Beliefnet
Filmmaker James Ault's 1987 documentary, "Born Again," examined a fundamentalist church in Worcester, Mass. His follow-up book "Spirit and Flesh" provided a first-person account of his relationship with the Worcester church. His latest documentary focuses on Christianity in Africa, where he filmed it. "Toward a New Christianity: Stories of African Christians in Ghana and Zimbabwe" (working title) features all-night prayer meetings, healing services, ceremonial dances and interviews with prominent African church leaders. Ault spoke with Beliefnet recently about these vibrant churches--and how they are influencing Christianity in the United States.

What should Western Christians know about African Christianity? What are surprising things you discovered in making this documentary?

When people note the explosion of Christianity in Africa-that the number of churches in Ghana has been doubling every 12 years, that there are more Episcopalians in Nigeria than there are in England and the U.S. combined--they think this is a result of missionary work, missionaries from the U.S. or Europe.

They aren't playing a key role in this at all. It's been self-sustaining for generations now, to the point where Africans are assuming leadership positions in the world church and in this country. The president of the World Council of Churches is a Kenyan. The president of the largest theological school in the U.S., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside Chicago, is from the Ivory Coast. One of the pastors we filmed in Zimbabwe came to Atlanta, Georgia to study at ITC. He now is chair of the evangelism committee of a huge African-American United Methodist church, a very charismatic church, showing them new ways of doing things.

So African Christians are already having an influence on Christianity in the U.S.?

Yes. On one street in the Bronx, there's a string of Ghanaian congregations, for example.

We filmed in a Presbyterian church in Ghana, a new church with vigorous lay leadership. It had grown largely through its deliverance ministry.

Meaning expelling demons?

Yes, recognizing demonic sources of all problems in life--problems in your marriage, not getting a job. You can go to a prayer camp, for example, which was part of this movement of deliverance ministries. These are independent ministries you'll see on the outskirts of Akra, the capital of Ghana--four or five thousand people gathered for six hours on a Saturday. They'll ask for different categories of spiritual problems, like spiritual marriage: "anyone suffering from spiritual marriage," meaning a spirit has married you and that is blocking your relationship with your spouse or keeping you from getting married. You're fighting with your spouse or you're separate.

A hundred people will come forward with this problem, and be prayed over and sung to.

What other problems lead people to seek out deliverance ministries?

Unemployment, business problems, family problems, distrust. We filmed a Presbyterian church's deliverance ministry. People go and meet with a counselor for a half hour, talking about where the sources of this spiritual problem might be coming from. Maybe they have a jealous relative, or someone who had hatred towards them in their family, whose store they might work in as an employee, that was one case where she was stealing things. She told the minister this and had come for deliverance.

These spirits can be manipulated by other people. That's the power of witchcraft--you could say the power of ill will let loose in the community--but it's conceived of as a movement of spirit. They're invisible, subliminal.

This way of dealing with human conflict is endemic to the village world. When Salem, Mass. was a village, there were these same kinds of things--witchcraft trials.

Are there ever witch trials in Africa?

There are all sorts of witchcraft accusations, and it's dealt with as a reality among Christians.

That is one of the main things that would be hard to come to terms with, among Western educated people-that the spirit world is active in many ways and can be manipulated by people.

A young woman who just graduated from secondary school, she's not getting a job, she has a nervous breakdown, she has family problems. Her uncle takes her to a traditional healer who diagnoses that a relative has placed a curse on her life. So they pray in the Methodist church she's part of. They meet to exorcise her of that spirit, claiming the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit, which reign supreme above all those, have more power.

In terms of the influence of African Christianity on the U.S., do you think this emphasis on deliverance and spirits and demons--and even witchcraft--will pop up more in Western churches?

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