African Independent Churches

An African-initiated church is a Christian church independently started in Africa by Africans rather than by missionaries from another continent. The oldest of these is the Tewahedo (Ethiopian Orthodox Church) which dates from the 4th century, and was one of the first Christian churches in the world.

African Independent Churches (Religious Movement)

The period from the late nineteenth century has witnessed the upsurge of a number of churches, which were indeed an African strand of a new development of Christianity. Mainly fabricated in Africa by Africans to suit the African context and described as ‘a place to feel at home’ these churches came to be referred to by various names such separatist, Zionist, Spiritual, Prophetic Movements, Syncretistic Movement, Nativistic Churches, Messianic Movement, and Praying Churches. Others have classified the African Independent Churches (hereinafter referred to by the acronym AICs which in fact could stand for synonymous terms such as, African Instituted Churches; African Indigenous Churches; African Initiatives in Christianity) mostly named as the Spirit-type (due to the centrality of the work and experience of the Holy Spirit among them) and most of them are prophetic.


The development of the AICs was essentially a paradigm shift and a challenge to the Eurocentric disposition of the mainline historic churches in Africa. A casual observer of the beliefs and practices of the AICs can be convinced about the resilience of the African indigenous worldview. Consequently, the AICs were perceived as authentic African expressions of Christianity. The effect of this new and contextual expression of Christianity on African Churches was the alarming rate of the exodus of members of the mainline historic churches to join some of the AICs. Several factors accounted for the emergence of the AICs. The following are some of them.


In the first place, some of their leaders were nationalists who used religion as a protest against European colonial rule and as a means to pursue the policy of African self-expression and freedom from missionary control.

Second, the emergence of key charismatic leaders such as Garrick Braide (of Niger Delta in Nigeria) (see Braide, Garrick Sokari), William Wade Harris (a Kru from Liberia) (see Harris, William Wade), and Simon Kimbangu (of Belgian Congo) (see Kimbangu, Simon) inspired some of their followers to start their own churches.


Third, some African Christians broke away from mainline historic churches in order to have the freedom to exercise their charismatic gifts, for the manifestation of which they felt the mainline churches did not create enough room within their framework.


Fourth, some simply rebelled against the overtly Eurocentric brand of Christianity and sought to express Christianity in African terms.


In the fifth place, the translation of the Bible into the mother tongues of various African ethnic groups enabled Africans to read the Bible in their own languages, thus they became more self-conscious as African and this provided them with a major impetus to form their own churches.


Finally, crisis situations such as the deadly influenza epidemic that spread through West Africa in 1981 and to which orthodox medicine could not find a solution led people to seek healing through faith and other spiritual means. This development led to the emergence of prayer groups some of which later became independent churches.


Currently, there are a number of characteristics that make the AICs distinctive. Revelations through prophets and faith healing are two prominent features of the AICs. Indeed, the search for healing is the most common reason why people join the AICs. This led most of the AICs to establish healing centers or camps where patients could be kept for a period (sometimes for years), until they completely recovered. Healing is usually effected by praying and the laying on of hands. Most churches stress fasting in their healing process. They also practice anointing with oil, ritual bathing, and the drinking of blessed water. Most of the AICs also practice exorcism of evil spirits and cure confessed witches.


Indeed exorcism is closely associated with healing since there is a strong belief among most Africans that mishap, evil, and ailment are caused by evil forces like witches, curses and demons.


Spontaneity is the hallmark of the worship of the AICs. Their worship is vibrant and fascinating, full of lively African music, clapping and dancing which facilitates the active participation of members. Most of the songs used are traditional lyrics, which are usually spontaneous compositions that are accompanied by traditional musical instruments.


The AICs are noted for contextualizing Christianity ‘from below’. Their sermons are deeply rooted in African primal culture and they are tailored to respond to the demands of their adherents. They are concerned to respond to the issues raised by the African worldview that contains a strong belief in malevolent spirits, witches and wizards. They attach great importance to the interpretation of dreams and visions.

The AICs constitute a renewal movement that has sought to make Christianity more relevant to the African context. With the emergence of the AICs, the African worldview and African spirituality found fulfillment in a Christian way. The uniqueness of the AICs is found in the prominent use of traditional African beliefs, forms, symbols and practices, and the liberal interpretation of the Bible to respond to issues such as those posed by the spirit world in the African worldview. They are also noted for their emphasis on the Holy Spirit. This historical and spiritual significance, then, of the AICs is to be found in their having pioneered the movement to contextualize Christianity in Africa by offering an expression for the African spiritual quest for meaning in a Christian way.


The historical voices of the African Independent Churches: Towards new development

The African Independent Churches (AIC’s) lived in the shadow of past experiences imposed on them by Western explanations, reasons and theories. They had to define their lives, identity, religious and cultural practices according to Western values. Any African indigenous practice that lacked Western taste was viewed as primitive and uncivilized. Instead of implementing their practices, the AIC’s spent most of their time explaining themselves to those who adhered to Western values. Initially the AIC’s were viewed as sects and not fully Christian. They had to explain their Christian status to Western ways of thinking. This account was reflected in their book “AICs Speaking for themselves” published by ICT in Braamfontein (1985). This book gave a full account on how they viewed themselves and felt about their rejection from the mainline churches.

It is, however, interesting to note that, irrespective of this, the AIC’s never succumbed to pressures of forcing them to shift from their belief system into the different, western self-identities. It is from this point that Du Toit’s book, Hearing the AIC voice (1999), became relevant in attempting to encourage further debates from within the AIC’s. The value of these debates was to suggest that a paradigm shift was necessary from Western values and self-justification to self-decisiveness and intellectual growth.

Besides the self-fixed historical affinity of the AIC’s as they are in South Africa, we are forced to look into the broader developments of the organization of the African Independent Churches (OAIC). This focus will help to expose the possible avenues for purposeful development and international exposure. It has also become evident that the AIC’s in their incoherence and sporadic developments since 1994 have shown very little progress in their development. The blame could however be placed on the need for a new roadmap towards standing for themselves. A lot of time was wasted by trying to explain themselves to the Western values instead of focusing on doing their theology from their own perspective.

As we talk today, AIC’s having spread to almost all African countries and they are overtaking the mainline Christian churches. They are multiplying at a faster rate that the mainline churches can’t compete with.