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Dave Chikosi: Africa’s poor economic performance has very little to do with the proliferation of churches

By Dave C. Chikosi

Africa did not all of a sudden become spiritual at the arrival of European missionaries on her shores. African spirituality precedes both slavery and colonialism.

Bishop Dave Chikosi
Bishop Dave Chikosi

The religious cosmology of the majority of African people consists primarily of a conglomeration of spirits – I call them the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

What is known as ATR (African Traditional Religion) is thus a concerted communal effort to basically invoke and implore the Good to restrain the power and therefore minimize the influence of the Bad and especially the Ugly. And herein lies the nexus and continuity between ATR and modern pneumatic expressions of Christianity.

The reason why pneumatic or Pentecostal Christianity is growing in leaps and bounds in Africa is because it resonates and non-syncretistically affirms the religious cosmology that existed on the continent long before the advent of European missionaries.

The neo-Pentecostalism that is spreading like wildfire all over the continent is quite adept at the art of scratching exactly where the African is itching socially and psychologically. Quite unlike the stuffy, spiritually comatose, and excessively liturgical mainline churches, the new churches are much more vibrant and dynamic, offering to economically bedraggled Africans the promise of a life of the P’s – peace, power and prosperity.

But critics say that the proliferation of churches in Africa is detrimental, and even deleterious, to development. How correct or fair are they in blaming Africa’s poor economic performance on her people’s preoccupation with religion?

Or is that just a red herring dangled in front of gullible politicians by a coterie of lazy and anti-Christian social media elites looking for a scapegoat for the continent’s arrested development?

The latter may be closer to the truth and here is why: South Korea has had a greater proliferation of churches than any country in Africa since 2010. By 2015 the capital Seoul was behind only Houston and Dallas in the number of megachurches in the city. The biggest megachurch, not only in South Korea, but in the entire world is the Yoido Full Gospel Church with membership close to a million followers. There are over 50 000 churches for a country of 50 million people!

If proliferation of churches hindered a country’s economic development, South Korea would be one of the poorest in the world. But it is not. On the contrary this small Asian country the size of Liberia is, in point of fact, the 12th largest economy in the world. It is home to Fortune 500 corporations like Samsung, LG Electronics, Hyundai, SK Holdings and KIA Motors. According to Forbes, South Korea had as many as 45 billionaires in 2018.

The truth of the matter is that church growth and economic development are not mutually exclusive. “Church growth and economic growth happened at the same time,” says South Korea’s Stephen Ro, senior executive of City to City Asia Pacific.

“That correlation makes sense – Christians who are diligent and disciplined, who sacrifice for others, and who have a good work ethic and good ethics, make productive employees.”

The trouble of Africa is not a proliferation of churches per se. The Gospel that the church brings makes people better not bitter. The trouble in Africa is that while there are many Good churches, there is also a resurgence of the Bad and the Ugly.

I have zero sympathy for the sort of neo-Pentecostal madness that has congregants eating grass, drinking petrol, pesticide sprays and a gazillion other shenanigans perpetrated on gullible citizens weekly in these churches. And then you have the specter of men of God making merchandise of the Gospel by charging a fee for healing, deliverance, prophecy and access to the man of God.

That is an ecclesiastical corruption that needs to called out and roundly condemned by every church leader who cares for the spread of the true and authentic message of Jesus Christ. We need to clean our house first before we attempt to clean the very filthy & stinking political houses of Africa.  

A humorously bizarre video currently doing the rounds on the internet shows a man holding onto an African prophet’s foot. After praying in tongues for a few seconds the prophet tells the man, “Remove the shoe! Remove the shoe!”

The man takes off the shoe from the prophet’s foot and Wallah! The man has a brand new passport. With the current shortage of passports in Zimbabwe, one can see the appeal of such a stunt to people who feel trapped inside the country and unable to travel to neighboring Botswana or South Africa.

There is a very real sense in which the corruption and incompetency of African governments is in reality the cause for the proliferation of Bad and Ugly churches. At least these outlier prophets-for-profit can get you a travel document faster than the Passport Office!

The answer to Bad and Ugly religion is not government regulation or a ban on religious activity. Freedom of religion is sacrilegious, and every human being has a God-given right to practice any religion of their choosing without interference from civil authorities.

The solution is for government to offer incentives to churches, especially those on theological fringes, to join various national religious associations for the purpose of some accountability of sorts. This should be voluntary and no church must be coerced. The government has a role to protect the vulnerable and gullible from religious charlatanry, but in doing so, the government should not violate people’s right to freedom of association.

Say what you want about these fringe religious groups, but some of them are meeting very real existential needs, and are willing to scratch the people where they are itching. Instead of dismissing indigenous religious cosmologies as nonsensical and/or hocus pocus, they are using the African spiritual worldview to help their members not only survive, but thrive socially and psychologically.

The problem of underdevelopment in Africa has very little to do with our religiosity, but has everything to do with corrupt and incompetent political leaders who embezzle funds while having no clue how to run a functioning economy. Making religion the scapegoat does nothing to solve the problem.

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