More than seventy heads of university theology faculties, principals of theological colleges and directors of national Christian fellowships from twenty countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa met for the nineteenth annual conference of the Network for African Congregational Theology (NetACT) at St Paul’s University Limuru, Kenya, from July 1-5. They gathered to develop their understanding of Islam which is appearing in many forms throughout the continent.
Director of NetACT, Dr Len Hansen, the director of research in the Theology Faculty of Stellenbosch University, South Africa, described the conference as “a mind changing experience” as a result of which he found ‘he never knew he knew so little’ about Islam.
Participants spoke of the issues the churches faced in engaging with Muslims in many parts of Africa. In Angola, Muslims now owned most of the businesses. In one country Muslims bought land from the church next to a cathedral which could later pose problems of access to the cathedral. The violent activities of some Islamist groups were major problems in Northern Nigeria, and were now spreading from the Congo across jungle borders that were very hard to police.
Imbalance in the availability of aid for disasters was noted. Government policy in the UK requires that distribution of their aid does not discriminate on grounds of religion. So Christian organisations cannot channel government aid to Christian communities. However Muslim aid agencies are observed primarily to be assisting Muslim communities.
The Very Rev’d Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund, which sponsored the conference financially, gave rigorously researched lectures on the origins of Islam and of the Quran, the nature of the Islamic writings and of the different Islamic sects, and its emphasis on Dawa which is Islamic mission.
The conference listened in rapt attention for four full days and peppered the speaker with questions from the experience of their students and churches. “What advice should we give young Christian girls whom a Muslim asks to marry?” The example was given of one country where the Mothers Union were provided with a short introductory booklet on Islam for pastors’ wives to pass on to the mothers in their congregations.
Dr Sookhdeo stressed the supreme importance of theological education since the challenge from Islam is first and foremost theological with the straightforward claim: “Jesus is not the Son of God.” He encouraged the educators to introduce courses on the fundamentals of Islam in all their colleges to instruct all who trained for Christian ministry to be well informed about it. Educators were encouraged also to develop the life of Christian congregations to become self-supporting through training pastors to encourage skills among their people in business and law, fields that had not traditionally been part of Christian education. Senior Christian leaders were encouraged to think strategically, empower other leaders to work operationally and train their members to be ready to implement these skills to build up both the theological knowledge and institutional strength of their churches and colleges.