The talk on Christian blogs lately is all about African Pentecostalism; most hail its rapid growth and particularly explosive recent popularity with enthusiasm, but you don’t have to look far to find it more worrisome than reassuring.

For instance, Christianity Today recently published an article reviewing Ogbu Kalu’s The Africanness of African Pentecostalism, a book exploring in detail the origins, characteristics, and movement of African Pentecostalism, and essentially arguing that African Pentecostalism sprang up on its own almost completely without help or influence from outer/Western sources(i.e. missionaries). The book, and the review, both focus on the cultural and social aspects of the movement, more concerned with whether the movement is culturally original that the theological ramifications and implications behind it, but what they do say about the movement itself is both highly revealing and worrisome .

More to the point, unlike the original preaching of the gospel message, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit does not need a foreign missionary. And the nature of African spirituality is such that ‘from the earliest contact with the gospel, Africans have tended to appropriate its charismatic dimensions, attracted to the extra power offered by the new religion, and stamped it with an African identity.’ On the ground, local believers spontaneously experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit in the context of recurrent revivals and a perennial quest for spiritual power—much to the consternation of foreign missionaries, whose fastidious norms and control mechanisms were thus subverted. Western (Pentecostal) outsiders were only invited after the fact.”

So essentially, Africans came to Christianity in a religious vacuum, not relying on any knowledge of the Bible or on preaching to achieve what seems to be a  spontaneous combustion of faith(or rather spirituality) out of nowhere. Obviously this view taps into several dangerous ideas, one of which is the often-debated question of whether one can come to Christ without external sources, i.e. without the Bible or mission work, always asked concerning those who haven’t yet heard the gospel and usually referring particularly to isolated people groups in remote parts of the world and people in countries which forbid Christianity(i.e. China). 

The main reason this debate has never been satisfactorily settled is that the Bible is very unclear about it; it says nothing and offers no examples of individuals coming to God in a vacuum through the work of the Holy Spirit only,     My personal opinion is that, while it may be possible, if it does exist then it is a method of salvation that God uses very rarely and only on an individual level, not for widespread movements. The Bible is almost completely silent on this topic, but it is very very clear on the central role of the Bible and missionaries as God’s ambassadors to bring the Word of God and thus salvation to lost souls, wherever they might be. It’s not required that an individual have a deep or even clear understanding of the Bible or the gospel message – as long as they understand, through it, that Christ died for their sins. God clearly appointed His Word and his people as his central and perhaps only tools for carrying His salvation, which is why I find it very difficult to believe that mass amounts of Africans over the past 50 years or so have spontaneously, without influence by either, come to a miraculous knowledge of God and His Son, particularly as that knowledge seems to be confined to one particular kind of knowledge, namely that implicit in the Pentecostal faith.

A much more obvious and compelling reason to think that this movement is not exactly God-driven, however, is the “prominence of [prosperity theology] within African Pentecostalism” – the theology which the article defines as  “the teaching (of which there are many permutations) that proclaims a rigid correlation between personal acts of faith and individual material prosperity“.  

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I labor under the assumption that Africa is a poor country. What could be more appealing to a country of poor people struggling with poverty, disease, and all the other aspects of a third-world country than a religion that promises prosperity if you follow it? Prosperity theology is manifestly un-Biblical, one of many theological interpretations of the Bible which hinges an entire philosphy/worldview on a few scattered verses taken out of context, but its appeal in third world countries in particular is undeniable, as I can personally attest to. “Do good, and you’ll become wealthy”, this philosophy states(I’m not sure I would even call it a theology as it essentially sees God only in terms of his use to humanity, as a Great Bargainer and Wealth Giver) and the peoples of the world flock to it. Pentecostalism packs a double whammy everywhere in the world by its promise of material prosperity on the one hand and its emotionally-fulfilling spirituality on the other, answering to both physical and spiritual needs, but in places like Africa, in which the literal need is so much greater and the people tend already toward an emotion-driven religion as a consequence of their tribal religions, it’s easy to see how Christianity, as interpreted by Pentecostalism, could become simply a need-fulfiller, a platform to give voice and form to certain needs and desires already inherent in the country and culture, a series of actions and methods to fill a gap, rather than a heart-deep, God-driven movement of true salvation. True Christian salvation always exists beyond the specific cultural, economic, and emotional needs of the time and place(although God can certainly use such things also) because it ultimately answers one basic, fundamental human need – the bondage of sin. Which is why I am not at all encouraged by this movement.

 

“Kalu explains that the prosperity message flowed into Africa in the 1980s (during a time of widespread economic collapse and political instability) from a number of sources, both in the West and in the non-Western world.”

“various prophet-healing and revival movements that emerged in the early 1900s. These original AICs—labeled Zionists in southern Africa, Aladura in western Africa, and Abaroho in eastern Africa—rooted Christianity in the African religious world and combined ritual symbolism with demonstrations of spiritual power. They are the main precursors of the new African Pentecostal movements.”

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