The new face of African Christianity
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.