EVANGELISM AND THE GROWTH OF
PENTECOSTALISM IN AFRICA

Allan Anderson

Centre for Missiology and World Christianity

University of Birmingham, Selly Oak, Birmingham B29 6LQ, UK

 

         

Characteristics of Pentecostal Evangelism

In many parts of the world, Pentecostals are notorious for rather aggressive forms of evangelism and proselytism, and Africa is no exception. From its beginning, the Pentecostal movement was characterised by an emphasis on evangelistic outreach, and Pentecostal mission strategy placed evangelism as its highest priority. Evangelism meant to go out and reach the ‘lost’ for Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. The beginnings of North American Pentecostalism in the Azusa Street revival of Los Angeles resulted in a category of ordinary but ‘called’ people called ‘missionaries’ fanning out to every corner of the globe within a remarkably short space of time. ‘Mission’ was mainly understood as ‘foreign mission’ (mostly from ‘white’ to ‘other’ peoples), and these missionaries were mostly untrained and inexperienced. Their only qualification was the baptism in the Spirit and a divine call, their motivation and task was to evangelise the world before the imminent coming of Christ, and so evangelism was more important than education or ‘civilisation’.[i] Pentecostal missiologist Grant McClung says that early Pentecostals had a ‘last days mission theology’ as follows: ‘Premillenialism, dispensationalism, and the belief in the imminency of Christ’s return forged the evangelistic fervor of the movement in its infancy’.[ii] Premillenialism rose to prominence in the late 19th Century, and the idea that the gospel must be preached to all nations before the imminent return of Christ was fuelled by the Scofield Reference Bible and the writings of AB Simpson, both popular among western Pentecostals at least until the seventies.[iii]

Gary McGee describes the first twenty years of Pentecostalism as mostly ‘chaotic in operation’. Reports filtering back to the West to garnish newsletters would be full of optimistic and triumphalistic accounts of how many people were converted, healed and had received Spirit baptism, seldom mentioning any difficulties encountered or the inevitable cultural blunders made. Early Pentecostal missionaries from North America and Europe were mostly paternalistic, often creating dependency, and sometimes they were even racist.[iv] There were notable exceptions to this general chaos, however. As Willem Saayman has observed, most Pentecostal movements ‘came into being as missionary institutions’ and their mission work was ‘not the result of some clearly thought out theological decision, and so policy and methods were formed mostly in the crucible of missionary praxis’. It must be acknowledged that despite the seeming naiveté of many early Pentecostals, their evangelistic methods were flexible, pragmatic and astonishingly successful. They claimed that the rapid growth of the Pentecostal movement vindicated the apostle Paul’s statement that God uses the weak and despised to confound the mighty. Pentecostal churches all over the world were missionary by nature, and the dichotomy between ‘church’ and ‘mission’ that for so long plagued other Christian churches did not exist. This ‘central missiological thrust’ was clearly a ‘strong point in Pentecostalism’ and central to its existence.[v]

This rapid spread was not without its serious difficulties, however. The parochialism and rivalry of many Pentecostal missions made ecumenical co-operation difficult. The tendencies towards paternalism created a reluctance to listen to voices from the Third World, and the need for a greater involvement in the plight of the poor and in opposing socio-political oppression are some of the issues that must be addressed. But in spite of these problems, the Pentecostalism today has many lessons for the universal church in its mission. Gary McGee observes:

   The history of Pentecostal missions demonstrates that the Pentecostals have rarely retreated from challenges, affirming         dependence on the Holy Spirit to guide their responses. Their irrepressible advance from obscurity to center stage within ninety years suggests that only the unwary will underestimate their fortitude.[vi]

Pentecostals believe that the coming of the Spirit brings the ability to perform ‘signs and wonders’ in the name of Jesus Christ to accompany and authenticate their evangelism. Pentecostals all over the world, but especially in the Third World, see the role of healing as good news for the poor and afflicted. Early 20th Century Pentecostal newsletters and periodicals abounded with ‘thousands of testimonies to physical healings, exorcisms and deliverances’.[vii] McClung says that divine healing is an ‘evangelistic door-opener’ for Pentecostals, and that ‘signs and wonders’ are the ‘evangelistic means whereby the message of the kingdom is actualized in “person-centered” deliverance’.[viii] The ‘signs and wonders’ promoted by independent Pentecostal evangelists led to the rapid growth of Pentecostal churches in many parts of the world, although have seldom been without controversy.[ix] The Pentecostal understanding of the preaching of the Word in evangelism was that  ‘signs and wonders’ should accompany it, and divine healing in particular was an indispensable part of Pentecostal evangelistic methodology.[x]

Indeed, in many cultures of the world, and especially in Africa, a major attraction for Pentecostalism has been its emphasis on healing. In these cultures, the religious specialist or ‘person of God’ has power to heal the sick and ward off evil spirits and sorcery. This holistic function, which does not separate the ‘physical’ from the ‘spiritual’, is restored in Pentecostalism, and indigenous peoples see it as a ‘powerful’ religion to meet human needs. For some Pentecostals, faith in God’s power to heal directly through prayer resulted in a rejection of other methods of healing. The numerous healings reported by Pentecostal evangelists confirmed that God’s Word was true, God’s power was evidently on their efforts, and the result was that many were persuaded to become Christians. This emphasis on healing is so much part of Pentecostal evangelism, especially in Africa, that large public campaigns and tent crusades preceded by great publicity are frequently used in order to reach as many ‘unevangelised’ people as possible. Hollenweger says that Pentecostals are ‘efficient evangelists’ because of ‘the power of their experience’.[xi] Although we may regard some manifestations of Pentecostalism with amusement, disdain or even alarm, we dare not ignore this enormous factor in world Christianity.

 

Orality and the Pentecostal Gospel

The relationship between the gospel and culture, and by implication, the relationship between the Christian faith and other faiths, is a much debated topic. The expansion of Pentecostalism in Africa in the 20th Century can be attributed, at least partially, to cultural factors. Whether we like it or not, this encounter cannot be avoided. Walter Hollenweger sees the ‘oral structures’ of Pentecostalism, like Christianity itself, to be the reason for its initial growth, and not in any ‘particular Pentecostal doctrine’. Hollenweger’s list of characteristics of these structures is well known: oral liturgy, narrative theology and witness, reconciliatory and participant community, the inclusion of visions and dreams in worship, and understanding the relationship between body and mind revealed in healing by prayer and liturgical dance. These are also predominantly African cultural features, evident in the leadership of the African American Azusa Street revival leader William Seymour, whose ‘spirituality lay in his past’. His Pentecostal experience meant more than speaking in tongues and included loving in the face of hateful racism. For Hollenweger, Seymour represents the ‘reconciling Pentecostal experience’ and ‘a congregation where everybody is a potential contributor to the liturgy’. Seymour’s Pentecostalism is ‘the oral missionary movement, with spiritual power to overcome racism and chauvinism’.[xii] Hollenweger elaborates on these oral structures in Pentecostal music and liturgy, pointing out that spontaneity and enthusiasm, rather than leading to an absence of liturgy, produce flexible oral liturgies memorised by the Pentecostal congregation. The most important element of these liturgies is the active participation of every member in the congregation.[xiii] Pentecostal liturgy has social and revolutionary implications, in that it empowers marginalised people. It takes as acceptable what ordinary people have in the worship of God and thus overcomes ‘the real barriers of race, social status, and education’.[xiv]

Hollenweger demonstrates the pervading influence of the Azusa Street revival, both upon early Pentecostalism and upon later forms of the movement, especially in the Third World, where the majority of Pentecostal adherents now live. Pentecostalism is not a predominantly western movement, but both fundamentally and dominantly a Third World phenomenon. In spite of its significant growth in North America, probably less than a quarter of its members in the world today are white, and this proportion continues to decrease.[xv] The Pentecostal emphasis on ‘freedom in the Spirit’ has rendered the movement inherently flexible in different cultural and social contexts. This has made the transplanting of its central tenets in the Third World and among marginalised minorities in the western world more easily assimilated. In Africa, this has resulted in a plethora of indigenous Christian movements that loosely may be termed ‘Pentecostal’. Juan Sepúlveda, a Chilean Pentecostal, writes that the reason for the dynamic expansion of Pentecostalism in his country is to be found in its ability ‘to translate the Protestant message into the forms of expression of the local popular culture’.[xvi] Harvey Cox declares that the great strength of what he terms the ‘Pentecostal impulse’ lies in ‘its power to combine, its aptitude for the language, the music, the cultural artefacts, the religious tropes... of the setting in which it lives’.[xvii] This was quite different from the prevailing mission ethos at the turn of the 20th Century. Many older missionary churches arose in western contexts of set liturgies, theologies, highly educated and professional clergy, and patterns of church structures and leadership with strongly centralised control. This often contributed to the feeling in the Third World that these churches were ‘foreign’, and that people first had to become westerners before becoming Christians. In contrast, the Pentecostal emphasis on immediate personal experience of God’s power by his Spirit was more intuitive and emotional, and it recognised charismatic leadership and indigenous church patterns wherever they arose. In most cases, leadership was not kept long in the hands of western missionaries, and the proportion of missionaries to church members was usually much lower than that of older missions.

In Africa, preaching a message that promised solutions for present felt needs like sickness and the fear of evil spirits, Pentecostal missionaries (who were most often local people) were heeded and their ‘full gospel’ readily accepted by ordinary African people. Churches were rapidly planted as a result. African Initiated Churches[xviii] are mostly churches of a Pentecostal type that have contextualised and indigenised Christianity in Africa. They are ‘the African expression of the worldwide Pentecostal movement’ because of both their Pentecostal style and their Pentecostal origins.[xix] Robert Anderson points out that whereas classical Pentecostals in North America usually define themselves in terms of the doctrine of ‘initial evidence’, the Pentecostal movement is more correctly to be understood in a much broader context as a movement concerned primarily with the experience of the working of the Holy Spirit and the practice of spiritual gifts.[xx] Chinese American Pentecostal Amos Yong suggests that the Pentecostal experience is best described as ‘the complex of encounters with the Spirit’.[xxi] I have also argued elsewhere for the inclusion of African ‘Pentecostal-type’ churches as ‘Pentecostal’ movements because of their emphasis and experience of the Spirit,[xxii] and the same could be argued for many Pentecostal churches all over the Third World. In African Pentecostalism, experience and practice are usually more important than the preciseness of dogma.

 

Evangelism, Indigenisation and Culture

Indigenisation is a principle that has been hotly debated and little understood. Sometimes an attempt made by well-meaning foreign missionaries to create a ‘supra cultural’ or ‘universal’ church in reality is a glorification of the missionaries’ own culture. The ‘gospel’ is therefore confused with ‘culture’, it has been colonialized, and a spurious ‘Christian culture’ is offered in place of a genuine and relevant Christian message. One of the outstanding features of African Pentecostals is their religious creativity and spontaneously indigenous character, a characteristic held as an ideal by western missions for over a century. The ‘three self’ formula for indigenisation was automatically and effortlessly achieved by many Pentecostal movements long before this goal was realised by older western mission churches. Pioneering Pentecostal missiologist Melvin Hodges, former US Assemblies of God missionary in Central America, enthusiastically embraced and enlarged Rufus Anderson and Henry Venn’s ‘three self’ policy of church planting, the main theme of his The Indigenous Church, but also introduced an emphasis lacking in earlier works on the subject. The foundation for indigenisation to happen was the Holy Spirit. Declared Hodges:

There is no place on earth where, if the gospel seed be properly planted, it will not produce an indigenous church. The Holy Spirit can work in one country as well as in another. To proceed on the assumption that the infant church in any land must always be cared for and provided for by the mother mission is an unconscious insult to the people that we endeavour to serve, and is evidence of a lack of faith in God and in the power of the gospel.[xxiii]

This was undoubtedly prophetic in 1953 and had a profound impact on the growth of the Assemblies of God in many parts of the world since. Hodges may have missed the fact that churches are not guaranteed to become indigenous by attaining ‘three selfhood’ unless the ‘three selfs’ are no longer patterned on foreign forms of being church, and unless those churches are grounded in the thought patterns and symbolism of popular culture. But for Hodges, the foundation for Pentecostal mission and the reason for its continued expansion is the ‘personal filling of the Holy Spirit’ who gives gifts of ministry to untold thousands of ‘common people’, creating active, vibrantly expanding and indigenous churches all over the world.[xxiv]

In fact, thriving Pentecostal ‘indigenous churches’ were established in many parts of Africa without the help of ‘foreign missionaries’ at all. These churches were founded in innovative evangelistic initiatives unprecedented in Christian history, motivated by a compelling need to preach and even more significantly, to experience a new message of the power of the Spirit. Harvey Cox suggests two vitally important and underlying factors, that ‘for any religion to grow in today’s world it must possess two capabilities’. First, ‘it must be able to include and transform at least certain elements of preexisting religions which still retain a strong grip on the cultural subconscious’. Secondly, ‘it must also equip people to live in rapidly changing societies’. He finds these two ‘key ingredients’ in Pentecostalism.[xxv] The inevitable question to be asked in assessing Pentecostalism in Africa is to what extent is this an inculturated Christianity that has adapted to and transformed its cultural and religious environment. Most of Pentecostalism in Africa is more obviously an inculturated adaptation than a foreign imposition, with inevitable exceptions. African Pentecostalism is in constant interaction with the African spirit world, and those who censure African churches for their alleged ‘syncretism’ often fail to see that parallels with ancient religions and cultures in their practices are also often continuous with the Biblical revelation. Western Pentecostals do not have to look very far to see the same cultural and religious influences in their own forms of Christianity — one example is the capitalistic emphasis on prosperity and success, the ‘American dream’, which pervades many, perhaps most, Pentecostal activities in the western world. Furthermore, Pentecostals in Africa usually define their practices by reference to the Bible and not to traditional religions. They see their activities as creative adaptations to the local cultural context. At the same time, they might need to have a greater appreciation for the rich diversity of their cultural and religious past and not feel the need to bow to the cultural hegemony of North American Pentecostalism. Demonising the cultural and religious past does not help explain the present attraction of Pentecostalism to African peoples, even though it might help in the religious competition that is a feature of pluralist societies.

Harvey Cox sees the largely unconscious interaction of Pentecostalism with so-called ‘primal’ religions as helping people recover vital elements in their culture that are threatened by modernization.[xxvi] Pentecostals throughout Africa have found in their own context, both culturally and Biblically acceptable alternatives to and adaptations from the practices of their old religions and are seeking to provide answers to the needs inherent there. Any religion that does not offer at least the same benefits as the old religion does will probably be unattractive. Christianity, particularly in its Pentecostal emphasis on the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, purports to offer more than the other religions did. In Africa, Pentecostal-like movements manifested in thousands of indigenous churches have changed so radically the face of Christianity there, simply because they have proclaimed a holistic gospel of salvation that includes deliverance from all types of oppression like sickness, sorcery, evil spirits and poverty. This has met the needs of Africans more fundamentally than the rather spiritualised and intellectualised gospel that was mostly the legacy of European and North American missionaries. The good news in Africa, Pentecostal preachers declare, is that God meets all the needs of people, including their spiritual salvation, physical healing, and other material necessities. The phenomenon of mass urbanisation results in Pentecostal churches providing places of spiritual security and personal communities for people unsettled by rapid social change. The more relevant the church becomes to its cultural and social context, the more prepared it will be to serve the wider society.

All the widely differing Pentecostal movements have important common features: they proclaim and celebrate a salvation (or ‘healing’) that encompasses all of life’s experiences and afflictions, and they offer an empowerment which provides a sense of dignity and a coping mechanism for life, and all this drives their messengers forward into a unique evangelistic mission. Their task was to share this all-embracing message with as many people as possible, and to accomplish this, African Pentecostal missionaries travelled far and wide. The astonishing journeys in 1914 of the famous Liberian prophet William Wade Harris throughout the Ivory Coast to western Ghana, has been described as ‘the most remarkable evangelical campaign Africa has ever witnessed’, resulting in tens of thousands of conversions to Christianity.[xxvii] Many thousands of African preachers emphasised the manifestation of divine power through healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues and other Pentecostal phenomena. The message proclaimed by these charismatic preachers of receiving the power of the Holy Spirit to meet human needs was welcome in societies where a lack of power was keenly felt on a daily basis. The growth of Pentecostalism in Africa must be seen primarily as the result of this proclamation rather than as a reaction to western missions.[xxviii] Nevertheless, because western cultural forms of Christianity were often regarded as superficial and out of touch with many realities of existential life, it was necessary for a new and culturally relevant Christianity to arise in each context.

Healing and protection from evil are among the most prominent features of the Pentecostal gospel and are probably the most important part of their evangelism and church recruitment. The problems of disease and evil affect the whole community in Africa, and are not simply relegated to individual pastoral care. As Cox observes, African Pentecostals ‘provide a setting in which the African conviction that spirituality and healing belong together is dramatically enacted.’[xxix] African communities were, to a large extent, health-orientated communities and in their traditional religions, rituals for healing and protection are prominent. Pentecostals responded to what they experienced as a void left by a rationalistic western form of Christianity which had unwittingly initiated what was tantamount to the destruction of their cherished spiritual values. Pentecostals declared a message that reclaimed ancient Biblical traditions of healing and protection from evil and demonstrated the practical effects of these traditions. Thus, Pentecostalism went a long way towards meeting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of African people, offering solutions to life's problems and ways to cope in a threatening and hostile world.[xxx]

 

The New Factor in African Christianity

The role of a new and rapidly growing form of African Christianity,[xxxi] newer Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, is increasingly being recognized.[xxxii] This movement, which has only emerged since 1970, is fast becoming one of the most significant expressions of Christianity on the continent, especially in Africa’s cities. We cannot understand African Christianity today without also understanding this latest movement of revival and renewal. Ogbu Kalu calls it the ‘third response’ to white cultural domination and power in the church, the former two responses being Ethiopianism and the Aladura/ Zionist churches.[xxxiii] I would argue that this newer Pentecostal and Charismatic movement is not fundamentally different from the Holy Spirit movements and so-called ‘prophet-healing’ and ‘spiritual churches’ that preceded it in the African Initiated Churches (AICs), but it is a continuation of them in a very different context. The older ‘prophet-healing’ AICs, the ‘classical’ Pentecostals and the newer Pentecostal churches have all responded to the existential needs of the African worldview. They have all offered a personal encounter with God through the power of the Spirit, healing from sickness and deliverance from evil in all its manifestations, spiritual, social and structural. This is not to say that there are no tensions or differences between the ‘new’ and the ‘old’ AICs. In a study of New churches in north-east Zimbabwe, David Maxwell points out that many Christian movements in Africa (and, in fact, all over the world) have begun as movements of youth and women. The new churches give opportunities not afforded them by patriarchal and gerontocratic religions that have lost their charismatic power. As Maxwell points out, even the older Pentecostal churches, whether AICs or those founded by western missions, ‘can lose their pentecostal vigour’ through a process of bureaucratization and ‘ageing’.[xxxiv]

The entrance and pervading influence of many different kinds of new Pentecostal churches on the African scene now makes it even more difficult, if not impossible, to put AICs into types and categories. It is becoming increasingly difficult to define ‘Pentecostal’ precisely, and if we persist with narrow perceptions of the term, we will escape reality. In the West, a limited, rather stereotyped and dogmatic understanding of ‘Pentecostal’ fails to recognize the great variety of different pentecostal movements in most of the rest of the world, many of which arose quite independently of western Pentecostalism and even of Azusa Street. In Africa the term would include the majority of older AICs, those ‘classical’ Pentecostals originating in western Pentecostal missions, and those newer independent churches, ‘fellowships’ and ‘ministries’ in Africa which are the focus here. It is in this sense that we refer to these various movements as ‘newer Pentecostals’ and of course, the term ‘Pentecostal’ would also apply to a great number of other, older kinds of AICs that emphasize the Holy Spirit in the church. The ‘classical’ or ‘denominational’ Pentecostals (like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God) are also a very active and growing phenomenon throughout Africa, and undoubtedly played a significant role in the emergence of some of these newer groups. But as these were founded by missionaries mostly from Britain and North America— although with more African involvement in leadership and financial independence than was the case in most of the older missionary founded churches—these ‘classical’ Pentecostals cannot be regarded primarily as African initiated movements, even though most of their proliferation was due to the untiring efforts of African preachers.

Pentecostal churches of western origins have operated in Africa for most of the 20th  Century. Most of these churches trace their historical origins to the impetus generated by the Azusa Street Revival, which sent out missionaries to fifty nations within two years.[xxxv] The connections between this ‘classical’ Pentecostal movement and AICs throughout Africa have been amply demonstrated. [xxxvi] Some of these ‘classical’ Pentecostal churches have become vibrant and rapidly expanding African churches throughout the continent, in particular the Assemblies of God, which operates in most countries of the Sub-Sahara. Throughout the history of AICs there has been a predominance of Pentecostal features and phenomena. Harvey Cox is at least partly correct to refer to the Apostolic/ Zionist, Lumpa and Kimbanguist churches as ‘the African expression of the worldwide Pentecostal movement’, but these churches do not usually define themselves in this way. Nevertheless, not enough attention has been given to this resonance, although Paul Gifford is right to question whether the older AICs can be regarded as paradigmatic of the Pentecostal movement in Africa.[xxxvii]

In the 1970s, partly as a reaction to the bureaucratization process in established churches, new independent Pentecostal and Charismatic churches began to emerge all over Africa, but especially in West Africa. Many of these vigorous new churches were influenced by the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement in Europe and North America and by established Pentecostal mission churches in Africa. However, it must be remembered that these churches were largely independent of foreign churches and had an African foundation. Many arose in the context of interdenominational and evangelical campus and school Christian organizations, from which young charismatic leaders emerged with significant followings, and often the new churches eventually replaced the former interdenominational movements.[xxxviii] At first they were ‘nondenominational’ churches, but in recent years, as they have expanded, many of these churches have developed denominational structures, several prominent leaders have been ‘episcopized’, and some are now international churches. The process of ‘ageing’ and the proliferation of these new movements now continue as their founders die (in at least one case) or approach old age. The African Charismatic churches or ‘ministries’ initially tended to have a younger, more formally educated and consequently more westernized leadership and membership, including young professionals and middle class urban Africans. In leadership structures, theology and liturgy, these churches differ quite markedly from both the older AICs and the western mission-founded churches, Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal. Their services are usually emotional and enthusiastic, and many New churches use electronic musical instruments, publish their own literature and run their own Bible training centres for preachers, both men and women, to further propagate their message. These movements encourage the planting of new independent churches and make use of schoolrooms, cinemas, community halls and even hotel conference rooms for their revival meetings. Church leaders sometimes travel the continent and inter-continentally, and some produce glossy booklets and broadcast radio and television programmes. They are often linked to wider international networks of independent Charismatic preachers, some of which, but by no means all, are dominated by North Americans.

These pentecostal churches are, like the older AICs before them, an African phenomenon, churches which for the most part have been instituted by Africans for Africans. They are also self-governing, self-propagating and (in some cases to a lesser extent) self-supporting, and usually they have no organizational links with any outside church or denomination. In fact, they may be regarded as ‘modern versions’ of older AICs. Although they differ from the classical AICs in that they do not try as much to offer solutions for traditional problems, yet they do address the problems faced by AICs, but offer a radical reorientation to a modern and industrial, global society. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu makes the interesting point that one of the basic differences between the older AICs and the new churches lies in the fact that in the spiritual churches, ‘members are the clients of the prophets who may be the custodians of powers to overcome the ills of life’. In the new churches, however, he says that ‘each believer is empowered through the baptism of the Holy Spirit to overcome them.’[xxxix] It may be argued that in the spiritual churches too, provision is made for any person to become a prophet and therefore to be a custodian of spiritual power, and that the difference might not be as great as imagined.

Some of the main methods employed by the new churches are very similar to those used by most Pentecostals—including door-to-door evangelism, meetings held in homes of interested inquirers, preaching in trains, buses, on street corners and at places of public concourse, and ‘tent crusades’ held all over the continent.[xl] Access to modern communications has resulted in the popularizing of western (especially North American) independent Pentecostal ‘televangelists’, several of whom make regular visits to Africa and broadcast their own television programmes there, public scandals notwithstanding. The strategies employed by these evangelists have been subject to criticism,[xli] but have had the effect of promoting a form of Christianity that has appealed especially to the urbanized and significantly westernized new generation of Africans. Theologically, the new churches are Christocentric and share an emphasis on the power of the Spirit with other Pentecostals. A particular focus on personal encounter with Christ (being ‘born again’), long periods of individual and communal prayer, prayer for healing and problems like unemployment and poverty, deliverance from demons and 'the occult’ (this term often means traditional beliefs and witchcraft), the use of spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues and (to a lesser extent) prophecy—these features more or less characterize all new churches.

 

The Challenges of the Pentecostal Churches

One of the main criticisms leveled against the new Pentecostal churches is that they propagate a ‘prosperity gospel’, the ‘Faith’ or ‘Word’ movement originating in North American independent Charismatic movements, particularly found in the preaching and writings of Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland. This ‘health and wealth’ gospel seems to reproduce some of the worst forms of capitalism in Christian guise. Paul Gifford has become a leading exponent on this subject. He suggests that the biggest single factor in the emergence of these new churches is the collapse of African economies by the 1980s and the subsequent increasing dependence of the new churches on the USA. He proposes that it is ‘Americanization’ rather than any ‘African quality’ that is responsible for the growth of these churches. He sees this new phenomenon as a type of neo-colonialism propagated by American ‘prosperity preachers’, a sort of ‘conspiracy theory’. [xlii] But there is another side to this scenario. Gifford’s analysis, which he has modified to some extent more recently,[xliii] has been accepted in many church and academic circles. However, it seems to ignore some fundamental features of Pentecostalism, now predominantly a Third World phenomenon, where experience and practice are more important than formal ideology or even theology. As Ogbu Kalu points out, the relationship between the African Pentecostal pastor and his or her ‘western patron’ is entirely eclectic, and the ‘dependency’ in fact has been mutual. The western supporter often needs the African pastor to bolster his own international image and increase his own financial resources. Kalu observes that in the 1990s, since the public disgracing of American ‘televangelists’, the mood in Africa has changed, and the Pentecostal churches are now ‘characterised by independence and an emphasis on the Africanist roots of the ministries’.[xliv] Daneel points out that in traditional Africa, ‘wealth and success are naturally signs of the blessing of God’, so it is no wonder that such a message should be uncritically accepted there—and this is as true for the newer AICs as it is for the older ones.[xlv] There are connections between some of the new churches and the American ‘health and wealth’ movement, and it is also true that some of the new African churches reproduce and promote ‘health and wealth’ teaching and literature. But identifying these churches with the American ‘prosperity gospel’ is a generalization which particularly fails to appreciate the reconstructions and innovations made by the new African movements in adapting to a radically different context, just as the older AICs did some years before.

These churches form a new challenge to the Christian church in Africa. To the European mission-founded churches, they are demonstrations of a form of Christianity that appeals to a new generation of Africans, and from which older churches can learn. There are indications that the new churches increase at the expense of all types of older churches, including the prophet-healing AICs.[xlvi] To these older AICs, with whom they actually have much in common, they are consequently often a source of tension. The new churches preach against ‘tribalism’ and parochial denominationalism. They are often sharply critical of the older AICs, particularly in what they perceive as the African traditional religious component of AIC practices, which are sometimes seen as manifestations of demons needing ‘deliverance’.[xlvii] As a result, older AICs feel hurt and threatened by them. In addition, the newer churches have to some extent embraced and externalized western notions of a ‘nuclear family’ and individualized, urban lifestyles. This brings them into further tension with African traditional culture and ethnic ties, thereby enabling members to escape the onerous commitments to the extended family and to achieve success and accumulate possessions independently.[xlviii] The new churches also sometimes castigate ‘mainline’ churches for their dead formalism and traditionalism, so the ‘mainline’ churches also feel threatened by them. Commenting on this, Ogbu Kalu makes the salient point:

The established churches usually react in three stages: hostility, apologetics and adaptation. Institutionalisation breeds late adoption of innovations. We witnessed this pattern in the response to the Aladura challenge. It is being repeated without any lessons learnt from history.[xlix]

Gifford himself is aware of the problems inherent in a simplistic interpretation of the newer African Pentecostalism. After discussing Christian fundamentalism in the USA and the ‘rapidly growing sector of African Christianity’ closely related to it, he says that the American groups operating in Africa ‘find themselves functioning in a context considerably different from that in the United States’.[l] But perhaps Gifford has not taken this ‘considerably different’ context seriously enough in his substantial analyses of the newer Pentecostals in Africa. The idea that ‘prosperity’ churches in Africa are led by unscrupulous manipulators greedy for wealth and power does not account for the increasing popularity of these New churches with educated and responsible people, who continue to give financial support and feel their needs are met there. Often, those who are ‘anti-charismatic’ and resent or are threatened by the growth and influence of the newer churches are the source of these criticisms. Kalu says that in the decade after 1985, the new churches ‘blossomed into complex varieties’ and that in their development, ‘European influence became more pronounced’. But he points out that that in spite of this, ‘the originators continued to be African, imitating foreigners, eclectically producing foreign theologies but transforming these for immediate contextual purposes’.[li]

With reference to what is now possibly the largest non-Catholic denomination in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Assemblies of God Africa of Ezekiel Guti (ZAOGA), David Maxwell says that this movement’s ‘own dominant prosperity teachings have arisen from predominantly southern African sources and are shaped by Zimbabwean concerns’. He says that the ‘prosperity gospel’ is best explained ‘not in terms of false consciousness or right wing conspiracy but as a means to enable pentecostals to make the best of rapid social change’. ZAOGA’s teaching of the ‘Spirit of Poverty’, for instance, ‘resonates with ideas of self-reliance, indigenous business and black empowerment propounded by the ruling party and state controlled media’, while at the same time it ‘successfully explains and exploits popular insecurities’.[lii] Similarly, Matthews Ojo, who writes extensively on Nigerian new Pentecostal churches, says that they ‘are increasingly responding to the needs and aspirations of Nigerians amid the uncertainty of their political life and the pain of their constant and unending economic adjustments’.[liii] It is clear, then, that New churches are far from being simply an ‘Americanization’ of African Christianity.

Like the churches before them, the new churches have a sense of identity as a separated and egalitarian community with democratic access to spiritual power, whose primary purpose is to promote their cause to those outside. These churches see themselves as the ‘born again’ people of God, with a strong sense of belonging to the community of God’s people, those chosen from out of the world to witness to the new life they experience in the power of the Spirit. The cornerstone of their message is this ‘born again’ conversion experience through repentance of sin and submission to Christ, and this is what identifies them, even to outsiders. Unlike the older AICs, where there tends to be an emphasis on the prophet figure or principal leader as the one dispensing God’s gifts to his or her followers, the new churches usually emphasize the availability and encourage the practice of gifts of the Holy Spirit by all of their members. The emergence of these churches at the end of the 20th Century indicates that there are unresolved questions facing the church in Africa, such as the role of ‘success’ and ‘prosperity’ in God’s economy, enjoying God and his gifts, including healing and material provision, and the holistic dimension of ‘salvation’ which is always meaningful in an African context. Asamoah-Gyadu believes that the ‘greatest virtue’ of the ‘health and wealth’ gospel of the new churches lies in ‘the indomitable spirit that believers develop in the face of life’s odds.... In essence, misfortune becomes only temporary’.[liv] The ‘here-and-now’ problems being addressed by new churches in modern Africa are not unlike those faced by the older AICs decades before, and these problems still challenge the church as a whole today.  They remind the church of the age-old conviction of Africa that for any faith to be relevant and enduring, it must also be experienced. These are some of the lessons for the universal church from African Pentecostalism, of which the new churches are their latest exponents.

Pentecostals in Africa proclaim a pragmatic gospel that seeks to address practical needs like sickness, poverty, unemployment, loneliness, evil spirits and sorcery. In varying degrees and in their many and varied forms, and precisely because of their inherent flexibility, these Pentecostals attain an authentically indigenous character which enables them to offer answers to some of the fundamental questions asked in their own context. A sympathetic approach to local culture and the retention of certain cultural practices are undoubtedly major reasons for their attraction, especially for those millions overwhelmed by urbanisation with its transition from a personal rural society to an impersonal urban one. At the same time, Pentecostals confront old views by declaring what they are convinced is a more powerful protection against sorcery and a more effective healing from sickness than either the existing churches or the traditional rituals had offered. Healing, guidance, protection from evil, and success and prosperity are some of the practical benefits offered to faithful members of Pentecostal churches. Although Pentecostals do not have all the right answers or are to be emulated in all respects, the enormous and unparalleled contribution made by Pentecostals to alter the face of African Christianity must be acknowledged.

© 2000 Allan Anderson

 

NOTES


[i] Walter J. Hollenweger, The Pentecostals (London: SCM, 1972), 34.

[ii] L Grant McClung, Jr. (ed), Azusa Street and Beyond: Pentecostal Missions and Church Growth in the Twentieth Century (South Plainfield, NJ: Logos, 1986), 51.

[iii] M.A. Dempster, B.D. Klaus & D. Petersen, Called and Empowered: Global Mission in Pentecostal Perspective (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991), 207.

[iv] Gary McGee, ‘Pentecostal Missiology: Moving beyond triumphalism to face the issues’. Pneuma: The Journal of the Society of Pentecostal Studies, 16:2 (1994), 208, 211.

[v] Willem A. Saayman, ‘Some reflections on the development of the Pentecostal mission model in South Africa’. Missionalia 21:1 (1993), 42, 51.

[vi] Dempster, Klaus & Petersen, 219-20.

[vii] Dempster, Klaus & Petersen, 206.

[viii] McClung, 74.

[ix] Dempster, Klaus & Petersen, 215.

[x] Saayman, 46.

[xi] Allan Anderson & Walter J. Hollenweger (eds), Pentecostals after a Century: Global Perspectives on a Movement in Transition (JPT Sup. 15, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 190.

[xii] Walter J Hollenweger, Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1997), 23.

[xiii] Hollenweger, Pentecostalism, 269-271.

[xiv] Hollenweger, Pentecostalism, 274-275.

[xv] David B Barrett, ‘Statistics, global’, Stanley M Burgess & Gary B McGee (eds),Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 810-30.

[xvi] Anderson & Hollenweger, 128.

[xvii] Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century (London: Cassell, 1996), 259.

[xviii] The older terms ‘African Independent Church’ and ‘African Indigenous Church’ have been substituted more recently with ‘African Initiated Church’ or ‘African Instituted Church’, all using the now familiar acronym ‘AIC’.

[xix] Cox, Fire from Heaven, 246; Hollenweger, Pentecostalism, 52.

[xx] Robert Mapes Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1979), 4.

[xxi] Amos Yong, ‘”Not Knowing Where the Wind Blows...”: On Envisioning a Pentecostal-Charismatic Theology of Religions’, Journal of Pentecostal Theology 14 (1999), 95.

[xxii] Allan Anderson, Bazalwane: African Pentecostals in South Africa (Pretoria: University of South Africa, 1992), 2-6. See also Allan Anderson, Zion and Pentecost: The Spirituality and Experience of Pentecostal and Zionist/Apostolic Churches in South Africa (Pretoria: University of South Africa, 2000).

[xxiii] Melvin L Hodges, The Indigenous Church (Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1953), 14.

[xxiv] Hodges, Indigenous Church, 132.

[xxv] Cox, Fire from Heaven, 219.

[xxvi] Cox, Fire from Heaven, 228.

[xxvii] Adrian Hastings, A History of African Christianity 1950-1975 (Cambridge University Press, 1979), 67.

[xxviii] Hastings, A History, 69.

[xxix] Cox, Fire from Heaven, 247.

[xxx] Allan Anderson & Samuel Otwang, Tumelo: The Faith of African Pentecostals in South Africa (Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1993), 32.

[xxxi] See Chapter 8 of Allan Anderson, African Reformation: African Initiated Christianity in the Twentieth Century (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2000, forthcoming).

[xxxii] David Maxwell, ‘Witches, Prophets and Avenging Spirits: The Second Christian Movement in North-East Zimbabwe’, Journal of Religion in Africa 25:3 (1995), 313; Paul Gifford, African Christianity: Its Public Role (London: Hurst, 1998), 31; Anderson, Zion and Pentecost, chapter 9.

[xxxiii] Ogbu U. Kalu, ‘The Third Response: Pentecostalism and the Reconstruction of Christian Experience in Africa, 1970-1995’, Journal of African Christian Thought, 1:2 (1998), 3.

[xxxiv] Maxwell, ‘Witches’, 316-7.

[xxxv] Hollenweger, The Pentecostals, 22-4; Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids & Cambridge, 1997), 84-106.

[xxxvi] Anderson, African Reformation, chapters 4-7; Allan Anderson & Gerald J. Pillay, ‘The Segregated Spirit: The Pentecostals’, Elphick, Richard & Davenport, Rodney (eds.), Christianity in South Africa: A Political, Social & Cultural History (Oxford: James Currey & Cape Town: David Philip, 1997), 228-9;  Anderson & Hollenweger, 88-92; Anderson, Bazalwane, 22-4.

[xxxvii] Cox, Fire from Heaven, 246; Gifford, African Christianity, 33.

[xxxviii] Kwabena J. Asamoah-Gyadu, ‘Traditional missionary Christianity and new religious movements in Ghana’ (MTh thesis, Accra: University of Ghana, 1996); Kalu, ‘Third Response’, 7.

[xxxix] Kwabena J. Asamoah-Gyadu, ‘The Church in the African State: The Pentecostal/Charismatic Experience in Ghana’, Journal of African Christian Thought, 1:2 (1998), 56.

[xl] This latest expression of African Pentecostalism is to some extent the result of the popular method of tent evangelism pioneered mainly by North Americans in the 1940s and 1950s (with roots in the nineteenth century revivals). This was continued with considerable effect by popular South African black Pentecostals Nicholas Bhengu and Richard Ngidi, and more recently by Nigerian Benson Idahosa and German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke.

[xli] For example, Paul Gifford, ‘Reinhard Bonnke’s mission to Africa, and his 1991 Nairobi crusade’, Gifford, Paul (ed.), New Dimensions in African Christianity (Nairobi: All Africa Conference of Churches, 1992), 157.

[xlii] Paul Gifford, Christianity and Politics in Doe’s Liberia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993),196-9, 294, 314-5.

[xliii] Gifford, African Christianity, 236-44.

[xliv] Kalu, ‘Third Response’, 8.

[xlv] Inus Daneel, Quest for Belonging (Gweru, Zimbabwe: Mambo Press, 1987), 46; Gifford, Christianity and Politics, 188.

[xlvi] Gerrie ter Haar, ‘Standing Up for Jesus: a survey of new developments in Christianity in Ghana’, Exchange 23:3, 1994, 224; Gifford, African Christianity, 62-3, 95, 233.

[xlvii] Asamoah-Gyadu, ‘The church’, 56; Kalu, ‘Third Reponse’, 8.

[xlviii] Maxwell, 354.

[xlix] Kalu, ‘Third Response’, 3.

[l] Gifford, African Christianity, 43.

[li] Kalu, ‘Third Response’, 7.

[lii] Maxwell, 351, 358-9.

[liii] Matthews A.Ojo, ‘The Church in the African State: The Charismatic/Pentecostal Experience in Nigeria’, Journal of African Christian Thought, 1:2 (1998), 25.

[liv] Asamoah-Gyadu, ‘The church’, 55.