For generations, the churches of America and Western Europe sent missionaries to Africa to convert "the heathen."

Today, without the aid of high-powered evangelists or TV preachers, the Christian church in Africa is growing faster than anywhere else in the world. Like a wise parent, the churches of the West are turning to their daughter churches in the Third World to see what can be learned from them.

That was at least part of what the consultation of Anglican primates, in session at the Washington Cathedral here this week, has been all about.

"God was [in Africa] long before the first missionary came," Archbishop Manasses Kuria of Kenya told a gathering at St. Monica's Church. "The first missionary who came to us found a religious people, but they did not know Jesus Christ. . . . What we are today we are because missionaries came over to our land and preached to us."

Washington Episcopal Bishop John T. Walker said the situation of the African churches today is unique. "Most churches in East Africa are in their first century," he said. "They still remember their martyrs. We don't even acknowledge martyrs anymore."

Early in his career, Walker spent a year teaching in Uganda, where he came to know African Christianity's best known contemporary martyr, Archbishop Janani Luwum, killed four years ago by Idi Amin.

Tanzanian Archbishop Musa Kahurananga, who estimated that "more than three-fourths" of his church members are converts from tribal religions, has his own ideas as to why people embrace Christianity. "Christianity gives many people freedom from the evil spirits and the power of witches," he said in an interview. "They are being tormented by the fear of these supernatural powers. The only way out is to accept the Lord, to be liberated and set free."

Another factor, he said, was the example set by church members in their day-to-day lives. "The witness of how God is dealing with them is attractive to nonbelievers," he said.

In addition, he said, "The church has been the center of many developments, such as the effort to combat hunger, and education. In the early days, the church was the only institution concerned about education for the people." Organized women's groups in the villages constitute another attractive feature of the churches, he said.

"Those who convert directly from heathenism are very strong, especially the young people," said the archbishop, who himself was a convert when he was 14 years old.

About 6 million of Tanzania's 17 million citizens are Christians, he said.

It is one of the paradoxes of the Third World that the religion of the colonizers not only survives but flourishes after political ties have been cast off. That holds true even though about a dozen years ago there was a movement in Africa for a "missionary moratorium" -- a demand that all Western missionaries get out.

In Kahurananga's view, the movement was "overexaggerated. I don't think it had the backing of church leaders." In fact, however, mainline churches in America and Europe have cut back on their missionary presence in Africa -- in part for financial reasons -- and have changed drastically the job descriptions of those they continue to recruit and send.

The "missionary categories" that are needed today, the Tanzanian churchman said, are specialists: teachers for theological seminaries, engineers, finance and administration experts, and persons skilled in the practical aspects of agriculture. "We need very much the kind of missionaries experienced in agricultural mechanics, who can teach our people how to use the agricultural implements and how to repair them," the archbishop said.

The overriding concern of the Anglican Church of Tanzania has less to do with the fine points of church liturgy than with increasing the country's production of beans, corn and rice. "We are trying to fight hunger and poverty," Kahurananga said. "All dioceses have programs which are trying to help people help themselves."

One of his priorities during his visit to this country is to set up some kind of program in which young Tanzanians can come here and learn "practical agriculture," including maintenance and repair of equipment. "This is terribly important in my country," he said.

"We don't have much in the way of implements . . . Most agriculture in Tanzania is peasant agriculture, but with many people to be fed, it is not adequate," he said.

One of the tasks of African Christians is to sort out the essentials of the faith from the Western culture that nourished it for 1,900 years. "We must differentiate between Western culture and Christianity," said the archbishop.

But the church in Africa doesn't "get preoccupied with that," explained Canon Martin Mbawana, who accompanied the archbishop.

"We try to get as close as possible to the message of Christ," without "becoming more African than Christian . . . We need to be more Christian within an African background. Then we can make a contribution to the worldwide church."

One of the most sensitive clashed between Christian tradition and African culture involves polygamy, condemned by Christianity but accepted and widely practiced in Africa.

Until a few years ago, Mbwana said, a man who wanted to become a Christian had to choose among his wives, a practice that caused incredible hardship. Last year the Tanzanian church adopted a new provision that permitted new converts to be baptized, along with their believing wives and children, although they may take no additional wives and still stay in the good graces of the church.