Pentecostalism, African style

FAITH IN ACTION By Katherine Marshall Africa, with its complex mosaic of countries and communities, is in the throes of … Continued


By Katherine Marshall

Africa, with its complex mosaic of countries and communities, is in the throes of religious revolution. Some trends are troubling–witness the Nigerian Muslim who tried to blow up a plane and the move to make homosexuality a capital offense in Uganda. Yet other trends may offer hope.

One little studied development is the rapid spread of Pentecostal churches. A conference organized by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem last week explored how these churches are involved in social change.

Data is hard to come by, but as a gauge of this growth, one scholar said that a majority of Kenyans today can be considered Pentecostals. (Attendees also reported on followers in South Africa, Ethiopia, Ghana, Botswana, Togo and Madagascar.) The religion takes many forms, and its churches are highly decentralized. The common threads are said to be a conviction in the role of the Holy Spirit; a “born again” experience, which often takes the form of speaking in tongues; and faith healing. Worship is enthusiastic and charismatic.

The meeting addressed a bevy of questions: Are Pentecostal churches conservative or are they forces for change? Urban or rural? Proponents of prosperity and friends of the market, or preachers of austerity? The answer seems to be “all of the above”. And there is no simple answer to the question of what kind of modernity they advocate, even what kind of “moral economy” they support. Extraordinary variety is a leading feature of Pentecostalism.

Nonetheless, aspects of the Pentecostal movement are quite distinct from traditional Christian churches. Pentecostals generally represent a sharp break from the past. Many Pentecostal churches reject community rites like ancestor or spirit worship. Some promise that prosperity will come with belonging. Others are very “home-grown” and raise considerable resources through tithing of members. But there are complex links with churches elsewhere, including the United States. A very modern focus on communications, including large broadcasting networks, goes with the Pentecostal revolution.

In Africa as in other regions, women often join Pentecostal churches because they promise behavior change for husbands: above all cutting drink and womanizing. And in many places women experience a new empowerment in the far less hierarchical Pentecostal communities. Women pastors and bishops are far more common there than in traditional religions.

The Jerusalem conference honored Professor Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, renowned sociologist and guru for many in the field. The new scholarship on Pentecostalism, he suggested, represents a “resurrection” of Max Weber’s insights on the roles religion plays in social transformation.

Africa’s religious revolution offers a potential for enormous good: the strength of communities, emergence of new leadership, and the entrepreneurial and creative spirit that are at work are part of the treasure of Africa, part of the continent’s enchanting quality. Yet some of the other events I mentioned earlier also highlight forcefully the dangers lurking in societies buffeted by globalization, where traditional ways are shattered.

The greatest mystery is what this explosion of new churches across Africa means for society, economy, and politics. Do church members in fact do better? Does drinking and extramarital philandering stop? Are women truly empowered? Are deeply held beliefs in the spirit world changed? Will corrupt practices be curtailed? These important questions still beg for answers. But the force of the phenomenon is plainly something to be reckoned with.

(Read more on Pentecostal traditions.)

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior advisor for the World Bank.

By Katherine Marshall | 
January 11, 2010; 12:12 AM ET

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Faith in Action

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  • Athena4

    Some not-so-great side effects of African Pentacostalism are an increase in accusations of witchcraft, especially towards children and older women; increased violence towards homosexuals (i.e. the Ugandan “Kill-The-Gays Bill”); and an uptick in AIDS cases brought about by reduced condom use, due to “abstinence-only” AIDS education.

  • Paganplace

    Thanks for pointing that out, Athena. I can’t believe the original piece so totally *ignored* all that. Or can I?

  • ccnl1


  • Athena4

    So, CCNL, you’re saying that people shouldn’t use condoms because of the chance that they might break? I don’t understand why you’re cutting and pasting this bit of information. Is it because I mentioned condoms, and your bot has to spew this bunch of stats out every time that word is mentioned? If you’d read a bit further instead of copying and pasting things out of context, you would learn that the Ugandan AIDS prevention campaign that reduced their infection rates was ABC – Abstinence, Be Faithful, use a Condom. If you couldn’t do A or B, do C. What happened after the Family-controlled current Museveni regime came in was that they stopped advocating condom use, in favor of just abstinence. Well, that didn’t work, and AIDS infection rates are on their way up. So, they’re blaming the small number of gay people in Uganda rather than their own misguided changes to their national AIDS policy. That’s what happens when religion trumps good social policy.

  • ccnl1

    Athena, Athena, Athena,Some think that condoms are perfect in preventing pregnancy, STDs and AIDs. As per the Guttmacher study, they are not. Said information is for the “newbies” here. And “handjiving” centers would appear to be the perfect Ugandan solution. Everyone, please send your used vibrators to all those African Pentacostal missionary friends.

  • Athena4

    If more men in Africa would “hand jive” (as you call it) instead of raping women, the AIDS rate would be a lot lower. Because the amount of extra-marital sex going on in some parts of Africa isn’t consensual. As for using condoms, it’s better than nothing.