“You Must Be Born Again”: Re-Visiting Nigerian Pentecostal Rhetorics (Part 1)
S. ’Jide Komolafe
To focus on Nigerian Pentecostal rhetorics as the next series seek to, is invariably to re-focus as things change. Starting on the fringes as a peripheral movement in the early 1970s, the Born-Again phenomenon constitutes the single most important sociocultural force in Nigeria today and is equally responsible for the religious intensity and vigor that have become synonymous with Nigerian Christianity over the past decades. But speaking of “rhetorics” in the plural form may be uncharacteristic, it nevertheless acknowledges that while Born-Again pastors may invoke the claim of Missio Dei (God’s Mission), the pondering is primarily about human instrumentality in God’s mission. Human ideas, structures, especially church and social structures, and resources are the trails of the Pentecostal phenomenon.
Its use in the plural form acknowledges the varying degrees of Pentecostal idioms. Also, its singular-plural possibilities establish the conditions for how we discover not only the available means but also of innovative forms of communicating the Christian message in “corrupt or ruined religious and political traditions.” It provides an avenue for people to overcome existential challenge by helping them reconceptualize and live their lives as a future and a past in the present. Thus, Nigerian Pentecostal rhetorics provide the paradigmatic example for heuristic methods of skillful and persuasive usage of language for problem solving, interpreting, and re-discovering. In other words, not only do these Pentecostal rhetorics provide intellectual and psychological framework for making sense of Nigeria’s political and sociocultural particularities, but through them the spiritual rebirth of the self is appropriated.
The explosion of conversions to Pentecostalism, and by implication Christianity in Nigeria, is a radical development that is transforming the world’s largest religion. The paradox is that while there has been remarkable growth of Christianity in the non-Western world, it has been declining in the West. Yet, any analysis of religious engagement in the non-Western world, particularly Africa, is misleading if it fails to account for the principal contributing factors of the massive growth of the church there. The phenomena that characterize African Christianity are full of dramatic movements and sub-movements that are both radical and often controversial. These movements, epitomized by the emergence of the independent or Ethiopian churches at the turn of the twentieth century, show clearly African creativity. The concern of the present series is to highlight how Born-Again Christianity uses language, especially the idiom of the new birth, to reach agreements that permit coordinated efforts of some sort in restructuring reality.
Elsewhere, I have acknowledged that Pentecostalism in Nigeria is packaged in three different varieties: Classical Pentecostals (1918-1941), The Charismatic Movements (1944-1980), and Neo-Charismatics/Neo-Pentecostals (1980s-2000s). Even then, constant mobility of Nigerian churchgoers makes any demarcation between Pentecostals and Charismatics a difficult enterprise. In the same way, the increasing concern with globalization and transatlantic connections compound any attempts to grasp the outlines of Nigerian Pentecostalism. Regardless of the nomenclature of choice, it must be stated that Charismatics are Pentecostals operating within the mainline churches; so, a helpful approach is to refer to both as Pentecostals in our survey of the forms, nature, and extent of the phenomenon and its influence in Nigerian Christianity. And for the purpose of this series, both Born-Again and Pentecostal will be used interchangeably to refer to the phenomenon. For lack of space and given other considerations, I will discuss Pentecostal Christianity in Nigeria broadly as a phenomenon highlighting its peculiar character, shape and form.
Setting the Stage: Born-Again Christianity in Context
Any discussion of Christianity in Nigeria leads to the conclusion that variety is the main characteristic of the churches. This variety helps us understand that each strand has been an attempt to bring the Christian message in line with the specific socio-cultural and historical context. This contextual adaptation of the gospel and Christian ministry accounts for the populist character of the church, giving the image of one that is vigorously attempting to both reflect and respond to the deepest longings of common people. Admittedly, responding to a more modern context and with all it offers, Born-Again churches clearly outperform their predecessors by providing a dizzying array of messages in idioms and techniques that are popular in chaotic urban culture.
Renewing the Context
Beyond the conflation of categories arising from analyzing the Pentecostal phenomenon in Nigeria, there are yet lines of cultural and historical continuity with mainline churches. To this extent, Born-Again Christianity represents a “continuum” where the past, with its older traditions, flows together with the contemporary as the older forms are modified by current trends. The implication of this is that the Born-Again program of cultural renewal must be understood against the old forms as a contextualized version of the continuing quest to explain the mysteries of life. It is appropriate to say, therefore, that Born-Again Christian expressions about supernaturalism are not that different from their predecessors except that they go further to clarify what these predecessors did not confront or left vague.
Nigerian worldview assumptions highlight the centrality of the spiritual realm and the forces that are behind events in the physical world. Human beings are engaged in a desperate struggle for survival in a world dominated by forces over which they have no control. The African world is dominated by dark forces and by agents of chaos and destruction that force humans to act in hostility, one against another, and against everything that is good. Pentecostals, therefore, attempt to correlate the Christian message with the human situation in order to show the concrete effectiveness of Christianity within the cultural milieu.
The Born-Again conceptual framework confronts the cosmic hostility between Christ and Satan as the basis for order and power in a chaotic world. The victorious death and resurrection of Christ is witness to God’s cosmic superiority over Satan and his evil cronies that have enslaved men and women. Hence, salvation takes on a new meaning. The presence and power of Christ guarantees victory to believers over demonic forces. Born-Again Christians view themselves as witnesses to the continued presence and universal lordship of Christ over the cosmos. This enables them to create a community of the redeemed and liberated on a new ideological and institutional base. Thus, their approach to problems raised by culture is not “through a wholesale rejection of the past, but through an engagement with it; refashioning history and domesticating it at the same time” (Marshall-Fratani 1998: 291).
The Community of the Saved
Theological reflection presupposes the church to be the fellowship of Christ’s disciples. It is a unifying impulse that extends beyond the church itself and places its existence firmly “in Christ.” The facilitator of this connection is the Holy Spirit, who is the agent of the new birth through which believers become co-heirs with Christ in the family of God (Rom. 8:14-17). This invitation to participate in the community of the triune God raises the church’s awareness as God’s eschatological redeemed community. It presupposes the church’s fundamental calling to be the foretaste of the imago dei (“image of God”), determining its proclaiming, reconciling, sanctifying, and unifying in the world (Grenz 2000:323).
Born-Again believers see themselves in this perspective. Hence the desire to transform the religious landscape by constructing a “born-again” community springs from the willingness to be responsive to the higher calling of the Holy Spirit. It is in this light that we can articulate the separatism and exclusivist purity of a “holiness” church like Deeper Life. This Church sees itself not as “new” but as a model of the New Testament church in a way that questions the ecclesiality of previously existing churches. To be a member of the Deeper Life, for example, is to recognize that one belongs to a community that sets strictly Christian standards and recognizes a higher call.
On the whole, the born-again community crosses regional, ethnic, cultural, and even national boundaries with extraordinary ease. This unprecedented transformational fluidity presupposes that one is first a “born-again person” before any ethnic particularity, whether Yoruba, Igbo, Edo or Nigerian. The born-again community is characterized by a surprising degree of egalitarianism where the old form of kinship is replaced by a new one, that is, a “brother/sister in the Lord.” Important decisions of life like marriage that would have otherwise been negotiated along ethnic lines now become subordinated to the higher biblical teaching that Christians should not be “unequally yoked with unbelievers.” Marriage must be solemnized with a born-again brother or sister with little or no deference to ethnicity.
Born-Again communities also form conglomerate networks that extend beyond the local church to include other born-again churches. These networks, both spiritual and material, offer members the opportunity with which to reinvent themselves in an atmosphere of fraternal support. Members are provided with “material benefits such as employment opportunities, exchanges of goods and services, and even access to officialdom without the usual costly red tape and inevitable ‘dash’” (Ruth Marshall-Fratani 2001:85). In other words, the born-again prefers domestic or office helps who are likewise born-agains. General clientele with privately-owned institutions such as hospitals, schools, and businesses are also within the born-again community. The overriding logic is that born-again institutions and companies are more reliable and trustworthy. By constructing communities that have developed a stronger sense of identity, Born-Again churches are responding to and helping resolve the fear and uncertainty of chaotic urban life and social relations.
Evangelism: Propagating the Word
The fervor and harmony that bring Born-Again churches into a visible spiritual unity also inform most of their activities. With the understanding that previously existing mainline churches have practiced “powerless” Christianity, the rock on which Born-Again churches are founded is evangelism. This central belief can be set in a wider framework. In terms of biblical mandate, they believe that the work of evangelism is in obedience to the express command of Christ as recorded in Matthew 28:19-20. In its wider context, their apocalyptic and millennialist beliefs add urgency to evangelism, requiring dynamic participation in the business of the Kingdom.
Overall, winning souls for the Kingdom is a religious preoccupation that is undoubtedly regarded as the most important work for the born-again. In the words of William Kumuyi of the Deeper Life Bible Church, “soul-winning is the greatest work you can ever be involved in. It’s the most rewarding enterprise you can undertake. It’s a work that gives joy in this life and brings reward in the world to come. It is a work of the greatest consequence” (1975:7). This significance of evangelism can also be weighed against other important facts. These include the understanding that the struggle for territory between the agents of God and those of Satan mean that evangelism be directed towards conversion. It also means that evangelism opens the way for men and women to be freed from the forces of evil.
Propagating the Word through multi-media is novel, effective and breaks with past traditions by facilitating ministry in the modern urban setting. This means the use of speech, print, audio-visuals and open-air ministry. While providing the most effective approach to evangelism in Nigeria today, these modes of evangelism do provoke harsh criticism from those who are not favorable to born-again ideology and who see Pentecostals as invading unwelcome spaces.
On one hand, Pentecostals are well known for recounting numerous testimonies to miracles in their meetings. Claiming a close correlation between religious experience and “right doctrine” enables them to demonize or disparagingly label other religions, even other churches, as “dead” or “false.” On the other hand, the use of the media also “allows for the multiplication of narrative forms and the delocalization of messages” (Marshall-Fratani 2001:94). Even more important is the fact that the evangelical packaging of these messages “is designed to reach beyond the saved, to incorporate a theoretically unlimited group of potential converts” (Marshall-Fratani 2001:92). As a result, conversions of those who are not born-again, especially of Muslims, are highly prized. For the Pentecostals, the advantage of using all technological facilities is to have the greatest capacity for evangelism. But for non believers, especially the Muslims, the proselytizing appeal of the Christians, directly offered and electronically mediated by Born-Again preachers into the privacy of one’s own home, is both threatening and intrusive.
(To be continued)