UCG’s Victor Kubik just took a trip to Africa. Lots of other COG groups are scrambling to send ministers out to African congregations based on fears that smaller upstart cults might be poaching their members. Bob Thiel has bragged about gaining 20 congregations in East Africa.
Wade Cox’s fruity little group brags about how much headway it’s made in African nations. UCG makes Africa one of the focal points of its “charitable” work and is rumored as the focal point of a new split. Lots of other COG groups have maintained some presence in the region for years.
The COG has lots of African congregations, but how many of them are significant in terms of committed membership, financial gain or global influence?
For cults that proclaim a global gospel, as offshoots of the Worldwide Church of God, maintaining a presence in Africa — specifically the non-Muslim countries — is important, seeing as how their presence is virtually non-existent in Asia and the Middle East and extremely sparse in Europe. Without Africa, Church of God of the Americas would perhaps be a more accurate description.
For decades, the COG has fallen into the vortex of attempting to reach citizens of African countries similarly to how centuries of Christian missionaries tried to convert them away from heathenism, without much in the way of what could be called success. The COG sends supplies and ministers and literature to the region and efforts in countries like Ghana, Rwanda, Zambia and Uganda are frequent subjects of church propaganda films.
But African takes on Christianity have tended skew away from western values and have a life and culture all their own. And that’s among those who have taken Christian messages seriously. In countries infected with rampant fraud and corruption, playing along with foreign churches can be a great way to receive financial aid. For all of these reasons and more, it’s difficult to gauge how successful COG excursions into Africa are when it comes to retaining serious, baptized members. If we’re setting the bar for success at levels of American growth, which barely exists, it could be comfortably declared that the COG’s African missions aren’t all they’re made out to be.
Sure, there are some cohesive, longstanding COG congregations where a member visiting from abroad might feel somewhat at home sitting in services, not just in South Africa either, where the other white people live. But a lot of the rural congregations rest on the outskirts of COG normalcy.
It shouldn’t shock anyone that most COG ministers to African congregations are white Americans, most of which don’t speak the native languages or understand the cultures and usually only make the trip to visit and check in with their congregations a couple times a year. While it’s true that COG pastors don’t like letting new people into their fraternity, the fact is that congregations need pastors and elders, some sort of regular interface between laymembers and the corporate leadership, someone to advocate for and understand their needs. That the number of African ordained is so small compared to the supposed number of adherents, it indicates a disconnect between the deemed fervency of the members in these countries compared to the average American COG member.
And we’ve all the seen the COG FOT videos where African members are profiled and interviewed and there’s always that one guy with like six wives who attends services and wears his suit but “has a ways to go” down the road to true conversion, according to the narrator. Guys like that one guy are probably pretty common in Africa, to be honest. There are lots of cultural norms in various African countries that run counter to COG values and it’s not easily combated. While some African countries are more westernized than others, tribalism and various cultural traditions often run deep.
Despite the rarity of ordained African members and the various cultural clashes, COG groups still tend to throw money at these oft-subsidized congregations, which might be the only reason they still exist. UCG got sick of this in Latin America and cut the reins, yet it still hangs onto several Africa congregations that couldn’t really be described as self-sufficient.
One of the reasons for the prolonged efforts in Africa is that as various nations become more developed and more tuned into the pulse of world culture, there are increasing opportunities to make religious inroads where they may not have existed before. In addition to Africa’s great untapped natural resources, it’s human resources are just as valuable a trove in the eyes of western expansionists and have been since the days of rampant colonialism. So it’s not really a shock the COG continues to concentrate so hard on keeping their African bonds tightened.
But the next time you hear a COG group bragging about the success of African missions, remember that like most cult claims, it’s likely grounded in exaggeration, omission and hyperbole. The COG’s very existence is rooted in a very American religious fundamentalist phenomenon, so it shouldn’t be surprising it doesn’t carry the same water abroad.