Mainline churches: into the fire

If you can’t beat them, join them. This appears to be the new maxim adopted by mainline churches today as more and more of them plunge headlong into the rolling bandwagon of “Fire!” sermons and practices. Such a response, of course, is triggered by the mass relocation of especially the youth to the newer, vibrant and promise-filled evangelical churches started and led mainly by self-styled “apostles” and “prophets” from Nigeria and other foreign African countries. And all this is to the dismay and irritation of the more elderly of mainline churches attendants, some of whom go so far as to label the “Fire” churches as misguided and misleading.

Is the view of elderly members of mainline churches a fair one? By emulating the “Fire” churches, are mainline churches in fact jumping from the frying pan into the fire? In this article we discuss whether “Fire” churches are indeed fulfilling legitimate new needs engendered by today’s challenging world; needs that did not arise in the less congested, less frenetic, less technologically bewildering times of yesteryear.

I first began to notice this evangelical shift in the Catholic Church, the grand old mother of all Christian churches. Late last year, while driving past the Main Mall area in Gaborone, I noticed a poster outside the Cathedral that invited people for a night of prayer, miracles, healing and deliverance. Gone in that instant was my enduring image of a church steeped in slow, solemn, sonorous and time-worn rituals of mass, prayer and hymns; where the most exciting thing that ever happened in there was to dutifully repeat incantations after the priest and occasionally burst out into soul-stirring song.

Next, I was stunned to read in the newspapers that an increasing number of London Missionary Society churches in Botswana, now bundled together under the UCCSA umbrella, have introduced contemporary gospel accoutrements like guitars and drums, along with “Fire” preaching, healing and miraculous deliverance—while “Fire” paraphernalia such as “anointed” water and oils complete the picture. And the old church folks don’t like it one bit, no matter which mainline church they belong to. In fact, I remember my late grandmother, a staunch Seventh Day Adventist, admitting her grudging, reluctant acceptance of a guitar as something other than an instrument of the Devil. Today, racier, more up-beat gospel music, accompanied by pop music instruments, is now acceptable to even the ultra-conservative Adventists.

The reasons why the younger and middle-aged sections of congregations are forsaking their mainline churches for the Fire churches is already well-noted. Being rather more ambitious than their older counterparts, they are lured by the extravagant promises of unbridled success, bubbly health and triumphant over detractors—something the mainline churches have never promised in bold and overt tones…until now. And certainly never on the basis that the preacher is specially anointed of God and is the reliable channel by which such miracles can take place. Let us see two major avenues in which this approach to evangelism is rooted.

The main thing that makes it easy for the Catholic Church to adopt elements rather more associated with Fire churches is their belief in transubstantiation. This is where the priest is deemed to be endowed with the power to change bread into the actual body of Jesus, and wine into the actual blood of Jesus. In Protestant churches, the bread and the wine is seen as merely symbolic; something to be done in remembrance of what Jesus said in the Last Supper; not an actual magical transformation of substances. Moreover, Catholic priests have long been associated with exorcism, the ability to curse and make the curse come true, and other supernatural powers. This, of course, presupposed special powers akin to those claimed by Pentecostals and merely taken up by modern evangelists.

What is Pentecostalism? It is the Christian Protestant outlook that began in the Methodist church. Their main focus, based on the doctrines of the Apostle Paul, is that a special anointing can be conferred on one through “baptism by the Holy Spirit” and as evidenced by the power to heal people, cast out demons, and speak in tongues—just as Jesus is purported to have done. There are approximately 170 different denominations that identify themselves as Pentecostal. Within this group are those who come from the Baptist background, where their main distinction is that they believe this anointing, this special sanctification, is available to everyone who accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour and is not just a gift to certain people only.

At the end of the day, it is this belief in special powers that drives a Pentecostal outlook. The atmosphere in Pentecostal meetings is charged with the expectation of excitement, signs, miracles and prophecy—and an “anointed” one is expected to deliver on these. In fact, I once overhead a group of women talking amongst themselves as they were going to an evangelical crusade conducted by a foreign “prophet”: “I hear that this one is very powerful…I did not really feel the other one who came here last time…I understand that the most powerful one in southern Africa is….” This is when I began to have a better inkling of what drives the whole process: simply convince people that you are the best and there is tons of money to be made. Resort to carefully orchestrated tricks if need be.
There is certainly glamour and excitement in the charismatic evangelical world; one certain to attract those still harbouring ambitions of a life of ease and plenty. As things tend to work out, there is pressure for the evangelist to project the very life of wealth and blessing that he or she wishes to confer on others. This is normally achieved by steadily amassing a large following—not too difficult if one is technology savvy and knows how to market themselves. Everything snowballs from there. The preacher’s own success can then be used as a measure, a standard, to attract yet others and very soon there is a large following of success-hungry individuals hanging on every word he or she says.

And one thing such evangelists have learnt to do is not to stint on Church infrastructure. “Fire” churches are characteristically grand, while those of mainline churches are typically small and dilapidated. When I was very young growing up in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, I remember being very embarrassed by the pathetic state of the Central church at African Mall in Gaborone when compared with other churches like the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals and the UCSSA Trinity church. Being effectively Presbyterian in governance—whereby a council of elders is in charge of the church—I later learnt that they stood up to “headquarters” and fought to have greater say in how funds are to be used. The result was dramatic. Today, being in any case rather more mature, I would not be ashamed at all to point it out to others. Some churches are still not so lucky. Despite amassing hundreds of thousands of Pula in tithes and fund-raising every year, little movement in church infrastructure can be seen.

One set of churches places little emphasis on infrastructure and yet fulfils another niche in the needs of, especially, African people. The runaway success of Zion Christian Church (ZCC)—which has its headquarters in Moriah, South Africa is arguably one of the largest Christian denominations in Southern Africa. In practice, they differ little from the “Fire” churches. It is only that they place great emphasis on African traditional beliefs which they blend artistically with Western Christianity. In practice, Africans are disinclined to altogether leave their traditional practices of healing and muti which were discouraged by missionaries as “heathen” or “backward”, so the ZCC provided a cushioning effect. ZCC priest are little removed from traditional doctors, just as are charismatic evangelists. They are the same thing in different garb: people who charge a consultation fee to “take away all your problems”.

My advice to non-Pentecostal mainline churches is this: stand apart and be more transparent in money matters instead of being notoriously touchy on the subject. Invoke greater autonomy in use of money gathered by your local congregation and show visible progress in the physical trappings of the church; stagnation there leads to stagnation even in the spirit; people are excited by progress. Distinguish yourself from the “Fire” churches and their extravagant I-can-give-you-anything promise. Instead, espouse hard work, the full and proper use of skills, and personal empowerment through social association and skills transfer. Used correctly, the Church is one of the best social, personal, and even business, safety nets—a serene environment in which people can engage profitably with one another…instead of swanking to each other as happens with materiality-obsessed gatherings.

Emphasise Jesus’ teachings; that he revelled in material poverty because he was excessively rich in other blessings like love and wisdom. Stress to your congregation the message that life here is transient: do your best here and move on to a higher paradigm. Those who love this life too much, Jesus said, will lose the real Life: salvation. God is the giver: look first at the Giver and not at the gift. And that said, Life is the greatest gift: live it with love and wisdom, and all else will follow.
*L.M. Leteane is a Gaborone-based independent researcher, author and columnist