The Lord's Business

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It is miracle week in Monrovia, Liberia, and inside a huge, open-sided, thatch-roofed cabana on Tubman Boulevard, some 4,000 Liberians are praying, singing and beseeching Jesus for help. Drummers thump out a beat as Reverend Isaac Winker prowls the stage shouting into a microphone: "Forgive us our sins, Father! Cure these cancers, these tumors! Get rid of blindness, get rid of lameness!" On the other side of the continent, at a lunchtime prayer service in Kisumu, Kenya, Pastor Onyeka Ezebuike roars out a similar message in a black-and-white tiled hall that was, until recently, a night club: "Poverty should be under our feet, amen! Fear should end, amen! I don't care if you had no food when you woke up this morning. You cannot go back there, amen! Reach out and accept what is coming. You deserve wealth! Yes, amen!"

In mud huts and giant tabernacles, city parks and suburban halls, Christianity is growing faster in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else on earth. Adherents to the world's largest religion are increasing at 3.5% a year in Africa, compared with 2.5% in Latin America and Asia, and less than 1% in Europe and North America. The proportion of African Christians to all Christians has grown from one in 10 in 1970 to one in five today. On current trends, African Christians will soon outnumber European believers, leaving them second only to those in Latin America.

The spectacular growth has come in two waves: the rise of indigenous African churches during the last years of colonialism in the 1950s and '60s, and a more recent boom in evangelical and faith healing churches. Both turn the old missionary vision of Christianizing Africa on its head: by drawing on elements of traditional spirituality, African churches are transforming Christianity.

The Christian Church first came to Africa around 50 years after the death of Christ, spreading from Egypt across North Africa and south into present-day Ethiopia, where it survives in the form of the Coptic Church. Christian influence then ebbed until the 18th century when European colonizers began converting and baptizing across the continent. Christianity grew, but by the 20th century Africans had become tired of the paternalistic attitudes of many missionary and mainstream churches--

Anglican, Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and Roman Catholic--and began seeking ways to combine traditional beliefs with their newfound faith in a Christian God.

African Independent Churches, as the breakaway movements became known, were first formed in a mood of ecclesiastical protest in the run-up to political independence following World War II. A second boom followed in the 1980s, fueled by American-style radio and TV evangelists. The first major African breakaway church--the Church of Jesus Christ on Earth, begun by Congolese preacher Simon Kimbangu in 1921--now has 6.5 million followers, including thousands in Europe. In total, there are an estimated 10,000 independent churches in Africa with new ones opening every week.

Both the A.I.C. and the evangelist churches have much in common. Most hold their services in the local language and focus on the Holy Spirit and miracles. Most mix traditional African spiritual beliefs--like ancestor veneration, witchcraft and the concept of good and bad spirits--with elements of Pentecostal worship, including drums, guitars and charismatic preachers. A growing number also embody a more fundamental theological shift away from European tradition. In place of the mainstream churches' offers of salvation in the next world for good deeds in this one, many newer African churches preach instant deliverance in the form of worldly wealth. It is this message, so-called Prosperity Theology, that appeals to the continent's poor and displaced. Says Stephen Jubwe, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Monrovia: "It is a miracle people are looking for. And they want it right here, not in the next life."

Such desires are often amplified by major social upheavals. Nigeria, for instance, experienced a Christianity boom after the 1967-70 Biafran war. "It taught us to trust God," says Pastor Ezebuike, a Kenya-based Nigerian preacher with one of Nigeria's largest churches, the Redeemed Christian Church of God. "We prayed to Him and the faith people developed became a catalyst for growth in peace times." In Liberia, where a civil war from 1990 to 1997 left more than 200,000 people dead, 1 million displaced and the economy in ruins, the number of churches has skyrocketed from 75 in pre-war Monrovia, the capital, to more than 200. "During the war people turned to religion as a means of escape. There were small daily services going on in houses across the country," says Plezzent Harris, head of the Liberian Council of Churches. "Now churches are popping up everywhere."

A drive through Monrovia provides evidence of the boom. Every few blocks a sign proclaims a new church: Faith Outreach Church; Foundation Faith Church; Blessed Hope Assembly of God; Lighthouse Mission Academy. One of the most popular is Reverend Winker's Dominion Christian Fellowship Center. Up to 5,000 Liberians attend Winker's impassioned miracle week services, held during the last seven days of every month. "In life, everybody wants joy, happiness, a place to ease the tension," he says. "Without God those daily needs cannot be met." Augustine Kar, a veteran of the civil war who now lives with 20 other former soldiers in a rundown government-provided house, sees church as a place to forget his problems: "There are no jobs for us. We never received what we expected, no compensation. Church takes us away from that." MORE>>PAGE ONE  |  TWO

 
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The Lord's Business


As well as shunning the prayer-book formalities that typify mainstream denominations, the African churches address local issues. "If there's a drought and the crops are failing, the minister will talk about drought or the problems of poverty," says Mitch Odero, head of information and public relations at the All Africa Conference of Churches in Nairobi. The emphasis on singing and music appeals to young people, says Ghanaian bible teacher Reverend Joseph Akunyumu-Tetteh: "Previously religion seemed to be reserved for the elderly. Now Christianity in Africa has become a lot more youthful." And more popular. Nearly all of the growth in the Church in Latin America comes naturally through births. In Africa, over a quarter is due to conversions.

But while African churches may attract new believers, the Christian establishment is not always so welcoming of the African churches. Few A.I.C.s belong to the World Council of Churches, and many mainstream preachers question the quality of faith in the newly converted and the commitment of the churches to their flocks. Prosperity Theology may promise financial and spiritual riches, say its critics, but it often delivers neither. "Sure, Christianity may be growing quicker here than anywhere else, but the question remains as to the value of that faith," says Odero, an Anglican. "Spiritual destiny is not the main focus as it should be. The main focus is yourself and eliminating your problems."

Unfulfilled promises of wealth and success can lead to disappointment, and African congregations have high turnover rates. "People go from place to place searching for an answer," says Father Emmanuel Hodges, a priest with the Episcopal Church in Liberia. "If they find what they need, they stay. If they don't, they move to the next one. There's no commitment." Silvia Opoku-Manu, 25, a philosophy student in the Ghanaian capital Accra, says she used to attend an independent church but became disillusioned. "They promise you faith now. They promise your business will prosper now. Everything is instant," she says. "But God doesn't work this way. God is not a coffee machine."

Another familiar complaint is that the independent churches, which often demand a regular tithe, are more interested in making money than spreading the word of God or helping the poor. When Nigerian Bishop David Oyedepo, head of fast-growing Winners' Chapel, opened his new headquarters in Lagos recently, there was mumbled criticism that the money spent on the 50,000-seat Faith Tabernacle could have been better spent helping the city's many homeless people. "Tithes are a given, before the extras," says Odero. "Some preachers in Kenya charge $70 just to shake their hand. It's more if you want them to pray for you." A painting inside the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Kisumu asks, "Have You Paid Your Tithe? It is the Gateway to Abundant Blessings." "It's a challenge," says Pastor Ezebuike. "God commands his people to pay a tithe. It's a practice everyone should do."

Even small churches may have a profit motive. In Liberia, as in other African countries, it's easier and cheaper to register a church than a company. Emmanuel Dixon, 43, opened Christivoice Evangelism Inc. two years ago in a shop on one of the busiest corners in Monrovia. Dixon, a former electrician with the state-owned telephone company, repairs electrical instruments, hires out a band, and plans to open a Christian cafe next door. "It will have African and European food but no alcohol," he says. "I also hope to open a school. I want my children to see the vision and help build this into a big business." Stephen Wreh-Wilson, the national director of the Justice and Peace Commission, a Liberian civil rights group, is blunt about the proliferation of churches in his country: "These institutions are businesses. The more money you contribute the more respect you get. I don't think it should be that way."

While they may preach about poverty, few of the independent churches build schools or health facilities for the poor. Many help only members of their congregation. "This is not Christian at all," says Father Hodges. "Christianity expands. It has no limits." And in stark contrast to the Anglican and Catholic churches, which form an important part of the political opposition in many African countries, independent churches tend to ignore politics, arguing simply that leaders are anointed by God so there is little point in interfering. As a result, many national leaders prefer the new churches to the old.

For all their fault finding, though, the mainstream churches know they must modernize to stay relevant in Africa. Faced with declining numbers, many have introduced drums, guitars and organs to their services. "They have to change," says Winker. "They are trying to understand what people want. But it's not just beating the drums, it's something more." Doubters need only stand outside Nairobi's All Saints Cathedral on a Sunday morning to see where people are finding that something more. Many of the worshipers emerging from the grand stone building head straight for a large white tent in nearby Uhuru Park. There, along with hundreds of other Kenyans, they sing and dance and praise the Lord in a different, more African way.