Evangelical churches shake up the social order in Africa

John Maina Njenga (right), leader of the Mungiki Sect, talks to his lawyer Robert Asembo (left) inside the Jesus is Alive Ministries church in Kenya's capital Nairobi, October 23, 2009. REUTERS

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.”

Born-again Christians

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.

With a majority of its estimated population of 130 million people languishing in poverty, it is not surprising that Nigeria is the largest centre of Evangelical Christian faith in Africa. Judging from the glamorous and luxurious lives of some of its pastors, the Pentecostal faith is a veritable gold mine for some people in that country.

Besides having tens of thousands of churches, Nigeria boasts some of the wealthiest men of the cloth in the world.

Pastor Mathew Ashimolowo was for a long time considered the richest Nigerian evangelist until his formidable income supply was nipped in the bud. Donning high-end designer silk suits and shoes, he ministered in London where his Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC) was based. He is said to have made so much money that it attracted the attention of the British tax collector, at which point he fled back to Nigeria where he operates from a modest premise in Lagos.

However the most successful evangelist in Africa now is Bishop (Dr) David Oyedepo, the general overseer of Living Faith Ministries Winners Chapel. Besides acquiring an aircraft 10 years ago to facilitate the international spread of his ministry, he has one of the largest basilicas in the world.

The auditorium of his Canaanland Church on the outskirts of Lagos houses 50,000 worshippers every Sunday. Besides this the charismatic preacher has founded a private university that has been ranked among the best in Nigeria by the Accreditation Committee of the Nigerian Universities Committee.

Cheerful givers

The success of these leaders and their ministries is owed to congregations inspired by the often quoted Biblical injunction that “cheerful givers never lack” besides selling recorded sermons, holding seminars, conferences, mammoth crusades, establishing learning institutions and writing motivational books.

After establishing the spiritual dominance in their respective countries, Pentecostal leaders are gradually shifting their focus to setting a social agenda through assumption of political power. This is achieved either by seeking favour from political leaders by promising to vote as a block or gunning for public office banking on their followers to elect them.

During the Ugandan general elections in 2006, most of the country’s born-again church leaders, under their umbrella body, the National Fellowship of Born-Again Churches, held massive prayer conferences and rallies at Namboole and Lugogo stadia where they endorsed President Yoweri Museveni as their preferred candidate, terming him “God’s gift to Uganda”.

This was in contrast to the traditional denominations which, under the Ugandan Joint Christian Council (UJCC,) openly criticised the amendment of the country’s constitution to give the President a third term. But the Pentecostal’s move was no surprise since they boast among their members a huge contingent of high-ranking government officials led by First Lady Janet Museveni, army bigwigs like Elly Tumwine and Aronda Nyakairima, former Cabinet Ministers Dr Nsaba Buturo and Ezra Suruma, all of whom claim to be “saved” or balokole.

President Museveni is himself a common figure at crusades, having presided over the opening of the grand Miracle Centre Cathedral in Kampala and being on record as saying that he preached the resurrection of Jesus Christ to Libya’s Col Muammar Gaddafi, a Muslim, during a continental gathering of Heads of States. Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza is also a self-declared ‘born-again’ Christian and worship leader of Komeza Gusenga (keep on praying), a choir composed of ex-rebels who fought alongside him during the civil war.

In Kenya several Pentecostal evangelists contested for various seats in the last general elections but only Bishop Margaret Wanjiru made it, winning the Starehe seat in Nairobi.

Although Pastor Pius Muiru’s presidential bid in that election was no more than a big joke, things might be different in future elections if the rate at which evangelicals are winning souls is anything to go by.

Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka seem to have realised the voting potential of the evangelical movement in Kenya since they have both publicly declared their being “born-again”, setting the stage for a future Pentecostal political showdown. While Raila, whose religious affiliations were sometimes questioned, was baptised in a highly publicised ceremony by maverick evangelical cleric and self-declared prophet, Dr David Owuor, Kalonzo constantly quotes the Scriptures during political rallies.

Well-drilled army

In Nigeria the Pentecostals are marching onwards like a well-drilled army. Boasting more than 20 million members and belonging to the powerful Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), their design to assume political control is clearly explained in some of its literature, which states the desire to create “a new social, economic and political reality that reveals the true nature of God’s reign and the likeness of Christ through its renunciation of the world’s definitions and tactics”.

This agenda, which implies making all Nigerians undergo the Pentecostal conversion experience of being born-again in order to create a platform on which radical social transformation will be enacted, was made clear by one of the PFN leaders in a speech presented to members in a 1992 conference.

“In Nigeria we can become the force of change not by loving politicians but by winning souls. If we can get at least 80 per cent of Nigerians born again, you can be sure a Christian will be president. You won’t even need to be a rich man before you become president because the people will say you are the one they want and you must be there,” he said. Such statements have not been taken lightly by rivals considering that these churches supply 40 per cent of the total revenue earned by both public and private radio and television stations besides having some of the most learned clergy in the world.

The predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria has reacted swiftly by instituting Sharia law in most states. Where it is observed, Sharia bans the preaching of any other religion. The aggressive work of evangelical missionaries has also sent jitters in Islamic North Africa, prompting Algeria to pass a law in 2005 that made it a criminal offence to convert Muslims to another faith.

“Evangelicals are demonising other religions in their efforts to promote their values. It is another form of Jihad (holy war),” claims Sidique Wei, the head of a New York-based advocacy group called United African Congress.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project.