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Andreas Heuser {*}

Spiritual Struggle for Public Space

The 'Third Church' in Africa and its Crusades

 

From: Herder-Korrespondenz, 6/2008, P. 316-320
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    Within a few decades Africa will be the spiritual centre of world Christianity. With it in Christian everyday culture the classic differences between the churches and denominations become blurred. So-called Crusades are typical of the world of faith of African churches.

 

In the course of the 20th century one of the up to now biggest changes took place in the spread of religions on a global scale. Particularly the Christianization of the Sub-Saharan countries led to an irreversible religio-geographical shift of Christianity, which gives an ever-growing importance to the religious landscape of the South. What theological as well as religious profile does the Christianity in Africa adopt?

The following episode that occurred during my last visit in Ghana gives some hints to it. One afternoon on the streets of Kumasi, the old royal city of the Asante, a young artist came up to me. He offered me some of his pictures for sale. When I in the course of the conversation made myself known as an evangelical pastor from Germany the topic of the conversation immediately changed. "Oh, then you are one of those charismatic evangelists and powerful faith healers from overseas teaching us the faith!"

He almost euphorically pointed to the oversized flags, lengths of cloth and majestic posters lining the street; they announced shortly forthcoming church events and pointed to mega evangelizations or prayer weeks.

The messages they advertised praised evangelists working "miracles" and authoritative preachers of the "true faith", promised "healing" or "new life" and the ultimate defeat of Satan and his destructive forces. They were thus the strategically placed bearers of a visualized theology. Even more: Such flags and billboards refer to a religious battle for public space. Their distribution in the city is easy and quickly possible. Situated on the traffic arteries they in a short time reach a large part of the population. Like in Kumasi the ubiquity of that visualized theology characterizes the urban topography in virtually all major cities of sub-Saharan Africa.

When I looked again at the artist I said 'no' and pointed out to him that my stay in Ghana took place in the context of an ecumenical church partnership with the oldest Protestant church in the country, the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, the historical roots of which go back to the German-Swiss Mission movement of the 19th century. That had indeed nothing to do with the international charismatic church scene.

Unaffected by my objection my interlocutor continued, "I too am a Christian, a member of the Apostolic Church (one of the classic Pentecostal churches in Ghana)." Then he quite suddenly asked, "Can you pray for me?" - A not-too-common request to a priest in the streets of Germany. I prayed for him, while other passerbys went on their ways. A few weeks later I by chance met the artist gain, and he told me overjoyed that he had received a scholarship, which allowed him to register as an art student at the University of Kumasi. He insisted that there was a direct, causal connection between my intercession and his personal success.

 

Christianity in Africa has a Transnational Dimension

That experience sheds light on some of the key issues which are currently dealt with in (west) African Christianity. First in Christian everyday culture the classic distinguishing features between the churches fuse together. Denominational loyalty, the insistence on religious difference seems to make little sense.

As a matter of course the vocabulary of historical and charismatic or Pentecostal churches merges and finds to a common language of faith. And furthermore the habit of pastors appears quite stereotyped: regardless of confessional coinage they play a uniform role as communicators of existential needs and of individual success and prosperity, of - in the broadest sense - healing.

In addition the personal attitude of faith is a public matter and is not at all limited to the private sphere. Christian faith is realized and negotiated over on the roads of everyday life.

 


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And finally, Christianity in Africa has a transnational dimension. The local form of faith has the capacity to control the theological discourses exerting their influence from outside.

Notwithstanding my objection my interlocutor put me into the team of those "charismatic evangelists and powerful faith healers from overseas" who come to teach the right faith and good theology. From it a double line of reasoning patterns results: On the one hand, the status of powerful preachers is assumed with the overseas representatives of any church, resp. a special, exceptional quality is from the outset assigned to their spiritual gifts. On the other hand, however, theological or cultural imports are strictly interpreted by the grammar of the local Christianity. So I became witness of an event that has for several years been discussed with increasing plausibility, namely the emergence of a Christianity that can be understood as so-called "Third Church".

Anyway, the thesis of the emergence of a "Third Church" is held by the religious scholar and theologian Philip Jenkins who teaches in Philadelphia. Based on religio-demographical data he sees Christianity as the religion of the 21st century. In Jenkins' religious panorama Africa then gets a special status. Within a few decades Africa becomes the spiritual centre of world Christianity, a dramatic change in the Christian world which observers from the West so far hardly want to admit.

The forms adopted by that African Christianity are according to Jenkins no longer set from the North. That church will neither be a copy of the Western large churches nor of Orthodoxy - it is the "Third Church." But it remains to be waited and seen how exactly the Third Church differs from the older traditions.

The missiologist Walbert Bühlmann introduced the concept "Third Church" in analogy to the development debate about the then so-called "Third World". With it he drew our attention to the shift of weight of the world-wide Christianity and already predicted an era of the Southern Christianity.

The latest data confirm Bühlmann's seismographic feeling: If you take into account the statistical trends which began to emerge in the course of the 20th century, the gravitational centres of Christianity will clearly lie in Latin America and - even with conservative assessments - above all in Africa. At present the growth rates of the Christian world population are highest in Africa, whereas a negative trend becomes visible e.g. for the Christian West. When in 1900 the European share in the Christian world population was still at 70 percent, until 2025 it will - in extrapolation of current figures - melt away to 20 percent.

When you consult e.g. the Catholic Church's baptism statistics, the total number of annual baptisms in the European core countries Italy, Poland, France and Spain in recent years is lower than (that) of individual countries like Nigeria or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nearly 40 percent of those baptisms in Africa are baptisms of adults. Since baptisms of adults suggest a deliberate decision to join a church or even to change one's religion that reference number portends a deliberate evangelistic basic orientation of church life. It can be observed that that mega-trend is not dependent on denominational affiliation.

Since the mid-sixties of the last century, when the number of Christians for the first time in Africa's history exceeded that of Muslims, the share of Africa's Christian population increased in a remarkably short period of time from 25 to currently almost 50 percent of the population. So that change in the global topography of Christianity, which strikes you as dramatic, is meanwhile undisputed and will continue.

 

"New Churches" have Secured a Kind of Spiritual Hegemony

The African Christianity is of course no uniform block. But it is characteristic that common theological structural elements develop across the denominations, which find expression in similar beliefs and religious practices. The trend-setters of such predominant theological signs are the so-called New Churches of Africa. With that term the charismatic churches and churches with neo-Pentecostal tradition are summarized, which within the past two decades secured a kind of spiritual hegemony in the entire religious culture of many African countries.

Their fundamental topics such as healing, dream visions, exorcisms or also an apocalyptical message influence the broad range of the historical churches of Catholic and Protestant origin. There they in turn release a dynamism of its own which all in all leads to a stronger charismatization of church life. But such influences reach beyond the edge of Christianity and have an effect also on other religions. One aspect that recently inspired for instance some Islamic reform movements is the strong impulse of the New Churches for evangelisation, and the public strategies for spreading faith associated with it.

That coinage strongly oriented towards religious mobilization, which the New Churches introduced into the religious everyday culture of many African countries, becomes nowhere as impressively visible as in the practice of mega-evangelisations - in English usage called "Crusades".

 


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Originally the "Crusade Style Ministry" developed shortly after the Second World War in a mixed area of the Evangelical and Pentecostal movement in the United States. Thoroughly structured mass gatherings in mostly urban environments are typical of those evangelization campaigns. In Africa first Crusades took place about 1960 during the decolonization wave, when American preachers like Billy Graham carried out some pan-African evangelization campaigns which covered several countries.

Since the late nineties, however, the crusade practice encompasses far more than only the original church milieus and belongs to the ecumenical inventory of literally all churches. Crusades are a concomitant of the general process of charismatization, which has caught the African churches. They are admittedly still subject to the sovereignty of individual churches, but are often prepared in supra-denominational cooperations. That concerns the organizational as well as the infrastructural preparation.

But also a campaign can be arranged in which an internationally renowned guest preacher is jointly invited, who however alternately is guest in events of several churches. Within four weeks I for example experienced in Kumasi three popular types of Crusade: a transnational Crusade carried out centrally and en bloc, a decentralized transnational Crusade, and a Crusade in the responsibility of individual communities.

In the first case the main actor was the founder of an English neo-Pentecostal church. The week-long Crusade, in which it was mainly about the so-called Miracle Healing, was organized by almost all of the Historical Churches and most of the classical Pentecostal Churches in Kumasi in one single place. This type of Crusade attracts thousands and tens of thousands.

Another transnational Crusade lasted all in all only three days and happened within a more modest range. Here a Methodist, who had been ordained in the United States but originated from Ghana, taught one evening in a Presbyterian congregation about "the work of the Holy Spirit" and the following morning made an appearance as guest speaker with the theme "Growth in Spiritual Life" in the campaign of evangelization of the largest local Catholic parish before he finally ended his ecumenical tour in a Pentecostal church with expositions on "Spiritual Warfare".

The third form of a Crusade was the action of a single Church: the Presbyterian Church, the local youth association of which set out for a two-week campaign with a fully equipped tour bus to the rural hinterland; with it the urban and stationary setting of a Crusade was abandoned. Important issues on that evangelisation campaign were especially the probation of faith or the exercise of mission strategies in the neighbourhood.

 


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Such Crusades let well recognize the religious world of African churches. They live on the certainty that God's action immediately takes effect and can change the life of individuals in a way that can be experienced. How God is able to directly intervene into the daily life becomes visible in the individual parts performed in the course of a crusade.

A major complex of topics, which is of fundamental importance in the entire church spectrum, includes the understanding and practice of healing. Healing includes physical as well as psychological or social suffering and happens as miracle healing and faith healing and as prophetic diagnosis and checking of possession by ghosts. In the centre is the individual person and the development of his life. It is already felt as a disease when the potentiality of life is affected, especially by external influences. Such negative effects increase in the situation of poverty in which many faithful are and where the church is growing. That is why 'healing' becomes the key element of church self-understanding. The actual healing is arranged as performance, i.e. it is embedded in a series of ritual components.

That Christianity therefore stresses man's collaboration in the healing process. Mostly cleansing elements of fasting precede it; the exorcism of evil spirits happens in a sophisticated ritual, recently - only since the nineties - in the form of so-called Deliverance church services. Deliverance is derived from the Our-Father-Plea "Deliver us from evil," where salvation means to throw off a Christian's temptations by the destructive forces of demons, to renounce Satan's power.

Demonic attacks on the moral integrity of a person are parried, certain clinical pictures are explained with the attack by the devil or his human agents, and subdivided in categories of different weight. The state of healing is certified by rituals of anointing during which olive oil is preferentially applied to the affected parts of the body.

Such individual physical anointments can also often be used to avert adversities and misfortune from the person concerned. They are anchored in the practice of life, and that's why nothing speaks against repeated unctions. Among charismatic neo-Pentecostal churches the anointing is even regarded as the external sign of the Holy Spirit's blessing. Because of that combination of medication, protection and election by ritual participation, healing church services have got a prominent place in the spiritual life of individual churches.

As strange as the scenario may appear, in it no escapist ecstatic faith is expressed, on the contrary, it shows the conviction that Christian faith has effects in the here and now and in all areas of life. The gist of those expressions of faith is the concrete, tangible overcoming of problems.

Due to the importance of faith for everyday life a theology has furthermore taken root that understands a high social status, individual well-being and material success as God's blessing. This so-called Prosperity Gospel is often well received by a younger generation that is striving for social progress and a mostly educated urban stratum. The aesthetic code of such preachers of prosperity as well as the habit and appearance of their followers emphasize formal Western branded fashion. A preacher who enjoys material well-being has the prestige to be a mediator of divine truth. To him the ability is ascribed to transform spiritually as well as materially also the lives of other people.

 

The "Prosperity Gospel" Especially appeals to Younger Generations

But up to now that prosperity doctrine is limited to the charismatic neo-Pentecostal strands of the African church, and the materialistic world view displayed meets with massive criticism. The growth in faith, it was said in one of the Crusade events above-mentioned, was not bound to the promises of material prosperity. By the emphasis on that aspect at most the corruption had increased also in church contexts.

Another major issue that is connected with the Crusades is Spiritual Warfare. Territorial thinking predominates here, which distinguishes between the world of the redeemed and the world of the lost. There is no neutral ground in such a stereotypical division of the world. In the devotional literature circulating among believers in Kumasi we read, "People must know that from the moment in which they are born as a Christian, the devil acts against them as persons, and that he will attack their families and the entire church." In view of that constant threat the speech goes on, "We begin the spiritual warfare in the womb and continue it up to the grave". The arsenal of aggressive actions against the faithful requires effective counter-strategies. In the pictures used by the New Church the church is "a military academy where you learn both the theory and practical strategies of Spiritual Warfare".

In the thinking of Spiritual Warfare often a geography of religion is found that "demonizes" especially the rural areas. For there the agents of evil reside in the shrines of African religion. The map of warfare between the forces of good and the evil forces locates the School of Satan in the wilderness. Not only, but also for that reason Crusade campaigns come from the urban centre, in order to evangelize from this position within a divine domain the rural environment, the stronghold of God's potential opponents.

 


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Conversely, the city, the symbol of the New Jerusalem, is a magnet for country people and labour migrants. In the wake of such migratory movements it is in danger to be infiltrated by the malicious forces of the "school of Satan". In one of the brochures widely spread in Kumasi's churches it dramatically says, "On the Satanic computer they know the city, the street, your house number and even the room number." The threat by demonic actors, which is classified as real, requires the energy of Crusaders and a divine intervention in order to protect the urban life or to restore its purity.

The struggle for spheres of influence is no running fight. Crusades are not aimed at marking holy districts into which believers can retreat from demonic attacks. They do not fence urban protection areas but deal with the shifting of borders, want to achieve hegemony of the divine sphere. As already the ubiquitous visualized theology of the Third Church suggests, the public area is to become a sacred landscape.

 

    {*} Andreas Heuser (born in 1961) attained a doctorate in missiology and religious studies, with a main field of research in African history of religion and church history. He is a theological advisor to churches of African origin in Europe. At present he occupies a profile post for ecumenism and education of the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau in Limburg on the Lahn.

 

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