One of the largest religious groups to originate in Africa is the Zion Christian Church (ZCC). In 1925, a Basotho shepherd and self-proclaimed prophet named Joseph Engenas Matlhakanye Lekganyane founded the Zion Christian Church in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. The Zion Christian Church has a sizable following today in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, and other countries.
The Zion Christian Church is known for blending Christian and indigenous African beliefs and rituals. Its doctrine syncretizes traditional African religions and Christian theology. The Zion Christian Church places a strong emphasis on prophecy, new revelation, healing, demonic deliverance, and Sabbath-keeping. The Zion Christian Church stages a large Easter pilgrimage every year to its headquarters in Moria, Limpopo, where hundreds of thousands of members gather to celebrate and worship together.
After the death of Lekganyane in 1948, the Zion Christian Church split, with two of Lekganyane’s sons leading the factions. The division still exists today, with Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane, the founder's grandson, leading the Zion Christian Church; and Bishop Engenas Joseph Lekganyane, the founder’s great-grandson, leading the St. Engenas Zion Christian Church. Both rivals have their headquarters at Moria. They organize their own Easter pilgrimages and other activities.
The distinctives of the Zion Christian Church include the following:
1. Baptismal regeneration: Salvation is attained by faith and triple baptism: members must be immersed in water three times, usually at a “Bethesda pool” or a “Jordan river.”
2. Pentecostal signs: Church members claim physical and spiritual healing for themselves and their loved ones through prayer; purification rites, including the use of “blessed” water (or tea or coffee); and exorcisms. Modern medicine is often rejected.
3. Prophecy: The Zion Christian Church places great importance on prophecy and believes in the existence of contemporary prophets. Members hold that, through these prophets, God continues to communicate with them and direct church practice.
4. Messianic claims: The leaders of the Zion Christian Church are held in high esteem for their holiness and prophetic ability, and some leaders are treated as messianic figures. Members of the Zion Christian Church throng Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane in public, they keep his picture in their homes, and they use his name in prayer. Various messianic titles are used to refer to Bishop Lekganyane: “Mediator, Messiah, Comforter [and] many more: King of kings, Lion of Judah, descendant of the House of David, our Father, Healer, Comforter, beloved Son of man, Son of God, Light of the nations, Head of everything, Rrago ditshaba (Father of the nations)” (De Visser, Arjan, “Honoured but Eclipsed: Beliefs About Christ in an African Church,” 11/16/11, www.canadianreformedseminary.ca, accessed 4/6/23).
5. Legalism: The Zion Christian Church observes the Sabbath and forbids, among other things, alcohol, tobacco, and eating pork. Three times a year, Zion Christian Church members are expected to travel to the headquarters at Moria City. At all times, members of the Zion Christian Church are required to wear a silver metal star on a green cloth background. Members of the St. Engenas faction wear dove pins.
6. Syncretism: Christian and African traditions and beliefs come together in the Zion Christian Church. Rituals may include holy sticks, traditional tribal dances, and a “Christianized” form of ancestral worship. Members believe they can get in touch with their dead ancestors and receive from them advice, guidance, and protection.
7. Secrecy: Few written records exist concerning the history of the Zion Christian Church. In the 1940s, the Zion Christian Church began to keep strict control over its message and activities by suppressing efforts to research its organization. The Zion Christian Church does not allow its members to discuss the church with non-members.
8. Community and social responsibility: The Zion Christian Church values community involvement and urges its members to be good citizens. The Zion Christian Church does much charity work and contributes to many social and community projects.
Due to the continuous growth of the Zion Christian Church, traditional Protestant churches that brought Christianity to southern Africa have largely been sidelined. The Zion Christian Church has a sizable membership base, plus they have acquired control of significant commercial enterprises in the realms of transportation, agriculture, and insurance.
The Zion Christian Church of southern Africa advocates for peace, works to benefit its communities, and promotes moral living. But its cult-like leader veneration, pagan influences, and salvation-by-works teaching make it a group to be avoided.