of effort into developmental work On a different front, the Anglican church in Egypt had established a ministry partnership centre for Christians and Muslims to share knowledge and hear from scholars in both religions.

“There are many ways actually to share Christ. We share Christ through our presence in a Muslim context as we give a lot of help to the society in medical, educational and developmental work we do to Christians and Muslims alike,” says Dr Shehata.

“We share Christ in our churches by growing the churches, planting new churches, doing spiritual ministry and discipleship.”

“My vision for the next ten years, the vision of the province and the diocese is of being a living church for a better society.” – Samy Shehata

Coming up to the five-year mark in the strategy, Brooking says there has been “very high buy-in from everybody involved.”

“We’ve had lots of uptake of these different concepts that we are working with and lots of cooperation between the organizations that wasn’t there before. So that’s accelerated and people are copying each other in a very healthy way. They see what others are doing and then implement it in their region for their college and their little affiliate college. So it’s well ahead. There’s a lot more happening than I thought would be at the five-year mark, and that’s very pleasing.”

Brooking explains that Local Leaders has been assisting Dr Shehata’s Bible school in Cairo with faculty development, pedagogy training, online education, and resources for the library.

“We’ve helped set up a dialogue centre for Christian-Muslim relationships to improve community engagement, and they’ve linked in with other institutions to help them,” Brooking said.

“They are already a dynamic, competent group who do a lot more now – it’s not like they were languishing with no ideas. But we come alongside competent people and help them achieve what they want to achieve and suggest things and help out and coach and mentor.

“One example of how we’ll work is to negotiate a topic for, say, a three-day conference. A group of Bible college leaders from a country will come together to learn and contextualise for their place, and then they go back out and implement what they’ve learned, so the quality of teaching and the quality of the institutional life increases. And that all contributes to more robust systems of colleges and also a shift in theology so that it’s less, ‘we’ll just borrow from the West’ to, ‘we have that capacity to generate our own theology from the Scriptures for what we need and answer our questions.’”