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Issue 07

Could Africa Catch a Cold from the West’s Declining Churches? Burundi’s Leaders Think So

Jenny Taylor

Dr Jenny Taylor is Associate Fellow in Journalism, Media and Communication at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology. Her book, Unacceptable Truth: The Biblical Foundations of the Fourth Estate and How to Save Journalism is forthcoming. For information contact Dan Balow at Photographs courtesy of Great Lakes Outreach (, unless credited otherwise.

Evangelism explosion.

The crowd is huge, the music loud. The mood becomes suddenly frenetic. People run to join the dancing, some jumping and ululating ecstatically. Then from among them, maybe two hundred and fifty press forward, as the preacher’s voice rises in an altar call of almost unbearable amplification. A small boy limps across the stage having thrown away his crutches. A man in a smart shirt and suit gives his testimony of turning from a squalor of drink and prostitutes to reunion with his family.

This is an evangelistic rally in up-country Burundi in the Great Lakes Region of Central East Africa and the people are hungry. They want healing and hope. Englishman Simon Guillebaud is the draw. Two and a half thousand people have travelled to hear him preach on “faith not fear.” A fourth-generation missionary, he was born here and speaks Kirundi. His great-grandfather and great-aunt translated the Bible. (1) Pioneers of the Rwanda Mission, part of the famous East African Revival, their legacy lives on. Or it did until recently.

Western culture is coming, and the leaders are worried. It is, they say, already beginning to undo their work. “We discovered that we have a lot of signs of declining of the church,” says Isaiah Nshimirimana, leader of United Citizens for Change and Development, who organized the rally. “This is a very dangerous time for us, and we need to do everything possible, not late.” 

One of the moves they’ve made is to bring together the leaders and bishops of the “legacy churches” – Anglican, Baptist, Methodist – in March. They identified the signs and are meeting again in June to look at solutions. They don’t believe they can wait until next year.

He itemises their problems in an email message:

“1. Looking back we saw how strong the churches were twenty to thirty years ago.

2. We saw how the Holy Spirit was moving through the churches.

3. We saw how Christianity was in Europe when they brought us the gospel and how they are now.

4. We asked what caused the decline there.

We are now on the same page by agreeing to look at the solutions.”

It is ironic that the Guillebaud family were all Anglican missionaries with the Church Missionary Society. That’s the outreach arm of the Church of England, whose Bishop in Oxford preaches “relevance” and supports gay marriage. According to the respected website Anglican Ink, on current trends, the C of E will be extinct by 2060. (2) So will all the other pre-1900 AD churches. By contrast, the post-1900 churches – which according to this analysis are all evangelical – are the only ones growing, and growing strongly.

Simon, perhaps happily, was turned down for service with the by now sclerotic CMS in the early 2000s, despite already surviving ten years of war in Burundi as a Scripture Union evangelist. His often-hair-raising record of this time, in a best-selling book called Dangerously Alive: African adventures of faith under fire (Monarch, 2011), made for anxious reading before my own trip with him. He went back with Scripture Union, then set up his own outfit, Great Lakes Outreach (GLO). He funnels funds and prayer to more than thirty carefully chosen partner organizations across the nation. It has been outstandingly successful.

Photo: Jenny Taylor. Simon Guillebaud with Ephraim Ngendakuriyo

Educated at a top English school, Harrow, Simon bleeds his rich contacts in the UK and the US relentlessly. GLO’s UK income comes in at around £1.5million per annum, and more from the US. He has even built a Trip Advisor-rated five-star hotel in the capital Bujumbura on the banks of Lake Tanganyika to provide more than fifty jobs and an income that meets fifty percent of SU’s in-country budget. GLO funds schools and hospitals, and is building a home for retired pastors. Simon can find the money for a hundred computers for the top Christian school, Gitega International Academy, in short order. Dieudonné Nahimana’s father, a judge, was buried alive in a pit during the war. Dieudonné found himself on the streets, starving. He survived, later managing to find his father’s killer and – astoundingly – forgive him. Then he educated the man’s children. Today he runs an outreach for street-connected children, and with meagre resources, provides training and small jobs: one of the country’s first baristas works in his makeshift café. A once suicidal youth, he now conjures up flat whites for us from a machine donated by the company and a Cornish church. 

The world’s poorest country – it vies with Sierra Leone for that dubious accolade – Burundi has little industry. Every square inch, even roadside verges, is cultivated. From the mountainous hinterland, a verdant patchwork of tiny fields and tall trees stretches away as far as the eye can see. And that’s part of the problem. There may be no pollution, few cars, and no litter, but the well-managed fields are too small to support the sons and grandsons of the farmers. These disorientated young men are easily exploited as fighters.

One of GLO’s partners, CAPAMI, works with the police and army, treating PTSD, building a sense of one-nationhood. The emotional scarring goes deep, and politics feeds it. Not enough is being done to bind the nation together, says Acher Niyonizigiye: “Political manipulation of ethnic identity tends to put tribal affiliation above a sense of nationhood.”

Burundi lives in the shadow of its more successful neighbour Rwanda. People forget that Burundi suffered an earlier genocide in 1972, when 300,000 died. Then a further 300,000 died following the plane crash in 1994 that killed both nations’ presidents and sparked the slaughter. Those figures together vie with Rwanda’s 800,000. And each meltdown – and there was nearly another in 2015 – “sets back the country by thirty years,” says Simon. 

“Conscience money” – as it is loosely called by locals – from the West has meant that Rwanda is flourishing, its economy and political stability at least thirty years ahead of its neighbour. It is now listed as the 6th most secure nation in the world according to Business Insider Africa. (3) Burundi, almost forgotten, comes 131st. (4) It remains mired in an unbroken record of coups, assassinations and political ineptitude. And the psychological toll is immeasurable. Many children in Burundi who find themselves on the street during these conflagrations, do not even know their own names. 

Barista Herve at New Generation
Street boys at New Generation

Sadly, all the church’s good work could be undone as the West’s new religion, entitlement, takes hold. Acher Niyonizigiye believes that globalisation is a serious threat to the country. Just getting back on its feet, Burundi may not prove strong enough to withstand the “Tower of Babel” effect he says will surely follow. Does he fear being swamped by Anglo-American and Chinese culture? “Absolutely. We already have a Confucius Academy in Burundi, and diplomatic, commercial and educational ties with China are on the rise.”

One problem is that little is being done to increase the “mastery of Kirundi” – the traditional language – among the younger generation. “The message that is being communicated is: you do not need Kirundi to succeed in life, but you need French, English or Chinese.” He says – ironically – that he is working with some diaspora Burundians in Sweden, and the UK – to counter it.

The school motto is pinned to the walls of every classroom at Gitega International Academy (GIA) in Burundi’s new political capital. It affords a heady prospect. “Our vision: Raising up a generation of godly leaders to transform our society.” But are the donors, who warm to these mottos, aware they risk merely educating future Westerners? I chatted to two 15-year-olds at GIA, sitting at their new computer screens. I asked what they wanted for their future. One said – in English – “to become an international footballer.” The other, also in English, that he wanted to be a doctor – in Canada. 

“Most young people desire to go to the West for better opportunities and, therefore, value foreign languages more than their mother tongue,” says Acher Niyonizigiye. 

Jaume Plensa, babel i-you-she-he

Scholars increasingly recognise the role of language in fostering, even earthing, identity, however. Ukrainians are renouncing their use of Russian. (5) The same is happening with Taiwan and China. A beleaguered Israel had a similar problem: before Hebrew was invented, and they received the Covenant in their own language, the Jewish people were a mere rabble, outsiders, according to George Mendenhall in The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition ([Johns Hopkins Press, 1973], 16). They were at the mercy of more brutal nations. But around 1300 BC a new and unique pattern solidified. Mysteriously, but undoubtedly, God spoke on Mount Sinai in their own language, causing scribes to write it down. The Covenant, and the Bible that emerged from it, did not do so in the lingua franca of the ascendant powers, Egypt or Babylon. The law of the Torah, the histories, and the prophecies were written down in their own speech language. Hebrew was invented to create a people for God, out of the hodge-podge of humanity that came out of Egypt. According to the secular Jewish scholar Seth Sanders, in his The Invention of Hebrew ([University of Illinois Press, 2011], 1), this was the first time in history that a people had been addressed directly as “you” and “The Bible is the first text to address people as a public.”

Israel became not a threat but a light to the surrounding nations. So it was in the sixteenth century with Luther’s Bible in demotic German, and William Tyndale’s rustic English, still two of the richest languages in history. Gentem lingua facit said Claudius Marius Victor in a fifth century margin note on Genesis: language creates a people. (6)

Could wealthy donors increase Burundi’s chances of prospering by making matching gifts for Kirundi scholarship obligatory? There is just one Bible commentary in Kirundi. And the idea of archives was new when I suggested it to Scripture Union’s extraordinary leaders. Could this create a quarantine against globalization? It remains to be seen whether Burundi fulfils its promise to become a light not just to Africa, but to the world.

1. Harold E. Guillebaud and Rosemary Guillebaud, Isezerano Risha ry’umwami wacu n’umukiza Yesu Kristo (Bujumbura: Société Biblique, [1970], circa 1967).
2. John Hayward, “Growth, Decline and Extinction of UK Churches,” Anglican Ink (May 21, 2022).
3. See “Rwanda is the safest country in Africa for solo travellers, according to a survey,” Business Insider Africa, (30 September, 2022),
4. Global Peace Index Map (2022) » The Most & Least Peaceful Countries,
5. “Enemy tongue: eastern Ukrainians reject their Russian birth language,” The Guardian. Accessed 28 March 2023.
6. Claudius Marius Victor, Alethia 3.274, cited in Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew, 118.