Postcolonial Christianity is a Neopentecostal megachurch
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.