Small Christian Communities as a New Way of Evangelization in Africa

By Genevieve Nneoma Ihenacho, SHCJ

Introduction

The church is exhorted to be salt and light in the world (cf. Matthew 5:13-16), in other words, an agent for fostering God’s goodness. The Small Christian Communities are the most effective agents for bringing about this in concrete ways in Africa.[1]

The Small Christian Communities embody some fundamental features of the ecclesiology of Vatican II which encourages the dimension of community/communion and participation. Thus the Small Christian Communities are a significant new way of being church today and serve as a vehicle of parish and spiritual renewal. The Small Christian Community model of church is a way to build up the parish community from within. Through it, more lay faithful participate in the work of evangelization, since they are now familiar with the scriptures by weekly sharing and this brings a spirit of hopefulness.[2] As St. Jerome wrote, “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Jesus Christ”. “Equally, to know and love the Scripture is to know and love Christ in a new way”.[3]

In this paper I will try to show how the Small Christian Communities are not just a new way of being Church, but also a new way of evangelization in Africa and a part of the New Evangelization.

Small Christian Communities

Many different terminologies have been used to refer to the Small Christian Communities, but a Small Christian Community can be said to be a community of communities.[4] The Small Christian Communities are one model of church, that is, the communitarian model. They are vibrant, spontaneous groups with little hierarchical structure. They are the faith-response of poor and marginalized people in the Catholic Church and society. They are indispensable for the development of a well-grounded faith in the life of the Christian.[5]

For a better understanding of the Small Christian Communities, it is important to understand the community dimension in it. It seems to be part of the current aspiration of seeking to rediscover and restore community both in society and in the Church.[6] “But the problem of community in the church cannot be fully understood unless we see it in relationship with the dominant and long-standing institution that has characterized the church throughout the world for so long, that is, the territorial parish”.[7]

A careful reading of the Acts of the Apostles shows that the early Church viewed itself as a community; its point of departure was the first community composed of Jesus and his apostles. However, the church’s early awareness of being a community began to fade markedly as time went on. According to Dec. Azevedo, the church became more highly structured as a religion of the Roman Empire. It also became more hierarchically stratified, reflecting the stratification of power and authority in civil society. All these factors contributed to the eclipse of any sense of community. But, that sense of community was carried on mainly in the Church through the religious life.[8]

In the renewed understanding of the Church after Vatican II regarding her mission and ministry, the Small Christian Communities are a new way of being the Church. These are groups of Christians who, at the level of family or in a similarly restricted setting, come together for prayer, scripture reading, catechesis and discussion on human and ecclesial problems with a view to a common commitment. These communities are a sign of vitality within the church, an instrument of formation and evangelization.

“Small Christian Communities take more root in the less privileged and rural areas and become a leaven of Christian life, of care for the poor and the neglected and of commitment to the transformation of the society. These communities thus become a means of evangelization and a source of new ministries”.[9]

The presence and growth of Small Christian Communities is a distinctive part of parish life today. Small Christian Communities have given thousands of Catholics a first-hand experience of growing in faith with other Catholics. Many of its members experience the joys of hearing the other participants’ stories of faith.[10]

Evangelization

Vatican II, the 1974 Synod of Evangelization, the Apostolic Exhortation on On Evangelization in the Modern World and the two African Synods all laid the foundation and equipped the Catholic Church for the continuing growth in evangelization.[11]

Living the Christian faith means witnessing to it in daily lives. However, one is also invited to proclaim this faith to others. Witness is very essential in proclaiming the Christian faith, because if one tries to share his/her faith without living it out, he/she will only be a hypocrite. Thus, evangelization means bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new. Evangelization is an encounter; it happens when one person meets another. One of the rules of “encounter” is that both the one who proclaims and the one proclaimed to are changed. One cannot proclaim the good news of God to another, nor encounter another in faith, without change happening in both of them.[12]

However, it must be said that the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of evangelization; it is he who impels each individual to proclaim the Gospel, and it is he who in the depth of consciences causes the word of salvation to be accepted and understood (cf. EN 75).

Small Christian Communities and Evangelization

According to Pope Paul VI in On Evangelization in the Modern World No. 15, the church is an evangelizer, but it begins by evangelizing itself….The Church has a constant need to be evangelized, if she wants to retain her freshness, vigour and strength in order to proclaim the Gospel. According to Barreiro, the Small Christian Communities, “with their evangelical poverty, simplicity, generosity, and courage, constitute a genuine Kairos and an authentic time of grace for this evangelization of the Church which Paul VI mentions”.[13]

The Small Christian Communities can be said to be places of focal points and vehicles for evangelization. The members of the Small Christian Communities are both hearers of the gospel and privileged beneficiaries of evangelization, as well as proclaimers of the gospel themselves and they do this both in words and in actions. In and through them, the poor hear the good news.[14]

Many Catholics today, through the Small Christian Communities have developed a new love for scripture and as such, they give witness to the truth of these words.[15] They now explicitly discover the Word of God in the Bible as a source of nourishment for their religious life. The Word of God in scripture always serves as a source of inspiration and stimulation for their lives and actions.[16]

Contact with the Bible is evangelizing by the very fact that the members of the Small Christian Communities become familiar with the Word of God, which is addressed to them and is to be lived by them. This contact is valuable in letting them see that faith and Christian life take in the totality of their lives. Contact with scripture and its resulting prayer life enable them to link faith and life; thus, eliminating a dichotomy that underlies the very existence of many Christians. Thus, they integrate faith and life.[17] For example, the weekly Bible Sharing/Bible Reflection Service is the heart of the SCCs in Eastern Africa and connects the Gospel of the following Sunday to our daily lives.[18]

According to Joseph Healey, “Small Christian Communities are one of the most successful pastoral approaches in terms of the laity’s involvement in evangelization: The laity evangelizing the laity and sharing their lives in the spirit of charity with the Word of God at the centre of their activity”.[19]

In the Small Christian Communities, lay people serve lay people in different matters, not depending on the priest’s presence. They prepare people for baptism, first communion, confirmation and matrimony. They visit the sick, bury the dead, and comfort each other. However, appropriate material and training is needed. But the actual preparation is done more slowly and carefully within the community itself. Thus, the poor have assumed the Gospel and are preaching it with simple eloquence, and sometimes at a very high price.[20]

Evangelization, in this model of church whose centre is the laity, especially in the area of the liberation of human beings both individually and socially, has produced significant conversions.[21] “Despite their complexity and even fragility in certain countries, there can be no doubt that Basic Christian Communities are reshaping the church’s structure and self-definition. National Churches which were once forbiddingly hierarchical bodies are now more democratic.”[22]

The Small Christian Communities through their simple way of life, incardinate the Scriptures into the culture. Inculturation is important today both as a concept and a process. Its content is inherent in the words of John’s gospel: “And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The good news has to be made flesh and blood in the lives and circumstances of those to whom it is proclaimed. This is a gradual and complex procedure, as the working paper for the 1994 First African Synod, No. 49 reminds us: “the process of the church’s insertion into people’s cultures is a lengthy one. It is not a matter of purely external adaptation, for inculturation means the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity into the various human cultures”.[23]

The Small Christian Communities are not only involved in proclaiming the

Gospel, they are also involved in “promoting reconciliation, peace and justice, healing and forgiveness among the people”.[24] For instance, the 45,000 Small Christian Communities in Kenya are very much involved in the annual Kenya Lenten Campaign organised by the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in the country. Thus, “the Small Christian Communities can very well work as agents of promoting communion, the union of believers with God and among themselves, and thereby the believers can bear witness to Christ’s love”.[25]

The growth of Small Faith Communities helps Catholic evangelization in three ways:[26]

·         First, members of these groups receive a first-hand experience of discipleship. They grow in their own faith through reading and discussing Scripture, sharing in liturgies, doing works of service and bonding in community.

·         Second, members of these groups, convinced of their own positive experiences, develop fervour to invite others to this same richness.

·         Finally, the Small Christian Community provides a ready place to nurture the faith of new members in the group”.

Conclusion

The 1979 AMECEA[27] Plenary Meeting said: “Small Christian Communities are very instrumental in bringing the Gospel down to the lives of the people. They are effective way of making people feel that they are fully part of the church’s evangelizing work”.[28] The lay faithful through the Small Christian Communities have a very effective role in the whole process of evangelization. They can very well build up the believers into a community of faith and love. Thus, the Small Christian Communities are means and occasion to proclaim the Gospel in a concrete manner and share God’s love in an effective way.[29]

Hence, all church members from the Small Christian Communities to the bishops are active members of the Church and have some contribution to make. And experience show that the activities of the Small Christian Communities have had a profound impact on both society and the church.[30]

Bibliography

Barreiro, A., Basic Ecclesial Communities; The Evangelization of the Poor, Translated by Barbara Campbell, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 1982.

Bechtle, R. M. – Rathschmidt, J. J., ed., Mission and Mysticism; Evangelization and the Experience of God, Maryknoll School of Theology Press, Maryknoll/New York 1987.

dec Azevedo, M., Basic Ecclesial Communities in Brazil; The Challenge of a New way of Being Church, Translated by John Drury, Georgetown University Press, Washington D.C., 1987.

DeSiano, F. – Boyack, K., Creating the Evangelizing Parish, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, 1993.

Healey, J. G., Building the Church as Family of God; Evaluation of Small Christian Communities in Eastern Africa, AMECEA Gaba Publications- CUEA Press, Nairobi, 2012.

Healey, J. G. – Hinton, J., ed.,Small Christian Communities Today; Capturing the New Moment, Paulines Publications Africa, Nairobi, 2006.

O’Halloran, J., Small Christian Communities; Vision and Practicalities, Columba Press, Dublin, 2002.

Paul VI. On Evangelization in the Modern World, USCC, Washington DC, 1976.

Samuel, V., “The Role of Laity in Evangelization through Small Christian Communities”, Asirbhavan, Eranakulam, 1999.

Sister Genevieve Nneoma Ihenacho, SHCJ

Society of the Holy Child Jesus Centre for Renewal,

1 Utan Lane, off Ebele Jonathan Road,

P. O. Box 5281

Jos, Plateau State Code 930006

Nigeria

Email: gennysdesire@yahoo.co.uk                                 



[1] Cf. J. O’Halloran, Small Christian Communities, 36.

[2] Cf. J. G. Healey – J. Hinton, ed., Small Christian Communities Today, 3 and M. dec. Azevedo, Basic Ecclesial Communities in Brazil, 138.

[3] F. DeSiano – K. Boyack, Creating the Evangelizing Parish, 9.

[4] Cf. J. G. Healey – J. Hinton, ed.,Small Christian Communities Today, 7.

[5] Cf. R. M. Bechtle – J. J. Rathschmidt, ed., Mission and Mysticism, 43-44 and J. O’Halloran, Small Christian Communities, 146.

[6] Cf. M. deC. Azevedo, Basic Ecclesial Communities in Brazil, 59.

[7] M. deC. Azevedo, Basic Ecclesial Communities in Brazil, 61.

[8] Cf. M. dec. Azevedo, Basic Ecclesial Communities in Brazil, 60-61.

[9] V. Samuel, “The Role of Laity in Evangelization Through Small Christian Communities”, 1.

[10] Cf. F. DeSiano – K. Boyack, Creating the Evangelizing Parish, 12.

[11] Cf. F. DeSiano – K. Boyack, Creating the Evangelizing Parish, 8.

[12] Cf. F. DeSiano – K. Boyack, Creating the Evangelizing Parish, 24. 43-44.

[13] A. Barreiro, Basic Ecclesial Communities; The Evangelization of the Poor, 68.

[14] Cf. A. Barreiro, Basic Ecclesial Communities, 1.

[15] Cf. F. DeSiano – K. Boyack, Creating the Evangelizing Parish, 9.

[16] Cf. M. deC. Azevedo, Basic Ecclesial Communities in Brazil, 129.

[17] Cf. M. deC. Azevedo, Basic Ecclesial Communities in Brazil, 130-131.

[18] See the “13 Steps in the Weekly Bible Sharing/Bible Reflection/Bible—Life Connections Service of Small Christian Communities (SCCs) in Africa,” in J. G. Healey, Building the Church as Family of God, on the Small Christian Communities Global Collaborative Website, 189, http://www.smallchristiancommunities.org/ebooks/47-ebooks-.html, retrieved on 4 May, 2013.  

[19] J. G. Healey, Building the Church as Family of God, 115.

[20] Cf. M. dec. Azevedo, Basic Ecclesial Communities in Brazil,131.

[21] Cf. A. Butkiewicz, “Pastoral Commitment to BCCs in Bolivia” in J. G. Healey – J. Hinton, ed., Small Christian Communities Today, 9-17.

[22] R. M. Bechtle – J. J. Rathschmidt, ed., Mission and Mysticism, 53-54.

[23] Taken from: J. O’Halloran, Small Christian Communities, 148.

[24] J. G. Healey, Building the Church as Family of God, 67.

[25] V. Samuel, “The Role of Laity in Evangelization Through Small Christian Communities”, 2.

[26] Cf. F. DeSiano – K. Boyack, Creating the Evangelizing Parish, 13.

[27] AMECEA is an acronym for "Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa." It is a service organization for the National Episcopal Conferences of the nine English-speaking countries of Eastern Africa, namely Eritrea (1993), Ethiopia (1979), Kenya (1961), Malawi (1961), South Sudan (2011), Sudan (1973), Tanzania (1961), Uganda (1961) and Zambia (1961). The Republic of South Sudan became independent on 9 July, 2011, but the two Sudans remain part of one Episcopal Conference. Somalia (1995) and Djibouti (2002) are Affiliate Members.

[28] J. G. Healey, Building the Church as Family of God, 115.

[29] Cf. V. Samuel, “The Role of Laity in Evangelization Through Small Christian Communities”, 2.

[30] M. dec. Azevedo, Basic Ecclesial Communities in Brazil, 133 and 137.

 

 

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