Islam is the major challenge for Christianity today — both the 220 million Muslims north of the Sahara and the 300 million in sub-Saharan Africa. The "race" to win peoples to Christ from the traditional religions in West Africa and across the Sahel has largely been lost; most have been Islamized, even if only superficially. More recently, Muslim missionary efforts have extended to nearly every country in Africa, and in many places, especially in Central Africa, they are very successful. The use of oil-funded education, aid projects and grants, and a well-orchestrated drive to give Islam a role in Africa's political life, have had some success. African Christians as well as mission agencies need to make Muslims a priority for demonstrations of the love of Christ, and culturally sensitive approaches must be developed for planting churches among them.
The Arabs of North Africa. Arriving from the Arabian peninsula in the early years of Islam, the Arabs conquered the Maghreb and imposed Islam upon the population. There has been little by way of outreach to them until recent years - and even less by way of response. They number nearly 210 million from Mauritania across to Egypt.
The Imazighen, or Berber. North Africa's original inhabitants; they were conquered by Rome, many becoming Christian, then conquered by Arab Muslims in the 8th Century and assimilated into Islam. There are 18 million Imazighen in 76 distinct sub-groups living in 17 countries. Major groups include the Kabyle (3.3m), Riff (2.6m), Shilha (8.7m) and Shawiya (1.9m). Only among the Kabyle has there been a significant turning to Christ. Less than 0.4% might be considered Christian. Several partnerships of agencies concerned for them exist.
The Tamacheq (Tuareg) are related to the Berber, but have a unique culture and live in the central Sahara Desert. They number 2.5 million in seven countries and comprise 16 sub-groups. Believers among them are increasing, but only in Niger and Mali are there established groups. A number of agencies have formed a partnership for their evangelization.
The peoples of the West Africa coastal nations, including the Wolof, Malinke, Jula and Susu clusters. Totalling 17.2 million people, they include 114 peoples speaking 75 languages and dialects. The largest peoples are the Wolof of Senegal (4.6m), Maninke of Guinea (2.4m), Maninka of Côte d'Ivoire (1.9m), Mandinka of Senegal and Gambia (1.4m) and Susu of Guinea (1.1m). They remain largely unevangelized, even though there are a number of Christian workers and African churches among neighbouring peoples.
The interior peoples of West Africa. These consist of the Kanuri, Bambara, Songhai, Soninke people clusters, adding up to 78 peoples with 31 languages and 22.3 million people. Largest among them are the Yerwa Kanuri of Nigeria (5.5m), the Zarma of Niger (4.5m), the Bambara of Mali and Côte d'Ivoire (3.1m, 1.0m), the Songhai-Koryaboro of Mali and Niger (1.6m) and the Soninke of Mali (1.0m). Of these, only the Bambara (5.0%) and Koryaboro (0.4%) have a notable Christian population. Many smaller peoples have no known believers.
The Fulbe (Pulaar, Fulani) number 31.9 million in 50 or so distinct ethnic groups speaking related dialects. They have spread from Senegal to become a major component of nearly every country of the Sahel as far east as Sudan. They are the largest nomadic-culture people in the world. More than half now live settled lifestyles and are more strongly Muslim than their nomadic or semi-nomadic brethren. Planting churches among them has been hard and slow with small breakthroughs in Benin, Nigeria and Chad. The Fulbe represent one of the major challenges for missions in Africa today. There are dozens of agencies with some outreach or ministry to the Fulbe, and several partnerships have been formed specifically to synergize ministry among them.
The Hausa are dominant in Niger and northern Nigeria, but live in 20 countries in total and number 32.4 million. Hausa has become the major language for much of Nigeria, Niger and beyond. Many resources exist in Hausa - the Bible, the JESUS film, radio broadcasting - and much ministry is done in Hausa, but few have turned to Christ from Islam. Response is greatest among the Maguzawa section of the Hausa. Evangelization of the Hausa remains a major challenge to the Church.
The peoples of Sudan, Chad, the CAR and Egypt. These include the Nubian cluster (30 peoples, 3.0m), the Ouaddai-Fur (38 peoples, 3.2m) and smaller Guera-Naba cluster (6 peoples, 0.5m). Among the Nubians, only the Dongolawi number over 500,000 (0.9m in Egypt, with only 0.1% Christian). Among the Ouaddai-Fur, only the Fur (0.9m) and Masalit (0.4m) are this populous, and they have few, if any, Christians. The Fur and Masalit are among the peoples who have tragically suffered in the Darfur crisis at the hands of other Muslims. The Nubians of the Nile River valley were for a long time Christian, but were forcibly Islamized in the 17th Century.
The Horn of Africa-Cushitic peoples. There are 101 million in 160 ethnic groups living mainly in Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. They are represented in six people clusters - Afar, Beja, Ethiopian (often referred to as "Semitic"), Omotic, Oromo and Somali. A number of peoples are Christian. The great challenge remains to reach the Somali (15.7m), Beja (3.2m) and Afar (2.3m). Many Christian agencies are burdened to bring the gospel to them and see a harvest; there have been many attempts, but the risk and the cost are great. It is effectively impossible for outsiders to do mission work among the Somali and Afar clusters in their home countries, but there is a sizeable Somali diaspora in Africa and beyond.
The Swahili-speaking Bantu peoples of Africa's east coast, concentrated in Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar and Comoros. Almost all are Muslim. Major groupings: Swahili (1.5m, mostly in Zanzibar), Comorian (0.9m), Zaramo (0.8m), Shirazi (0.7m). They are stoutly Muslim and traditionally resistant to Christian outreach.
A number of Chadic, Nilotic and Nuba mountain peoples are thoroughly unreached, even though they are from clusters with significant Christian populations and are related to highly Christianized peoples. Among Africa's least reached are 44 Chadic peoples, 15 Nilotic peoples and 26 Nuba Mountain peoples. They live primarily in Sudan, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria.
East Asian peoples - numbering 5.7 million in 24 peoples. They are mostly present in Africa due to British colonial transplanting. They remain largely isolated from indigenous Christians and have hardly been touched at all by cross-cultural mission work.
Nations with the smallest number of evangelicals. These are priority countries with less than 1% evangelicals: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Guinea, Niger, Djibouti, Somalia, Mayotte and Comoros. They fall into four main groups - North Africa, West Africa, Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands.
Cities. Africa's urban population has rapidly risen from 130 million in 1990 up to 390 million in 2010. It is the world's most rapidly urbanizing continent. Lack of economic development and poor infrastructure mean that it is the slums, shantytowns and informal settlements that have mushroomed. These cities have become focal points for dire poverty, squalor, crime, prostitution, disease and misery. New ways must be found to impact these cities for God and plant churches that will transform urban areas.
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Content taken or adapted from Operation World, 7th Edition (2010) and Pray for the World (2015). Both books are published by InterVarsity Press. All rights reserved.