Many of the new pentecostal churches clearly thrive on the prosperity gospel. Their popularity stems from their preaching and promise of success through riches.
Often, they are patronised by people after this success, which also means that these followers are not exactly rich. The result is an exodus of faithful from the more established and conservative churches. Though rarely documented, there is a wide chasm between these two groups of churches.
A professor of African christianity at the University of London, Paul Gifford, captures this rift well in his book, Christianity, Politics and Public Life in Kenya.
He uses the probe on devil worship ordered by the Moi government in 1994 as a point of illustration. He notes that while it is impossible to produce sufficient evidence of satanism, influential members of mainstream churches and, by extension, the National Council of Churches of Kenya, endorsed the probe.
The mandate of the commission set up at the time was to establish the extent and effects of devil worship and its infiltration into learning institutions and society. It was also to establish its reported link to drug abuse and other anti-social activities and make recommendations to deal with the menace.
The author notes, rather ruefully, that “the blanket demonisation of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, ‘‘sects’’ and ‘‘freelance preachers’’, all categorised as linked to satan, served to bolster the influence of mainline churches.” Among the commission’s recommendations was that chaplains be appointed in all secondary schools, and that religious education be promoted in schools and universities.
Their report said the mushrooming and infiltration of splinter religious groups and sects threatened the existence of established churches and provided doorways to satanism.
According to Christianity, Politics and Public Life in Kenya, some mainline churches saw the report as an effort to get the security apparatus to counter and even reverse this trend.
Without appearing to be judgemental, Gifford appears to say the emerging churches cannot escape censure. The book says these churches have increasingly become influential among ordinary Kenyans. Such is their influence that they are only second to political leaders.
In Kenya, matters to do with spirituality are seldom questioned, and church leaders are accused of using this to exploit and mislead their followers.
The book also discusses how exploitative pyramid schemes were given a religious hue – planting the seed – to make them acceptable to the masses. Thus, the churches perpetrated the fraud.
In early 2007, the Central Bank warned that the proliferation of pyramid schemes could affect economic growth, as their operations were not related to production of goods and services.
“The standard phraseology for all such pyramid schemes was ‘planting seed money’,” he writes. “Most participants were drawn in through motivational talks, almost sermons. One group of losers said they were first introduced to the scheme at church ‘where the pastor gave them a long talk on the benefits of the scheme and its connection with christianity.”
The book cites George Donde, the chief executive of DECI which was at the centre of the pyramid saga, as a former National Council of Churches of Kenya coordinator of small businesses. He is said to have “claimed to have worked in Bangladesh with pioneers in micro-finance, the Grameen Bank, and presented it as ‘founded on biblical teaching’.”
The author has a particularly interesting take on Apostle James Ng’ang’a’s Neno church. Apostle Ng’ang’a is a preacher who enthrals audiences, both in the church and on TV, with his numerous duels with the devil and evil spirits. “Ng’ang’a who … finds spiritual casualty everywhere … his followers tended to be poorer and less educated,” Gifford writes.
The author traces the roots of what he calls pentecostalism in Kenya to the US, where the prosperity gospel has been taken to a whole new level. He talks of mega churches in the US, which are basically personality driven, and whose central theme is success and riches. The mantra here is “God wants you to be rich’’.
The book cites personalities such as Reinhard Bonnke ‘‘whose crusades were simply money-spinning ventures’’. But Bonnke has been overshadowed by the emergence of preachers such as T.D. Jakes.
“However, tastes seem to be changing,” writes Gifford. “In Kenya these preachers – like Korea’s David Cho and Morris Cerullo – seem to have been eclipsed in their pulling power by African-Americans like T.D. Jakes, Juanita Bynum and Eddie Long, and Bonnke has even closed his African office in Nairobi.”
“I have argued that this pentecostal christianity centres primarily on success/victory/wealth,” he writes. “That is why it is misleading to describe the christianity as evangelical, for even the basic ideas of evangelism have been transformed out of all recognition, even if the words are preserved.” He describes the pastors of the newer churches as “religious entrepreneurs, examples of an entire new class of religious professional, the church founder-owner-leader”.
“The church is the source of livelihood,” says the book, which also talks about how these churches have taken offerings – planting the seed – to a whole new level. “Sometimes giving is encouraged gently enough by testifying that one’s own wealth came as a result of giving … not infrequently, however, there is considerable pressure exerted. Sometimes this is just bullying.”
He quotes an international preacher who told his flock thus: “If God knows that you do not know how to give to Him, He will not heal you of your disease, neither will He be your guide in life.”
It is this preoccupation with material riches that has brought about greed among many preachers. And cases abound of preachers who have been taken to court for swindling their followers claiming they had the power to cure them of illnesses like HIV/Aids.
The book is complete with the narration of the soap opera-style shifts by preachers such as Margaret Wanjiru and Pius Muiru to the political podium.
Gifford also touches on the seemingly pervasive influence of the North American type of christianity which, he says, borders on fundamentalism and Zionism – traits that appear to have been blindly aped by the Kenyan churches, which are always on the lookout for that extra dollar from the parent churches.