African charismatic churches is the label given to the wide variety of neo-pentecostal churches proliferating in Africa since about 1980. They vary in size from very small (the majority) to urban megachurches and even to what are effectively new denominations. There are variations across the continent (the phenomenon, for example, is more developed in Anglophone than Franco-phone countries), but all are distinguished for exuberant worship, media involvement, incessant evangelizing, particular theological ideas, and a general internationalizing ethos that differentiates them markedly from the African Independent Churches that have existed for over a century. African charismatic churches are dependent on gifted individuals, and almost a prototype is the Church of God Mission International founded by the late Benson Idahosa (1938-98) in Benin City in the 1960s; current paradigmatic examples are the Living Faith World Outreach Centre (or Winners’ Chapel) founded in Lagos in 1983 by David Oyedepo (and which by 2000, only 16 years later, had spread to thirty-eight African countries); and the Synagogue Church of All Nations founded by the Prophet T.B.Joshua in 1994, also in Lagos.

The theology characteristic of these churches is, first, that of the Health and Wealth gospel, which teaches that a Christian has a right to success and plenty, which follow upon faith, or upon faith and on giving to God which through the inevitable functioning of the ‘law of sowing and reaping’ will bring wealth and victory. This ‘law’ has proved very effective in Africa, for all the concrete manifestations of this explosion—new churches, programmes, travel, music, vehicles, indeed an entire class of new religious professionals—have had to be paid for, and ‘sowing’ on the part of members has provided the means to pay for this explosion of Christianity at a time when investment in the continent has been pitifully small. If the form in which prosperity theology is expressed is often not very different from that articulated by its main US proponents Kenneth Hagin (1917-) or Kenneth Copeland (1937-), it must be said that its wide acceptance in Africa owes much to the underlying orientation of Africa’s pre-Christian religion which was centred on this-worldly realities like fertility, abundance, long life.

The other prominent characteristic is deliverance theology. Since prosperity is considered the right of every believer, its absence requires explanation. Deliverance thinking explains that a Christian’s rightful prosperity is often blocked by pervasive spiritual forces of which the believer may be unaware but which can be diagnosed and exorcised by an ‘anointed man of God’. Evils may also arise from ‘curses’ incurred by the believer, again often unbeknown to her; these curses are often understood to arise from ancestors’ involvement in ‘witchcraft’ or ‘pagan practices’. This understanding fuels the particularly negative attitude of these churches to African traditions and culture (which gives rise to the paradox that the same churches which so denigrate African culture do much to perpetuate the traditional African religious world view). For most of these churches, all evils (physical sickness, of course, but now more commonly economic deprivation) are caused by such spiritual forces. The ubiquitous ‘miracle crusades’ associated with these churches consist mainly of casting out such demons.

Worship in these churches is participatory and exuberant (and sometimes though not invariably marked by the speaking in tongues characteristic of Pentecostal churches generally). The ‘praise and worship’ which constitutes at least a third of any service is backed not by drums, but by western instruments like electric guitars, and is characterised by modern hymns, often in English, which are repetitive and catchy. The music of these churches has frequently become a commercially significant element of a nation’s recording industry. Nevertheless, the most important part of the service is unquestionably the sermon, usually delivered from at most a few notes, and ostensibly built on some biblical text or texts. (In keeping with the message of success, the biblical motifs stem largely from the Old Testament, and centre round OT examples like Abraham, Joseph, Joshua Moses, David, Solomon.) The music and the message constitute the greater part not only of the Sunday service but nearly all the many meetings throughout the week, even if labelled Bible Study or Women’s Fellowship. Services may also be characterized by testimonies where believers speak of the marvels God has wrought for them; by an ‘altar call’ where those not yet ‘born-again’ can give their lives to Christ; by a warm welcome for all newcomers; and some services may include cures or deliverance.

In nearly all the established churches of this type, almost all such messages are taped if not videoed; these form the basis of the media involvement for which all these churches are known. In many African countries these church services constitute a good deal of the fare on radio and television, often supplemented with similar programmes from United States ministries. A comparison of these programmes reveals that the African media involvement is modelled on US paradigms. The same is true of the print media—in some countries, most Christian media is now of this charismatic type.

Institutionally, these churches were almost invariably founded by charismatic individuals (usually men, although occasionally women), in most cases with considerable leadership skills. Without such charisma and skills, given the competition, these churches quickly die. Because personalities are so crucial, co-operation between these churches is never easy, and in most cases goes no further than preaching at each other’s conventions. For the same reason, Pentecostal or Evangelical or Charismatic Councils or other bodies established to represent these churches, rarely function with any force. Splits within these churches are frequent. With the increasing marginalization of Africa, it has become more desirable to form some links with similar US churches. Famous US preachers enhance African conventions, and some churches develop more lucrative links. The ethos of these groups has tended to become more authoritarian rather than more democratic, a tendency most marked since about 1995 with the increasing use of the term ‘prophet’ as a designation for these leaders.

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