East Africa has experienced Pentecost continually for nearly 80 years.
Timothy C. Morgan/ March 28, 2006
Alleluia! Moms, dads, brothers, sisters, family members, relatives: This is the year of salvation!” proclaimed pastor Elmer Komant to 750 Rwandans at Christian Life Assembly, a new Pentecostal church in Kigali, Rwanda.
Moments earlier, a Kigali businessman (a lapsed Catholic) had told the congregation that he’d been born again three days before. Referring to his nominal Christian past, he said, “Christians are God’s army. I’d been in the secret service for a long time, but now I’m a soldier.” In response, the congregation shouted, cheered, danced, and wept.
Pastor Komant told the crowd, sweltering under the church’s large, blue-and-white tent on a hot Sunday morning in mid-January, “This is the result of fasting and prayer and seeking the face of the Lord. Things are happening, Church! Things are going to explode in the kingdom of God as we seek first his righteousness.”
Revival in East Africa is a familiar story that shows few signs of slowing down, despite entering its eighth decade. About 85 million Pentecostal and charismatic Christians can be found in Africa today. A hundred years ago, there were only a handful. African Pentecostals and charismatics are growing at about 4.5 percent annually, nearly double the continent’s overall rate of population growth. Globally, there are more than 580 million charismatic and Pentecostal Christians.
Pentecostal revival began in East Africa during the 1930s at a tiny Anglican mission station in Gahini, southeast Rwanda. Gahini’s missionary physician, Joe Church, and a Ugandan Anglican, Simeoni Nsibambi, were despondent about the lifelessness of African churches, the ruthlessness of colonialism, society’s pervasive corruption, and the moral failure of Christian leaders. They felt moved to work for renewal.
For two days in late 1929, Church and Nsibambi studied together and prayed on Uganda’s Namirembe Hill. They continued praying, and, months later, a charismatic revival broke out at Gahini’s boarding school for girls. At the time, no one realized that the revival’s reach and impact would become legendary. “Its effects have been more lasting than almost any other revival in history,” reported Orthodox scholar Michael Harper, “so that today there is hardly a single Protestant leader in East Africa who has not been touched by it in some way.”
Komant, who is associated with the Canadian Assemblies of God mission board, has lived the East Africa revival for 35 years, serving in Zambia, Kenya, and Rwanda, all of which are Christian-majority nations. Speaking with Christianity Today, he said that the emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ has been key to attracting culturally Christian Rwandans. At the time of the 1994 genocide, the nation was 90 percent Christianized. “You can’t understand how genocide could have gone on after that revival in the 1930s—[but] it was only an inch deep and a mile wide,” Komant said. Many Christian leaders were complicit in the slaughter of Tutsi and moderate Hutu.
In 1999, Kigali Pentecostals invited Komant and his wife to plant Christian Life Assembly, in part to meet the needs of refugees returning to help rebuild after the genocide. More than 1 million refugees have returned to Rwanda since 1994.
Many pastors hope for a fresh renewal of the East Africa revival. Komant says “dead religion” is still a huge problem. To strengthen his church, Komant makes extensive use of outside resources, including cell-church methods and instruction from Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life.
Komant says revival in East Africa has grown more mature over time. For example, he endorses charismatic gifts in worship, but within limits. “Fruit is more important than gifts. You have to be very careful. Tongues and interpretation can be misused or abused. In witness to the world, it’s the fruit in your life—the character change—that’s actually going to minister to people.”