One of the contexts in which we do ministry in Africa is the background and influence of African Traditional Religion (ATR). In ATR the sangoma (witchdoctor) has special access to God, the spirit world and the ancestors. The sangoma is able to make contact with the spirit world in order to guarantee protection from evil spirits, to ensure good luck in a job interview or even to lift a curse someone else might have placed on you. The sangoma is able to provide blessing, healing, deliverance and protection (among other things).
Pastors as sangomas
What I and others have experienced is that often times “Christianity” in Africa has simply used the African Traditional Religious worldview and replaced the categories with Christian words and titles. For example, as Conrad Mbewe has shown, the pastor or “man of God” is called “pastor” but he practically functions as a witchdoctor to his largely untaught congregation. Congregants therefore go to the “anointed man of God” for prayer for blessing, healing, deliverance and protection. The pastor is seen to have special powers and special access to the spirit world. These “men of God” lap up all the attention and perceived power. All congregational problems are generally dealt with by (very loud) prayer for divine miraculous deliverance – often with a price tag. These pastors function as witchdoctors. This is not Christianity or Christian ministry.
No special powers
According to the Bible all Christians have the same access to God through prayer. There is no spiritual hierarchy. We do not need someone “special” to pray for us. God in turn speaks to us through his Word. The pastors job is to preach the so that God’s people may hear God’s voice Word (2 Timothy 4:2).
Recently I taught at a Pastors’ Conference in Malawi and was very encouraged. Many pastors have forsaken this false ATR view of Christian ministry and have embraced a Word ministry. One of the pastors explained that he is under huge pressure from the community to be seen to be a powerful “man of God”. He asked me what he should do if someone comes for healing and he is unable to heal them. He would be discredited and dishonoured in the community, who in turn would seek out a more powerful “man of God”.
I said he should pray that if it is God’s will that God would heal. Then he should send the person to the doctor as God can heal by miracle or medicine. I reminded him that it is not always God’s will to heal (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). I reminded him that when the Apostle Paul wrote to a young pastor about what his priority should be, Paul did not write “Heal the sick” or “Raise the dead” or “Cast out demons”. He simply wrote “Preach the Word”.
The pastor has no special powers. He is a Christian among Christians. Paul himself would answer that pastor by saying that he should patiently and deliberately preach the Word. The pastor might have no listeners by the second Sunday, yet slowly and surely the Word will do its work. The Lord will use his Word to make true converts. The Word will teach these new converts to have a correct theology and a correct expectation for pastors.
The Reformation again for Africa
Martin Luther faced a similar wrong view of Christian ministry in his day 500 years ago in Europe. The Roman Catholic Pope and priests were understood to have special powers and special access to God. The average Christian could not read the Bible or take the wine in communion. The average Christian went to the priest to make confession for sin. The Reformation changed all that as the church was brought back to the Bible. This is what Martin Luther said about his great work in his grand role in the Reformation, “I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing…the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing; the Word did it all.”
I count myself as an African and I call on myself and all my African brothers: Preach the Word!