Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Character of Pentecostalism in Nigeria

It is beyond the scope of this article to prove the veracity or otherwise of claims of the miraculous feats claimed to have taken place in the numerous Pentecostal churches that are mushrooming in the landscape of Nigeria. However, there have been several reports regarding the doubtful intentions and machinations of some dubious Pentecostal pastors who engaged in magical acts to delude and mollify their unsuspecting devotees.
Pentecostalism may have become so entrenched in Christian circles in Nigeria, to such an extent that prospective planters of churches utilise the Pentecostal identity for galvanising popular followings. The psychology of Nigerian Christians is one that attributes importance and legitimacy to the Pentecostal label on the grounds that it indicates purity and the whole truth exemplified by the Bible. Little wonder that Pentecostal churches enjoy immense recognition as many Christians openly identify with programmes organised or anchored by Pentecostal churches or pastors. The power of evangelisation in Pentecostal outreaches has often hinged on the demonstration effect of miracles which were claimed to have been wrought by some so-called ‘powerful men of God’. The attribution of the miraculous to some soon began to create an aura of omnipotence and supremacy around the personality of these men. Thus, any open crusade organised by any of the acclaimed ‘miracle-working pastors’ – and there are so many of them in Nigeria – has often evoked a tumultuous reception which cut across several of the Christian denominations that pervade the country. The mixed multitude that characterised the Pentecostal assembly in Nigeria could be a reflection of the liberal outlook of the adherents of Christian faith in the country who are only desirous of definite and prompt solutions to their myriad problems of socio-economic survival in a country that has continued to slide precariously since the 1980s towards the abyss, where life has become solitary, brutish and short.

The growth of the Pentecostal churches can be explained variously. Aside from the spiritual rebirth experience by those who were swayed to turn from their confessed evil ways, several others were enticed to Pentecostalism by the appealing and soothing messages that portrayed prosperity, holiness, and blissful living as attainable heights in Christendom. Thus, through the vehicle of Pentecostalism, adherents expected to realise their cherished dreams, which in essence means that most pentecostalists pursue their Christian religious obligations in anticipation of not only eternal heavenly rewards but earthly ephemeral ones just as the body consists of flesh and spirit. As the economic adversity of the country began to deteriorate even further, the focus of Pentecostal churches shifted somewhat from the spiritual to the physical needs of their adherents, essentially with the intent of remaining relevant to the aspirations and demands of the numerous under privileged and dispossessed members of the Pentecostal congregations. The character of class struggle in Nigeria over the years, in which the very rich people who had acquired wealth to the detriment of the ever-widening class of the dispossessed and poor people continues to influence the doctrinaire values and focus of the church. This is not surprising because every socio-cultural institution is embedded in the sub-formations of the country’s economy. It is the identification of Christian churches, particularly the Pentecostal assembly in Nigeria, with the socio-economic and political atmospherics that has in no small measure accounted for the expansive growth of Christianity in the country since the1980s. With umbrella associations such as the Christian Association of Nigeria(CAN), and the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), Christians in the country have been given a collective voice to challenge government’s repressive and exploitative policies – a role in which they have acquitted themselves creditably over the years. While the CAN comprise ‘Old Missionary’ churches such as Methodist, Catholic, Baptist, Anglican, etc, the PFN is made up of ‘new generation’ Pentecostal churches. The two associations have been able to instill discipline among their affiliate bodies and to scrutinise the operations of their members with a view to ensuring that the standard of Christianity is neither whittled down nor compromised.

But, unfortunately, because the PFN has very few members and does not enjoy the acceptance of the numerous independent Pentecostal churches which resent its hegemony, it is not in a position to regulate the practices and conduct of non-members. And it is from the expansive pool of non-members of PFN that striking aberrations are often observed. Two frontline non-members of the PFN are Christ Embassy, and the Synagogue of All Nations. These two have in recent times gained prominence through their utilisation of broadcast media to popularise their programmes and miracle claims. The Christ Embassy Ministries with its headquarters in Lagos has Pastor Chris Oyakhilome as its General Overseer. The Atmosphere for Miracles which airs on nearly 60 local television stations across the country, almost on daily basis, is anchored by Pastor Chris Oyakhilome. In the programme, video clips of miraculous feats are shown in a manner depicting the Pastor as an embodiment of God’s power. In a similar vein, prophet T.B. Joshua has a half-hour Synagogue of All Nations Programme, which is widely televised across the country. We shall return to the orchestrated use of the broadcast media by the enigmatic and suave tele-evangelists in the country. But the point to make in this section is to note that the Pentecostal field in Christendom in Nigeria is being mined by men who through the utilistion of business principles in discharging their pastoral responsibilities have an intense interest in profit-making. Understood that way, it then becomes clear why the tele-evangelists have advertised themselves to the world at great cost, since they are confident that their investments in religious advertisement would yield tremendous dividends in pecuniary terms in the immediate future. The unbridled interest in profit-making could itself be explanatory of the zeal the tele-evangelists display in evangelising the gospel for the enlargement of their congrega tions.

The foregoing does not reveal the whole character of Pentecostalism in Nigeria but is a critical perspective on the phenomenon. There are indeed some other Pentecostalists who are self-effacing and whose miraculous feats are not self-publicised in a manner that conjures up an image of self-glorification. The publicity of miracles in this category of Pentecostal assembly is carried out by a retinue of the recipients of miracles who unconsciously do the foot work to testify to non-members about the presence of God’s power in their assembly. It is in this category that the sincere Pentecostal fellowship, in consonance with the standards of the Bible, could be situated. The Bible in its account of miracles wrought by Jesus Christ, states that Jesus was particularly opposed to publicity, and had to warn the recipients of miracles not to publicise their miracles, but to give glory to God, who had used him to dispense the miracles to them.

It is between the two groups of ‘publicity-seeking Pentecostal pastors’ and the ‘self-effacing, publicity-shy pastors’ that the Nigerian Pentecostal ministry finds its character. The dominant global perception of Nigeria’s Pentecostalism, in this regard, is a function of the ability of each of the groups to authenticate and legitimise their professions in the light of the requirements and prescriptions of the Bible, which is the only common instrument of evangelisation available to the two groups.

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