Evangelical churches shake up the social order in Africa
Posted Thursday, October 29 2009 at 18:16
The fire of Pentecostal evangelism is burning through the continent scorching “sins” and shaking the religio-political status quo to its very foundation. Meanwhile, traditional churches are watching helplessly as their members defect en masse to the Pentecostal churches.
Just a week ago in Kenya, Bishop Margaret Wanjiru’s Jesus is Alive Ministries, a Pentecostal church, received Maina Njenga. Njenga is not your normal Sunday service convert but the leader of the Mungiki, an ancestral worship “sect” complete with a political and economic arm that has been linked to brutal killings in Kenya and Mafia-like extortion rings. Njenga’s triumphal march — followed by thousands of Mungiki adherents who had suddenly ‘seen the light’ — into Bishop Wanjiru’s Nairobi church happened a day after the State dropped murder charges against him.
Evangelical church services are characterised by a spiritually charged atmosphere, energetic singing, dancing and passionate prayer. Sermons are delivered by charismatic pastors, some of them highly educated and modelling their preaching along the lines of American gospel greats such as TD Jakes.
The youth and a considerable chunk of senior citizens find Pentecostal church services more exciting than the subdued and even staid worship marked by silent congregations listening to soporific music that the first European missionaries brought here.
“Africans want things done powerfully,” says Rev Nathan Samwini of the Christian Council of Ghana. “You meet white evangelicals from America — they behave like Africans. They are vibrant, everything is done with vigour.”
Material and spiritual success is a core element of their message which, on a continent where a significant section of the population is poor, attracts a huge number of people. “African realities make them open to faith,” says Luis Bush, a renowned evangelist and a cousin of former US President George Bush.
“When a person is in that kind of need, it makes them much more open to external relief and belief than if you have comfort. Poverty really opens you up to spirituality,” he adds.
Promoting a pragmatic and entrepreneurial approach to Christian life, Pentecostal evangelists attract young impressionable people from urban areas and dissatisfied older generations from the mainstream denominations. This is aided by the fact that their church meetings tend to be joyous fanfares with loud music and dancing reminiscent of festive carnivals. The sermons are crafted along popular themes such as miracle healing, financial breakthrough, finding marriage partners and freedom from demonic bondage — all based on a literal interpretation of Bible stories. Most underplay the hallmarks of traditional Christianity such as humility, submission and meekness.
Twenty-nine-year-old Charles Kasibante, a former Catholic who joined the Miracle Centre Church in Kampala, says he feels more spiritual.
“I was hanging out in the wrong places with the wrong people. Then in 1994 I went to a ‘born-again church’. The charismatic preaching, the dancing and the singing appealed to me.”
According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, about 17 million Africans described themselves as born-again Christians in 1970. Today the figure has soared to more than 400 million, which accounts for roughly 19 per cent of the continent’s population.
But as the fire of evangelism spreads across the continent, so does greed and materialism. This expansion has led to the emergence of mega-churches, sanctuaries visited by thousands of worshippers every week, and media-savvy celebrity pastors enjoying all the trappings of power, including bodyguards, limos, nice homes, designer suits and pride of place at important State functions.
Their role models are American ‘prosperity gospel’ preachers like Morris Cerullo, Robert Tilton, Creflo Dollar, John Avanzini and Marilyn Hickey.
The glamour and glitz associated with these successful evangelists has greatly increased the number of those heeding the call to serve as ministers, which has led to an unprecedented multiplication and fragmentation of evangelical churches in recent decades.
Winning members is a cut-throat business employing all forms of publicity, the most preferred being televangelism.
To beat competition, some of the preachers claim to have all sorts of miracle working powers besides branding their establishments with catchy names. House of Harvest, Mountain of Fire, Prayer Palace and Miracle Centre are just a few examples.
In Kenya alone, almost 100 churches submit registration requests everyday to the Registrar of Societies. Some are eventually registered as the pastors’ private property, exclusively co-owned with spouse and family, which explains the numerous protracted church ownership tussles that sometimes end up in court.
A 10-nation survey by US-based Pew Forum indicated that Kenya was the most evangelical African nation with 56 per cent of its Christians being born-again, beating the more populous South Africa and Nigeria at 34 and 26 per cent respectively. The concept of being “born-again” used to be very unpopular with the working class but these new Pentecostal movements and mega-churches have glamourised it by recruiting young urban professionals, students and high ranking government officials through emotional messages and Christianisation of secular music genres such as rock, hip-hop and reggae that are popular with the youth.