Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Explaining the Spread of Pentecostalism in Nigeria

Although there are three broad categories of religious inclinations in Nigeria –Christianity, Islam, and African Traditional Religion – the advent of the Pentecostal revolution in the country has succeeded in expanding the frontiers of Christianity in regions that hitherto were dominated by Islam or African Traditional Religion. The
following are some of the reasons for the growing influence of Pentecostalism in Nigeria:

Nigerians are Religious: The progressive expansion of poverty, ignorance, hunger, disease, unemployment, exploitation, alienation, oppression and dispossession in Nigeria since independence has continued to influence the resort of Nigerians to a search for the spiritual essence of their being. The socio-economic and political adversities in the country provide a fertile ground for the planting, germination, growth and balkanisation of all forms of religion. The zeal of Nigerians for religion, like wine, waxes very strong with age. Thus, fifty-one years after independence, the only sector that has been experiencing growth and expansion is the religious sector. Churches and mosques are widely to be found on street corners, and are drawing new converts and adherents regularly. Although it is often said that Nigeria is a secular country, its constitution explicitly provides for the right of Nigerians to freedom of worship as contained specifically in section 38 (i) of the 1999 constitution, which declares that ‘every person shall be entitled to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching practice and observance’. The constitution is an attestation to the propensity of Nigerians to religion. Religion, to most Nigerians, is a means of inviting the intervention of the divine and celestial in the affairs of humans. This helps explains why religion – whether traditional, Christian or Islamic – occupies a central domain in the consciousness of Nigerians. In the periods of military dictatorship, Nigerians trooped to the churches and mosques and other prayer houses to seek help from God. Christianity, in particular has raised an active voice against military dictatorship in Nigeria. The Pentecostal groups were more overt in their call for spiritual liberation of the country from the hold of satanic forces that had continued to derail the course of development and truncate the destiny of the country. The challenge for the Pentecostalists during those dark days of military rule was to break the yoke of military dictatorship, and sensitise and raise spiritually and politically conscientised Christians to fulfill the task. No doubt, the emergence of several Pentecostal churches in seasons of anomie, as in the case of Nigeria in periods preceding the advent of democratic rule in 1999, played a positive role in the sense that the development facilitated the maintenance of order and stability in the face of extremely depressed economic conditions in the country. Thus, rather than spur the people to revolutionary action against their perceived oppressors, the Pentecostal Christian spirit that was sweeping through the country, melted the stony and dormant religious consciousness of the oppressed and converted them to spiritually active Christians whose focus changed from the ephemeral and mundane affairs of this world to the heavenly kingdom.

Today in Nigeria, the expansion of Pentecostal outreaches has not abated. There are more Pentecostal churches in the country than schools. But, ironically, the crime rate has been soaring with almost the same percentage as the growth rate of Pentecostal churches. So worrisome has been the incidence of crime that even churches with their hallowed sanctity have not been spared. Cases of church attendees losing their valuables to armed robbers within the precincts of the church have been reported. Thus, Pastors often warn devotees on Sundays and during weekly services to secure their belongings in order not to be dispossessed of them in the church by unscrupulous and pretentious attendees. It sounds paradoxical that Pentecostal pastors who are presumed to be imbued with awesome power would preside over churches where miscreants and criminals could easily infiltrate. This situation is the reality that stares most Christian assemblies in Nigeria in the face; and it explains vividly the obvious fact that within the growing number of Pentecostal churches is the increasing number of ‘anti-Pentecostal people’, who are ‘resident members’ of the churches. In that regard, it is necessary to distinguish between those who are religious – and many Nigerians are – and those who are faithful Christians. The Pentecostal revolution of the 1980s began with the vision of building and expanding the horizon of faithful Christians who would create the platform for the transformation of the country. The fiery evangelistic fervour of the 1980swhich rigidly stressed holiness, sanctification, purity and other Christian virtues, soon gave way in the late 1990s to diluted teachings tolerant of the excesses of the social system. Today, the focus is on prosperity, restoration, healing and family life, which are seen as dividends of the kingdom of God here on earth. This paradigm shift, unknown to the Pentecostal pastors, is aligning the world view of their churches with the main-line churches.

In all, the religiosity of Nigerians is not in doubt. The problem of religion has been the conversion of the hearts of men from evil works to heavenly values. In an attack on the churches in Nigeria, the renowned playwright and novelist, Onuorah Nzekwu stated that:
the churches have failed this nation. I don’t think there is any nation in the world that has the same number of churches as Nigeria. But it is unfortunate that the more the churches multiplied, the more evil we become.

Pentecostal churches remain in Nigeria the habitation of the good, the bad and the ugly. Expectedly so, because the churches reside in Nigerian society, and cannot be completely impervious to the influences that derive from the structure and character of its operational milieu.

The globalisation of Western Values: Following the demise of socialism evident in the collapse of Soviet Union and the ascent of the United States of America to the pinnacle of world affairs, there emerged an institutionalised process of globalisation which has succeeded in implanting western values and systems in other parts of the world. The emergence of a global cultural system which is the consequence of a variety of social and cultural developments, can to a large extent explain the growth of Pentecostalism in Nigeria. True, Pentecostalism connotes spiritual rebirth and its origins are traceable to the stimulating influence of the Holy Spirit, while the expansion of its outreaches and spheres of influence can be explained by are course to extra-spiritual factors. In fact, the Pentecostal movement in Nigerian universities in the 1980s most certainly must have been greatly influenced by a similar development in Western Europe and the United States. In a sense, the tide of Pentecostalism filled the void created by the exit of socialism from the lexicon of world politics, subsequent to the fall and balkanisation of Soviet Union. In this regard, there is a sense in which the ‘born again’ ideology of Pentecostalism could be said to be a substitute for the socialist ideology which has continued to compete with other value systems for the souls of men. Thus, the global wave of Pentecostalism is providing the ideological underpinnings for the consolidation of the capitalist order which has emerged as the dominant mode of production in the world system. This linkage between religious morality and the prevailing socio-economic order has been found to be a vital feature in epochal changes, since religion is required to legitimise the emergent social order.

What remains to be proved is the degree of influence of the western world on the rise and spread of Pentecostalism in Nigeria. It is incontrovertible that the development of a similar phenomenon in Europe and the United States in periods preceding the 19th century was exemplary and influential. But as it impacted on other parts of the world, the expansion of Pentecostal churches and their outreaches has been far in excess of the influence wielded by the same phenomenon in contemporary United States and Europe. The level of external funding and patronage enjoyed by Pentecostal churches in Nigeria is unknown. What is visible is the obvious cultural influences of western values and traditions as demonstrated by the taste and style of Nigerian Pentecostal pastors and their flocks. Regarding the corrupting influence of the western world, an internet source observes that:

Sadly, in Africa and other parts of the Third World, there has arisen especially in the 1990ssome groups who have copied the sin-compromising attitudes of those western churches who preached easy believism and cheap grace. Such third world groups are usually great boasters of their ‘revivals’ also. Such ‘revivals’ are only imitations of the real thing.

Therefore, if Nigerian Pentecostalism is to be considered a reflection of the authentic requirements of heaven-bound spirituality, as enshrined in the Bible, then there is an urgent need for revival in most of the Pentecostal churches in the country. The failings of some so-called Pentecostal churches evident in the worldly and carnal dressing of the womenfolk in those churches, and the loose and unethical social conduct of most church attendees, are a lurid manifestation of the reckless imitation of western cultures in an African setting. The point to make here is that while globalisation continued to assault the cherished and sacred values of Africans, the Pentecostal churches intent on attracting large following also were obliged to compromise, in most cases, their standards to align with the dominant world values. It is this compromise that has robbed the Pentecostal churches of their power, and has reduced most of the Christian assemblies to mere social gatherings. To purge the churches of carnalities is to return Christianity to the pre-globalisation era where Christian ethical standards and African morality were mutually reinforcing.

Style and Comportment of Pentecostal Pastors: The mode of presentation adopted by most Nigerian Pentecostal Pastors in advancing the cause they are championing and in popularising their ministries to their ever-increasing audience, can show an attractive face. Their style of language-use, phonetics, dressing and mien portray them, at face value, as the epitome of modernity and decency. Reuben Abati captures the approach and appeal of the new age Pastors in Nigeria in the following words:

The new generation pastor is a spell binder; he dresses well, he rides very flashy cars, he even carries a gun, just in case; he is a part-time businessman. He doesn’t need to have attended any Bible College, as long as he can quote passages from the Bible and report to a bewildered congregation about what his Daddy told him in the night, he would get a captive audience.

The Nigerian Pentecostal pastors in a bid to capture the attention of their audience, seem to have perfected the art of public communication. They are effervescent orators radiating with an audacious air of sophistic erudition. Most of them are products of Nigerian Universities with sound backgrounds in the academia. The experience they garnered in the course of their training has become an asset they have found useful in their evangelistic pursuits in a country where the literacy level is still very low. No doubt, the educational attainment of pastors has a direct influence on their perspectives, as much as their level of acceptance. The perception by the leadership of the requisite steps for promoting the growth of the church is a function of the level of exposure, experience and the personal ambition and vision of the overall head of the church. But the vision of the leadership has much do with the insights and knowledge-acquisition of the pastors.

In this regard, the Nigerian Pentecostal pastors seem to be gifted in the management of their outfits for effecting maximum impact on the society and promoting durability and institutionalisation of their outreaches. The adoption of business-like principles in which the dividends are ploughed back into the business has led to the meteoric expansion of many Pentecostal churches in Nigeria. In this category of rapidly expanding congregations are the Living Faith Church, Redeemed Christian Church of God, Deeper-Life Bible Church, Apostolic Faith, Mountain of Fire and Miracles Latter Rain Assembly, etc. These churches are now venturing into purely business concerns such as the establishment of Universities, Secondary and Primary Schools, Medical Centres, Banks, and Conference Centres, with the intent of generating additional resources, perhaps, for the purpose of impacting on Nigerian society in all its ramifications.

Explaining the rationale for the establishment of Covenant University – a private university, licensed by the Nigerian Government on 2 February, 2002 –the presiding Bishop of the Living Faith Church, Dr. David Oyedepo, said the university was designed to be a departure from Form to Skill; a departure from figures to future-building; a departure from legalism to realism; a departure from points to facts; a departure from ‘mathematics’ to ‘life-matics’. Of course, several other Pentecostal pastors would also justify their foray into extra-religious concerns. The objective of diversifying the sources of income of the church, as plausible as it sounds, may in the long-run expose the church to the carnal world and its negative influences. The tendency exists that the church may become profit-oriented at the risk of under mining the original anthropocentric and celestial concerns of its leadership. With the emergence of extra-religious institutions, the responsibilities of the leadership become divergent, daunting, and indeed distracting. The original focus, with its spiritual essence, may give way for the new and more-mundane agenda, with the possibility of whittling down the communion between the church leadership and God.

The factors we have discussed in the foregoing sections may not be exhaustive but they are explanatory of the growth of the Pentecostal churches in Nigeria. The growth is evidently more physical than spiritual, and this could be the resultant effect of the observable shift in the focus of the leadership of the Pentecostal churches. However, where the focus is intact without any diversification, it may be so because the church lacks the where withal to pursue distracting ventures. The growth of Pentecostal churches ought to be evident in the number of people whose lives have been positively impacted; manifold testimonies of deliverances and healings, wonder turn-around and transformations; etc. But the situation in most Pentecostal churches is that many people are thronging to services but very few are actually touching the Power of God.

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