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"It will be Long but Must go on": Remarkable Church Growth in West Africa is Filled with Opportunity (and Challenges)

 
Opinion

By: Davin Stevens


Many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Church) are very excited about the Church's growth in Africa. Having recently returned as a missionary in the Ghana Cape Coast mission, I can see why.


Our mission was constantly getting 100, 120, or even 140 baptisms per month making it one of the most productive missions with baptisms on par with what some state-side missions get in a year. Africa is far above all other continents and major countries in church growth with 121% growth from 2011 to 2021, smoking every other region with the Philippines at a distant second with under 30% growth. From the outside, the expansion of the Church is looking great! But why are so many Africans joining the Church?

Having taught and talked to many people during my service, I am in a position to answer that question. The predominant religion in Ghana (and for most of Africa) is some form of Christianity with 71% of citizens being Christian, 20% Muslim, 3% indigenous religions, and 6% other religions or no religion. The love of God runs deep in Ghana, emerging even in everyday language. A common departing saying was “wo ni nyamenko”, which means “God be with you as you go”. Many will let the missionaries in with open arms.


There is some difficulty though. The challenge was not only to convince them to join the Church but also to join for the right reasons. The Pentecostal church is the largest Christian denomination in Ghana, drawing in large crowds with drums and dancing. Many churches rely on the promise of miracles to sway members to their sect. One member explained to me that many people don’t go to church primarily out of devotion to the commandment, but rather because they like dancing to the music, or they hope to get a miracle in exchange for their worship and donations. There were a few people I taught who seemed to conclude that dancing was more important than their salvation, which was challenging. It’s not uncommon to find people willing to be baptized who have not been truly converted.


When the self-reliance program rolled out at the April 2015 General Conference, charity funds were dramatically scaled back at the ward level. After this new implementation, it became apparent that half the congregation in one branch (that was about to become a ward) were not converted to the gospel, but to the check they were getting from the Church. People all around the world are baptized for the wrong reasons and Ghana is not immune.

Moree Chapel near Cape Coast, Ghana

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Church in Ghana is the lack of English literacy. English literacy in Ghana sits at 66.7%3. I noticed many Ghanaians who spoke English well still struggled to understand scripture passages. During missionary lessons, investigators would have a hard time following the older and more challenging language in the Book of Mormon and the accents of some of the American missionaries. It is different from the English they learn in school. They would often read verses given to them by the missionaries but could not understand them. This leads to problems because, as we learn in Preach My Gospel, “an essential part of conversion is receiving a witness from the Holy Ghost that the Book of Mormon is true.” To many of my converts, the Book of Mormon was just a book full of confusing words. Having individual spiritual experiences with the characters and the teachings found inside was quite difficult for them. Even though the Book of Mormon was translated into some native dialects, many could not read it since it was written in mostly English characters that followed the dialect’s syllables.


The language barrier caused challenges not only at the personal conversion level but also at the leadership level. Having grown up in Utah I have realized that I took all the well-organized and functioning wards I lived in for granted. My bishop never gave a sermon for the entire service every week as if he was a pastor. I honestly felt bad for that bishop, he was trying to fulfill his calling but he didn’t understand that things work differently in the restored church. Members with the necessary organizational skills, doctrinal understanding, and the ability to read the general handbook to fill these critical roles and handle the large influx of converts are uncommon, resulting in chaos and confusion. Managing the chaos can be quite intense and overwhelming. As one branch presidency member put it: there are just not enough people to fill leadership positions. He is now tasked with helping a struggling neighboring branch by filling one of its leadership roles.


Despite all this heartache and struggle, the future looks bright. For example, the branch presidency member I mentioned is doing a wonderful job. I recall one Sunday a TON of inactive members showed up to church. This presidency member had gone out and invited them to church over the weekend. Looking into the future it can only get better from here. As time passes the members and the general population in Ghana will gain a stronger command of the English language. Challenges in reading scriptures and critical church content (like the general handbook) will subside. Members will have more opportunities to strengthen their testimony than ever, and I suspect many will. Returned missionaries will become bishops, branch presidents, relief society presidents, and even primary teachers and quorum advisors. Above all, we cannot forget that God leads His Church in Ghana and the world.


The first baptisms after missionaries arrived on Ghana’s shores were performed in the ocean in Cape Coast Ghana. Decades later, the city is finally receiving a temple. Announced in the October 2023 General Conference, the temple will become more accessible to the region's 8 stakes and 3 districts (and likely more by the time it is completed). The revelation received by members attending the temple will work miracles in personal conversions and the establishment of Zion.


First Baptisms in West Africa at Baptism Beach, Cape Coast, Ghana

There are many people ready to hear the gospel in Ghana. They let the missionaries in, they listen to them (as best they can), they often act on invitations given by missionaries, and most importantly, they love God. But for now, at least, missionaries and local church leaders will continue to navigate the complex challenges of language barriers and leadership needs on the front lines of the Kingdom of God. As we sing in the pioneer-era hymn, “It will be long but must go on. Put your shoulder to the wheel.”

 

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Ward Radio News is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Church) and does not officially represent the Church. The views expressed by contributors do not necessarily represent the position of Ward Radio News

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My younger brother served his mission in the Philippines many years ago and he reported similar struggles for the first generation of Latter Day Saints there. It takes time. I see similar struggles in the branch I currently serve in with a shortage of people to fill callings. For a time, our branch presidency only had one counselor, we had no counselors for the young women's president, and no counselors for the Primary President. People often served in multiple roles or just stepped into positions that needed someone to fill them on a particular Sunday to make things continued to run. There are plenty of members in the branch but few were able to serve in leadership roles …

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Thank you for this article. It is inspiring to read of the challenges and the way that Jesus and His Church shall certainly overcome them. The Seventh Day Adventists have been very successful in Africa, has our Church taken a close look at what they have done?

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