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Book Review: Making Disciples in Africa

by Chopo C. Mwanza

Jack Chalk. Making Disciples in Africa: Engaging syncretism in the African Church through Philosophical Analysis of Worldviews. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Langham Global Library, 2013. 192 pp.

This book came as a result of Jack Chalk’s experience teaching and living in Africa; it is also and adaption of his doctoral thesis entitled “Genesis 1–11 and the African Worldview: Conflict or Conformity?” His purpose for writing the book is stated as “… concerned with the religions of Christianity and African Traditional Religion (ATR) and the areas of conflict and conformity in the worldviews behind those religions” (1).

Chalk believes that there are many things in the way the West has presented the Gospel that have tended to promote syncretism, rather than conversion.  Among these are the pluralistic teachings from liberal universities in the West, the desire not to offend leading to people being soft on those aspects of African traditional religion that are non-Biblical, and the desire to contextualize Christianity to Africa leading to not properly handling the Word of God. Chalk therefore proposes a worldview approach to effectively reach the African people. The goal is to see true conversion among Africans, and according to Van Rheenen’s work Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts, which Chalk relies on, a changed worldview is necessary to genuine conversion.

Chalk uses Genesis 1–11 to set out the tenets for the biblical worldview and the worldview of African traditional religion.  A key component of the Biblical worldview is the proto-evangel in Genesis 3:15, which Christians understand is the gospel in seed form: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

In contrast to the biblical worldview, the key concept in African traditional religion is what is referred to as “vital life force.” Chalk quotes an online article entitled “Ethical Issues in Uganda” which reads: “we may note that what has been named The Vital Force Principle within African thinking has a profound religious meaning in that this vital force is hierarchical, descending from God through ancestors and elders to the individual.” Morality and ethics flow from this, because “whatever increases life or vital force is good; whatever decreases it is bad” (90)

Another difference between the Biblical worldview and that of African traditional religion is how they perceive conception of time, the nature of the spiritual world, death and the nature of life after death. In the Christian worldview, all things are under the control of God, while African traditional religion places a high value on ancestors.  Ancestors are the “living dead” with places of reverence and influence over society and everything that happens good or bad is their doing and often connected to what mood they are in.

Chalk recommends approaching Christian syncretism in the African church and Christians through teaching worldview, rather than doctrine.  He believes that once people grasp the Biblical worldview, then the particulars of doctrine will fall into place.  He proposes that the following questions (topics under three categorizes) should asked and answered as opposed to the “traditional” approach. 

Ontology Questions:

  • Is there a Supreme Being, and if so, what is it like?
  • What is the origin and nature of man?
  • What is reality and what is ultimate reality?
  • What is truth?

Cosmology Questions

  • What is the origin and nature of the universe?
  • What is God’s relationship with the universe?
  • What is the meaning of time?
  • Do laws and causality govern the universe absolutely?

Teleology Questions

  • Why do man and the universe exist and do they have a final end?
  • Does evil have a purpose?

Ethics/Morality Questions

  • Who or what determines what is moral and immoral?
  • How do we know what is right?

Aesthetics Questions

  • What is man’s relationship with the natural environment?
  • Is there aesthetic value to religious experience?

Philosophy of History Questions

  • What us the meaning of history?
  • Is history cyclical or linear in progression?

Epistemology Questions

  • What can we know and how can we know it?
  • What justifies a belief?

Chalk goes on to consider whether or not there is continuity or discontinuity between the Christian and African worldview.  To do so he examines the approach proposed by Dr. Manasseh Kwame Dakwa Kwame Bediako, who claimed that western missionaries did not just bring the gospel with them but imposed their way of life as well. He further argued that “anywhere Christianity has taken hold in a culture there is something of Christianity rooted in that pre-Christian culture” (138).  Bediako believed that Christianity “completes” or fills in what is missing in the African culture in the same way that Christian Jews are sometimes called “completed Jews.” However, Chalk’s presentation makes it clear that Bediako’s approach entails the African worldview of ancestors and spirits filling in the “gap” in the Christian worldview regarding the spirit world.  This filling in involves Bediako stating that Jesus is the Supreme Ancestor through his life, death, resurrection and ascension to the realm of spirit power.  As would be expected of any evangelical Christian, Chalk critiques Bediako as diminishing Jesus Christ’s nature and place from that of God to that of a mere ancestor.  Indeed, in Bediako’s view, God’s self-consciousness is lost as he becomes part of the multiplicity of divinity.  Chalk rejects this approach as highly syncretistic and therefore unbiblical; he sums up his critic by saying “Dr. Bediako makes very little use of scripture in his theology for Africa. There is no mention of sin, judgement, heaven or hell which are basic to Christian theology but which have been shown to be in conflict with the African worldview” (150).

The second approach examined is the one proposed by Gehman, who sees both continuity and discontinuity between the Biblical worldview and that of African traditional religion (ATR). Chalk favors this approach and lists Gehman’s points of continuity as:

  1. Christian faith is a fulfilment of the African’s desires. Gehman says “…because of human nature, man has an inner hunger and thirst that cannot be met apart from a personal faith and trust in God through Christ” (151).
  2. African culture manifests continuity with many elements of Hebrew culture; the Hebrew culture and religion resonates with the African culture in that there are several similarities in cultural beliefs and religious practices.
  3. ATR provides valuable points of contact, such as belief in a Supreme Being and life after death. The points of contact provide a starting point for dialogue in the effort to evangelize the African.

Gehman goes on to present four points of discontinuity, namely:

  1. ATR does not lead people to Jesus Christ. ATR does not recognize the problem of sin and the need for salvation by a savior. 
  2. ATR represents degeneration from true faith, not a development that leads to true faith.
  3. ATR differs radically from the Christian gospel in its teachings.  Specifically, ‘The former is a man-centered religion, while the latter is God-centered. Sin in ATR is against traditions of society and the ancestors, while sin in the Bible is rebellion against God and transgression of his law.’ With the concept of sin being different, the view of salvation is different, thus differentiating the reason and manner God deals with humanity.
  4. Converts from ATR stress discontinuity, not continuity.

In concluding the discussion on continuity and discontinuity Chalk says “The traditional African worldview cannot be accommodated in total as Bediako proposes, but perhaps neither does it need to be rejected in total as some might conclude, thus leaving room for the continuity/discontinuity model. There are some aspects of the African worldview and culture that conflict with the biblical worldview. Those aspects… need to be addressed in the process of making disciples” (152).

Chalk concludes the book by giving recommendations on how the church should go about “making disciples in Africa.” He claims that if genuine conversion and subsequent growth is to take place among Africans then change of worldview should take place. He suggests that can be done by dealing with the questions and topics that were listed earlier in the review so that the African’s worldview is replaced with the biblical worldview.


In conclusion, I will give one point of disagreement, one clarification and a commendation. In his suggested topics to deal with when teaching worldview Chalk omits the nature and work of the spirit world or if it is included then it is by implication. I believe you cannot deal with African Traditional Religion without discussing the nature and work of the spirit world and its relationship to the affairs of men. Therefore, I would include that topic in the list of topics suggested by Chalk.

The second comment is a point of clarification. In his presentation, Chalk almost sounds like he suggesting there is a black and white dichotomy between philosophy and doctrine. As he says in the earlier chapters of the book, teach worldview and the particulars of doctrine will fall in place. I just do not see how you can teach the Christian worldview without teaching the doctrine of the bible. It is however very likely that what Chalk is trying to deal with is the tendency to copy and paste religion from one culture to another. So, he does believe doctrine must be taught but it must be taught in a way that relevant and uproots the unbiblical worldviews of the culture. That’s definitely a point needing clarification. 

If the reader wants an understanding of the biblical worldview and the African worldview, then Making Disciples in Africa is the book to read. It is a readable, well-researched work that deals with many issues that form the foundation of African Traditional Religion that are often left unexamined or cloudy in many other works. Chalk sets out to engage syncretism in the African church, and both his diagnosis and prescription are spot on! I highly recommend this book to every Christian on the African continent. 

Chopo Mwanza is the Lead Elder at Faith Baptist Church, Riverside, and he is also serves as the Dean of Students at Central Africa Baptist College & Seminary.


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