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6-10-2015, 23:28

Religion, Postcolonial Africa: Neo-Pentecostalism

Pentecostalism is by no means only a postcolonial phenomenon. American missionaries bearing news of the “Apostolic Faith” arrived in South Africa only two years after what is commonly accepted as the beginning of the Pentecostal movement: the great outpourings of the Holy Spirit in the African Methodist Chapel in Azusa Street, Los Angeles. By 1920, missionaries from the earliest Pentecostal denominations in the United States, Canada, Sweden, Norway, and Britain were at work in Africa, proclaiming their distinctive “foursquare gospel” of justification by faith, sanctification by the spirit, divine healing, and the Second Coming. This missionary Pentecostalism often combined with revivalistic tendencies in mainline Christianity to stimulate the rise of a host of “spirit-” or “Aladura-” type independent churches in Southern and West Africa, but on the whole the Pentecostal denominations themselves remained relatively small.

It was not until the late 1970s that Pentecostalism took off. In part, the growth can be explained by the steadily increasing missionary input from the older Pentecostal denominations, such as the American and British Assemblies of God and the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Some African pastors and evangelists broke away from these missionary movements to found their own churches, retaining part of the original name, such as Ezekiel Guti’s Zimbabwe Assemblies of God Africa. The rise of Pentecostalism can also be traced to such ministries as Scripture Union and Campus Crusade, which targeted Africans in higher education. These African elites, joined by others with a similar Christian experience in higher education in the West, began ministries in cities among the educated middle classes, forming movements like the Redeemed Christian Church in Nigeria. The growing momentum of Pentecostalism caused still others to leave mainline churches to found new movements. Mensa Otabil, one of Africa’s leading Pentecostals, left the Anglican Church to found the Ghana-based International Central Gospel Church in 1984.

These new movements were also catalyzed and shaped by a large variety of evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal organizations, which, although different in theology and practice, agreed on the centrality of the born-again conversion experience. First, an inter-denominationalism was fostered by parachurch bodies like Woman’s Aglow, the Full Gospel Business Men’s

Fellowship International, and the Haggai Institute. Second, American Bible Colleges such as Gordon Lindsay’s Christ for the Nations Institute in Dallas, provided new Pentecostal leaders such as Benson Idahosa (in Nigeria) and Nevers Mumba (in Zambia) with training, but also—and more important—with a vast pool of resources and international contacts. Finally, numbers were boosted by the teaching and proselytizing activities of Western-based charismatics and Pentecostals such as Reinhard Bonnke, Benny Hinn, John Avanzini, and Oral Roberts.

Some scholars have argued for the existence of a neo-Pentecostalism that distinguishes the newer movements from the older ones. The first marker of neo-Pentecostalism is its association with media technologies. Although other churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, have made good use of print media and religious broadcasting, Pentecostals have come to appropriate the electronic media with such a zeal that it is almost a defining characteristic. Audio-and videotapes, produced locally and internationally, now augment gospel tracts, Bible study guides, and Christian monthlies as tools of teaching and prose-lytism. Religious broadcasting is particularly strong in West Africa, though Pat Robertson’s 700 Club appears on television in numerous African countries, and gospel music is on the airwaves throughout the continent.

The strong reliance by African Pentecostals on literature and electronic media derived from America contributes to two other markers of neo-Pentecostalism: its supposedly global and homogenous character and its interdenominationalism. These tendencies are enhanced by the itineration of African Pentecostal leaders around born-again conventions and conferences in Europe, Asia, and America, and the activities of Western born-again leaders in Africa. African Pentecostals are proud to be part of a global born-again community. Their convention centers are decked out in the flags of other nations and many ministries include the label International in their name.

The final characteristic of neo-Pentecostalism is its embrace of the faith gospel. The older missionary-derived Pentecostal denominations often had a strong holiness strand that placed emphasis on the socially humble person and was suspicious of material success. More recent strains of African Pentecostalism have drawn from the teachings of Oral Roberts, T. L. Osborn, Kenneth Hagin, and Kenneth Copeland to argue that material success is a both a sign of faith and of God’s blessing. This prosperity gospel is often accompanied by rituals of deliverance (exorcism) that liberate believers from the heritage of their ancestors, and the demands of their extended families to redistribute wealth and participate in acts of traditional commensality. The stereotype of the African Pentecostal who drives to church in a Mercedes dressed in the finest clothes and jewelry is often not far from the truth.

In some respects, the faith gospel both facilitates and legitimates the accumulation of young upwardly mobile middle-class Pentecostals and their leaders in a time of general economic decline. But contemporary Pentecostalism has a far greater force than this. As African states retreat in the face of demographic pressure on resources and the demands of structural adjustment programs, so have Pentecostals taken on welfare provision, providing education and heath care. Moreover, the Pentecostal community replaces the extended family or “tribe,” helping the believer with access to jobs and accommodation and operating as a burial society in times of bereavement. The “puritan ethics” of sobriety and industry Pentecostalism engenders in believers makes them socially mobile, or at least keeps them from falling over the edge into poverty. Although Pentecostal leaders like Guti, Mumba, Otabil, and the late Benson Idahosa have accumulated through their church members and their international connections, their wealth is usually not despised by their followers, who view them as born-again “big men.” They are seen as effective leaders, able to represent their movement to the authorities and dispense vast amounts of patronage such as jobs, bursaries, and travel abroad.

Although African Pentecostalism might initially look like American born-again Christianity, the faith gospel resonates with “traditional” culture. While the Pentecostal middle classes aspire to prosperity, the majority of believers in townships and villages seek security. The poor make offerings to their leaders in the hope of receiving protection from witchcraft and evil spirits, and to secure fertility, healing, employment, success in public examinations, and harmonious marriages. As such, Pentecostalism stands in the trajectory of African personal security movements. Moreover, as mainline churches become increasingly fixated upon the gospel of development, so do ordinary Christians flock to Pentecostal churches, which are more inclined to address traditional concerns of purity, empowerment, well-being, and longevity. Thus, in both its engagement with existential questions and its creation of religious communities Pentecostalism does not represent a radical disjunction with African Christian independency, but stands in continuity with it.

Given the high profile of some of Africa’s “born-again” political leaders such as Gatscha Buthelezi, Daniel arap Moi, and Frederick Chiluba, the question arises as to whether Pentecostalism contributes toward the politics of authoritarianism and neopatrimonial-ism. In states such as Ghana and Kenya, where some of the historic denominations have distanced themselves from regimes with poor records of human rights, political accountability, and financial management, certain

Pentecostal movements have filled the legitimacy gap in order to obtain respectability and recognition. In Southern Africa, the Rhema Church espoused the causes of the American Religious Right. And in Nigeria and Zimbabwe Pentecostal leaders have joined the dominant elite in a culture of corporatism and clien-telism, their personalized bureaucracies mirroring those of secular “chiefs.”

Yet Pentecostalism’s relation to politics is far from clear cut. In many of its daily practices it contributes to a culture of democratic pluralism and egalitarianism. At the level of the local assembly the disciplined believer participates in a culture of pragmatism and competition. Here also, in an autonomous space free from the state, social relations are remade. Ethnic and class differences are repatterned through the language of Christian brotherhood. Women and youth are empowered through the spirit. The reliance of many pastors on local tithes and offerings makes them vulnerable to capture from below and hence sensitive to local political agendas. In the same way that independent prophets undermined the sacred legitimation of kings and chiefs, Pentecostals make a vicarious attack on contemporary politicians, demonizing the spiritual forces through which they lay claim to authority. Some Pentecostals even espouse an explicit political theology. Otabil is renowned for his message of black pride and self-reliance and his repudiation of neocolonialism.

But it is in the sphere of gender and generational politics that Pentecostalism is most significant. With its central concern of personal rebirth, Pentecostalism begins with the remaking of the individual and the renewal of the family. In the home, the man is domesticated. He ceases to drink, is no longer promiscuous, and focuses his energies on work and education. Beyond the family and the community, Pentecostalism’s critique is directed first and foremost at other elements in the religious field, such as Islam and traditional religion, which it demonizes, and the historic mission churches, which it casts as “worldly.” Here the state is often used instrumentally to gain an advantage over rivals through access to public broadcasting and authorization for proselytizing activities.

It is clear that, since the late 1980s, Pentecostalism has had a significant impact on African societies. Politicians treat Pentecostals with respect, and other elements in the religious field have innovated in response to the Pentecostal upsurge. Anglicans, Catholics, and Methodists have instituted charismatic renewal to acquire “gifts of the spirit” for themselves. In West Africa, Islam has cultivated transnational connections and rapidly adopted print and electronic media to compete with Pentecostal proselytism.

David Maxwell

See also: Religion, Colonial Africa: Independent and Millenarian/Syncretic Churches; Religion, Colonial Africa: Missionaries; Religion, Postcolonial Africa: Islam; Religion, Postcolonial Africa: African Theology, Indigenization; Religion, Postcolonial Africa: Church and State Relations; Religion, Postcolonial Africa: Independence and Churches, Mission-Linked and Independent.

Further Reading

Gifford, Paul. African Christianity: Its Public Role. London: Hurst, 1998.

-. The New Crusaders: Christianity and the New Right in

Southern Africa. London: Pluto, 1991.

Gifford, Paul (ed.). The Christian Churches and the Democrati-sation of Africa, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995.

Meyer, Birgit. Translating the Devil: Religion and Modernity among the Ewe of Ghana. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

Maxwell, David (ed.). Special Issue on Pentecostalism, Journal of Religion in Africa 28, no. 3 (1999).



 

 

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