JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - On a rocky hilltop in Johannesburg, a priest leads his congregation in an all-night prayer vigil. His is not a religion for the fainthearted. At the core of his faith is the unshakable conviction that the Bible is a simple, straightforward road map to the hereafter.
"The Bible is the way it is. It doesn't change. It needs no explanation. You just have to follow it," said Molefa Mojela, the priest of the Edumisweni Apostolic Church of Christ.
Yet the congregation also holds beliefs many consider outside the bounds of mainstream Christianity.
Members of Mojela's church venerate and fear ancestors who they believe can help or harm them. They are convinced witches and evil spirits walk among them. They look to prophets to heal the sick, and trust in the power of magic and the benefits of animal sacrifice.
The Edumisweni congregation is one of the thousands of African-initiated churches, sometimes called spirit churches, that first appeared near the start of the last century in reaction to the hegemony of white mission churches.
The congregations share much with Pentecostal Christianity, emphasizing the Holy Spirit, healing through prayer, and speaking in tongues. But they also freely adopt what they consider important in African culture - veneration of ancestors, belief in witchcraft, faith in the power of magic, called muti, and the ability of prophets, or sangomas, to harness that power.
"Africans want their own religion," Mojela said. "They want to pray and worship in their own language."
Once a predominant form of Christianity throughout the continent, the churches are losing their popularity in most of Africa. A younger generation is seeking out the more modern congregations that emerged starting in the 1970s and that are still uniquely African in worship style but closer theologically to Pentecostal or mainline Protestant groups in the West.
However, in South Africa, where suspicion of white culture remains strong, the old-style churches are still growing, according to Allan Anderson, professor of global Pentecostal studies at the University of Birmingham in England.
"The memories of apartheid are still fresh," said Anderson, who earned his doctorate in South Africa and has done extensive research here.
The vibrance of the congregations can be seen in the Edumisweni church's worship.
Late on a Saturday night with just the light of the African moon, Mojela's faithful gather in the Melville Koppies, a wild and sometimes dangerous greenbelt almost in the shadow of the city center. They wear homemade robes emblazoned with a cross to help repel evil spirits and build small fires to ward off the chill. They face east and pray together while they await the rising sun, the symbol of the beginning of all things in life.
During the night-long vigil, a new initiate, preparing for her baptism later at a dam below the hills, is doused with milk.
"It is part of a ritual cleansing of the spirit," Mojela said. "We believe in the power of prophets to use some substances to drive away evil spirits and change a person's luck."
Belief in faith healing is common because it offers hope where health care either is not available or has failed. Many join the church seeking help for a medical problem, Anderson said.
Traditionally, Africans believe that ancestors look after their descendants, revealing themselves in dreams or through a sangoma. In Mojela's church, the faithful believe that animal sacrifice such as the ritual killing of a cow or the slaughter of a goat, chicken or sheep can appease an angry ancestor and in other cases help promote healing or drive away evil spirits.
Some congregants are polygamous, saying that practice, which is part of traditional African belief, also can be found in the Old Testament. They believe that condemnation of polygamy by Christian missionaries was an attempt to impose European culture, not spread Christianity. Some believe missionaries went as far as hiding Old Testament references to plural marriage, Anderson said.
And, as with many independent churches in the United States, there is no special training for clergy.
"We don't have to teach anyone religion," Mojela said. "We just read the Bible together and discuss what it says."
Anderson estimates the number of African-originated churches ranges from 5,000 to 10,000 throughout the continent. Total membership in the churches amounts to at least one-third of the more than 400 million Christians in Africa, researchers say.
It is unclear whether the old-style churches in South Africa will go the route of those in other parts of the continent, losing members to more modern groups. Anderson says the older congregations are threatened by the newer Pentecostal churches.
But Mojela insists that's not his concern.