We all know how popular it has become to describe the massive growth of Christianity in Africa in the last few decades of the 20th Century, as being ‘one mile wide and one inch deep.’ Some speakers, especially those from outside Africa, tend to use this statement in some derogatory manner.
We should not mistake this phenomenon for a stigma, or an indictment on Africans. We should rather consider it as an appropriate and timely identification of Africa’s crucial spiritual challenge for this moment. This challenge became obvious when an African theologian tried to evaluate the impact or outcome on Africa, of the 20th Century global church initiatives on the Great Commission. He observed that the continent experienced tremendous numerical growth and spread of churches. But he also observed that generally, the believers’ lifestyles did not conform to the character of Christ as expected. There was a poor level of spiritual depth. It is this incongruence that he referred to as a “one mile wide and one inch deep” phenomenon.
The ‘one mile wide and one inch deep’ phenomenon seems to be a concealed and unacknowledged global phenomenon. The research report of Patrick Johnstone and Jason Mandryke supports this view. In the first ten pages of their book, Operation World: 21st Century Edition (2001), Patrick and Jason used statistical data to show that globally, Christianity was the most prosperous religion in the 20th Century. Many people groups were reached; souls were won, more churches were planted, and mega-churches sprang up. In this case, the growth of the church globally can be said to have been “one mile wide” or even something wider.
On page eleven of the same book, however, the authors listed as prayer points, nine specific major needs of the church arising from the 20th Century expansion of Christianity. The mistake so far is that church and mission leaders worldwide seem to have been contented with the report on growth, without giving some thought to the implication of the listed “needs”. Yet when considered more critically, each of the listed problems is symptomatic of decline in spiritual depth or biblical spirituality. And if taken together, the research report of Patrick and Jason clearly suggests that while the 20th Century church grew in number and spread, it declined in biblical spirituality or depth – just the same as was observed in Africa.
It is justifiable, therefore, to consider global trends in the 20th Century church growth as generally being ‘one mile wide and one inch deep.’ There was really nothing particularly unusual about Africa. Church and mission leaders should begin to accept the phenomenon as a global challenge.
WHAT WENT WRONG WITH THE HARVEST?
But an obvious question we should reflect upon at this point is why and how the growth of Christianity in Africa came to be ‘one mile wide and one inch deep’. Could it be that there was some deficit in the 20th Century emphasis and pursuit of aspects of the Great Commission, which invariably induced growth in number and spread, but unfortunately suppressed growth in spiritual depth? Answers to the above questions may provide some relevant insight as to how further global thrusts on fulfilling the Great Commission in the 21st Century can produce more balanced growth of Christianity, in any part of the world.
HOLISTIC CONCEPT OF THE GREAT COMMISSION
The 20th Century global church interpretation of the Great Commission was limited in focus and emphasis to the pursuit of missions, evangelism, church planting, church growth, and some allied interests. But when the Lord pronounced the Great Commission, Matthew recorded it in two verses (Mt 28:19-20). Part of the last verse states: “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you,” and, this implies discipleship. It is safe and appropriate therefore to think that the Lord Jesus had it clear in His mind that the Great Commission is a necessary cycle of three interdependent and equally important aspects: missions and evangelism; church planting and church growth; and discipleship.
When we pursue evangelism and missions, souls are won to Christ. When we pursue church planting and church growth, the souls won are brought into Christian fellowship and preserved. More churches are planted and some believers experience larger congregations. The 20th Century church stopped at this point.
Discipleship was usually skipped, though it should have been the next necessary, legitimate and vital component of the Great Commission to focus upon and pursue. Consequently, a natural imbalance in the spatial growth and spiritual depth of believers occurred.
Though we should really blame no one for this, it was such a limited perception of the Great Commission that also limited its pursuit in the last decades, and most probably created the “one mile wide and one inch deep’ problem.
But why was discipleship not focused upon and pursued? There may be several possible reasons, one of which could be a presumption that all church leaders know what discipleship is, know how to do it, and are really doing it. But the observed and documented decline in spiritual depth contradicts such a view.
Perhaps on a prophetic note, it could be that after the global church had gathered such a great harvest of souls, the Lord has destined the 21st Century to be the time for discipling them. Whichever, the challenge of discipleship stares us in the face.
SPIRITUAL DEPTH DEPENDS ON DISCIPLESHIP
The observed spiritual deficit in the growth of Christianity in Africa and other continents may have resulted to a large extent, from the obscurity of effective discipleship as legitimate and the ‘spiritual depth’- imbuing component of the Great Commission.
When Barnabas and Paul taught the converts in Antioch for a whole year, the believers reflected Christ in their behavior. Their contemporaries aptly described them as ‘Christians’ (Acts 11:26). We conclude from this and other instances in the scriptures that spiritual quality or depth is grown in people as they give themselves to some systematic teaching program and activities based on God’s word. Such a program is commonly referred to as discipleship. Its positive outcome is usually in the form of increasing Christ-likeness or spiritual depth in the believer’s life.
A possible answer could be that an effective discipleship program invariably has a transformational potential by which the lives of those subscribed to it become progressively changed, conforming to Christ-likeness. Therefore, whenever a general decline in biblical spirituality is observed, either there is no discipleship in place, or if available, lacked sufficient transformational potential.
So then, what every church in Africa and the rest of the globe needs to combat the ‘one mile wide and one inch deep’ phenomenon and fulfill the Great Commission holistically, is a focus, emphasis and pursuit of transformational discipleship.
Perhaps, if effective transformational discipleship was emphasized and pursued alongside missions, evangelism, church growth and church planting, Africa would have also grown in it, at the same time and with the same zeal we pursued the others. Then our testimony today could have been much different – probably a ‘one mile wide one mile deep’ phenomenon!
KEY TO THE FUTURE OF GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY
In this 21st Century, discipleship should rightly be perceived globally as the key to the future of qualitative and sustainable Christianity. It has been the perennial deficit in all efforts made so far in fulfilling the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the time to give it a preferential attention and emphasis.
Moreover, if we are to reasonably solve the problems of declining spirituality; of waning interest, and of poor commitment among today’s professing Christians;
If we are to have sustainable missions and sustainable church planting programs and projects, beyond this our very generation;
If we are to raise genuine disciples of Christ in all nations of the world; and prepare His Bride for His soon coming;
Then the 21st Century church must give priority to transformational discipleship in any further emphases and implementation of the Great Commission.
THE BOLD STEP OF MANI
At the Movement for African National Initiatives (MANI) conference which was held in Nairobi from 27th February to 4th March 2006, discipleship was considered. To my mind, this was the first of its kind in a pro-mission gathering.
In this conference, the discipleship issue group recorded the highest number of participants compared with the others. It was obvious from this that more church leaders were indicating concern over the declining spirituality in our churches than on any of the other issues considered in the conference. I personally regarded this as a positive development consistent with, and necessary for confronting the challenge of realizing Africa’s destiny in this new century.
MANI did not wait for an outside prompting, but rather has set out boldly to address the ‘spiritual depth’ deficit issue, as well as to pursue the transformation of Christianity in Africa. For these goals to be effectively realized, the Movement decided henceforth to recognize the indispensability of transformational Discipleship, and to integrate it into a holistic pursuit of the Great Commission.
We in MANI believe that the vital force which believers in our continent (and the rest of the world) require for sustaining our continuous and consistent spiritual growth, and galvanize the church beyond this and other generations, depends critically on qualitative or effective transformational discipleship.
If believers are effectively discipled for Christ, the church will have a spiritually active force, commitment shown by their lifestyles and witness, to a holistic and organic growth of themselves and the body of Christ, as well as to the fulfillment of all aspects of the Great Commission.
It is common knowledge that non-discipled church members may need to be urged to evangelize, go on missions or even support missions. But true disciples of Christ evangelize characteristically, and are willing to make sacrifices of their lives and substances for Christ and His Kingdom. This is our experience in the local church which I pastor.
I recommend, therefore, that the rest of the Christian world should consider MANI’s new orientation as a very bold step worth emulating, since particularly, spiritual decline has become unarguably a global phenomenon.
If we choose to overlook the obviousness of this, then we will most probably be the last generation to talk about the Great Commission with any meaningful passion and reasonable success.
My sincere prayer is that wherever mission and church leaders meet to deliberate on reaching the remaining unreached people groups in the world, we should also give the deserved attention to transformational discipleship as a necessary complement of what we have emphasized and pursued so far, as well as the biblical means for adding spiritual quality and eternal value to our sincere efforts.
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MANI 2017 AFRICAN CONGRESS ON TRANSFORMATIONAL DISCIPLESHIP COMMUNIQUÉ
Out of the great need for transformational discipleship on the continent, and as adopted in the MANI Consultation of March 2016 in Addis Ababa, African Senior Church and Para-Church leaders gathered from May 1-5, 2017 at the Dimesse Sisters Retreat Center Karen, Nairobi. The aim of this important gathering was to deliberate on various discipleship models that could lead to a contagious transformational Christianity on the continent of Africa and beyond. The theme of the Congress was “Initiating a Transformational Discipleship Revolution in the Churches of Africa and the World”. The congress attracted 95 delegates of various denominations from 11 countries respectively:15 people from Ghana, 6 people from DR Congo, 8 people from Rwanda, 27 people from Kenya, 1 person from Zambia, 2 people from Tanzania, 2 people from Ethiopia, 28 people from Nigeria, 1 person from Malawi, 2 people from the United States of America, 3 people from the United Kingdom.
We want to deeply appreciate the warm welcome and hospitality accorded to the delegates of the Congress by the Dimesse Sisters. We commend the organizers under the coordination of Dr. Reuben Ezemadu and all the logistical support by our Sister Jane Waithaka, the MANI Administrative Assistant. We also want to give special recognition and thanks to the leadership of the MANI Transformational Discipleship Track, Drs. Uzo and Chinyere Obed.
The Congress was marked by early morning Devotions, the Keynote address by Dr. Obed and paper presentations on discipleship models. With focus on pursuit of a holistic fulfillment of the Great Commission and harmonization of the concept of discipleship in his Keynote address, Dr. Obed set the tone of the Congress. He emphasized that the Congress is to initiate a worthy revolution. The following discipleship models were subsequently presented:
- Purpose Driven Movement
- Alpha Course
- Disciple Making Movement
- Scripture Union
- Believers Spiritual Growth
- A case for Home-Based Spiritual Nurture
- African Strategic Discipleship Movement
- Your Kingdom Come
- Acts 2:42 Initiative; and a few others.
The feeling at the Congress was a desperate need to see God create a discipleship revolution through the African Church that would sweep the entire continent and send missionaries overseas. Engaging discussions in small groups followed each presentation. The following 5 questions were used to guide the discussion in these break-up sessions.
- How comprehensible was the presentation?
- What do you consider to be the significant merits of the discipleship model?
- Do you think it can work in your local church or denomination? Why do you think so?
- Do you think the churches in Africa should try it out?
- Do you have any other observation or suggestion?
It is our hope that when the final proceedings of the congress are released it will unleash an unstoppable discipleship revolution that our continent badly needs. There is a general call by the participants that all Church leaders will see the importance and urgency of Transformational Discipleship. They are urged to see how to adopt, adapt, and apply some of the Discipleship models irrespective of denominations.
Also, to help raise Christ-like disciples who will be agents of change, and provide the needed leadership to impact their society, communities and nations for Africa to realize its maximum potential.
Finally, we thank God who made this Congress possible and helped it to succeed tremendously. May His Kingdom come and His will be done!
Dr. Uzo Obed was previously a University Lecturer. Later, the Lord used him and his wife to inaugurate the Glory Tabernacle Ministry in January 1990. After twenty one years of pastoring this ministry, they handed it over to a second generation of leaders. Presently, Dr Obed and his wife, Dr Chinyere Obed, are leading the MANI Transformational Discipleship Network, as well as the Apostolic Discipleship Movement International. They developed the Believers Spiritual Growth (BSG) discipleship program which they broadcast on TV and travel extensively to teach.