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Spring 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 1 · pp. 78–79 

Evangelicalism in Zaire: Thriving but Non-Aligned

Byron Burkholder

Evangelicals in Zaire trace their roots to 1978, when British Baptist missionaries installed a witness near the mouth of the Zaire River. In tandem with European exploration and commercial activity, Protestant and Catholic missions flourished through Zaire’s independence from Belgium in 1960.

In 1970 all Protestant churches were urged to join the umbrella Church of Christ of Zaire (ECZ) and lodge decision-making authority with national church bodies rather than the missions. Although some independent groups have since acquired separate legal status, the ECZ now comprises the vast majority of Protestants.

With over twelve million adherents in sixty-two communauths (denominations), Protestants comprise almost thirty percent of Zaire’s population, second to Catholics (forty-five percent). Members of the independent Kimbanguest church, whose founder was a Baptist, account for another fifteen percent, while the remaining ten percent practice traditional religions or Islam.

The largest Protestant groups, each with over 300,000 adult members are the Disciples of Christ, the Presbyterian Church, and the CECA, a group with roots in the work of African Inland Mission. Pentecostal, Baptist, and (Christian and Missionary) Alliance groups are also substantial in {79} numbers and influence. The three Mennonite groups count a total of 140,000 members, of which about 50,000 are Mennonite Brethren.

The importance of evangelical/non-evangelical distinctions in Zairian thinking is not as apparent as in North America. According to Dr. Diafwila-dia-mbwangi, national evangelist for the ECZ, the leadership of the ECZ advocates biblical faithfulness and personal commitment to Christ. He judges that at least seventy-five percent of ECZ’s Christians could be described as born again. The ECZ itself has declined alignment with either the World Evangelical Fellowship or the World Council of Churches, though constituent denominations are free to join.

Among the most influential evangelical leaders in Zaire are ECZ president, Bishop Itofo Bokambanza Bokeleale; Diafwila; and Dr. Marini Bodho, Vice President of the ECZ. The latter two are particularly active in coordinating evangelistic thrusts and training seminars.

Diafwila identifies two major issues facing ECZ churches. First, congregations and denominations still have a long way to go in establishing administrative structures that are financially viable and relatively free of personal and tribal power struggles. Conflict in these areas often hampers the advance of the church’s witness.

Secondly, since most Zairians are nominally Christian, there remains a huge task of evangelization. In Zaire this is understood to include the teaching aspect of the Great Commission, which encompasses everything from open-air campaigns to pastors’ seminars on prayer. Shallow teaching is currently paving the way for an influx of fringe sects from both within and without the country. The level of catechetical instruction, particularly in village settings, urgently needs a boost.

For both of these concerns, Diafwila and his colleagues urge a much closer cooperative effort among denominations within Zaire, and between Western mission churches and their Zairian “daughter” churches.

Byron Burkholder serves since 1988 in Student and Resource Ministry in Kinshasa, Zaire, under Mennonite Brethren Missions and Services.

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