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, Ethiopian, 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) into two broad categories, namely, the Spirit-type (due to the centrality of the work and experience of the Holy Spirit among them) and Ethiopian type (because they were non-prophetic and often claimed ideological and religious links with Ethiopia Africa). The generally accepted term for these churches is African Initiated Churches.

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 centres 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 practise anointing with oil, ritual bathing, and the drinking of blessed water. Most of the AICs also practise 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 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.

Most AICs do not prohibit polygamy. Polygamists are admitted to all sacraments such as the Lord’s Supper and they are allowed to take all offices including the office of a pastor/Prophet. AICs are also distinctive in African Christianity due to the prominent role that they give to women. Women are encouraged to participate in all activities and take up leadership roles in the churches. There are also numerous cases of women who were either founders or co-founders of AICs.

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 fulfilment 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.

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