The Prosperity Gospel Comes to Africa

The Prosperity Gospel is well known in the United States. As Paul Gifford, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, reports in Christian Century, however, the fastest growing Christian Churches in Africa--Pentacoastal Churches--are preaching a Prosperity Gospel as well:
Though virtually all forms of Christianity in Africa are experiencing explosive growth, the churches growing most spectacularly are the ones that are Pentecostal or neo-Pentecostal or "Pentecostal-like." After 23 years of visiting African churches, I would venture another generalization: the growing Pentecostal churches have one thing in common—a focus on achieving success. Discussing African Pentecostalism without discussing its emphasis on success is like discussing computers without mentioning software.

In this form of Christianity, a believer is successful; if not, something is very wrong. This emphasis can be seen in the names of the churches: Victory Bible Church, Jesus Breakthrough Assembly, Triumphant Christian Centre. The titles and themes of conventions, crusades and conferences repeat this emphasis: "Living a Life of Abundance," "Taking Your Territories," "Stepping into Greatness." For all these churches, size and expansion are tangible signs of success—which is why the terms Global, World or International appear in so many of their titles.

The success which these churches see as the right of a Christian covers all areas. God will meet you, in the standard phrase, "at the point of your need." In practice, however, success refers primarily to financial prosperity. This prosperity can be understood in a minimal way, as in the case of the preacher who said, "Prosperity is not the same for everyone. . . . A bicycle for one who walks, that is prosperity." It is far more common, however, to hear preachers say something like: "God desires to bless you beyond your wildest dreams and wildest expectations."

The theme of success emerges in a variety of ways. The first way is by an emphasis on motivation. Drive and determination, churchgoers are told, will lead to success (this is almost the classic "success through a positive mental attitude" approach). It is your own fault if you are not successful and rich: "Anything you want to become you can become; the only thing stopping you is you."

. . .

The theme of success emerges also in an explicit preaching of a prosperity gospel according to which God has met all the needs of human beings in the suffering and death of Christ, and every Christian should now share in Christ's victory over sin, sickness and poverty—blessings which can be obtained by a confession of faith. This gospel is invariably linked with ideas of "seed faith," or with the biblical image of "sowing and reaping." Tithes and offerings become instruments of prosperity.

. . .

Among the large churches promoting the prosperity gospel is the Nigerian multinational Living Faith Church Worldwide Inc., better known as Winners Chapel, founded in Lagos by David Oyedepo in 1983. Winners has over 400 branches in Nigeria and can be found in 40 African countries. It boasts that its facility in Lagos, which seats 50,400, is the biggest church auditorium in the world. In Nairobi the church is constructing what it claims will be the biggest church in East and Central Africa. Wherever Winners congregations meet, the leading pastors tend to be Nigerians, all fiercely loyal to Oyedepo.

Winners exemplifies the emphasis on success. Last year Oyedepo made this pledge to all church members: "In 2006, everything that shall make your laughter complete and total shall be added unto you. The desires of everyone's heart shall be delivered. Every trial shall be turned to testimonies. Every struggle shall be turned to miracles. Every form of barrenness shall be turned to fruitfulness. Every frustration shall be turned to celebration. Every humiliation shall be turned into honor. Every shame shall be turned to glory. And every curse shall be turned into blessings."

. . .

Though the success promised at Winners embraces all areas of life, material success is paramount. Perhaps this is to be expected in light of Oyedepo's account of his calling by God. His experience is obviously modeled on God's call to Moses, but whereas Moses was commanded, "Go and set my people free," Oyedepo was told, "Make my people rich."

At Winners the testimonies are almost all about material success—scholarships, jobs, cars and promotions. The Winners rhetoric insists that the breakthrough will occur "now," "during this service," "this week," "this month" or "this year." Every month promises some new advance, every year brings its particular blessing.

Clearly, it is understandable that the hope and promise of material success can be especially powerful in a continent that suffers from horrific extreme poverty. As Gifford points out, however, the Prosperity Gospel may actually reinfornce the very political culture of corruption that is preventing many African countries from moving forward:

What are we to make of this phenomenon? One's judgment is likely to be tied to one's understanding of the African context. The continent obviously has been shaped by colonialism, the cold-war rivalry of the superpowers, the world trade system and a huge burden of debt. But in my view the most significant fact about Africa is the dysfunctional political culture that permits an unaccountable elite to appropriate wealth and power at the expense of the people.

The gospel of success does little to challenge this dysfunctional political structure. For one thing, many preachers openly claim that the political-economic system simply doesn't matter, because a born-again Christian will prosper under any political or economic regime. For a child of God, normal principles of politics or economics don't apply. I've heard a Winners pastor in Ghana even tell his congregation to stop complaining about the collapse of the currency: "Even if the cedi [comes to be worth] 10,000 to the dollar, even if you have to carry sackfuls of it, it doesn't affect you. Why? Because where it comes from [namely God's plenty] never runs out." Indeed, the movement exemplifies the "Big Man" disease that is the curse of Africa. The cars and houses of pastors (acquired through a theology of tithing and seed faith) are purchased at the expense of the people they are theoretically serving, just as the politicians' wealth is gained through "service" of their constituents.

In August 2000, in the same month that the president of Nigeria's senate was impeached for, among other things, having 32 official vehicles, the Winners weekly newspaper carried an article about Oyedepo's acquisition of a private jet. One might argue that the church leader and his jet, far from illustrating God's faithfulness to his chosen, are just the Nigerian Big Man syndrome transposed onto a Christian perspective. And Africa's new religious superstars merge easily with and into Africa's political elite. In Zambia, Nigeria and Kenya, prominent pastors have used their celebrity status to vie for the presidency.

the entire article is rich in detail about these churches and is well worth a read. It can be found here.

The Anglican Church in most of Africa is also growing rapidly. I wonder how that Church has managed to deal with the attractive, but heretical, competing theology of these Prosperity Gospel churches. Given the success of the Prosperity Gospel in the United States, we might have much to learn.


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