Spirit-oriented, enthusiastic and charismatic

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Spirit-oriented, enthusiastic and charismatic: discovering an African spirituality

by Gowi Odera


A truly African Christian must be spirit-oriented, enthusiastic and charismatic. If this essay were to be written 200 years ago, this would have been considered an absurdity. The prevailing thinking then in Christendom had not imagined what we know today of the astronomical growth, expansion and establishment of the Christian faith in Africa. Today, almost 700 million Christians are domiciled in Africa. In 1900, there were only 9 million Christians in Africa. Thus, Africa now has the largest population of Christians in the world, surpassing Latin America at 612 million and projected to almost triple those in North America by 2035. In addition, by 2050, it is projected that Africa will have more Christians than both Latin America and Asia combined.1 For the purposes of this essay, I will attempt a brief descriptive definition of African Christianity and the African Christian. I will also canvas a few forms and expressions of African Christianity. Lastly I will identify some factors that connect African Pentecostalism to the spirits of African traditional religions.

What is African Christianity?

To speak about Christianity in Africa, we need to look to history and go back to the first 1,000 years of Christianity. Right from the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts, we see Africans from Egypt and Libya present at the onset of the first church in Jerusalem. The Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion and baptism in Acts 8 tells more of the subsequent spread of the gospel into the continent. Simeon also known as Niger and Lucius of Cyrene were African leaders of the mission-sending church in Antioch (Acts 13).

Most telling of African influence in the early days of the church is in Acts 18. Luke, the author of the book of Acts, introduces Apollos, who was a native of Alexandria, saying:

He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures… instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervour and taught about Jesus

accurately… he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.2

There is historical evidence in the New Testament of an already existing and established worshipping community of Christians in Africa. This suggests an indelible footprint of African Christianity on the church then and now. In the book How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, Thomas Oden delves into more historical evidence of Africa’s influence on Christendom in the patristic era up to the fifth century. He lists evidence of seven ways Africa shaped the Christian mind.3

After considering the historical context of this definition of African Christianity and the African Christian, we can now attempt to define the “spirit-oriented” African Christian. To do this, one will need to appreciate the African world view that has significantly shaped the African Christian. The famous aphorism by the venerated African theologian John Mbiti that “the African is notoriously religious”4 helps to unpack this definition. By “notoriously religious”, Mbiti’s thesis suggests that the African is spiritual and in essence his (or her) world view is seen through the lens of the supernatural. For the African, the continuum of life not only exists in the present but also after death; an individual continues to exist as “the living dead”. Death is a process that graduates one from one form of existence to another.5 The living African navigates between the now and also those who are departed into the spirit world. According to Mbiti, in the African’s world view, the living dead are spirits that exist in the present world but have lost their humanness. “Man is ontologically destined to lose his humanness but gain his full ‘spiritness’.”6 This world view, Mbiti suggests, is enculturated into the African Christian’s present expressions of beliefs and worship. This furthermore orients the African Christian towards the spiritual, thus described to be spirit-oriented.

If we are to be a bit more vivid in expounding on being spirit-oriented, we need to look at one Prophet Samuel Redebe7. Though not a Christian, he has all the allusions of it. Take a traditional African religion temple in pre-1900 and fast forward it to 2024. Give it a modern building, a state-of-the-art sound and public address system with a microphone; add technology with high-speed internet and the Old Testament, and you will get The Revelation Church of God of Prophet Samuel Radebe. His spirituality, he says, is of his great ancestors who were there before the advent of the Western missionary enterprise on the African continent. “We were not a nation that did not know God. We knew and worshipped God in our own African context.” He believes he is a descendant of the line of African prophets of his ancestors. This form of spirituality is indicative of the average African.

There is a contrary view of African Christian spirituality that challenges Mbiti’s thesis. In an article, “Africa’s Battle for Biblical Christianity,” Byang Kato dismisses my first definition of African spirituality. In fact, he is opposed to it, arguing that it is “mixing paganism with a smattering of Christianity”.8 He sees this as an agenda of liberal theology. He outrightly calls it syncretism. In the end, he pushes for contextualisation where the universal truths of Christianity (and spirituality) are translated into an African context. He defines African Christianity more as a biblical and universal Christianity, expressed in the various existent African languages, symbolism and imagery.9 All in all, one thing is not lost in the definitions and contrary positions – African Christianity has a spiritual vibe about it that informs the African experience of God. Both definitions call for a spirituality that is beyond a concept or a philosophy. For both of them, African spirituality is a lifestyle.

The African, charismatic and Pentecostal

If one wants to appreciate or understand the charismatic nature of African Christianity, and how it has evolved over the past decades, it is worth noting some of the influences from the African Independent Churches (AICs). The translation of scriptures into the local African languages by the Western missionaries “had an effect on the literacy, self-esteem, and religious self-determination in modern Africa”10 observed best among the AICs. This has resulted in giving the African the freedom to express themselves more freely in a language of their own. It has also taken the forms of the respective cultures that the biblical texts have been translated into. Over time, even the export of the African Church to the rest of the world is distinctly spirit oriented, enthusiastic and charismatic. In making a case for African spirituality and its contribution to global missions in the West, Harvey Kwiyani explains that “an African spirituality, because of its understanding of the reality of the spirit world, must be intentional about the spiritual habits and practices of both the individual and the community. Since the Holy Spirit is at work in the individual member’s life as well as that of the community, the habits that increase spiritual vitality will usually be encouraged. Prayer is the most visible of these.”11

The charismatic nature of the African Christian is mainly characterised by fervent and intense prayer because this is how he or she engages with the spiritual realm. This is evident all over the continent. It is not uncommon for churches to have overnight prayer vigils for their congregants; in my country, Kenya, the vigils are known as kesha.12 Kwiyani notes that on the continent, they attract very large numbers and among the African diaspora in the West, the majority African immigrant churches are known for their prayer meetings.13 At the local missionary-initiated church in my village in western Kenya, during the regular Sunday church services, the prayers are guided by a prayer book. However, when they have the keshas (at least once a month), the church comes alive with spontaneous public prayer. The prayers are very loud, audible and collective, not guided by the prayer book. They are rarely led by any one individual; it becomes almost a free-for-all scenario, where one audibly bears their soul to God in prayer. The prayers are peppered with intermittent songs acknowledging God’s sovereignty and the congregant’s devotion to the Lord. It is all spirit-led.

The African Christian’s charisma is also informed by their allure to the spirit and the works of the spirit. There is a connection between the African world view of the spirit world and the works of the Holy Spirit. As noted earlier in this essay, this world view is seen through the lens of the supernatural. For the African, though living in the material or physical world, the continuum of life not only exists in the present but also after death; an individual continues to exist as “the living dead”. The living African navigates between the now and also those who are departed into the spirit world. When the work of the Holy Spirit is introduced, this profoundly resonates with the African’s world view.

The allure of the spirit and the works of the Spirit are indicative, with many attracted to the message of signs, miracles and deliverance informed by the present realities of the African way of life. These physical manifestations of the supernatural endear the African’s Christian faith expression in the almighty. Kyama Mugambi made an interesting observation of the Newer Pentecostal Charismatic Churches (NPCC) in Kenya on how the supernatural pervades the existing structures confounding even the erudite scholar.

African Pentecostalism’s pneumatic approach to ministry thrives within these diffuse environments characterized by spontaneity. The vivacious oral liturgy provides a worship environment where miracles thrive under the Holy Spirit’s impulse. The nature of these communities in Africa creates the impression among some scholars that this unstructured environment pervades aspects of Pentecostal Christianity.14

To a great extent, this is true where you find the various faith communities more aligned to its leader under the leadership of the Holy Spirit as opposed to the framework of the seemingly tangible systems that established them in the first place. All in all, the charisma of the African Christian is more of an expression of their world view informed and trying to make sense of their present realities.

Forms and expressions of African spirituality in everyday life

To expound more on the opening statement in this essay, enthusiastic worship and celebration captures the endearing elements of an African’s Christianity. The most evident element of this enthusiasm is expressed in its orality and in the use of music, song and dance. Robert Hood makes this observation of African spirituality:

God as supreme deity is acknowledged, even if the acknowledgement is not shaped into words. It may occur in dance or gestures, in sayings, greetings and the praise of names at such ceremonies. God’s sovereignty may be expressed in people’s names, at shrines, in reciting creation legends or idioms recalling God’s attributes… That is the dynamics of everyday culture as well as articulated concepts testify to the varied relationships between God and spirits.15

The heritage of Africa is passed on from one generation to another in story form. The orality of the African is also part of their spirituality. For instance, among my people group, the Luo, naming of children is a celebrated thing. Names tell a story of the bearer of the name. The name would also tell of the circumstances around their birth: the time, season, family experience, local, national or even global situation, just to mention a few. My daughter is named “Akwe”. Akwe, in Dholuo,16 is translated as “I am at peace”. For the average Luo, this would suggest a narrative around the parent’s declaration of their state of being with God – that they are at peace with the Almighty. As observed earlier by Hood, this is how the African Christian enthusiastically integrates their spirituality in their everyday life.

Music, song and dance is another form in which the African enthusiastically expresses themselves and can also be observed in their spirituality. In as much as this can be observed in other regions of the world, the uniqueness of Africa’s music can be described as having a strong rhythmic element to it. The accented rhythm in the music gives the music a unique element of vibrance.

Music, song and dance was and is used in the African’s life at most social gatherings, rites of passage and ceremonies, from songs of celebration to songs of mourning. The songs were used to pacify a crying baby or even to convey a message. The songs are part and parcel of the oral tradition acting as a repository of knowledge, passing down folklore, insights and stories for generations to sing long after.17

The African drum, common in almost every people group on the continent, is at the heart of this vibrancy and enthusiasm. The drum comes in different shapes and sizes around Africa. The Sakara in Yoruba, Isikuti in Luhiya, Moropa in Sotho, among a myriad of other names, play different functions for various African peoples. From centuries back and evolving to modern-day expressions, the syncopated rhythms of the drum mimic the human heartbeat cadence, making music,18 and giving life and enthusiasm to the rich spiritual experience of the African. Unlike Western hymns written to the accompaniment of instrumentation like the violin, piano or the organ, the African songs’ cadence is derived from the beat or rhythm of the drum.

For the African Christian, one enthusiastically expresses themselves in sung worship and dance. The incorporation of modern instrumentation has not only added but accentuated these forms of worship in different African genres of music: from Taarab and Bongo Flava in East Africa, Kwaito and Amapiano in Southern Africa, to the rhythmic beats and harmonies of Lingala music and Kupe Dekale in Central Africa; from the easy Highlife beat to Afrobeat and Afro Soul of West Africa. All these are enthusiastically fused into the African Christian’s hymnology and dance to bring out a uniquely vibrant spiritual experience for the average Christian from the continent.

Preaching, teaching and testimonials in spoken and sung worship reveal the orality of spirit-oriented African Christian faith expression and capture the essence of the African’s Christians’ enthusiasm.

A triple heritage

To appreciate what African Christianity truly is, using the descriptive words informing this essay – “spirit oriented”, “enthusiastic” and “charismatic” – it would be useful to connect the dots with what I am more and more being persuaded are the roots of where all this came from.

It is suggested that present-day African spirituality has a triple heritage of African Traditional Religion, Christianity and Islam. “This syncretic proclivity can be interpreted positively as a healthy form of religious coexistence and tolerance…”19 by which the rest of the world can learn a thing or two from Africa. This form of spirituality is rich of which I am partly persuaded, whereas Orobator is fully persuaded that “… the unique spirit of hospitality and tolerance that imbues African spirituality can be a resource for global Christianity”.20

Orobator is forcing us to answer the question of why we believe what we believe as Africans and how this has been informed by this triple heritage. The African spirituality is more of a way of life that is “different from an organized religion of creeds, doctrines and dogmas”.21 The Pentecostal persuasion in me wrestles with this assertion because of the heavy Western influences that demonise the African Traditional Religion. This compelling evidence that both Christianity and Islam thrive on the foundation of African Traditional Religion has complicated things. I ask, what was the belief system of the African before the Pentecost of Acts 2? These questions allow us to appreciate the Apostle Paul’s convictions. “For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”22

Could the exponential growth and spread of Christianity have to do with this triple heritage? Could the rapid growth of African Pentecostalism all over sub-Saharan Africa have been informed by African Traditional Religion catalysed by the Holy Spirit? These questions remain part of parcel of the deconstruction of my faith formation.

To what degree religion continues to work for Africans will be measured by how we honour a genuine quest for meaning truth, and mystery sustained by our plural religious identities.23

These words by Orobator will continue to haunt me as I wrestle with the reality that my spirituality, and that of many modern African Christians, may have been in denial. We may have been in denial that we are indeed products of multiple religious identities and are yet to deal with the implications of this.

About the author

Gowi Odera is a researcher on African Christianity and church leadership. He is a church planter and served as a lead pastor with the Nairobi Chapel. He is also an executive leadership coach to entrepreneurs, pastors and business professionals.

More from this issue


  1. Status of Global Christianity, 2022, in the Context of 1900–2050,” Centre for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, https://www.gordonconwell.edu/center-for-global-christianity/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2022/01/Status-of-Global-Christianity-2022.pdf, accessed 22 September 2022. ↩︎
  2. Acts 18:24–25, 27–28 (NIV). ↩︎
  3. Thomas C. Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 42–61. ↩︎
  4. John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1969), 1. ↩︎
  5. Ibid., 24–25. ↩︎
  6. Ibid., 163. ↩︎
  7. Church Scandals | In conversation with Prophet Samuel Radebe of the Revelation Church of God,” SABC News, YouTube, 13 March 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jr24GiLX73c, accessed 2 July 2022. ↩︎
  8. Byang Kato, “Africa’s Battle for Biblical Christianity,” Moody Monthly (November 1974), 53–56. ↩︎
  9. Byang H. Kato, “The Gospel, Cultural Context and Religious Syncretism,” in Let the Earth Hear His Voice, ed. J.D. Douglas (Minneapolis, MN: World Wide Publications, 1975), 1216–1223, https://lausanne.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/06/1216.pdf, accessed 13 September 2022. ↩︎
  10. Robert E. Hood, Must God Remain Greek? Afro Cultures and God-Talk (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1990), 13. ↩︎
  11. Harvey C. Kwiyani, Sent Forth: African Missionary Work in the West (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014), 161. ↩︎
  12. Colloquial Kiswahili language for “overnight vigil”. ↩︎
  13. Kwiyani, Sent Forth, 162. ↩︎
  14. Kyama M. Mugambi, A Spirit of Revitalization: Urban Pentecostalism in Kenya (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2021), 227. ↩︎
  15. Hood, Must God Remain Greek?, 197. ↩︎
  16. Dholuo is the language spoken by the Luo people of Western Kenya. ↩︎
  17. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, 67. ↩︎
  18. Do You Speak Djembe? | Doug Manuel | TEDx Hollywood,” TEDx Talks, YouTube, 4 November 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uB9xzYL1DU, accessed 2 August 2022. ↩︎
  19. Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, Religion and Faith in Africa: Confessions of an Animist (Maryknoll: NY, Orbis Books, 2018), 74. ↩︎
  20. Ibid.,21. ↩︎
  21. Ibid., 164. ↩︎
  22. Rom. 1:20. ↩︎
  23. Orobator, Religion and Faith in Africa, 167. ↩︎