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Urban Tribes: Reaching Africa's Metropolitan Millions

Africa is changing as people flock to the urban centers, blurring former tribal lines and creating new ones.

AGWM Communications Director Andy Raatz shares insights to a diverse and rapidly changing Africa.

Africa’s iconic imagery encompasses wrinkled, dusty elephants and broad, thick-trunked baobab trees. Savannas blanketed with wildebeest and crocodile-infested rivers. Films and documentaries have displayed many famous locations of Africa: Victoria Falls and the Great Pyramids; Mount Kilimanjaro and the dense Congo jungle; ancient Timbuktu and the great Sahara Desert.

Such images and locations only portray one layer of Africa’s diversity. The richness of Africa lies in its people, belonging to hundreds of tribes and speaking a symphony of languages across the continent. As I began to read scores of books about Africa as a young boy, I soon realized that the names and borders of many of the countries have changed over the decades. Boundaries outlining political regions do not portray a larger cultural reality, the “nations” of people within a political state. The cultures and tribes of Africa — Maasai, Zulu, Xhosa, Oromo, and so many others — have historically been the true boundaries within the continent.

As Africa’s cities join the ranks of the world’s key population centers, new boundaries are being established, new cultural identities created.

Africa’s Newest "Tribes"

An accurate understanding of tribes and ethnic groups is important to us as a missions organization. From the earliest days of our Movement, we have prioritized going to regions where the gospel has not yet been shared. We have experienced some inspiring victories.

But going to “unreached places” does not always mean crossing a political boundary. The 21st century has brought a new reality: tribes or ethnic groups no longer remain isolated in a particular geographical location. Mass movement is taking place, particularly to the urban centers.

Urbanization is a global phenomenon, but Africa is urbanizing faster than anywhere else. The major African cities have blended cultures and tribes, mixing them across a variety of economic scales. Some people struggle, eking out a hand-to-mouth existence, primarily still living among people of the same ethnicity. Others thrive, becoming global leaders, businessmen and businesswomen, and influencers. They are no longer defined by their historic tribal identity, but instead are forming new “urban tribes,” mosaic groups that are beginning to shape Africa’s cities and the continent at large. They are educated and globally aware, and they are creating their own set of values and cultural identities.

None of this has gone unnoticed by God. The Lord has been speaking to many people about the ripe harvest field swelling in Africa’s major cities. In response to the Spirit’s leading, AG World Missions missionaries and local church leaders are planning and establishing churches to meet the unique needs of Africans who no longer fit well into traditional single-ethnic and rural church environments (if there are any churches near them). Africa is changing. Africa’s people are changing. God is leading a wave of missional change so that all may hear the gospel.

Eyes of Faith

AGWM’s church planting initiative in Africa has been titled Urban Tribes. For it to become successful in the gateway cities of Africa, practical ministry strategies must be empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit. The pre-launch process involved conversations with uprooted people, eye-opening meetings that unveiled the growing need, divine encounters, and the nudging of the Holy Spirit. It culminated in a vision to reach a new segment of Africa, a new “tribe” of unchurched people.

Life and culture are continually transforming, and this newer reality of Africa requires a fresh focus. The Christian’s timeless priority is to go and make disciples, planting the Church among people that have no church. We have hundreds of missionaries throughout the African continent, church-planting in rural settings, teaching in Bible colleges, building tabernacles, helping dig wells, doing compassion work, and mentoring and partnering with national churches. Urban Tribes is simply the most recent, most accurate tool we have developed to plant the Church. It is a call to find new workers to help reach Africa’s urbanized lost.

The easiest articles are the victories — supernatural outpourings of God’s presence, church-planting success stories, and ministry impacts. Other articles cover pure need — unreached people or areas where there are no churches, challenging locations where we have no ministry teams, and closed doors that we are asking believers to pray will be opened.

This story straddles both arenas — and yet is not fully in either story type. There is huge need in Africa’s urban centers. Hundreds of thousands of people there are of the new tribe — the urban tribe. For the most part, they haven’t found a church that speaks their language, speaks to their culture, speaks the gospel in a way they understand. They haven’t found a church where they can have community, be discipled, and have their worldview reshaped by God.

The victorious side of the story is that the need has been seen, and the Lord is calling people to respond. People are picking up the mantle, and ministry teams are forming. But what excites me more about the Urban Tribe initiative is what I believe we will be able to report in the years ahead. One of the most quoted missions verses is Jesus’ prayer for the Lord of the harvest to send workers because the harvest fields are ripe for harvest. The urban tribes in Africa’s gateway cities are ready to respond to Jesus’ message of grace.

To read stories of Urban Tribes works across Africa, please read the full version of this story in the April 2017 WorldView magazine, or read it online

Andy Raatz

Andy Raatz is Missions Initiatives Director and Teaching Pastor at Evergreen Christian Community in Olympia, Washington.