SNAKE-EATING, Doom-spraying, quack-preaching Christian churches are much more in the news these days, especially in tabloids, than the old so-called mainstream churches. However, people often make the classic mistake of generalising about certain churches and labelling new denominations.
The days of dominance by, among others, the Dutch Reformed Church are over. Yes, their church buildings with their towers still stand in Arcadia, Hillbrow and Observatory and everywhere in the countryside, but those towers are no longer the beacons that show where the township is NOT located.
Nowadays, the Redeemed Christian Church of God that originated in Nigeria, the Church of Pentecost and Lighthouse Chapel International from Ghana, and our American and Australian-born and South African-named charismatic and Pentecostal churches often worship in those very buildings.
Along the roads on Sundays you often see people dressed in white uniforms worshipping in the open air, and in the north of the country there are men in khaki with a cap on the head and a star or dove on the lapel and women dressed in blue or green or yellow.
In (South) Africa, the older mainstream churches are increasingly referred to as “traditional churches" in literature, because the word “mainstream" has long ceased to be accurate. A much better general distinction in our context is between the mission-initiated churches and African-initiated churches.
However, such a distinction is only the beginning of a typology. There is a considerable flow between all the types, including African Independent Churches (AICs), Pentecostal churches, charismatic churches, new-Pentecostalist churches and traditional churches. Each of these types in turn consists of a whole series of subtypes. Thus the African Independent Churches consist of the more traditional churches, the Zionist-oriented, the Messianic and the Ethiopian types. Some of these AICs do not tolerate any traditional cultural practices in their worship, while others consciously encourage them and in this way practise a syncretism.
Who is who?
But who are all these churches? Where do they come from?
In the first instalment of this article, we want to use statistics to show how different churches can be distinguished typologically, which of them originated on our own soil and which have spilled over to us from other parts of the world. In the second instalment, we will pay attention to churches and their offertory, and how they and politicians court each other.
As authors, we are certainly not objective, but we have an appreciation (sometimes critical) for the contribution of these thousands of churches in our communities. And we hope you will voice your opinion in the comments below the article.
The obvious thing is that churches are like art; they are human creations. And art can be beautiful, evil, sometimes even a little wicked. One can look at it through a sensible theoretical, perhaps somewhat boring, lens or through the lens of gossip and sensationalism.
Author Philip Jenkins shows in his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity how the centre of gravity of the Christian religion has shifted from the global north to the global south over the past century. With tongue in cheek, he writes: “Soon the phrase ‘a white Christian’ may sound like a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as ‘a Swedish Buddhist’.”
According to the Kenyan theologian and academic Jesse Mugambi, the Christian faith in Africa grew by 3.82% between 1910 and 2010. In South Africa, 40.7% of the population said they were Christian in 1910, compared to 81.7% by 2010. According to the Community Agency for Social Enquiry, as many as 91% of people between the ages of 18 and 35 in South Africa indicated in 2005 that they attend a Christian worship service at least once a month. And the Pew Forum reported in 2010 that 87% of the South African population described themselves as Christians. The latest available statistics from StatsSA's database come from the “general household survey" conducted in 2013, according to which 84.2% of South Africans indicated they were Christians.
We don't want to split statistical hairs here. The point is simple: religion is big in our context; the Christian faith and churches are growing significantly (yes, we know, not the Dutch Reformed Church and Doppers and Anglicans, but the general trend when it comes to churches is GROWTH).
In their Atlas of Global Christianity, Todd Johnson and Kenneth Ross show that of the six largest Christian traditions in Southern Africa, the African Independent Churches have grown the fastest over the past century. And with them, the new Pentecostalist churches are also bursting at the seams. If the membership numbers of all the traditional churches are added together, they house about 30% of the Christians in South Africa, the African Independent Churches about 33% and the Pentecostalist churches and charismatic churches about 16% together.
Origin of African churches
Some of the African Independent Churches came to South Africa from elsewhere on the continent, but some of the largest were born in Southern Africa. The Zion Christian Church (ZCC), with its headquarters in Morea just outside Polokwane, is the largest. But even the ZCC's origin and growth is complicated, because, importantly, there are two: the star on one side and the pigeon on the other side of the road in Limpopo. Read Retief Müller's book about the ZCC and check on the internet which Bishop Lekganyane is which.
We once had tea with one of them (Engenas Lekganyane of the ZCC with the star). His office in Morea is located between schools, clinics and whatever else the ZCC does for the upliftment of the community. Engenas seems like a quiet and humble man, this leader of a church with between five and seven million members of whom between three and five million travel to Morea every Easter.
The African Independent Churches were founded by Africans for Africans. The first ones deliberately started breaking away from the white colonial churches more than a century ago to start embracing their own cultural roots in Africa.
Pentecostalist vs. charismatic churches
These African churches must be distinguished from the (older, first-generation) Pentecostal churches, with their origins during the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in the US between 1906 and 1915. Examples of these Pentecostal churches are the Apostolic Faith Mission, Assemblies of God and Back to God of Nicholas Bhengu, as well as the Full Gospel Church, and characteristic of them is the emphasis on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, baptism with the Holy Spirit and glossolalia.
Historically-chronologically, the charismatic movement was born from the traditional churches in the 1960s and is therefore much younger than the Pentecostalist churches, but there are also strong similarities with the latter. The charismatic churches made the beliefs of the Pentecostal churches more acceptable and placed particular emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit, the so-called charismata and a particularly high regard for the Bible which results in a rather literal reading and interpretation of texts.
More famous charismatic churches in South Africa are Doxa Deo, the Christian Revival Church, Hillsong and Shofar.
The latest development involves the emergence of the new-Pentecostalist churches, such as the Redeemed and Lighthouse, whose theology and practices strongly resemble those of the Pentecostalist and charismatic churches, but with an emphasis on improving yourself and your material wellbeing, in which religion must play a practical role.
Faith varies according to needs
At the grassroots level, however, things do not happen in little boxes. There are Pentecostal and charismatic elements in many traditional churches, such as the Methodist and Dutch Reformed. And many members of, for example, Presbyterian churches also go to African Independent Churches and are involved in traditional African religion. During our empirical investigation, people told us they are Presbyterian during the day and African Independent at night when their minister cannot see them. Members often apply different aspects of different churches according to their needs — two tablespoons of Calvin, a dash of charismata, a pinch of Zen. There are charismatic elements in most churches these days.
What do the churches believe? Regarding the newer churches, to answer the question one must start with ontology — how these Christians see the reality in which they believe, worship and live. Ontology in turn has an influence on epistemology — that which serves as sources of knowledge. And epistemology in turn influences methodology: how people do things, and therefore what someone's religious practices will look like, how they conduct their church-being and what influence their religion has on their way of life.
Any book on African theology and philosophy starts right here and not with secularisation theories. Africa is the continent of the Spirit and the spirits, to use the Greek and theological words; you can only understand religion in Africa if it is considered pneumatologically (pneuma = spirit).
The distinction that is sometimes made between what belongs to a spiritual domain and what belongs to a material domain is not made. This Western dualistic thinking occurs in the southern suburbs of Cape Town and the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, but in the city centres and townships of both these metros and cities across the continent it is totally strange.
The Spirit and spirits
The average Christian in (South) Africa believes and lives in a reality where the (Holy) Spirit and the spirits (those of ancestors, as well as other spirits, also bad ones) form an integral part of their daily life. This means religion is also understood as a domain and source of power, spiritual power, to which believers can gain access, and power that can have an effect on your life here and now, for better or for worse.
That's the epistemology, the domain from which knowledge and more can be obtained. In this spiritual reality, (dead) spiritual ancestors play a fundamental role where they inhabit a spiritual domain between the living and God.
That brings us to the methodology. Some people find others' belief in an invisible force or power that can make your life better strange. Yet even the most hardened atheists have caught themselves saying a brief prayer in a challenging moment. (To better understand religion as a source of power in Africa, read Stephen Ellis and Gerrie ter Haar's Worlds of Power.)
The material reality of members of newer churches is often very different from that of affluent, Western-educated readers. (The book Bonding in Worship: A Ritual Lens on Social Capital in African Independent Churches in South Africa explores the importance of “religious social capital" in Africa.)
These Western-educated people often see the Bible as a very strange book. All that poverty, disease, exile, demons and slavery — what does it have to do with us? We live happily in the Boland and sometimes shop at Woolies. I first have to read thick books on hermeneutics (the art of interpretation) by Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricœur and a host of other Western language philosophers before I can begin to understand what the Bible wants to tell me.
Demons, diseases, dreams
A Zimbabwean theologist, Eben Nhiwatiwa, writes: “Ironically, the things that baffle Christians in the West are the affirmations that buttress the faith of the African believer. To be assured that through Jesus Christ demons are driven away, the sick are healed, dreams convey messages, and that people see visions, helps ground the African in the Christian faith.”
The average church member in Africa and South Africa does not shop at Woolies and appropriates Bible texts as many of the first poor, persecuted and often sick hearers and readers of those texts would have done. Shit is real and people are trying to survive. And my religion has to be practical and help me with that.
What we have written so far is less than the tip of the iceberg when you consider the extent and effects of religion and the Christian faith on our continent and our country. In the next contribution, we will further explore the role of these churches, especially with regard to social wellbeing, finances and politics. Jacob Zuma didn't cosy up to the leaders of the (neo-) Pentecostal and charismatic churches rather than to the South African Council of Churches, which mainly consists of leaders of the traditional churches, for nothing. He knew exactly what he was doing.
* Prof Cas Wepener is attached to the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University. Prof Ignatius Swart is attached to the Department of Religion and Theology at the University of the Western Cape.
♦ VWB ♦
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