African Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity: An Overview

Pentecostalism is the fastest growing stream of Christianity in the world today. In fact, the movement is reshaping religion in the twenty-first century.1“Pentecostalism” may be defined as that stream of Christianity which emphasizes personal salvation in Christ as “a transformative experience wrought by the Holy Spirit.” Subsequent to that initial experience, such pneumatic phenomena as “speaking in tongues,” prophecies, visions, healing, miracles and signs and wonders have come to be accepted, valued and encouraged among members as evidence of the active presence of God’s Spirit.2“Charismatic” generally refers to historically younger Pentecostal independent and parachurch movements, many of which function within non-Pentecostal denominations. The expression “charismatic” itself derives from St. Paul’s reference to charismata pneumatika, “Gifts of the Spirit,” in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Thus St. Paul uses the expression to refer to those “extraordinary divine graces” that believers manifest on account of their experience of the Holy Spirit.

Rise of Pentecostal Christianity in Africa
Pentecostalism is not a monolithic movement and what I refer to as “African Pentecostalism” are the specific African initiatives, appropriations and contributions to the growth, significance and impact of Pentecostalism as a global phenomenon. In Africa the precursors of Pentecostalism were indigenous prophet figures, many who were persecuted out of historic mission denominations for pursuing spiritualities sometimes scandalously perceived by church authority as belonging to the occult. They include prophets William Wadé Harris of the Gold Coast (Ghana), Garrick Sokari Braide of the Niger Delta, Simon Kimbangu of the Congo, Isaiah Shembe of South Africa and others. At the turn of the nineteenth century these prophets challenged Africans to throw away their traditional resources of supernatural succor and turn toward the living God of the Bible. Many of these revivalistic prophetic campaigns only resulted in independent churches when the prophets had left the scene.

“In Africa today, we not only have major
Western mission-related Pentecostal
but also African-initiated ones.”

The prophetic movements were thus followed by the emergence of the popular Spiritual, Aladura or Zionist churches known collectively as “African independent” or “African initiated” churches (AICs). Healing became the single most important activity in the AICs, but many of them strayed into therapeutic methods that were not Christian. Subsequently, it has become contentious to regard these older AICs as Pentecostal without qualification. Since then African Pentecostalism has blossomed in many directions. 

Classical Pentecostal denominations have gained much prominence on the continent. In South Africa for example, the Assemblies of God, Apostolic Faith Mission and the Full Gospel Church of God belong to this tradition. Some have their roots in North America but the bulk of classical Pentecostal churches operating in Africa were initiated locally; foreign assistance often came later. Other Pentecostal collectivities found in Africa include: New Pentecostal Churches (NPCs), trans-denominational Pentecostal fellowships like the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International (FGBMFI), Women Aglow and Intercessors for Africa; and charismatic renewal groups of the mainline churches. Together with itinerant international Pentecostal preachers and prophets, these have taken over the religious landscape as the new faces of African Christianity.

So in Africa today, we not only have major Western mission-related Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God originating from the United States, but also African-initiated ones like William F. Kumuyi’s Deeper Christian Life Ministry, which started in Nigeria in 1973. In addition, there are the multitudinous “mega” independent NPCs like Mensa Otabil’s International Central Gospel Church in Ghana, David O. Oyedepo’s Word of Faith Mission International or Winner’s Chapel of Nigeria and Andrew Wutawanashe’s Family of God in Zimbabwe, which were also born out of local initiatives.  Additionally, African Pentecostal churches have become a dominant force in Western Europe and North America. The fact that African religions have emerged in Europe not as primal forms but in terms of Christianity is itself evidence of the growing strength of the Christian faith in modern Africa. To this end, the largest single Christian congregation in western Europe since Christianity began is Nigerian Pastor Matthew Ashimolowo’s Kingsway International Christian Center (KICC) in London. 

The African Factor in Pentecostalism

Rudolf Otto laments the inability of orthodox Christianity to recognize the value of the non-rational aspect of religion, thus giving the “idea of the holy” what he expresses as “a one-sidedly intellectualistic approach.”3 Pentecostalism is a response to such cerebral Christianity and wherever it has appeared the movement has defined itself in terms of the recovery of the experiential aspects of the faith by demonstrating the power of the Spirit to infuse life, and the ability of the living presence of Jesus Christ to save from sin and evil. This is even more so in Africa where religion is a survival strategy and where spirit-possession, with its emphasis on direct divine communication, intervention in crises and religious mediation, are central to religious experiences. The ministries of healing and deliverance have thus become some of the most important expressions of Christianity in African Pentecostalism. Much of the worldviews underlying the practice of healing and deliverance, especially the belief in mystical causality, resonates with African philosophical thoughts.In Africa today Pentecostal and charismatic churches may be found all over major cities.

 “In the political arena, the independent Pentecostal/charismatic
churches in particular have played both
functional and dysfunctional roles.”

In Uganda, not only has the new Pentecostal phenomenon overshadowed that country’s versio of older AICs, but the new Pentecostal communities are “mushrooming in luxuriant fashion.”4 The NPCs in particular have a special attraction for Africa’s upwardly mobile youth, a lay-oriented leadership, ecclesiastical office based on a person’s charismatic gifting, innovative use of modern media technologies, particular concern with congregational enlargements and a relaxed and fashion-conscious dress code for members. In the prosperity discourse, there is continuity between coming to Christ and experiencing a redemptive uplift that is evidenced partly through the possession of material goods.

The involvement of Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity in Africa has been felt at all levels of African civil life including economics, education and politics. In the political arena, the independent Pentecostal/charismatic churches in particular have played both functional and dysfunctional roles. Pastors of Pentecostal churches have served as providers of supernatural protection for politicians seeking to consolidate power by entrenching themselves in office. Many politicians were perceived as corrupt individuals who relied on medicines from shrines to keep themselves in office, so by providing “Christian alternatives” of such shrine services, the reputation of such Christian “prophets” has suffered tremendously. In African countries like Ghana and Zambia, politicians have courted the friendship of popular charismatic leaders in order to take advantage of a movement with a massive youthful following to achieve political ends. In Ghana, Bishop Duncan-Williams virtually served as the chaplain to the Rawlings government. The former president of Zambia, Frederick Chiluba, not only declared Zambia a Christian nation when he took office in 1991, but he also put in appearances at Pentecostal crusades and conventions.

Pentecostalism and African Christianity 
What people consider important in theology are the things that address their religious needs. Encounters with the spiritual world either as malevolent powers seeking to destroy people, marine spirits negating efforts at public morality or as the performance of ritual in order to solicit help from the powers of beneficence are important elements in African religiosity. In continuity with the African religious paradigm, Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity has proven successful in Africa because of its openness to the supernatural and through its interventionist and oral theological forms that resonate with traditional African piety. The intention of the practitioners, though, has always been to be biblical, and this theology is expressed in three ways:

First, there is in African Pentecostal theology a keen emphasis on transformation. The constitutive act of the Pentecostal movement is the offer of a direct and particularly intense encounter with God that introduces profound changes in the life and circumstances of the person who experiences it. The Holy Spirit is the one who facilitates the direct character of the encounter. A sense of transformation takes place at the personal and communal levels including a new dynamism in worship inspired by the Holy Spirit. The foremost theological emphasis of Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity is therefore the transformative encounter with God who is holy and who is spirit. In the African context, participants in Pentecostalism keenly testify not only about their new life, but also the transition often made from resorts to traditional religious resources in order to be sincere Christians believing in God alone. 

Second, African Pentecostal theology is a theology of empowerment. There is an emphasis on the empowering effect of the gospel of Jesus Christ; there is a relationship between transformation and empowerment. The African Pentecostal insistence that it is possible to be a Christian and be dominated by desires of the flesh and demonic influences has led to the provision of ritual contexts in which people could renounce such stumbling blocks through healing and deliverance in order that they may be empowered to victory in life.

African religion is expected to deal with the effects of evil caused by demonic spirits and witchcraft. Evil powers represented by those with evil eyes, demons, witchcraft and curses, in the African context, result in all sorts of misfortunes—sickness, failure, childlessness and other setbacks in life. The worldview underpinning the practice of healing and deliverance in African Pentecostalism is based primarily on Jesus’ encounters with the powers of affliction and Pauline notions of the wrestle with principalities and powers (Ephesians 6). The basic theological orientation of the healing and deliverance phenomenon is the belief that demons may either possess a person and take over his or her executive faculties or simply oppress people through various influences. Whether the human crisis has resulted from possession or oppression, African Pentecostal churches and movements including the classical Pentecostal churches provide the ritual contexts for prayer and exorcism to deliver the afflicted. Thus the African worldview of mystical causation looms large in the practice of healing and deliverance. 

Third, a successful implementation of a healing and deliverance ministry, it is believed, paves the way for good health, success and prosperity in life, and makes possible the realization of God-given abilities. Thus it is possible to view deliverance theology as a response to or the mutation in the face of the shortfall of faith preaching. When things are not going well, the appeal to the work of demons and witches come in handy as explanations. African Pentecostal prosperity theology may have some ground to recover in respect of its weak theology of suffering. Be that as it may, the cross of Christ is not just a symbol of weakness, but also one of victory over sin, the world and death. Pentecostals draw attention to the fact that the gospel is about restoration, so it is expected that the transformation of the personality would be manifest in personal health, well-being and care, in short, salvation is holistic and includes spiritual as well as physical abundance. The process of restoration is not individualistic as people are (1) encouraged to disengage from generational curses and (2) through fasting, prayer and personal ministration release family members from any such bondage. Salvation here gives a holistic meaning that includes “a sense of well-being evidenced in freedom from sickness, poverty and misfortune as well as in deliverance from sin and evil.”5  

African Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity is complex. It is alive. It is thriving. And it must be a major focus for Christians around the world who are involved in evangelism, missions and the state of the global Church.

1. Harvey G. Cox. 1996. Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century. Reading, Massachusetts, USA: Addison-Wesley; “The Myth of the Twentieth Century: The Rise and Fall of Secularization.” 1999. In Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Vol. 28, 2/3, 6-8.

2. J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu. 2005. African Charismatics: A Study of Independent Indigenous Pentecostal Movements in Ghana. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

3. Rudolf Otto. 1950. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. Second Edition. London: Oxford University Press, 3.

4. Gifford, Paul. African Christianity: Its Public Role. London: Hurst and Co., 157.

5. Allan Anderson. 1999. “Global Pentecostalism in the New Millennium” in Allan Anderson and Walter Hollenweger ed., Pentecostals after a Century: Global Perspectives on a Movement in Transition, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 215.

Dr. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu is academic dean and associate professor of Religion and Pentecostal Theology at Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Ghana. In 2004 he was senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.