African independent churches (AICs) are among the fastest growing sector of Christianity in South Africa, but it is only recently that their significant role in development is being grasped, writes Barbara Bompani in the current issue of the Journal of Religion in Africa (No. 40).
AICs, representing one-third of the population of South Africa, blend African traditions with Christianity, particularly of the Pentecostal variety, including large denominations, such as the Zion Christian Church, as well as independent congregations. Scholars and theologians have tended to view AICs as backward and apolitical, with poor members and few resources (many AICs are based in private homes), but Bompani argues that these churches have pragmatically developed structures and organizations that meet members’ social needs.
Savings and investment clubs, usually started up informally by AIC members and featuring prayers and hymn singing and charitable services, not only increase participants’ financial resources, but also teach them how to budget their expenses.Eligibility in these mutual aid clubs is determined by the public recognition by other members of a person’s reliability. The independent churches “act as groups that focus on the reformation of the individual and family life, and are political in the way they concern themselves pragmatically with local community issues like housing, unemployment, health care and education …. These issues are at the center of sermons and teaching in the churches,” Bompani writes.
She further argues that AICs are “bridges that allow modernity to be represented in older cultural forms,” as can be seen in the call for members to “discover [their] Africaness through the Bible” and retain African traditions of childbearing and family life.
(Journal of Religion in Africa, Brill Publishers, http://www.brill.nl)