Africa, Animism, and the Dangers of the Prosperity Gospel

The term prosperity gospel, usually conjures up images of a (typically) white, big-haired, American televangelist from the 1980s seated on a golden throne, flanked by artificial ferns, wagging his bejeweled fingers into a camera lens to chasten his faithful parishioners to “sow the seed of faith” in order to “reap the harvest of God’s favor.” Or something along these lines.

This image association is well-merited, as historian Kate Bowler has documented. The entire global movement we now refer to as the prosperity gospel (PG) movement has its roots in this phenomenon within American evangelicalism in the latter part of the twentieth century.

Today, however, we are no longer dealing with a solely American phenomenon. This movement has now spread like wildfire to virtually every part of the developing world, perhaps most profoundly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Troubling Numbers

Recent reports from Pew Research indicate that Christianity is rapidly on the rise in Sub-Saharan Africa. Pew projects that by the year 2050, about 38 percent of the world’s Christians will reside in Sub-Saharan Africa. Pew clarifies that their use of the term “Christian” describes anyone self-identifying as such, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox groups, Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. An estimated 37 percent of this group belongs to what Pew calls “the Protestant faith.”

If these numbers are accurate, then Sub-Saharan Africa will be home to approximately 1.1 billion self-identified “Christians” in thirty years. If 37 percent of that number will be Protestant, then Sub-Saharan Africa will have 408,813,000 people who consider themselves Protestant Christian. That’s about 86 million more people than the entire current population of the US.

What’s in a Name?

As a missionary and a theological educator in Sub-Saharan Africa, I can’t help but question the accuracy of such numbers—not because I disagree with the methodology of the research. My disagreement is theological.

Included under the “Protestant” banner are traditional denominations such as Anglican, Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian. While most of these denominations have some presence in Africa, they are being far outpaced by other “Protestant” groups that don’t really fit in any of these categories, primarily the PG movement.

But how could a movement with such a seemingly limited target audience—spiritually-inclined Americans with televisions—gain such broad appeal among unreached and underserved parts of the world? There are many possible factors: vast amounts of resources at the movement’s disposal, aggressive and innovative media strategies, global fascination with the Western world and American Pop-Christianity. While each of these could have played some part in this movement’s advance, I suspect there is a deeper, more fundamental reason behind its spread: animism.

Reaping What You Sow

Animism has been defined as, “[the] belief that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs and, consequently, that human beings must discover what beings and forces are influencing them in order to determine future action and, frequently, to manipulate their power” (20).

Any textbook on animism will take us immediately to village huts in Africa or rainforests in South America in order to view animism in its most blatant forms. But Mission Alive founder Gailyn Van Rheenen observed that “animism is prevalent in every continent and is part of every culture” (11). Van Rheenen is perhaps more right than he may realize. For when he cites Western examples of animism, he points to things like New Age spiritism, occultism, and astrology, which of course qualify. But if someone asked me what the clearest example of animism in the Western world is today, I would point squarely to the PG movement.

“The PG movement is nothing more than humans seeking to discover the forces that are influencing them and then manipulate their power. This is animism at its core, with a few Bible verses and Jesus attached.”

Put simply, the PG operates on the concept of transaction. Input translates to output. Or, to use more biblical (albeit out-of-context) language, “Whatever a man sows, he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7 HCSB). The posited meaning here is that when someone performs an act of religiosity or devotion, this somehow obligates God to return blessing or favor, just as a payment obligates a vendor to render a service. The application point for the PG is that righteous living, believing, giving, and praying obligates God to return financial, emotional, familial, or professional blessings.

We see this principle espoused on a spectrum that ranges from blatant formulas, such as those of the preening evangelist on a telethon, to the subtler “follow Jesus and he will make your life all you ever wanted it to be” message coming from the pulpits. But behind all of this pseudo-Christian and quasi-biblical lingo is animism. The PG movement is nothing more than humans seeking to discover the forces that are influencing them and then manipulate their power. This is animism at its core, with a few Bible verses and Jesus attached.

The PG movement has spread like wildfire in Sub-Saharan Africa because there is nothing really new about it. Whereas previous generations of Africans lived in constant fear of the ancestral spirits who dwelt among the trees––and sought out a shaman or witch doctor for some form of power to overcome them—newer generations of Africans live in constant fear of the spirits of poverty, sickness, failure, and depression. They seek out a “pastor” or a prophet or a bishop for some formula that may give them spiritual power for a breakthrough or a deliverance.

Animism 2.0

In Zimbabwe where I live, “prophets” spray Raid-like bug spray into people’s faces to drive out unclean spirits. Others use an iPad to take selfies with parishioners, which supposedly reveals hidden truths about their spiritual lives. Some are being prosecuted for various forms of abuse enacted in the name of spiritual healing and deliverance. This is certainly not Protestantism. This is not even Christianity. This is animism 2.0, and it is wreaking havoc on the church here in Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa.

“If we want to see a reformation among African churches, we must intentionally and fervently ground our ministry efforts in a grace-alone gospel.”

So what can we do? We can confront false teaching and teachers by name and seek to rid our churches and networks of their vile media content which has flooded this continent. We can vigorously write and publish our own resources that seek to instill sound biblical apologetics to guard our flocks against these heresies. We can work alongside biblically sound African churches to equip pastors and leaders for the next generation. The root of all these efforts must be the same teaching that has always been the root of the Protestant faith—the doctrine of grace alone. If we want to see a reformation among African churches, we must intentionally and fervently ground our ministry efforts in a grace-alone gospel.

Grace Alone

In a 2005 interview, commenting on what (I believe) was his observation of a form of animism in every religion, Bono said,

You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or opposite one.  It’s clear to me that karma is at the very heart of the universe.

But for Bono, the answer to this transactional view of faith is simple.

And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so will you sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed. . . . I’d be in big trouble if karma was going to finally be my judge . . . but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death.

What Bono is articulating here is nothing other than the true Protestant faith. The doctrine of grace alone destroys every false argument and opinion based in karma or animism, which portrays God as a kind of transactional deity—either rewarding with blessing or punishing with curse on the basis of our performance.

The response to this heresy must be the same as it has been throughout the ages—preaching Christ crucified. Here in Africa, this mandate has never been more urgent. It is time for the church to mobilize. We cannot leave Africans in their “Old-Time Religion” any longer. We must show them the true way—not the way of animism, but the way of the cross and the empty tomb.

Nick Moore is a missionary with the IMB, and he serves as professor and academic dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary of Zimbabwe. He and his wife, Kyndra, have been married for twelve years and have seven children.

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