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The new face of African Christianity

23 August 2010

Did Jesus Wear Designer Robes? | The Lausanne Global Conversation:

The growth of non-Western Christianity across Africa is largely due to the New Pentecostal Churches. Upwardly-mobile youth are drawn to their dynamic worship styles and pursuit of wealth and success. The prosperity gospel has found fertile soil as it resonates with tribal religion. Prosperity promoters raise serious theological concerns. The gospel of Jesus Christ neither glorifies poverty nor prosperity.

For thousands of believers in Ghana, “Jericho Hour” is the place to be on a Thursday morning. Founded in 1998, this prayer meeting—where “giant solutions await your giant problems”—is hosted by Archbishop Nicholas Duncan-Williams in the Prayer Cathedral on Accra’s Spintex Road. Three thousand make their way there to pray for breakthroughs in business, for international travel, for a suitable spouse, and, when experiencing setbacks, for vengeance on those spiritually responsible.

Sociologist Peter L. Berger responds to this with an another article, Redeeming Prosperity | The Lausanne Global Conversation:

The article by Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu represents a view of the so-called “prosperity gospel” that has become conventional in wide circles of mainstream churches as well as among secular intellectuals and media. This view has colored the overall perception of the huge Pentecostal community, which is by no means co-extensive with the “prosperity gospel,” but which has been the principal growth area of the latter, especially in the Global South. Its message can be simply stated: Material betterment will be the result of faith. Asamoah-Gyadu, along with many commentators in Africa and elsewhere, interprets this message as a distortion of Christian faith, an unholy mixture of Western materialism and traditional magic. As to those who preach the message, they are exploiters of the poor, latter-day successors of the salesmen of indulgences, whose excesses sparked the 16th century Protestant Reformation: “As soon as the coin hits the collection plate, a soul jumps out of purgatory.”

This interpretation of the “prosperity gospel” ties in with an important debate concerning the empirical consequences for development of the Pentecostal explosion: Is Pentecostalism to be understood as a positive factor in terms of modernization and development? Or is it rather a retrograde influence, trapping its adherence ([sic] adherents?) in a passive acceptance of poverty?

I don’t want to go into all the arguments of these articles here, to agree or disagree with them, though I think they are worth reading, and there is more to be said on the topic. The thing that interests me particularly is that the Neopentecostal groups that Asamoah-Gyadu and Berger refer to are also agents in the spread of modernity.

A couple of years ago I was invited to participate in TV debates on the topic. I got a phone call from Mpho Tsedu of the SABC, who wanted me to take part in a TV panel discussion on AICs. He said that people were leaving the AICs and joining the neopentecostal charismatic churches like Rhema. I wasn’t aware of a big movement in that direction, but I agreed to take part in the show. He said he was a member of an AIC himself. The second one was a discussion on the church and money, and the main focus was on the prosperity gospel.

And it seems that yes, there is a movement away from traditional African independent churches (mainly Zionist) towards Neopentecostal churches that are preaching a prosperity gospel. Mpho Tsedu was clearly worried about this trend, as were other members of traditional AICs.

And there is an interesting contrast, because this seems to confirm my thesis that the traditional AICs were agents of premodernity, whereas the Neopentecostals are agents of modernity.

In the 19th century Western missionaries came to Africa bringing a gospel that in their home countries had fairly recently been contextualised to conform to modernity. What we call “modernity” they tended to call “civilization”. And they said their task was to bring “civilization” as well as Christianity to Africa. But African societies were mostly premodern, and the AICs recontextualised the gospel back to fit premodern societies. It helped that the Western missionaries brought the Bible and translated it into local languages, and the Bible was a premodern book. Thus the main spread of Christianity in Africa was through AICs.

Now there is an increasing demand for modernisation, and the Neopentecostal churches, which have adopted and adapted the prosperity gospel from the West, are recontextualising it for a modernising Africa, and so becoming agents of modernity.

Some of the traditional AICs have manifested some features of prosperity teaching, especially the larger denominations like the Zion Christian Church in South Africa, but they have not made that such an important pillar of their teaching as the Neopentecostal churches do.

Asamoah-Gyadu, however, touches on a point that Berger seems to overlook: Did Jesus Wear Designer Robes? | The Lausanne Global Conversation:

When prosperity is lacking, the explanation given is failure to pay a tithe to the church, or it may be linked to demonic forces, curses, and witchcraft perpetrated by envious family members. Churches offer “anointing for vengeance” to help dismantle such spiritual traps. Services in charismatic churches include imprecatory prayers of sometimes alarming vengefulness.

And this seems to confirm another thesis of mine. Traditional AICs, unlike the modernising 19th-century Western missionaries, took African beliefs and fears about witchcraft seriously. They protected their members against the harmful effects of witchcraft, but they did not generally go in for vengeance. The pagan belief in many African societies was that witches were incorrigible, and that therefore the only way of dealing with the threat they posed was to kill them. Christians, especially Zionist Christians, had a different view. They believed that no sin was too great to be repented of, and witches who repented, therefore, could be reintegrated into society. Thus traditional AICs were not generally into witchhunting, and they did not encourage their members to engage in it. There have, however, been several highly publicised instances of Neopentecostal churches taking the opposite approach. Perhaps that is something that the Lausanne conversation needs to be taking more notice of.

And there is yet another thesis that seems to be confirmed by all this, namely that witchhunting is a phenomenon that is especially common in societies making a transition from premodernity to modernity. Witchhunts were common in Early Modern Europe, when Europe was making the transition to modernity, and something similar seems to be happening in Africa.

Another observation, which I’ve made before but will repeat: in Africa the Emerging Church movement, which is in some ways a reaction against the Neopentecostal megachurches that have developed over the last 30 years, seems to be largely confined to white youth, at least in South Africa, though the Emerging Church movement itself seems to be declining. The white youth often belong to the Western Initiated Churches that brought modernity to Africa, and, having their doubts about that, are seeking postmodernity.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Seraphim permalink
    23 August 2010 9:45 am

    Beautifully put.

  2. 24 August 2010 6:02 am

    Dear Father Steve: I finally got around to posting that essay on a critique of Eastern Orthodox theology, I wrote it with you in mind.
    William Holland
    Faith & Reason Collide,

  3. 24 August 2010 10:28 pm

    Dear Fr. Steve: You have written on a profoundly difficult yet contemporary and vital concern, namely the social, psychological and economic impact of Christianity in African nations that seem to experience economic growth. Although this is not the expressed interest opinion in your article, it is simply irrefutable, Nations throughout Africa that have past contact with Christianity and have repudiated Marxism are flourishing. I do not think it is particular to Protestantism, although, if Catholics remain preaching and interacting with native Africans in an archaic manner, elevating the very institution that is to help them, Catholicism will become diminished. Pope Benedict is correct in witnessing Africa as the fault line for the future of Orthodox faith, for first world countries are drowning in secular pessimism. I for one, would like to quarry the interaction especially liturgically between Africans, their Protestant faith and the move toward modernity.
    I think it necessary to bear witness to trends in globilization and the easy movement or capital toward Africa, witness Ghana, and now Rawanda and for the most part Bostwana. All have become magnets for western business primarily because of their education PERFORMED BY RELIGIOUS! As always, are thunder get’s stolen.
    I hope you continue to read and bear witness to the profound change that is currently sweeping Africa. I have written a post critical of Greek orthodoxy that I promised you some time ago, I hope you enjoy it.
    Keep the faith.

  4. 26 August 2010 3:54 pm

    Your thesis of a move from pre-modern to modern seems to coincide with a move from modern to post-modern in other parts of the world and IMHO from pre-modern to post-modern in the Middle East. My perception has been that most people trying to communicate the Gospel in the Middle East have been modernist and have thus sailed between the pre- and post- modern communicating very little.

  5. DANIEL KIPRUTO permalink
    10 September 2010 8:34 am

    how has modernization affected worship in traditional african societies?

    • 10 September 2010 9:40 am

      In this neck of the woods it’s usually commuted to a cash payment — and it’s one of the reasons that many young coules only get married once they’ve had several children


  1. Neopentecostal megachurches and their celebrity pastors | Khanya

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