Heart of Arts

Pentecostalism in Africa

A Conversation with Apostle Professor Opoku Onyinah, Part 1

Toyin Falola

Of all the things that have happened to the African continent in the past decades, the growth and expansion of Christianity and Islam have been one of the most impressive. This deep commitment to faith is not totally removed from the natural gravitation toward hope and positivity. Against the background of declining opportunities, many Africans have found solace in religion and the promise of a better life. If things don’t work well on Earth, the afterlife offers more than a promise.

Within the enormous growth of Christianity in Africa has been the steady rise in the popularity and expansion of Pentecostalism. The socio-economic, religious, and political nuances of the rise of Pentecostalism will be one of the subjects of the Interview with a preeminent figure, Apostle Professor Opoku Onyinah, on February 4, 2024.

Pentecostalism on the African continent dates to the early 20th century, with the earliest movements such as the Apostolic Faith Mission, Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal Zionist Movement (all in South Africa), l’Église Harriste (in Côte d’Ivoire), Christ Apostolic Church, morphing from Precious Stone Society, and the Apostolic Church (all in Nigeria). Some would argue that I may be confusing some of these churches with latter-day Pentecostal ones.

Pentecostalism took off during the colonial era, heavily influenced by the American Pentecostals, including but not limited to William Seymour (who wrote the Apostolic Faith newspaper that sparked the influx of Pentecostalism into the continent), Lucy Farrow, Paul Marty, and Julia Hutchins. Like all successful expansions in history, the Pentecostalist movement came to Africa at a time when the environment was fertile for its growth. Some would also argue that Pentecostalism was homegrown.

The African people were subjected to colonialism, and in seeking a way out, they found hope in the core ideals of the new movement — grace, salvation, an afterlife, spiritual empowerment through the Holy Ghost, healing, and wonders — promises that held liberation for the people and freedom from the shackles of the second-class citizenship that colonialism offered them on their soil.

The case has often been made in favour of classifying religion as a social concept. This classification does not seek to discredit the divinity that any of the religions claim. However, it is a way to argue that religions belong in the human society, by humans; as much as cultures and civilizations belong to the human society. A point of note in the argument for the classification of religion as a social concept is religious syncretism. Just like any other human social phenomenon capable of influencing and being influenced by other phenomena, religions and religious denominations and factions influence and get influenced by other religions and religious denominations, and Pentecostalism is not an exception.

Pentecostalism has witnessed several cultural adaptations and syncretism. Religious worship among Christians is subjected to personal perceptions and subjective interpretations of the divine. A Christian can only offer worship in the best way he can conceive in his mind who his Creator is. He can imagine the wonders of the Creator. Therefore, as the Pentecostalism movement grew in popularity across and spread across the African continent, it was influenced by several indigenous African belief systems and practices.

The result has been a dynamic interplay of Pentecostal Christianity with traditional African spirituality, giving rise to unique, Afrocentric expressions of faith. One of these unique, Afrocentric expressions of faith is the upbeat mode of religious worship among Pentecostal churches. This upbeat mode reflects vibrant and lively music, energetic dancing, loud prayer sessions, and an insurmountable belief in the intervention of divine forces in terrestrial affairs.

Furthermore, the communal nature of African societies, influencing the people’s strong belief in and connection to their ancestral heritage, has made the belief in and war against ancestral curses, “village people”, and witchcraft popular elements in the Pentecostalism practised in the African continent. From the earliest years, prayers of war against witches, wizards, and enemies formed an integral part of churches such as the Christ Apostolic Church and even served as one of the biggest factors in the swift growth and expansion of African Pentecostal churches.

I stated above that Pentecostalism has been one of the fastest-growing phenomena on the African continent. However, it is vital to note that Pentecostalism’s growth has not only been about the founding of several churches and the expansion of such churches across Africa and other continents. Beyond its spiritual dimensions, Pentecostalism has highly influenced the social landscape in Africa. The swift growth and expansion of Pentecostal churches, the construction of mega-church buildings, and the management of several church-owned operations have also meant that these churches have become large employers of labour, with thousands of members earning their living through church operations. Some of these large Pentecostal churches own printing presses, primary schools, secondary schools, and universities — some of which have gone on to be ranked among the best institutions on the continent.

These large-scale operations have afforded people access to education and employment, two of the most critical elements in any society. Furthermore, donation and support outreaches are an integral part of the existence of many of these churches. There is no denying the level of influence Pentecostal churches wield in society, from the grassroots to the elite strata, especially as their large sizes mean they can always boast of members in every industry and at every level. The brotherhood approach of these Pentecostal churches means members are quick to identify and help each other. This, often called “being favoured”, is a case where members of mega Pentecostal churches belonging to the elite strata of society find placement for their fellow church members at government parastatals and institutions, multi-national companies, and other companies.

The founding of mega Pentecostal churches and the construction of grand worship centres have also been instrumental in the construction of healthcare centres, road networks, and housing structures. Furthermore, several African Pentecostal churches have been involved in the organization of large-scale empowerment programs, especially for women and youth, and community development initiatives, including serving as pressure groups to influence government policies.

In saying that Pentecostalism in Africa has experienced immense growth, I am also saying that while globalization has become increasingly realistic with the increased connectivity of people across the globe, Pentecostal churches in Africa have tapped into the advantages of technology to bring their operations to a global audience. Several Pentecostal African churches — such as The Redeemed Christian Church of God, the Christ Apostolic Church, The Apostolic Church, United Family International, Church Doxa Deo, CRC Church, the Living Faith Church, Deeper Life Bible Church, and the Church of Pentecost — have established a global presence spanning hundreds of countries, influencing the diaspora community, and contributing to the global Pentecostal movement.

The introduction of satellite television networks played a crucial role in the expansion of African Pentecostal churches into the diaspora. As members of these African churches relocated to other countries, they sought the need to continue in fellowship with their churches and founded branches in their new locations, getting an easy connection to the headquarters through the internet, satellite television, and transnational networks. African Pentecostal churches in the diaspora do not only impact global Christianity, but they also play an unmistakable role in the shaping of the religious experiences of the African diaspora, serving as a haven and a new family for new immigrants and positioning as centres of cultural preservation, spiritual solace, and community building.

Although there has been immense growth and expansion within the Pentecostal movement in Africa — with an undeniable socio-economic impact — there are deeds and developments among Pentecostal churches on the continent that leave room for criticism and questions.

To properly explore Pentecostalism in Africa, it is vital to examine some of the critiques that have been levelled against Pentecostal churches on the continent. The first and perhaps biggest concern that has been brought up in the wake of the growth of Pentecostalism has been the commercialization of spirituality, a phenomenon that has manifested itself through several dimensions. There have been cases of churches categorizing spiritual problems and assigning financial costs to each category for members seeking deliverance.

There has also been an emphasis on tithes, offerings, and giving back to the church, sometimes overly emphasized at the detriment of the giver, who may not be financially buoyant but must succumb to the pressure and believe in the promises of manifold blessings and the multiple returns on every token given for every token given.

Several Pentecostal churches in Africa promote the prosperity gospel, which has seen their leaders rank among some of the wealthiest spiritual leaders in the world. The theological concepts of the prosperity gospel emphasize material wealth as a sign of God’s favour, sometimes elevated as the core of a church’s message, thereby ignoring the possibility of members seeking wealth, including through financial misappropriation, fraud, embezzlement, and other crimes.

Over the years, doctrinal controversies have also rocked the Pentecostal movement in Africa, sometimes threatening to disrupt the movement and tear it asunder. Although Pentecostal churches on the continent share some common beliefs revolving around salvation through grace, healing, and some other concepts, there are stark differences in some of their doctrines, with some churches accusing others of peddling heresy. The doctrinal divergence in the African Pentecostal movement has sparked theological debates, including spiritual gifts, speaking in tongues, the role of women in the church, and what constitutes holiness.

Pentecostalism in Africa has come a long way, and by all indications, it shows the potential to grow in leaps and bounds. It is, therefore, with utmost pleasure that I invite you to join us on the next edition of The Toyin Falola Interviews, where we will host Apostle Professor Onyinah — a scholar of excellence and a leading theologian in the field of African Pentecostalism.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

5:00 PM Nigeria

4:00 PM Ghana

10:00 AM Austin CST


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