Historian Richard Bulliet suggests that early Muslims recounted the story of the spread of Islam as if it had one center, like an inkblot diffusing outward from a center that remains set and inexorably stained. In contrast, when we look at the story of the spread of God’s kingdom, we see something more like shifting epicenters of earthquakes. Sudden, tectonic shifts occur, and then shock waves go out from the center to spread the gospel far and wide.
Once the waves subside, the kingdom quakes again. The epicenter moves to a new location and shock waves ripple out from there. Interestingly, many of the quakes in history have tended to be more intense, longer lasting, and farther reaching than the previous, as if we are moving toward a final culmination of history.
From the Early Church
Thinking of the spread of Christianity in those terms, in the early church, Jerusalem and Antioch were the first locations where believers spread out in successive missionary ripples from their initial epicenters. Later, the heart of the kingdom shifted to North Africa, which later gave way to Rome, then Constantinople, and eventually Northern Europe and the United States.
The process was similar in each place: the gospel came with great dynamism, was followed by a huge missionary sending push, then successive waves and aftershocks eventually subsided until the next event in a different place. Often, the center was squelched by some physical, religious, or cultural opposition such as barbarians in Rome, Islam in North Africa, or secularism in the West. In each case, the kingdom seemed as if it had been stopped, and then suddenly the next epicenter emerged in a new place.
The Shifting Epicenter
For decades, missiologists Andrew Walls and Philip Jenkins have been reminding the world that the epicenter of Christianity has subtly moved from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere. Recent data from Pew Research Center also indicate a decline in evangelical Christianity in the North and the West, while the number of believers is drastically increasing in the South and East. One of the most pronounced examples of this shift is Sub-Saharan Africa. Pew projects that nearly 40 percent of the world’s Christians will reside in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050.
In my view, it’s apparent that the West may no longer be the center of significant kingdom growth. When one considers the pattern of Christianity, the history of Christian witness in Africa, and the statistical predictions of Africa’s exploding Christian population, it seems clear: the next (and perhaps last) wave of missionary advance could come from Africa.
“It’s necessary to ask, ‘Can they go into all the world?’ and if they go, ‘What gospel will they export?’”
As someone who has spent half of his life in Africa, this is a great encouragement to me. It tells me that the next wave—potentially one of the greatest in all of history—could be carried out by the African church. The beautiful feet that bring good news to the last unreached people groups in the farthest corners of the world could very well be African feet.
That brings me great joy because I believe African Christians are not only some of the sweetest people on the planet, they’re also some of the most zealous, toughest, and most resilient people in the world. They have the heart, the passion, and the DNA to finish the task and lead the worldwide church to the very culmination of history before Jesus returns.
Yet, this realization also gives me pause. Although Africans embody many of the necessary qualities to lead the next wave of missions advance, I wonder if they are theologically equipped to complete the task. This is not paternalism on my part, but it’s necessary to ask, “Can they go into all the world?” and if they go, “What gospel will they export?” The window of opportunity is temporary and the African church needs to be mobilized now. Perhaps the greatest gifts we in the West can give to them, and in turn give to the kingdom, are the gifts of mobilization and theological education.
Preparing Another Generation to Go
It’s crucial to consider how we can prepare and mobilize the next generation of African missionaries who will take the gospel to the ends of the earth. We need to co-labor with them in the harvest fields, but we also need to help them find ways to be self-sustaining and unlock their own resources and potential in the African church.
In addition, we need to partner with them in theological education and help check the natural drift towards Neo-Pentecostalism and syncretism. We must come alongside them and contribute to the next generation of African thinkers, writers, and theologians by working with African seminaries and providing theological education at the grassroots level. Developing African theologians, church leaders, and missionaries will increase their missionary impact with breadth and depth as they ripple out from their own epicenter.
The Lord has well positioned the African church to finish the task, and we are poised to be the facilitators, the mobilizers, and the equippers who empower them to complete what we helped perpetuate as a part of our country’s own ripple effect. Let’s not ignore the signs and the rumblings but prepare Africans to lead out in the next great kingdom movement.
Kevin and his wife Suzie have served in eastern and southern Africa for the past twenty years. He currently leads church planters and theological educators as they seek to empower the African church to finish the task. Kevin has a master’s of divinity from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary and a PhD in missions from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.