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Malawi’s Religious Democracy and the Spread of Charismatics

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

The proliferation of contemporary Christian churches has grown steadily since the late 1980s, skyrocketing alongside democratization in the early 1990s like the privatization of state-owned companies responding to structural adjustment programs. Ever since, Christian churches other than the Roman Catholic (RC) Church have become introduced to bishops and prophets who lead almost every known contemporary charismatic outfit today. Pentecostal leaders – even when they are flat, sane and almost uninteresting like the conventional protestant reverend or RC priest – are still deemed to possess some kind of special quality or power descended from above. The exodus from Catholicism and the seemingly old-fashioned Protestant churches has been significant. Were it not for the adamance of the RC Church to stick to a strict worship routine curved by the Vatican, the church would have changed its ways as the charismatic church has reshaped Protestantism since the past couple of decades in Malawi.

As a result, a CCAP worship service in Area 18-B, today, does not differ very much from the Pentecostal Church’s along Kamuzu Procession Road in Area 18-A.

But as much as Protestants and, to certain degrees, Catholics (mainly their youth worship groups) would emulate the hype that’s associated with charismatics, they fall short when it comes to performing the acts of wonder that characterize the latter beyond icing the regular prayer session with a shot of ‘speaking in tongues.’ They fall short on account of how far they can take the infinite display of God’s miracles on their flock, as well as the foresight into the unmaterialized future events that today’s prophets seem to claim they have an ability to see. On the contrary, the usually posh men and women of God seem to excel more at revealing the current affairs of their followers than predicting their future with much certainty. More interesting is how many predictions seem to frequently fall in line with one’s (financial) aspirations than the harsh reality that eventually follows. In many instances, however, either the prophesies seem to err on the timing at which an event is predicted, or the miracles seem to reveal the very lack of the hand of God, as Prophet Alph Lukau’s in South Africa’s recent resurrection scandal has shown.

Yet, latter day charismatic leaders, whether they answer to Bishop, Prophet or some fancy military rank, seem to attract an affinity to wide followership across the continent, no short of large crowds in Malawi either. Even when their miracles or prophesies are disproven, a finger swipe on an iPad is caught by the camera, or when the life of a president predicted to kick the bucket by a certain date proves a clear stubbornness to persist, people still flock to these churches with just as much zeal despite common sense revealing that church employees conduct research on churchgoers at the backstage that subsequently appears in the form of God’s prophetic discernment on the pulpit.

A major argument around how the freedoms to worship the deity that these churches offer supports the breaking free from the monotonic, boring styles of Catholic and Protestant churches carries some weight. Compared with an enchanting service in Area 18-A, Catholic, Presbyterian or Reformist churches pose as the lukewarm waters that possess little angst to scald a vexing spirit. The praise teams, the lengthy prayers, the supplications to the Almighty, all delivered at cacophonic pitches, seem to grant ample assurance that prayer reaches the heavens with great persuasion. The pervasiveness of the gifts of the spirit to speak in tongues, for example, which everyone seems to possess with great smugness, is sufficient gratification in the bounteous generosity of the limitless God that grants it.

Just as markets operate, this website believes there are folk that are drawn to Charismatics as one does when presented with choice but also the way they understand the Bible. Others share in the fortune of having been born in the particular church and have not known any other, just like many Catholics and Protestants. And so, in the face of faulty miracles and unmaterialized prophesies that underlie some of these churches, the unquestioning outlook of the pious will always protect leaders and keep them warm in their pursuits. Such factors are bound to keep Pentecostal Churches trendy while enabling them to offer the diversity that the Christian religion offers.

The myriad conjectures on the rationale behind loyalty to dodgy churches will always make for a good chat. In joining that nice chat, this website opines that a historical analysis into our forms of worship can help explain some socio-cultural factors that are important to consider. The vast array of indigenous religions that Malawi has had all share a common thread in that those charged with supplicating with the gods, if they were not themselves deities disguised in human flesh, were revered with unquestioning submission by the masses. Even at its worst, this characteristic has commonly trickled down to contemporary forms of worship in Malawi, and it does not matter what denomination one affiliates with. A reverence of this type makes for a forgiving audience as much as it opens up important pathways for a pastoral scope that will know no bounds.

In more recent days, however, the argument that desperation of the masses, in an era of growing economic and social inequality, which makes sense when one considers how a church message that guarantees financial success, can be persuasively attractive. The fall of Kamuzu Banda did not only expanded the reaches of the Jehova’s Witnesses, whom he loathed. It also flexed the modes of worship by many Christian denominations that operated underground and in the confines of people’s sitting rooms. As these ‘briefcase churches’ found their way out of hiding and redefined themselves in the mainstream, their appeal was reinforced by changing market forces where Malawians were also beginning to access more information about the real state of poverty surrounding them. The gaping inequality that has been aided by corruption exposed the realities of not having enough to lead a good life. So, the pastors’ exuberant ‘halleluiahs’ that pushed followers towards deeper pocket-dipping, which did a lot for their own economic transformation, and the corresponding messages of ‘miracle money’ have been met with very positive anticipation.

And hardly do Catholics and Protestants match Charismatics in offering the message of hope with the same fervor of assurance around the miracle of financial prosperity, a message that many audiences would rather cling to.

Churches inflamed by the tendency to amaze and impress seem not in a hurry to go away anytime soon. But neither are their followers nor the lack of reason. So, pastors will continue to raise people from coffins – whether they went in full of life or lifeless – and the sick will be healed on stage, even when some will surely die for not following doctors’ orders. Charismatic churches are a part of us like the spice to life that makes for an unboring tale.


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