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Current issue: Vol.1, No. 3 July 2001

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New Religious Movements or Business as Usual?

By Joseph N. Njiru

Open air rallies, crusades, revival gathering, miracle centres, healing ministries conducted by new religious movements have known a bewildering explosion in Africa. Kenya, a country that had already experienced a proliferation of sects and independent churches was a propitious breeding ground for these new religious movements. More and more, this is the form that Christianity is taking in Kenya.

Main line churches are attracted to these movements because they seem to offer the satisfaction of immediate rewards in an uncertain socio-economical situation. Catholics of right wing or fundamentalist tendency are often the ones most likely to join or frequent these movements. Women and the young people are the most frustrated sections of the population and more prone than others to join. Youths appreciate the modernity of the Gospel songs, as opposed to the traditional African musical idioms of the Catholic Church. They also like using the English language in worship. Unlike the Catholic Church, the new religious movements are anything but hierarchical and authoritarian. They have much more in common with the performance of pop stars and with pop music festivals.

The new religious movements are arising in situations where the majority of people experience acute poverty and even desperation, while a minority is beginning to enjoy the benefits of a consumer society. There is also a wide felt need of a cathartic experience, enabling individuals to rid themselves of guilt-feeling and other moral burdens, often related to the experience of poverty. It is a desire for social healing, as much as for inner healing. Salvation is basically a subjective assurance of deliverance. God is a “problem-solving God”, offering immediate relief from present affliction.

Paradoxically, members of the new religious movements are ready to surrender material possessions. The Leaders of these new religious movements take a good amount of their time to preach about giving to God, so that God may reciprocate with a financial breakthrough. As one observer pointed out, they preach “health and wealth” that comes only after being generous. This is a calculated sacrifice that saws the seed of future prosperity. It is a “cargo-cult” faith. Often there is an Adventist or millenarian orientation in the new religious movements. There is also the literal expectation of miracles, cures and other marvels. Finally, and most dangerous of all, there is a mystique of leadership, of accepting the unquestioned authority of an evangelist-prophet, who possesses special gifts and who is the vehicle for divine message. Many leaders of the new religious movements also seem to regard their operation as business, as much as a religious vocation. In the hands of an unscrupulous criminal, such movements can all too easily follow the terrifying example of the Kanungu Cult in Uganda that last year caused the death of over 979 people.

The revival movements, the growth of the street preaching, and the appearance of Pentecostalism in Kenya have all, in their various ways, prepared the ground for the new religious movements. Kenya has a strong Pentecostal tradition with an evangelical emphasis. This carries with it a disposition towards private initiative in religious matters and towards private interpretation of the Bible. A feature of the new religious movement is that they encourage individual adherence, within a loose organisation or network, or in a crowd situation. They do not have the kind of formal membership required by the mainline churches. The new religious movements, especially those of the “faith gospel” or “prosperity gospel” tradition, are also in many ways an elaboration of the protestant work ethic. This is basically the union of Christianity with commerce, they believe that virtue is rewarded in this world.

New religious movements employ many forms to reach out to the people. The latest is the form of “televangelism”. Televangelism targets not only a regular studio audience, but also a huge network of viewers. These viewers make contact with the televangelist's organisation, making donations, and ordering literature, videos, compact discs and other products. Televangelism is a powerful combination of preaching, worship and big business. Essentially, it centres on the personality of the evangelist, who is a star performer.

Apart from its televised form, mass evangelism consists in the holding of rallies and crusades at various Venues sponsored by the evangelist's organisation. The Uhuru Park in Nairobi is the most coveted venue for these crusades.

The spirituality and practice of Pentecostalism strongly influence the new religious movements. Emphasis is placed on the conversion experience, rather than on doctrinal faith. Healing and deliverance feature prominently in their worship. Raising of arms, dancing, clapping of hands and lively music are always a feature of their services. Testimonies are given during the event and great importance is placed on witnessing afterwards. The leader is given maximum exposure, like a pop star. The setting for worship is also theatrical. Pentecostal churches are built like theatres, with galleries and stalls facing a stage. Several new religious movements occupy theatres or cinema halls in Nairobi. Occasional events such as crusades and rallies are focussed on open-air stage. The leader usually has a musical backing with singers, musicians and dancers. The whole of the worship takes on the character of a theatrical performance with spontaneous audience participation.

There is a sharp contrast between the lavish living of the pastors and the poverty of their audiences, which becomes a source of scandal. A recent feature drew several examples. Pastor Lai is a former bank clerk, who heads the Jesus Celebration Centre in Mombasa, possesses a Ssang Yong Musso car, and lives in an expensive bungalow, complete with swimming pool, in affluent Nyali Estate.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the faith gospel formula is, to a great extent, a child of modern secular materialism emanating from the Americas and that for some of its exponents religion is a way of making money. It is, in fact, a religious form of economic rationalism. It is not too much to claim that such emerging religious movements are part and parcel of the secular global phenomenon.

Joseph N. Njiru, a Kenyan, hold a Bachelor of Science in Education degree, from St. Mary's University of Minnesota and a Post-graduate diploma in social communication from Tangaza College of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Nairobi. With Aylward Shorter he has co-authored New Religious Movements in Africa, Paulines Publications, 2001, Nairobi

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