Why the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ Thrives in Africa
On a cool Sunday afternoon at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, thousands of worshippers have gathered for a well-publicised open-air evangelical service, or crusade, by a popular city preacher. Most of those present are youthful believers, dancing to heavy hip-hop music that fills the park from the colourfully decorated podium, where a gospel group is performing.
After a while, the flamboyant preacher mounts the podium to thunderous applause from the worshippers. Before he begins to pray, he assures all present that they shall leave the park with a blessing. Cheers, whistling, ululations! More music and dance.
It is time to give offerings before the preacher delivers his sermon and conducts healing and exorcism. He asks each worshipper to lift up their seed in the right hand as he prays for it. At the same time ushers distribute envelopes written, Beginning of Being Recognised. Believers are expected to place money or a seed in the envelope so that God would start to acknowledge them and to deal with their needs. The pastor prays that those who give be healed and freed from every oppression and fear; that they get promotions and break free from the curse of poverty.
This it the so-called Prosperity Gospel, a fast-spreading feature of Pentecostal Christianity across Africa, especially in the towns. The preachers teach that God will supply the material needs of believers who have enough faith money jobs, cars, houses, success in business and even spouses. The standard phrase is that God will meet you at the point of your need.
Prosperity Connected to Faith
The Bible is presented as full of God’s promises of success to his faithful people. God has met all the needs of human beings in the suffering and death of Christ, and every Christian should now share in CChrist’svictory over sin, sickness and poverty. Prosperity is connected to one’s faith, shown in giving generously to God or planting a seed. The preachers also emphasise motivation and entrepreneurship.
How do we explain the popularity of this apparently new doctrine in Africa? For many mainstream Christians, this is a con gospel, peddled by upstart preachers taking advantage of the poor to enrich themselves. A religion of success must surely be attractive in a materialist consumer society, where the impoverished majority are deeply frustrated.
But while that might be true, others would counter that throughout the ministry of Jesus, it was the poor, the sick the lame, the marginalised and not the comfortable who followed him and sought his help. And he did help them. We still pray for the sick and the poor and for our children days before the national exams.
African Traditional Religion
Perhaps more interestingly, the Prosperity Gospel echoes African spirituality. In African Traditional Religion, the Creator-God is the source of all blessings, including wealth, health, children, good harvests and peace. African Christians, therefore, should not find it strange to seek material success from God, especially in the face of widespread poverty, inequality, bad governance, man-made and natural calamities.
Clearly then, the Prosperity Gospel is not contradictory to the African worldview, where material abundance is a sign of God’s blessing, while poverty, sickness and calamities indicate a bad relationship with God.
The prosperity doctrine is also not alien to Christianity. The Bible is clear that God blesses believers with material prosperity. Jesus says, How much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him? (Mt 7: 10). The Lord also taught us to pray to God to give us this day our daily bread.
This, however, does not mean there are no prosperity cons out there. And this is where the difficulty lies. Some wayward preachers are taking advantage of widespread poverty in Africa to dupe gullible believers, promising them jobs, marital bliss, cures or business success, often at exorbitant fees.
But the prosperity doctrine per se should not be condemned since it puts God at the centre of all human life (the here-and-now as well as the hereafter). The teaching also fights against apathy by encouraging spiritual and moral conversion, thrift and entrepreneurship among Christians. Updated from 2009