By Greg Cochran, ICC Fellow
11/15/2023 Africa (International Christian Concern) – Since the 1850s, baseball has been called America’s pastime. For nearly 175 years, baseball has provided a stable distraction through the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, both World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Great Recession, and the COVID-19 shutdowns. In 2023, baseball proved more than just stabilizing. Baseball produced unexpected drama.
The Arizona Diamondbacks appeared seemingly out of nowhere to claim the National League Pennant and a spot in the 2023 World Series. How unlikely was their appearance? According to those who bet on sports, “Arizona opened the season at +6000 odds (1.6% implied probability) to win the National League and +12500 (0.8% implied probability) to win the World Series.” Even the casual fan could notice their unlikely rise to the pinnacle of the national pastime. They won only 84 regular season games (losing 78). They don’t possess the star power of the Philadelphia Phillies. Indeed, their annual payroll is precisely one-half of the Phillies, last year’s National League winners.
What vaulted the Arizona Diamondbacks to the top of the National League so unexpectedly? The team went through a rebuilding process, focusing on assembling young, dedicated players. Youthful energy empowered the team to outlast their more celebrated (and highly compensated) opponents. And why does this example serve the interests of Christians concerned about the Great Commission and the persecution often accompanying its advance? Simple. The Diamondbacks are serving as a reminder, an alert sounding the need for a reality check.
What kind of reality check? The youthful kind. In baseball, all the money and all the attention was pointed at the Dodgers, the Phillies, the Astros, and the Braves. In reality, the young bats and arms from Arizona were on the ascent. In life, all the attention is on the U.S., Russia, China, thus, by proxy, Israel, Iran, and Ukraine. But where might the young be on the ascent? Turns out, youth is on the ascent on the continent of Africa.
Africa is ascending by virtue of its growing youthfulness. By 2050, Africa is on course to be the only youthful continent. In contrast, China—whose population peaked in 2021—is expected to shrink by more than 100 million people by 2050 as the population ages and dies. Although the Chinese Communist Party reversed the one-child policy and now incentivizes childbirth, the future aging of their population means every two workers in China will be required to support one retiree. China’s Old-Age Dependency Ratio is set to rise to the second-highest position in the world.
The top 6 Old-Age Ratio forecast numbers belong to South Korea, China, Japan, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S., in that order. Nations at the top of their game today may not be the nations winning the day in 50 years. A youth movement is afoot, and it’s rising in Africa.
Even more specifically, the youth movement is on the ascent across the Sahel: “In pure geographic terms, the Sahel, or Sahil in Arabic, meaning coast or shore, is a vast region that stretches along the Sahara desert’s southern rim from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.” Basically, the Sahel is a reference to the region of Africa, which borders on the southern edge of the Sahara. Disagreement abounds whenever specific enumerations of the nations are printed in lists, but most agree that the region represents a transition from the arid desert in the north to the more fertile savannas to the south. Across this region, these nations are growing younger. Patrick Johnstone, writing for the Lausanne Congress, states, “Of the 20 countries in the world with the highest population growth, 19 are in Africa and 14 in the Sahel itself. Niger has the highest birthrate of any nation.”
Why do these facts matter for Christians interested in completing the Great Commission (and serving other Christians suffering persecution on account of it)? For one thing, larger numbers through birth represent larger numbers of people who need access to the gospel and, potentially, larger numbers of people with access to spread the gospel. Opportunity and energy abound where youthfulness abides. By 2050, Africa’s population is projected to be 1.4 billion, with 40% of the children in the world being African. African nations need to be central to any Great Commission strategy going forward.
On this note, a second thing must be said, hearkening back to the Arizona Diamondbacks illustration. While youth is energizing, it’s not enough. The Diamondbacks are a relatively young team, but nine opening-day rosters were younger than Arizona’s. Youth provides energy and opportunity, but a wise and viable strategy must guide youth. Thus, any Great Commission strategy must go forward with a determination to reach Africa’s upcoming eruption of young people.
Christians must not lose sight of opportunities like the one being presented across Africa and, especially across the Sahel. Opportunities, by nature, are opportunities for good or evil. A burgeoning youth movement could result in gospel thriving, or it might just as easily devolve into fractured societies, violence, and degradation. As Johnstone notes, “This [population growth] is unsustainable, and there is a strong likelihood of massive famines in the coming years.”
Johnstone is not being overly pessimistic. Across the Sahel, “Mass displacement resulting from rising insecurity and terrorist violence has the potential to fuel further local conflicts, which are known to be exploited by violent extremist groups to recruit, implant and expand their control throughout the Sahel.” Many young people are recruited into violent extremist organizations as a means of survival—their energy is exploited for evil.
While not yet determined, the future trends toward violence and famine are dire. Nevertheless, just as there is no guarantee that increased numbers of young people will result in gospel flourishing, so, too, there is no guarantee that this population boom will beget human misery. The future outcome will at least partially depend on Christians across the Sahel and how they strategize for the youthful transitions ahead.
Johnstone understands this opportunity for rebuilding Christian missions in Africa, including empowering younger generations. In part two of his report, Johnstone concludes, “African missions are coming of age. Since so many foreign missions have had to pull out from the region, the initiative has largely passed to African missionaries and their sending churches, many of them from younger generations. In light of this, foreign missions need to recalibrate their own roles and ministries and work together with African leadership and initiatives.” In other words, missionaries and mission agencies must work to empower indigenous youth through faithful strategies to push back the darkness with gospel light.
Christians everywhere should be more aware of the trends across Africa and the Sahel—both the positive and the negative. Christians everywhere should join to pray for revival among younger populations. Several great seasons of revival took place throughout the 20th century across Africa. Many of these revivals captivated younger populations. Revival has happened before; it can happen again.
Even more, Christians must focus on strong family discipleship. Mission agencies in Africa should build systems that perpetuate discipleship—aiming not only to reach the younger generations but also to have those younger disciples committed to reaching the generations behind them. In this way, perhaps Christians will continue to see the faithfulness of the God who called them, the God who once revealed himself to Moses as gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love to a thousand generations of those who love him. May a thousand generations of African youth know of His steadfast love.
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