When we hear the phrase “Prosperity Gospel,” our minds may conjure up images of a (typically) white, big-haired, American televangelist from the 1980’s seated on a golden throne flanked by artificial ferns wagging his bejeweled fingers into a camera lens and chastening his faithful (broadcast) parishioners to “sow the seed of faith” in order to “reap the harvest of God’s favor” . . . or something along these lines.
This image association is well-merited, as historian Kate Bowler has documented. The entire global movement we now refer to as the Prosperity Gospel (PG) movement has its roots in this phenomenon within American Evangelicalism in the latter part of the 20th century.
But to leave this as the only face of the PG movement in our minds would be short-sighted. Even in America, the PG has recently adopted a subtler and more broadly-appealing façade. On the other hand, we must also understand that we are no longer dealing with a solely American phenomenon. This movement that may have had its roots in American consumerism and civil religion has now spread like wildfire to virtually every part of the developing world. And perhaps among the places most profoundly impacted has been Sub-Saharan Africa.
Some Troubling Numbers
Recent reports from Pew Research Forum indicate that Christianity is rapidly on the rise in Sub-Saharan Africa. Pew projects that by the year 2050, about 38.1% of the global share of Christians will reside in Sub-Saharan Africa. Pew clarifies that their use of the term “Christian” describes anyone self-identifying as such—and thus would include: Roman Catholics, Orthodox groups, Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, to name a few. But an estimated 37% of this group belongs to what Pew calls “the Protestant Faith.”
If these numbers are accurate, and 38.1% of 2050’s projected 2.9 billion “Christians” will reside in Sub-Saharan Africa, then it will be home to approximately 1.1 billion self-identified “Christians.” If we then agree that 37% of that number will be Protestant, then Pew’s projection is that in 2050, Sub-Saharan Africa will be home to around 408,813,000 people who consider themselves Protestant Christian. That’s about 86 million more people than the entire current population of the USA! That’s nearly 409 million “Protestant” Christians living in Sub-Saharan Africa by the year 2050.
What’s in a Name?
Ok, enough numbers. I am neither a statistician nor the son of one. But as a missionary and theological educator in Sub-Saharan Africa, I can’t help but question the accuracy of such numbers––not because I disagree with the methodology of the research or the factors used to formulate the projections. My disagreement is theological. For when someone (whether Pew or an individual responding to a survey) uses the term “Protestant,” they are using a decidedly theological term.
Included under the “Protestant” banner would, of course, be such traditional denominations as Anglican, Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc. While most of these denominations have some presence in Africa, they are being far outpaced by other “Protestant” groups that don’t really fit in any of these categories. To avoid unfairly mischaracterizing any particular churches or denominations, I will simply refer to what I perceive to be the fastest growing churches and networks in Africa as those of the PG, or Prosperity Gospel, movement.
But how? How could a movement with such a seemingly limited target audience (spiritually-inclined Americans with televisions) gain such broad appeal among unreached and underserved parts of the world? There are many possible factors: vast amounts of resources at the movement’s disposal, aggressive and innovative media strategies, global fascination with the western world in general and American Pop-Christianity in particular. While each of these could conceivably have played some part in the advance of this movement, I suspect there is a deeper and more fundamental reason behind its spread—in a word, animism.
Reaping What You Sow
Animism has been defined as . . .
[the] belief that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs and, consequently, that human beings must discover what beings and forces are influencing them in order to determine future action and, frequently, to manipulate their power.
Any textbook on animism will take us immediately to village huts in Africa or rainforests in South America in order to view animism in its most blatant forms. But Gailyn Van Rheenen has observed that “animism is prevalent in every continent and is part of every culture.” I would argue that Van Rheenen is perhaps more right than he may realize. For when he cites Western examples of animism, he points to things like New Age Spiritism, Occultism, and Astrology, which of course qualify. But if someone asked me what is the clearest example of animism in the Western world today, without hesitation I would point squarely to the PG movement.
Put simply, the PG operates on the concept of transaction. Input translates to output. Or to use somewhat more biblical (albeit out-of-context) language, “whatsoever a man sows, that will he also reap.” The posited meaning here is that when someone performs an act of religiosity or devotion, this somehow obligates God to return blessing or favor, just as a fee payment might obligate a vendor to the provision of some service. The application point is something like, “Righteous living/believing/giving/praying, etc. obligates God to return financial/emotional/familial/professional blessings.” We see this principle espoused on a spectrum that ranges from blatant formulas, such as those of the preening evangelist on a telethon, to the subtler “follow Jesus and He will make your life all you ever wanted it to be” message coming out of many pulpits. But behind all of this pseudo-Christian and quasi-biblical lingo is the “part of every culture” religion Van Rheenen describes—animism. The PG movement is nothing more than human beings seeking to discover the “forces that are influencing them” and then in turn to “manipulate their power.” This is animism at its core, though with a few Bible verses and Jesus attached.
So why has the PG movement spread like wildfire in Sub-Saharan Africa? Because there is nothing really new about it. It’s African “Old Time Religion” with glossy headshots and emotional praise music. Where a previous generation of Africans lived in constant fear of the ancestral spirits who dwelt among the trees––and thus sought out a shaman or witch doctor for some form of power to overcome them—newer generations of Africans live in constant fear of the spirits of poverty, sickness, failure, depression, etc., and thus may seek out a “pastor” or (more likely) a “prophet/apostle/bishop” for some formula that may give them spiritual power for a “breakthrough” or a “deliverance.”
Here in Zimbabwe, I almost daily read newspaper headlines about another self-styled “prophet” who has pulled off some stunt which is (amazingly) more bizarre and outlandish than the last. This “prophet” sprays DOOM (think “Raid”) bug spray into people’s faces in order to drive out unclean spirits. The “prophet” uses an iPad to take selfies with parishioners, which will supposedly reveal hidden truth about their spiritual lives. Some “prophets” are (thankfully) being prosecuted for various forms of abuse (physical, sexual, financial, etc.) enacted in the name of spiritual healing and deliverance. These are extreme cases, of course. Like America, Africa displays a spectrum of this teaching. But the fundamental tenets of this movement are the same no matter where they fall on the spectrum. This is certainly not Protestantism. This is not even Christianity. This is Baalism. This is a pagan fertility religion cult. In short, this is Animism 2.0, and it is wreaking havoc on the church here in Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa.
So what is the answer? What can we do? Must we confront false teaching and teachers by name and seek to rid our churches and networks of their vile media content which has flooded this continent? Yes. Should we vigorously write and publish our own resources that seek to instill sound biblical apologetics to guard our flocks against these heresies? Absolutely! My family and I left our ministry in the US and moved to Zimbabwe over two years ago because of the firm conviction that theologically equipping pastors and leaders for the next generation of churches in Africa may be the frontline of defense to keep this wildfire from spreading. We would love to see the tide turn toward a reformation or revival among “Christians” in Africa. But at the root of all of these efforts must be the same teaching that has always been at the root of “the Protestant faith”—the doctrine of grace or alone, or sola gratia. If we want to see a reformation among African churches so that the future of Christianity in Africa is truly Christian, we must intentionally and fervently ground our ministry efforts here in a “grace alone” gospel.
In a 2005 interview, commenting on what (I believe) was his observation of a form of animism in every religion, Bono said:
You see, at the centre of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you
put out comes back to you; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—
in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or opposite one. Its clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe.
But for Bono, the answer to this transactional view of faith is simple:
And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “As you reap, so
will you sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like,
the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed,
because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff. That’s between me and God. But I’d be in
big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge…. but I’m holding out for
Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross because I know
who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity. The point of
the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world so that what we
put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the
obvious death. That’s the point.
What Bono is articulating here is nothing other than the true “Protestant faith.” The doctrine of sola gratia not only refutes the heresy of the works-righteousness Martin Luther so staunchly opposed, it destroys every false argument and opinion based in karma or animism which portrays God as a kind of transactional deity— either rewarding with blessing or punishing with curse on the basis of our performance. To this list of false gospels, I would unflinchingly add the Prosperity Gospel movement and all its offspring. And the response to this heresy in our day must be the same as it has been throughout the ages—preaching Christ and Him crucified. Here in Africa this mandate has never been more urgent. Just because there are “Christian” resources, ministries, and statistics flooding this continent does not mean the true gospel has. It is time for the church to mobilize. We cannot leave Africans in their “Old Time Religion” any longer. We must show them a new and better way— not the way of Karma and animism—but the way of the cross and the empty tomb.
Gailyn Van Rheenen, Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 20.
Michka Assayas, Bono On Bono: Conversations With Michka Assayas, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005), chapter 11.