Asonzeh F. K. Ukah. A New Paradigm of Pentecostal Power: A Study of the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Nigeria. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2008. xxiv + 410 pp. $39.64 (paper), ISBN 978-1-59221-621-5.
Reviewed by Richard Burgess (University of Birmingham)
Published on H-Pentecostalism (March, 2009)
Commissioned by Gene Mills
Nigerian Pentecostal Power Reaches into the World
The phenomenon of African neo-Pentecostalism began to attract the attention of scholars in the 1990s and has resulted in a number of important studies (e.g., Paul Gifford, Ghana’s New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalizing African Economy ; Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, African Charismatics: Current Developments within Independent Indigenous Pentecostalism in Ghana ; Matthews A. Ojo, The End-Time Army: Charismatic Movements in Modern Nigeria ; and David Maxwell, African Gifts of the Spirit: Pentecostalism & the Rise of a Zimbabwean Transnational Religious Movement ). Asonzeh F. K. Ukah’s A New Paradigm of Pentecostal Power is a sociological and historical study of neo-Pentecostalism in Nigeria, Africa’s most populated nation. As the first in-depth study of an individual neo-Pentecostal church in Nigeria, it is an important addition to the burgeoning literature on African Pentecostalism. The focus of the book is the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), one of the fastest growing Pentecostal churches in Africa, with more than ten thousand congregations in over one hundred nations. Ukah describes the transformations that have taken place in the church and relates these to the wider social, economic, and political transformations taking place in the world through processes of globalization. He suggests that the history of the RCCG captures in microcosm the transitions that have taken place within Nigerian Christianity generally.
Ukah writes as an outsider but one who has gained considerable insider knowledge through intensive fieldwork, which has included participant observation, forty interviews, and the collection of a wide range of documentary sources. He employs an economic model in his analysis, explaining the popularity of the church in terms of the religious marketplace, where religious organizations compete with one another for clientele. The RCCG’s marketing strategies, its ability to reinvent itself in response to modernizing trends, and its successful pursuit of corporate sponsorship have enabled it to dominate Nigeria’s increasingly crowded Pentecostal landscape.
Ukah sets the RCCG within the context of Nigeria’s religiously plural society, tracing its origins to the second wave of independent churches, collectively known as the "Aladura" movement, and its roots in Yoruba culture. The RCCG was founded in 1952 by Josiah Akindayomi, a semiliterate Yoruba man from a traditional religious background and a convert of the Anglican CMS (Church Missionary Society), who became a famous prophet within the Cherubim and Seraphim (C&S) movement in southwestern Nigeria. Ukah describes in detail the events that led to Akindayomi’s departure from the C&S, the inauguration of the new church, and its transformation into a Pentecostal church. During this first phase of its history (1952 to 1980), the RCCG grew slowly, mainly because of its strict ethical demands. Using Roy Wallis’s typology, Ukah describes it as a "world rejecting religious movement" (p. 41). When Akindayomi died in 1980, the RCCG had only thirty-nine branches, mostly in southwestern Nigeria, with a membership largely drawn from the poorer sector of Yoruba society.
According to Ukah, it was Akindayomi’s death that "brought to a close the first charismatic period in the history of the RCCG and a transition from an old paradigm to a new and pragmatic one" (p. 50). It is this transition and the transformations that have taken place under Akindayomi’s successor, Dr. Enoch Adeboye, which is a major focus of the book. Ukah describes the effects of Adeboye’s succession in terms of the routinization and "recharismatization" of the movement and its transformation from a locally embedded, predominantly Yoruba church to a global, transnational phenomenon (pp. 4, 83-84). The organizational, doctrinal, and ritual transformations of the RCCG under Adeboye are discussed in successive chapters with great historical and sociological precision. Of particular significance is the movement away from a model of Christianity characterized by antimaterialistic lifestyles, strict dress codes, and solemn worship styles to one that embraced modern technology and a message of prosperity and health. According to Ukah, this was driven by a concern to "hasten the growth of the church and add to its appeal among upwardly mobile people," and has resulted in the church’s rapid expansion and a shift in its demographic composition as members of the educated elite were attracted to its ranks (p. 112). Ukah regards the adoption of a doctrine of prosperity as placing the RCCG in constant tension with its history, an example of doctrinal re-branding in response to specific social and economic circumstances. One of the first challenges confronting Adeboye’s leadership was how to turn a very poor church into a prosperous one. He did this by legitimizing the pursuit of wealth and encouraging a culture of giving, based on a law of exchange, whereby financial blessings from God are promised to those who give generously.
Ukah suggests that this shift in focus onto prosperity has meant that holiness teaching is deliberately subdued or even ignored. However, by making a generalization of this nature I wonder if he goes beyond the evidence at this point. His discussion of RCCG beliefs is largely based on Adeboye’s publications and official church documents rather than personal observation of RCCG services or interrogation of church members. There is a tendency in studies of African Pentecostalism to equate holiness with an antimaterialistic ethic, thus making it incompatible with prosperity teaching. The latter is certainly a prominent theme in RCCG discourse, but not necessarily to the exclusion of holiness. Surprisingly, in his discussion of RCCG beliefs, Ukah makes no mention of the church’s five-fold mission statement, articulated by Adeboye himself and displayed in church premises, which includes the goal "to make holiness a lifestyle as a condition for making heaven."
Another transformation, noted by Ukah, is the RCCG’s "strategic restructuring of its relationship with political power" in response to the changing social and political climate (pp. 199-200). During the founder’s leadership, and the first one and a half decades of Adeboye’s regime, the RCCG distanced itself from political involvement. Following the election of the Christian President Olusegun Obasanjo in May 1999, after a prolonged period of military misrule, there was a significant transformation of the political behavior of the RCCG. Ukah is especially critical of Adeboye’s endorsement of the Obasanjo regime, which he believes provided it with a divine legitimization despite evidence of widespread corruption and political manipulation. In Nigerian Pentecostal discourse, politics is spiritualized and presented as a contest between God and the devil. According to Ukah, RCCG pastors and members insist that the installation of a democratic government, with Obasanjo at the helm, was a direct result of their prayers for the deliverance of the nation from its political oppressors.
Studies of contemporary Pentecostalism often draw on theories of globalization to explain the way the movement has spread around the world and taken root in different cultural contexts. Ukah’s study brings out tensions that exist within African Pentecostal churches regarding their relationship with the local and the global. Despite its tendency to demonize indigenous religious practices, the RCCG is firmly rooted in the local context in terms of its rituals, beliefs, and shared cosmology. At the same time, it has developed an acute global awareness through the frequent travels of its principal leaders, the migration of its members, and its membership of translocal associations. Transnational expansion is partly driven by a desire to fulfill the "covenant" promise given to its founder that the church would spread around the world before the Second Advent of Christ. But it is also related to the upwardly mobile aspirations of its elite and middle-class members, some of whom have "crisscrossed the world in search of academic and professional competence or economic survival" (p. 303). Ukah describes the RCCG congregations in the West as "global outposts" of a local church, because they are mainly populated by Nigerian or African migrants (pp. 306, 350).
Ukah’s book is a significant contribution to the ongoing discussion of African Pentecostalism, reminding us again of the important shift that has taken place in Christianity’s global center of gravity southward. What is lacking, perhaps, are the voices of the participants themselves, apart from Adeboye, especially in the treatment of the church’s beliefs, ritual practices, and religious symbolism. It would have been helpful, for example, to know how ordinary members interpret the "dizzying world" of RCCG symbols; or the significance of ritual objects, events, and spaces; or their experiences of healing and deliverance (p. 219). In his discussion of religious transnationalization, Ukah touches on the RCCG’s progress within the African diaspora. It would have been interesting to know more about this, especially in light of the "growing importance of these global outposts in the evangelical economy of the church" (p. 350). However, this is a subject for another book. In the meantime, Ukah’s study offers us a glimpse into the inner life of a transnational Pentecostal church and deserves the widest readership.
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Richard Burgess. Review of Ukah, Asonzeh F. K., A New Paradigm of Pentecostal Power: A Study of the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Nigeria.
H-Pentecostalism, H-Net Reviews.
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