The Characteristics of African Pentecostalism

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Roughly 45% of Africans are Christians, of whom around 31% are a part of the Pentecostal-Charismatic tradition (1). This total is up from just 11% in 2004, thus making Africa the largest home to Pentecostal-Charismatic Christians in the world. It is also claimed to be the fastest-growing religion in Africa that continues to produce incredible diversity (some scholars now use the plural Pentecostalisms to refer to), thus suggesting a need to come to terms with African Pentecostalism, its members, doctrines, etc (2). This has been the work of professor Asonzeh Ukah of the University of Cape Town, a specialist in African religion, whose work this article draws on.

African Pentecostalism’s Foundational Texts

As part of the Christian tradition, African Pentecostals appeal to the Bible on matters of doctrine, practice, ethics, and more (3). Thus, central to this tradition’s self-understanding are events mentioned in the book of Acts (ch. 2) where the Holy Spirit descends onto the followers of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit imparts to them spiritual powers and followers become emboldened to speak in strange tongues to crowds of people visiting Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost. In this Christian tradition, the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, and speaking in different languages (1 Cor. 12:7-10) mark the true believers in Jesus Christ. There is also the phenomenon of speaking in tongues, which is claimed to be an indicator of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Healing, predicting the future, and prosperity are believed to be miraculous and is the way God ordinarily interacts with believers. Another important text to African Pentecostals is Matthew 7:7 which says to “Ask, and it shall be given you.” To be born again is to receive power to witness to the Holy Spirit and to ask for miracles of healing, wealth, and success. Pentecostals are those “who expect to see God’s miraculous power displayed on earth as part of normal, everyday experience” (4). The miraculous is how God comes to ordinarily interact with the believer.

African Pentecostalism as an Urban Phenomenon

African Pentecostalism is an urban phenomenon (5). Young Pentecostal leaders usually move from rural areas to the cities because cities present all the necessities required, such as a large population to reach out to, resources, network structures, technologies, diverse skills, financial access, and more. In contrast, Pentecostal Christians view the rural village as antithetical to the city. In rural locations, the likes of diseases, poverty, evil spirits, witches, and other malignant entities are believed to cause havoc. Some Pentecostal churches in Nigeria, such as Living Faith Church Worldwide, have closed their branches in rural areas because they are not as financially profitable as the urban-based branches. As such, although 55% of Africans live in rural areas, 95% of Pentecostal organizations are found in cities where various media technologies can be used to spread a message and an identity. Often used are DVD/CDs, handbills, posters, billboards, satellites, the internet, television, radio broadcasting, and social media. Ukah reveals that,

Multidimensional engagement with the media has enormous consequences for the production of spirituality and charisma, congregational life, and organizational reticulation. Through Pentecostal media production, African urban culture—visual and audible—has been transformed into a sacred gallery. The media facilitate the production of sacred sensational forms that imprint directly on the memory of both believers and nonbelievers alike” (6)

African Pentecostalism as an Entrepreneurial Phenomenon

African Pentecostalism is entrepreneurial (7). The churches are structured like religious firms, predicated on business principles, use market logic, and are controlled by leaders demanding loyalty from their followers. The churches are spearheaded by charismatic figures who are seen to have absolute power. They monopolize the authority over doctrine, administration, and financial control of their church. He is not accountable to his followers, state agencies, or any ecclesiastical structure. There are four areas Pentecostal churches “specialize” in: [1] teachers, [2] healers, [3] deliverers, exorcists, and demonologists, and [4] prosperity providers or motivational actors. In all four areas the spotlight is placed on, explains Ukah, “the individual as a consumer of salvation goods and the individual as the subject of salvation… Salvation is personal, and not social, and so personal accumulation and consumption are Pentecostal virtues and a material sign of divine reward” (8). Leaders teach their followers and congregants that all believers have equal access to the sacred as consumers of salvation goods. Customized salvation goods are promised to all from the rich to the poor, and from politicians to traders alike.

Ukah sees the role that neoliberal ideology played in the growth of African Pentecostalism (9). This philosophy, which emerged in the 1930s, embraces individualism, capitalism, market forces, and competition, and has come to transform all spheres of human life in such a way that business and profit are now the definition of success, development, and human progress. The idea it promotes the individual person as a consumer has become rampant in Africa and is now the default mode of economic, political, and social practice. It is in this neoliberal social and ideological context that African Pentecostalism has grown. It is also the ideology that stresses individualism and that has come to exert enormous influence across African religious life,

“The freedom of being born again is partly the economic freedom of shirking (extended) family responsibilities and substituting the new community of faith for the filial family. In theory, the individual whose body is the locus of the operation and action of the Holy Spirit is believed to have a direct, unmediated access to the sacred. The deregulation of the Spirit decentered the sacred and its access points to believers, promoting individual interpretation of Scripture and (spiritual) experience. With no center and generally accepted organizational structure of authority, churches and ministries proliferated, each highlighting what the individual benefits from listening, seeing, and consuming the goods of religion. The liberated autonomous believer is the independent agent of the neoliberal ethos that is powerful and at the center of the market” (10).

African Pentecostalism on Gender and Same-Sex Relations

African Pentecostalism is characterized by conservative interpretations of Scripture with respect to gender and sexual relations, and thus, in practice, gender roles favour men and are against women (11). Authority and decision-making within the church and related organizations are made by men over women. When women do exercise authority, it is usually within areas like the choir, women’s groups, and other service sectors. If women are pastors and ritual leaders, it is because they are spouses of church owners who are men. Moreover, African Pentecostalism also strongly opposes same-sex relationships and supports the criminalization of homosexuality. According to Ukah,

“From Nigeria to Ghana to Uganda to Kenya to Malawi to Zambia to Zimbabwe – all powerhouses of Pentecostal spirituality – anti-homosexual legislation and social opposition to sexual minorities have emerged from obscurity to ubiquity. This is remarkable, as it is the single issue that unites Pentecostal and Muslim communities. Indeed, this negative relationship between Pentecostalism and homosexuality is of enormous social and political consequence as gay rights’ activism expands in the continent” (12).

African Pentecostalism as Fluid

Drawing on Zygmunt Bauman’s analogy in Liquid Modernity (1999), Ukah highlights the fluid or liquid character of African Pentecostalism as a phenomenon that continuously alters its shape when subjected to stress (13). In other words, under certain conditions, African Pentecostalism has the capacity to mutate at short notice, and in response to the social context of its practice, external influences, and indigenous cosmologies. It tends to modify its self-understanding and practice accordingly. This liquidity does tend to complicate the researcher’s attempt to describe African Pentecostalism’s social features or to produce a typology on it. But this is a challenge scholars should welcome as they try to come to terms with this incredibly diverse and lively phenomenon.

References

1. Jacobsen, Douglas. 2011. The World’s Christians: Who They Are, Where They Are, and How They Got There. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

2. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. “The Deregulation of Piety in the Context of Neoliberal Globalisation: African Pentecostalisms in the 21st Century.” In Global Renewal Christianity: Spirit-Empowered Movements Past, Present, and Future, vol. III: Africa, edited by Vinson Synan, Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, and Amos Yong, 362-378. Lake Mary: Charisma House Publishers. p. 362.

3. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. Ibid. p. 365.

4. Jacobsen, Douglas. 2011. Ibid. p. 50.

5. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. Ibid. p. 373.

6. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. Ibid. p. 375.

7. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. Ibid. p. 375.

8. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. Ibid. p. 377.

9. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. Ibid. p. 376-377.

10. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. Ibid. p. 370.

11. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. Ibid. p. 377.

12. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. Ibid. p. 379.

13. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. Ibid. p. 371.

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