Africa. Poor, helpless and corrupt. The 'dark continent'. Powerless against tribalism, riddled with corruption, blaming the West for most of its ills, right?
Delegates at ABLI
Wrong! Whatever the received view or prejudice, a new narrative for Africa is being created. In my travels from the north to the south, the east to the west I see a very different story. It’s a story of a new generation emerging, shrugging off the shrouds of the past.
I'm in Accra, the leafy capital of Ghana, vibrant with the greens and yellows of its national colours. I’m here for a remarkable gathering of Christians called ABLI – the African Biblical Leadership Initiative
The ABLI Forum, established by Bible Society, is now in its fourth year. Its aim is to inspire and equip a generation of African leaders to engage with the message and values of the Bible and haul them squarely into the public forum.
I sit in a conference centre teeming with front-runners from every walk of life. Before me, on the platform, are senior representatives, not only from the church, but from the highest levels of government in Ghana. A representative of the President no less, the First Deputy Speaker of Parliament, the Chief Justice, who tells us ‘I am not ashamed to be a Christian.’
All three give their ringing endorsements to ABLI’s vibrant drive to engage African society with transforming power of the Bible’s message of hope.
This event is staged with all the finesse and attention to detail of a British party conference – but with none of the cynicism, and an abundance of love. When they welcome you with their handshakes and the broadest of smiles, they really mean it. And you really feel it.
These Africans – gathered here from 18 nations – love the Bible. They love the Lord and they love their countries. And they know the greatest gift they can give those countries is themselves, in the service of their Lord.
Can you imagine such a gathering in the UK? Could we dare hope for such a thing?
Gone are the rambling preachers, the out of touch pastors, and the emotional inducements to give yet more money to the church.
The church is here, but shoulder to shoulder with smart, educated Africans who are running businesses, engaged in politics and justice, who are leading their nations with skill and sensitivity, and rejecting inflated salaries and ostentatious homes.
What moves me are those educated in the US who have returned to rebuild their homelands.
They willingly accept that the ills of Africa are for Africans to solve. And instead of turning to the West for handouts, they are wrestling with the application of the living Scriptures to the social imperatives of Africa today.
They give a message to the G20, a resounding call to end bribery and corruption and to demand transparency from the multi-national mining corporations who seek to exploit their resources.
They wrestle with the right response, the biblical response, to the horrors of Boko Haram, demanding that they return the kidnapped schoolgirls, yet struggling to understand the neglect and hardship that has turned these young men of Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger to bloodshed. They pray – not against them – but for the men of violence.
MPs from Africa’s newest nation, South Sudan, are here, searching for inspiration from the Scriptures they can bring back to their troubled country, to ease its sorrows. They pledge themselves to dialogue to try to put a final full stop to the on – off civil war that has ravaged their land for some 50 years.
And we, the Bible Society, pledge to help them as best we can as they build a new nation from the ground up.
God is calling these nations of Africa forward. Corruption may be widespread, but the Holy Spirit is changing hearts and minds. It is servant leadership these nation-makers are seeking to model. Yes, servant leadership in this continent of despots and dictators. The fear of the Lord truly is the beginning of wisdom.
Contrast this with the mood music of Britain, a maudlin refrain of Christianity under threat, suspicion of leadership and ridicule towards the message of the Bible. While Africa reaches out for hope, in my homeland, apathy abounds.
Why is Africa so full of faith in a God who is 'able to do abundantly more than we can ask or even imagine', while we in the West are so despondent? History teaches those who will listen and learn that the church is at its best when it has the least. That is what Africa teaches us. It is what ABLI reveals.
And as we in the UK look to the Lord to sustain us, we too can arise with new purpose and vision.
The Bible plays a living and vital part in restoration and national renewal. Those at ABLI get that. And Britain needs to grasp that once again. Now it’s our turn to learn from Africa.