Documentarian James Ault produces films exploring the growth of Christianity in Africa

Last modified: Friday, December 27, 2013
In a pair of recently released documentaries titled “African Christianity Rising,” local filmmaker James Ault explores the rapid growth of Christianity in Africa, where believers have made the practice of their religion uniquely their own.

Ault’s films highlight the changing face of Christianity worldwide, demonstrating the dramatic growth of the Christian religion in the global South (which includes Africa, Central and Latin America and most of Asia), where more than two-thirds of the world’s Christians now live. As Christianity ceases to be the major belief system of the West, it is growing most rapidly in this region of the world, and most dramatically, in Africa, according to Ault.

The project includes two films: “Stories from Ghana” and “Stories from Zimbabwe,” as well as a DVD of educational extras from Ghana.

Ault says the explosive growth of Christianity in Africa following independence from colonial rule was wholly unanticipated and he called it a “startling reversal” in world history.

“These films are intended as educational tools to help people understand how, why, and with what consequences, Christianity is growing exponentially in Africa, the fastest growing region in the shift of that faith’s center of gravity to the global South,” he said. “That is having an impact on the church and on the world.”

Ault said that impact has resulted in greater influence from church branches in the global South, as well as the emergence of Christian church leaders from those continents. Recently, Africans have led major international Christian organizations, including the World Council of Churches, the World Association of Reformed Churches (Congregational, Presbyterian, etc.), and the academic head of America’s largest theological school.

African immigrant congregations are now taking over old churches in Holland, Norway and Sweden, and the 10 largest churches in Britain are all African, according to Ault. There are also many African priests coming to the United States to serve parishes that are devoid of local church leaders.

Ault, an award-winning author, filmmaker and ethnographer, filmed over 350 hours in Ghana and Zimbabwe, telling human stories of people struggling with life dilemmas who find healing, faith and community within three main forms of Christian churches now active in Sub-Saharan Africa: mission-founded churches, old-style independent or “spiritual” churches, and new Pentecostal or charismatic ones.

The churches featured in Ault’s films include those founded by missionaries during the period of European colonialism, such as the Presbyterian Church and Catholic Church in Ghana and the United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe, which was started by American Methodists working under British colonial rule in the late-19th century.

The films also explore the independent church movement in Africa, which draws more directly from African culture, such as healing methods, music and dance. Their founders were considered prophets and such churches are often called “spiritual” or “prophet-founded” churches. Ault says some of these grew out of influences from faithhealing ministries in the United States.

The third type of church featured in the films are new urban charismatic churches that are similar to Pentecostal churches in the United States, but followers do not speak in tongues.

Spirit world

Ault’s films intersperse commentary from leading theological and African studies scholars with profiles of different churches, their ministers and the community members they serve. The film features interviews with Archbishop Peter Sarpong of the Catholic Church in Ghana, a pioneer in introducing African cultures into Christian worship, including drumming, spiritual dancing and ethnic garb, and Andrew Walls, the world’s leading scholar of Christianity’s spread across cultures, among others.

In Africa, Ault explains, Christianity has taken hold because it has been interpreted in such a way as to incorporate typically African beliefs, such as the existence of spirits, as well as traditional African customs, such as healing, spiritual dancing and drumming. Ault says in Africa, the spiritual world always interacts with the material world and Africans generally believe in and communicate with a “multiplicity” of spirits, a concept that is uniquely African, but might seem heretical to Western Christians.

“In Africa, people recognize and feel the presence of their ancestors, as well as spirits, but it does not mean they think these are gods,” he said.

While African Christians, like all Christians, practice a monotheistic religion and believe that Jesus Christ is their savior, they also believe that spirits play a large role in everyday life. In the film about Ghana, for instance, a teenager struggling with poverty, depression and guilt, is helped by her Methodist minister who brings a prayer group to her home to pray against any spiritual powers that may be working against her.

In other scenes, ministers of charismatic churches conduct dramatic “deliverance” ceremonies, driving out evil spirits from church members struggling with marital problems, unemployment, family squabbles and other issues. In these clips, church members taken over by spirits fall to the floor, convulsing and swinging their arms and legs, while church leaders and their assistants help to dispel the evil spirits they believe are causing harm. At the same time, the church services incorporate traditional rituals more familiar to Western Christians, such as Holy Communion, reading of Scripture and delivery of a sermon.

Ault says Africans believe that spiritual forces are not just responsible for the development of some physical problems, but also contribute to, or are caused by, family conflict and through curses placed on family members.

Revealing differences

While some of the deliverance imagery may be startling to the Western viewer, particularly Western Christians, Ault says that Americans and Europeans may have “forgotten their own, more spiritual past.” He says “it is the effects of the European Enlightenment on Western cultures that cordoned off, and made off-limits, much of the spirit world as it had been known there, and still is known in some quarters of Western life, as well as in the nonwestern world and Africa.”

One of the commentators in the film, African theologian Kwame Bediako, notes that in English, the days of the week actually originate from the names of old European gods: Tue, for Tuesday, for instance, and Woden for Wednesday, but that most Westerners have been “so culturally uprooted” that they are not aware of this and other more pagan and spiritualistic origins of Christian practice.

There are many other spiritual underpinnings of Western Christianity that have also been forgotten. For instance, American Methodists are generally unaware that John Wesley, the founder of their church, began his ministry in 18th-century England by doing deliverance work: diagnosing spiritual sources of problems and casting out of demons among peasant and working-class women, according to Ault. The educated Anglican clergy derided these practices at the time.

“The point here is that the existence of an invisible spiritual world cannot be proved or disproved by empirical science,” Ault said. “But, people can hold deeply-felt assumptions about it. Those in the educated West are apt to dismiss with scorn or ridicule the beliefs and experiences of spirit common among African Christians. And quite similar beliefs and experiences are common among African-Americans and Latinos living down the block (or across town) from them!”

Ault says his films are intended to reveal these differences and “encourage viewers to not respond in knee-jerk, scornful dismissals of their fellow human beings.” The films assert that Christianity has become so popular in Africa precisely because it has become rooted more authentically in local cultures.

Award-winning filmmaker

Earlier in his career, Ault was a political science student living and studying in Africa, but at the time did not have a particular interest in religion, although that developed later, both in his personal life and as a filmmaker. Educated at Harvard and Brandeis, Ault has a doctorate in sociology and went on to make his first film, “Born Again,” an intimate portrait of a fundamentalist Baptist church in the United States, which grew out of field research among grassroots “new right” groups in the in the 1980s. It was broadcast as a national primetime special on PBS and around the world and won a Blue Ribbon at the American Film Festival. His book on that project, “Spirit and Flesh” (Knopf 2005), was named one of the five best non-fiction books of the year by the Christian Science Monitor.

Ault was looking for work as an independent filmmaker and received grant funding to do research and filming in Africa where religion is deeply and widely embedded in the African psyche; it is “like our skin,” as Bishop Sarpong says in the film, and “you take it everywhere you go.”

The son of a Methodist minister, Ault says he was drawn to the challenge of bringing the story of African Christianity to a Western audience because of the vast differences in cultural practices and worldview between the two cultures. He said his documentaries strive to “bring viewers into the feet of” other people and bridge divides.

“While there is a limit in how much understanding across challenging differences in culture and worldview can be achieved in a 75-minute film, our films serve to open up fruitful conversations toward those ends,” Ault said.

Local screenings

Several churches in New England, including Wesley United Methodist Church in Hadley, are planning screenings where members of African or African-led churches in the area — from Hadley, Springfield, Northampton and Worcester — will be invited to a common conversation about issues raised by the films.

Ault’s films also explore some of the connections between Africa and North America, with ministers visiting American churches, conducting services, attending African-style baptisms, and ministering to the African community that has relocated here. Ault says, for instance, there are about 30,000 Ghanaians living in Worcester and African communities are growing in western Massachusetts.

Ault anticipates his films will be viewed mainly by those connected with educational institutions, but also by those in North American churches that are developing relationships with sister churches in Africa. He cited the example of a Nigerian priest who is serving a Catholic parish in Brattleboro, Vt., who may seek to relate his local church work with congregations back home.

In addition, many American churches sponsor short-term mission trips to Africa and the educational films will help local people understand how Christianity is practiced in Africa.

Ault also says the films have educational use in the world of global economic development, where Africa is largely viewed as the next fast-growth area, following China, India and Brazil. The films highlight the economic development projects underway in various African communities, often led by church ministers, who hold business and worker’s clubs to promote business development and employment, facilitate micro-loans for entrepreneurs and the needy, and help to build universities and other nation-building enterprises.

Ault says one of the main things he learned in making the films is a greater understanding of the fact that wherever Christianity has spread, it has expanded by “making use of” local culture, experience, and an understanding of God.

The way Africans incorporate spiritualism into their practice of Christianity is not so different, then, from how European and American Christians have adopted pagan traditions in the celebration of holidays such as Christmas and Easter.

“We are easily limited by our own cultures as we take them for granted and become locked into them,” he said. “I’ve always felt, instead, from my own personal experiences living in Africa, in Zambia, that there were valuable things to learn from African cultures, about being human, and about being human followers of Christ.”

For more information about the films and an accompanying e-book that Ault is writing, visit his website at www.jamesault.com.