Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Gospel and African Religion

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Gospel and African Religion

Article excerpt

A space for belonging in African Pentecostalism

The expansion of the Pentecostal message in Africa in the 20th Century can be attributed, at least partially, to cultural factors. Walter Hollenweger sees the "oral structures" of Pentecostalism, like Christianity itself, to be the reason for its initial growth. His list of the characteristics of these structures is well known and includes oral liturgy, narrative theology and witness, reconciliatory and participant community, the inclusion of visions and dreams in worship, and the understanding of the relationship between body and mind revealed in healing by prayer and liturgical dance. [1] Hollenweger points out that spontaneity and enthusiasm in Pentecostal worship, rather than leading to an absence of liturgy, produce flexible oral liturgies memorized by the congregation. The most important element of these liturgies is the active participation of every member in the congregation. [2] Pentecostal liturgy has social and revolutionary implications in that it empowers marginalized people, takes as acceptable what ordinary people have in the worship of God and thus overcomes "the real barriers of race, social status, and education". [3]

It is the contention of this paper that the so-called "prophet-healing" and "Spirit" or "spiritual" African Instituted Churches (AICs), [4] as well as other Pentecostal and charismatic churches, both new and older varieties, are all different expressions of Pentecostalism in Africa. These churches now constitute a significant proportion of African Christianity, and in some countries they are now the majority. [5] Their reformation of missionary Christianity has gone much further than the "Ethiopian" and "African" churches had done before them. Many observers consider the free African liturgy of music and dance in the AICs to be their most obvious demonstration of their indigenization or "African-ness". [6] The emphasis on "freedom in the Spirit" has rendered the Pentecostal movement inherently flexible in different cultural and social contexts worldwide, and Africa is no exception. This flexibility has made the transplanting of its central tenets more easily assimilated. Many older missionary churches arose i n Western contexts of written liturgies, set theologies, highly educated and professional clergy, and church structures with strongly centralized control. This often contributed to the feeling in Africa that these churches were "foreign" and that people first had to become Westerners before becoming Christians. In contrast, the Pentecostal emphasis on immediate personal experience of God's power by the Spirit was more intuitive and emotional, and it recognized charismatic leadership and indigenous church patterns wherever they arose. Even in most Pentecostal churches with Western missionary involvement, leadership was not kept long in the hands of missionaries, and the proportion of missionaries to church members was usually much lower than that of older mission churches. Preaching a message that promised solutions for present felt needs like sickness and the fear of evil spirits, Pentecostal preachers were heeded and their message readily accepted by ordinary people. Churches were rapidly planted in African cultures, and Africa took on its own, different expressions of Pentecostalism. AICs are mostly churches of a Pentecostal type that have contextualized and indigenized Christianity. Although Cox's generalization may not tell the whole story, AICs are "the African expression of the worldwide Pentecostal movement" because of both their Pentecostal style and their Pentecostal origins. [7]

One of the outstanding features of these AICs is their religious creativity and spontaneously indigenous character, a characteristic held as an ideal by missionary scholars for over a century. The "three self' formula for indigenization put forward by missionary leaders Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson in the mid- 19th century -- self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating -- was automatically and effortlessly achieved by AICs long before this goal was realized by European mission churches. …

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