An African initiated church is a Christian church independently started in Africa by Africans and not by missionaries from another continent. The oldest of these is the Tewahedo (Ethiopian Orthodox Church) which dates from the 4th century, and was one of the first Christian churches in the world.
A variety of overlapping terms exist for these forms of Christianity: African initiated churches, African independent churches, African indigenous churches and African instituted churches. The abbreviation AIC covers them all. The differences in names correspond to the aspect that a researcher wishes to emphasize. Those who wish to point out that AICs exhibit African cultural forms, describe them as “indigenous,” and so on. These terms have largely been imposed upon such groups, and may not be the way they would describe themselves.
Some scholars argue that independent churches or religious movements demonstrate syncretism or partial integration between aspects of Christian belief and African traditional religion, but the degree to which this happens varies, and has often been exaggerated. Often these churches have resulted from a process of acculturation between traditional African beliefs and Protestant Christianity, and have split from their parent churches.
The charge of syncretism suggests an ‘impure’ and superficial form of Christianity used to maintain older cultural practices and beliefs. More recently, academic opinion has shifted towards recognizing that all forms of Christianity entail some adaptation to ethnic or regional cultural systems. Bengt Sundkler, one of the most prominent pioneers of research on African independent churches in South Africa, initially argued that AICs were bridges back to a pre-industrial culture. Later, he recognized instead that AICs helped their affiliates to adapt to a modernizing world that was hostile to their cultural beliefs.
While the term “African” is appropriate, given that these Christian groupings formed in Africa, AICs differ from one another. Not all African cultural systems are the same: regional variations occur among West, East, and Southern Africans, and the AICs will reflect these. Africans tend to have in common a belief that ancestral spirits interact with the living (a belief also shared by many Asian peoples). As the discussion of classification below shows, the various AICs also differ widely in their organisational forms. Some resemble western Christian denominations (Ethiopian-types), while others may not (Zionist-types). Some have large numbers of affiliates located all over a country (the Zion Christian Church of South Africa), while others may consist only of an extended family and their acquaintances meeting in a house or out of doors.
Recently, the idea that AICs are indigenous to Africa has had to be surrendered, as AICs can now be found in Europe (e.g. Germany, Britain) and the United States. In such cases, the term “African” suggests the continent of origin, rather than of location.
African Initiated Churches are found across Africa; they are particularly well-documented in southern Africa and West Africa. Pauw suggests that at least 36% of the population of Africa belong to an African Initiated Church.
During the colonial period, many black converts to Christianity were unable fully to reconcile their beliefs with the teachings of their church leaders, and split from their parent churches. The reasons for these splits were usually either:
Political – an effort to escape white control;
Historical – many of the parent churches, particularly those from a Protestant tradition, had themselves emerged from a process of schism and synthesis; and
Cultural – the result of trying to accommodate Christian belief within an African world view.