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Postcolonial Christianity is a Neopentecostal megachurch

3 March 2010

Anyone who has looked this blog recently will probably know that I’ve been doing research into the charismatic renewal movement in South African church history. That links with some related things, including discussions about postcolonial Christianity, which lots of people seem to have been blogging about. For example, Roger Saner writes about Amahoro: a gathering exploring post-colonial Christianity in Africa | FutureChurch; Reggie Nel writes about a piece of my mind….: postcolonial church; Jenny Hillebrand gives us Carpenter’s Shoes: Postcolonial Thoughts; Cobus van Wyngaard writes theology from the maid’s room: my contemplations; and from farther afield (and more academically inclined) The Task of the Postcolonial Theologian by Steve Hu: ISAAC Blog.

One of the things that strikes me in this is the difference between South Africa and the rest of the African continent. Some South Africans speak of “Africa” as if it were somewhere else, and not where we live. Perhaps there is a good reason for that, as I began to discover about 13 years ago, when someone asked me to make contact with a guy from Zaire (previously and now Congo), Lefaria Kimini, who was studying theology at the University of Pretoria. I was told he wanted to talk about Orthodox Christianity, but it turned out that he didn’t. He was starting a new church in Pretoria, and was soliciting donations for musical instruments, which he said were absolutely essential for a church in African culture.

That was news to me. In all my experience up to then, musical instruments in worship were a white thing. Predominantly black congregations had no use for them, and never used them. They sang a capella, like the Orthodox. It was whites who thought one couldn’t sing in church unless one had instruments. Zionists occasionally used drums, but that was about it. Those who didn’t have drums clapped hands, or enhanced the sound with Bibles, or a few would make vinyl covered pads, which they held in one hand while clapping on it with the other.

African culture, however, according to Lefaria Kimini, regarded electric guitars as an absolute minimum.

“African culture”, it seemed, was very different from South African black culture, though it seemed, from what Lefaria Kimini was saying, to have very strong affinities with South African white Neopentecostal culture.

Perhaps I should pause at this point to define terms. By “Pentecostal” I mean those denominations started about 100 years ago that emphasise the Holy Spirit in their teaching and practice, and especially in speaking in tongues. Zionists arose in the same milieu, but their emphasis was more on divine healing. The main Pentecostal denominations in South Africa are the Apostolic Faith Mission, the Assemblies of God and the Full Gospel Church of God. The “charismatic renewal” movement appeared about 50 years ago, in non-Pentecostal churches, and also emphasised gifts of the Holy Spirit. In South Africa it appeared in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and Congregational Churches — I’m not sure about Lutherans. In the 1960s new Pentecostal-type denominations appeared (some of them, paradoxically, and perhaps disingenuously, described themselves as “non-denominational”). I call them Neopentecostal. There were various kinds of Neopentecostal groups — Restorationist, Vineyard, and, perhaps most prominently, the megachurches like the Rhema Bible Church, Christian City, Christian Centres and the like. At least one congregation in Pretoria, the Hatfield Baptist Church, switched from being charismatic to the Neopentecostal megachurch model, renaming itself the Hatfield Christian Church and becoming a new denomination. Many of the megachurches also stress the “Word/Faith” teaching of prosperity — the Gospel contextualised for yuppies and yuppie culture.

The charismatic renewal reached its peak in the 1970s and 1980s, but has declined since then. Some of the people involved in it have moved on to other things. Some moved to Pentecostal or Neopentecostal churches. But one of the effects was the charismatisation or pentecostalisation of Christianity. There is a kind of generic Protestantism (which is even found in Roman Catholic churches) which has been influenced by Pentecostalism, Zionism and the charismatic movement and is found almost all denominations in a somewhat watered down form.

This phenomenon is described in a special issue of Missionalia (Vol 35, No 3, Nov 2007) on the teme “The Pentecostalisation of African Christianity”. It has an article by Tony Balcomb,Well-healed and well-heeled: Pentecostals in the new South Africa, and one by Damaris Seleina Parsitau, From the periphery to the centre: the Pentecostalisation of mainline Christianity in Kenya. The last is particularly interesting, because it suggests that the process in Kenya was the reverse of that in South Africa. In Kenya there were non-Pentecostal denominations, and then there were Spirit-type African Independent Churches (AICs), and there were some Pentecostal Churches that were small. But it is the Neopentecostals that are growing, and the “mainline” (ie non-Pentecostal) denominations that are adopting Neopentecostal practices “in order to survive”. The phrases “in order to survive” and “survival strategy” are repeated again and again throughout the article.

In South Africa the charismatic renewal appeared in the non-Pentecostal denominations before Neopentecostal churches appeared, with or without the help of classical Pentecostals. It was only after it began to wane there that there was an exodus to the Neopentecostals.

But an even more interesting interesting thing in Damaris Seleina Parsitau’s article is the point that the Neopentecostals are attracting people not merely from the “mainline” churches, but even more from the traditional AICs, which are the Kenyan equivalent of the Zionists in South Africa.

I was aware of this before, and have discussed it on a couple of TV programmes, 180 degrees, and African Perspectives. The traditional AICs are losing members to the Neopentecostals at an alarming rate. Parsitau describes the attraction of the Neopentecostals as follows:

A powerful youth orientation and attraction, the use and appropriation of media and other communication technologies, largely an urban phenomenon, a lay-oriented leadership, demonstration of leadership based on charisma, absence of religious symbolism in places of worship, the use of English as the principal mode of communication, internationalism, and an ardent desire to appear successful.

Parsitau notes that the music is backed by insturments, and that those who participate desire to appear modern, and that English is the language of modernity. And this is clearly the kind of church that Lefaria Kimini from Zaire/Congo had in mind.

This is what postcolonial Christianity in Africa looks like — globalised, pentecostalised, modernised. And contextualised for yuppies.

Parsitau’s article confirms some of the things that I have long suspected — that Neopentecostalism is growing in Africa at the expense of traditional AICs, and that it is an agent of modernity. Traditional AICs contextualised the “modern” Christianity brought by Western missionaries back to premodern African culture. The Zionists in southern Africa, the Aladura churches in West Africa and others in East Africa were able to do this quite easily because the Western missionaries had translated the Bible into local languages, and the Bible was a premodern book.

But the youth of Africa’s cities are not particularly interested in premodern culture. They are interested in modernity. And the Neopentecostal churches become both an expression of and a way to modernity. There are dangers in this. I’ve written elsewhere about the attitudes of some Neopentecostal churches to things like witchcraft and sorcery, and how it differs from that of the traditional AICs like the Zionists.

And perhaps this is another instance of where we in South Africa are out of step with the rest of the continent. Yes, Neopentecostal churches are growing here. But our theology has been different in many ways from that of the rest of the continent. Black Theology appeared in South Africa in the 1970s when the rest of the continet was thinking of African theology. We have spoken as if premodern values, like ubuntu were peculiarly African, and so they seemed, when compared with Western individualism. But essentially they were premodern. The Zulu proverb umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu (a person is a person because of people) expresses a communitarian worldview that is close to Orthodox anthropology, which is in many ways premodern. But all this is very far indeed from the individualistic and individualised success-oriented worldview that attracts the urban youth of Africa, and draws them to the Neopentecostal churches.

Is that why it seems to be mainly the white youth of South Africa who are looking for a postmodern expression of Christianity, rather than the modernity of the Neopentecostal hyperchurches? Is it necessary to go through modernity in order to reach postmodernity on the far side of it? Is  it, to adapt Marxian dialectics, neccessary to go through that stage of development in order to reach the far side. In classical Marxism the task of dedicated communists in an agrarian peasant society was to try to encourage the development of capitalism, because communism lay on the far side of it. It was Lenin who modified it by saying that one can take a short cut. But is a short cut possible? Is it necessary to go through modernity in order to reach the far side?

But to the world, it looks like something different. The Muslim programme host who interviewed me on TV a couple of years ago was quite sure that the charismatic movement was all about money. To him, charismatic churches preached a get-rich-quick message, and that seems to fit in  with the Zeitgeist of the not-so-new South Africa as well.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 March 2010 8:40 am

    “This is what postcolonial Christianity in Africa looks like — globalised, pentecostalised, modernised. And contextualised for yuppies.” LOL!

    Well then, this isn’t postcolonial Christianity at all – there’s nothing “post” in it.

  2. 3 March 2010 8:42 am

    “Is it necessary to go through modernity in order to reach postmodernity on the far side of it?”

    By definition, yes.

    • 3 March 2010 9:44 am

      No way round? None at all?

      • 3 March 2010 9:19 pm

        It’s remarkably modern – the idea that we have to go through modernism to reach post-modernism. Hauerwas points out that postmodernism is an invention of modernism, that says “Aha! Another new category into which we may put things.” And modernism is that great era just passing which we post-modernists have, at last, given an appropriate cubbyhole, much like medieval times were named by those who were certain they weren’t what had just been.
        We know that post-modernism has rejected some facets of modernism. But that modernism is a thing at all is a modern idea; we really have no idea whether that syndrome will ever be exactly repeated in non-Western cultures, let alone whether it is necessary. Let alone whether “it” really even “is,” except to that branch of modernists who now call ourselves post-modern.

        • 4 March 2010 10:11 am

          “It’s remarkably modern – the idea that we have to go through modernism to reach post-modernism. ”

          No, it’s not. The “post” in postmodern means “through” or “out on the other side”. Without modernity there would be no postmodernity.

          Steve asks if there’s another way to end up at postmodernity without going through modernism: no, there isn’t. But it’s possible to end up at a place which shares much similarity with postmodernity without going through modernism, but I can’t figure out how, except hypothetically.

          I think that many pre-modern cultures will necessarily go through modernism before being postmodern. I see this in the case where pre-modern Christians want the big church buildings, the big bands, the big worship experiences, and the big seminars (because they mean “success” and “progress”) whereas the postmoderns are questioning what of these things are necessary or desirable in the first place.

          This is exactly what’s happening within Amahoro. Many “pre-modern” Africans (I use that term a little loosely, knowing it can be condescending) want the accomodation to be 3-star and above, and the conference to be “big”, whereas many westerners (myself included) would rather stay with locals in their houses (in Uganda, or Kenya) than in a hotel, and would rather have a simpler gathering than a big conference with a big stage.

          My question, then, is, “How can I convince a pre-modern African Amahoro delegate that smaller and simpler is better, when that, to them, means ‘second class’?” I don’t have the answer to that, except to say, “Let the locals decide, even if it looks like ‘Bigger is better’.”

          • 4 March 2010 2:38 pm

            Roger,

            It’s not premodern people who want the three-star hotels etc. Those are the moderns, and the modernisers (not necessarily modernists, unless they press those points particularly hard).

            But if the locals really want those things at Amahoro, then how postcolonial (in Reggie’s sense) is Amahoro? Isn’t it simply, as I suggested in the post, “post” in the sense of after, what follows colonialism, chronologically, is an urge for modernity. But make no mistake — when that happens, “ubuntu” has been shoved aside by the cult of success, the “bitch goddess Success” I referred to in another post.

            If premoderns organise the conference, one of the things you might notice is “nothing digital” :-)

          • 4 March 2010 4:48 pm

            “It’s not premodern people who want the three-star hotels etc. ” Fair enough – I guess we could say “the modern African Christian”.

            How postcolonial is Amahoro? Very! That’s what I love about Kenzo Mabiala – he’s explicitly engaging with postcolonial thought and applying that to Christianity in Africa. Although this engagement is far over some people’s heads, it’s the ideological propulsion for Amahoro. It’s what, for me, makes the whole thing worthwhile. Kenzo cites the major contributors to postcolonial though, so even if they’re unfamiliar, people can look them up and read them later (as is happening for me).

            The postcolonial critique of colonialism overlaps with the postmodern critique of modernism, which puts Amahoro at a creative intersection of postcolonial African with postmodern Westerner, which is what makes this conversation so compelling.

            Given the importance of postcolonialism to Amahoro, it will be interesting when, inevitably, someone will bring up this question there: “If we’re critiquing colonialism, why the expensive accommodation?” It’s always difficult to apply a critique to oneself, and it will be a mark of increasing maturity once Amahoro starts this conversation.

            My guess is that’s it’s mainly the Western-oriented people who feel this dissonance, and so it’s up to them (us) to initiate that dialogue, and I can’t see any easy way to do that. The greatest risk is, of course, for the enlightened Westerner to tell the unenlightened African why they should not be pursuing “bigger-is-better”, and in the telling enacting the colonial power narrative again.

            So do the Westerners keep quiet, at the risk of not bringing forward a valuable contribution, or do they speak up, and risk propagating dominance?

            I’d like to hope there is a third way, and I suspect it has something to do with relationship and respect.

          • 4 March 2010 5:03 pm

            Roger

            I think you’re right.

  3. Reggie permalink
    3 March 2010 9:02 am

    I agree with Roger and am a bit surprised at your definition of ‘postcolonial’. (Actually you don’t define it) Here it seems to be defined as ‘ black’. You’ve made the point in another conversation that black christianity is neopentecostal..etc. I can agree that more and more younger black yuppies go for the Rhema-type churches. That’s nothing new.
    Postcolonial is however something totally different. It relates to an anti-colonial and imperial movement, which goes against the grain of the aforementioned collusion with neo-colonialism.

    • 3 March 2010 9:40 am

      Reggie,

      No, not black, because lots of white people are into it too. The question is (and I don’t claim to have the answer): what does the post-colonial church look like, when the popular trend is looking distinctly neo-colonial?

      • 4 March 2010 4:51 pm

        “what does the post-colonial church look like, when the popular trend is looking distinctly neo-colonial?” Ja, this is the question! I would say that a postcolonial church is one which is explicity engaging with postcolonial thought and its application to the Gospel. Are any Christian communities doing this? The only one I know of is Tom Smith’s, yes?

        • 5 March 2010 11:29 am

          And how do you see it applying to the gospel? Again I ask, what does (or would) a postcolonial church look like? Or what wouldn’t it look like?

  4. 3 March 2010 11:20 am

    In Britain, the pentecostalisation of Christianity is thought to be due to a craving for “experiences” – a sense of connection, being born again, speaking in tongues – all are intense experiences that make the person feel special and set apart. This would also explain the rise of New Age and Pagan spirituality, as these are often about seeking “experiences” too. People get into ever more intense forms of religion because they crave intense experience. Maybe they should just get into extreme sports instead ;)

    If you want a theoretical framework for all this, it’s worth reading Spiritual Revolution by Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead.

    • 3 March 2010 1:59 pm

      Yewtree,

      I think there are too many theoretical frameworks — ‘social deprivation theories’ (doesn’t really fit yuppie religion, does it?) and many others. I’ve just typed half a chapter of them, but I think I’ll discard most of it.

      I saw an ad for a TV series on “Xtreme fishing” the other day — I assume that’s catching sharks barehanded!

      I think you’ve seen my post on Notes from underground: Christianity, paganism and literature (synchroblog), so I won’t ask you to read it again, but just quote something I said there — that my “theory” was that there was a reaction against secularism and secularisation, and modernity among both neopagans and Christians, and on the Christian side ‘By the end of the decade, however, a reaction had set in. The charismatic renewal had become institutionalised and domesticated in a kind of Protestant neo-scholasticism. A thousand loose-cannon prophets receiving direct revelations from the Holy Spirit (so they said) found that these revelations seemed to concern all the other groups and teachings but theirs, and began calling on the faithful to “Come out of Babylon” and join their particular version of the New Jerusalem. The denunciations became stronger, and the tolerance of deviation less, and euphoria of the 1970s led to the hangover of the 1980s, which some called “charismatic burn-out”.’

      I’m still testing that theory.

  5. 4 March 2010 5:54 am

    I find interesting the commonalities between post-colonial South Africa and post-colonial Jamaica where I live. The pentecostalisation of Christianity is certainly very alive in my country. Some mainstream churches here have needed to adopt pentecostalist practices to stay competitive.

    Incidentally, I much appreciate your quoting one of my favourite proverbs: umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu (a person is a person because of people).

    Yvonne
    http://www.lifelinesproverbs.com

  6. 6 March 2010 5:28 am

    Hi Steve,

    Just a couple thoughts here: 1) your observations of neo-pentecostal are interesting. Other than the mention of the Vineyard, the other groups would simply be variations of Pentecostalism here. I am not sure I see neo- being introduced by the use of media. Although it would certainly have a greater impact there than it has here. 2) the media factor is the way missions from the west has navigated. Send money to build something, send computers, send sound systems to reach larger numbers…. This is as much a technology colonialism as a church missionary colonialism. MIT has joined the colonialism by being the place from which One Laptop per Child was initiated.

    I don’t have much else to say about it ‘cept that, and thanks for being the thinker you are.

    • 6 March 2010 6:02 am

      Phil,

      Thanks for the comment. I think the main difference between “classical” Pentecostals and Neopentecostals is that the former had a rather clearly worked out doctrine of “baptism in the Holy Spirit”, and speaking in tongues as the initial evidence for this. Neopentecostals encourage spiritual gifts, but don’t seem to put quite so much emphasis on tongues. And in the case of the megachurches, there is usually an emphasis on the prosperity teaching of the Kenneths – Hagin and Copeland, and the cult of looking successful (even if you aren’t).

  7. 8 March 2010 8:42 pm

    Hi Steve – thanks for this discussion and for the link to my blog. Sorry that this is first chance I’ve had to come and read it properly.
    There was a very useful article written a while back – I don’t know if anyone could find it – by ‘Stray’ who used to post at Emerging Africa. He suggested that African leaders have simply adopted a colonial approach themselves, now that they are the ones in a position to benefit – I think he used Robert Mugabe as an example. This sounds so similar to what you are saying is happening in the church.
    I don’t know if I’m being overly cynical, or realistic, but it seems that your ‘neocolonialism’ is about appearances as you suggest. We do all the things that successful people/ churches do, but without the reason for it – without the growing into it. We use powerpoint and sound systems – even though everyone knows the songs and the operator can’t keep up anyway and the sound system is ‘peaking’ because the preacher is shouting so loudly. We prepare acrostic talks, but the content is subject to the outline, not vice versa. It all looks clever. I do think that you have hit the nail on the head in saying that modernism rules. Or is it, in many cases, a premodernism that unquestioningly embraces the modern paradigm?
    And we white colonialists who want to be postcolonialists are begging the (often black) neo-colonialists to please move on quickly or we don’t want to say anything so we just wait and hope.
    This is long enough – thanks for the food for thought.

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