Churchianity, Zimbabwe's biggest growth industry

Oct 17, 2010

There is a boom in new churches in Zimbabwe. 

Like many parts of Africa, Zimbabwe may have chaffed under the treatment they experienced under their colonizers, but they developed a strong bond with the religion brought by the missionaries who followed closely behind the colonists.

Christianity has taken deep root in Zimbabwe, although it has evolved over the decades to be in many ways quite different from the forms the European and American missionaries brought. The old Western churches (Methodist, Catholic and so on) are fast losing ground to an aggressive form of pentecostal exuberance that many worshipers seem to find more socio-culturally fitting than the more staid worship types spoon-fed by the missionaries.

There seem to be as many flavors of that pentecostalism as there were of the 'old' denominations. First came the American type derived from the southern US baptist tradition. It was popularised by US televangelists famous and infamous. The mix of religion and showbiz proved very popular in Zimbabwe.

In the last few years the Nigerian religion industry has modified this style and began to re-export it, seemingly able to do this far more successfully than its American originators. Old African beliefs and practices are mixed seemlessly with 'new' Western ones in ways that reflect Africa's recent evolution much more successfully than the narrowly Europeanized styles of the old denominations. Even those missionary-derived churches have had to accommodate worship styles that are much more Africa-relevant, to avoid losing further ground than they are already doing to the 'new' churches.   

I have lived outside Zimbabwe for five years now but visit home regularly. On my most recent visit, in August 2010, I was stunned at what seemed like an explosion in the construction of churches of all styles and sizes since my previous visit 12 months before. Once bustling industrial areas in Harare were a shadow of their former selves despite the economic normalization that has been underway for a couple of years now. In contrast, areas zoned for churches seemed to be hives of building activity. Manufacturing may still be struggling, but the industry of religion certainly seems to be thriving!

In Harare there seemed to be an unannounced competition between some of the prominent 'new' churches to outdo each other in the size, height and general lavishness of the structures they were building. Almost without exception, the churches engaged in this building and expansion boom were formed by and are led virtually single-handedly by a strong, charismatic individual. He (almost never a she) may call himself by any one of a number of fancy titles; doctor, archbishop, apostle being among them; depending on the size of the ego of the holy man. He is often claimed by his flock to be 'anointed' to his task of saving souls, although it is sometimes difficult to tell by who, other than himself.

The pastors are a ubiquitous presence, impossible to ignore even for cynical heathens. They love the TV box and given the chance to strut on it will put on a mesmerising show. Occassionally, though not often, the music and general entertainment are as good and slick as any professional secular musical production. Even when one isn't sure about the veracity of the message being delivered or the character of the deliverer, the sheer theatrics with which the show is put on, especially with a TV crew present, can be arresting. I would not be at all surprised if some of the draw of these performers  is the sheer sense of spectacle, rather than an overwhelming sense of spirituality.

The ZAOGA church, one of the oldest and more established of the new breed of indigenous (as opposed to directly mission-derived) churches, celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding while I was in Harare.  That is indeed an impressive milestone for any organization to mark. But I was surprised by the extent of hero-worship of the founder and his wife on the occasion. Huge billboards of the smiling pair went up all over the city and countless colour banner adverts appeared in the media. I don't know whether the live events were more spiritual and less idolizing of the founder in nature than the billboards. I couldn't help wondering if the church could not have commemorated the important anniversary and honored its founder in a more modest way that respected the difficulties many, if not most of its members would be experiencing in today's tough Zimbabwe.

Perhaps those followers were more impressed by the showbiz of the whole spectacle than they questioned how much in keeping with the religion's basic tenets it was. Perhaps no one cared whether the money splashed on billboards and full-page color newspaper adverts could have been better spent. In any case, who is going to dare question the founder's decisions?

The 'old' Euro-denominations are increasingly seen as dull and out of sync with current worship fashions, but one thing they still have is a semblance of an accountability system largely lacking from the new showbiz-flavored varieties of churchianity. Where they will have some sort of representative governing body, in the new church the founder-pastor-archbishop-apostle often runs the enterprise like a family business or sole proprietorship. He is 'anointed,' you see, so it's alright to do as he pleases without oversight from anybody. If you don't like it, dream up your own 'anointing,' hit the road and start your own church down the road, what the hell.  

All this left me wondering uneasily whether Zimbabwe's explosion of churchianity in any way also equates to a deepening of Christianity in particular and spirituality in general, or whether it is mostly simply the proliferation of shrewd, cynical religious entrepreneurs trading on people's fear and disillusionment at a troubled time for the country. Lord'a mercy!


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