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As Pope Francis calls for compassion toward the poor in Africa, what are African churches doing?

- November 28, 2015
Pope Francis listens to a speech during a meeting with clergy at St Mary’s School in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, Nov. 26, 2015. (Osservatore Romano/Reuters)

This week, Pope Francis is on a three-country tour of Africa, with stops in Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic. His public addresses in Kenya have focused on, among other themes, his well-known support for redistribution and compassion toward the poor. He has called for Kenyans to ”show genuine concern for the needs of the poor” and for achieving “a just distribution of the natural and human resources.”

This message is not unfamiliar to Christians in Africa. The Catholic Church has historically played and continues to play a major role in social spending and poverty-alleviation on the continent. But a growing number of African Christians are embracing churches that pursue a very different approach to poverty.

In a forthcoming article in the journal African Affairs, we investigated the approach to poverty by Pentecostal and charismatic churches, currently the fastest growing set of churches in Africa. According to the World Christian Database, in some majority Christian countries, Pentecostals now make up a fifth to half of the population. While there is a significant Catholic community in Kenya, Pew has estimated that in recent years as many as 7 in 10 Protestants there can be classified as Pentecostal or charismatic.

To learn more about these churches, we interviewed (with research assistants) the pastors of a sample of Pentecostal and charismatic churches in Kenya’s capital Nairobi about their congregations and their poverty-related activities. We also collected sermon texts and recordings, or observed worship services where no sermon recordings were available.

We were particularly interested in the role Pentecostal churches play in social service provision, given the reputation of Catholic and mainline Protestant churches in Africa, which regularly run schools, clinics, and nutrition programs. In fact, it is estimated that the Catholic Church provides between 40 and 70 percent of all education and health services in sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya, both the Catholic and mainline Protestant churches have remained heavily involved with social welfare provision since independence.

By contrast, in our sample of Pentecostal churches, only a handful reported providing any kind of regular, institutionalized spending on the poor. Others reported occasional provision of health services (in the form of medical “camps”) or food donations, and some reported helping congregants out financially in dire emergencies, but regular spending on the poor was rare. Instead, the majority of Pentecostal and charismatic churches we studied reported providing financial counseling and “entrepreneurship” seminars to help congregants find a way to make their lives better without relying on the church or government for financial support.



This lack of social welfare spending is consistent with what is said in the sermons we collected. The sermons repeatedly drew attention to the role of each individual in making a better life for herself. “You need to get out of a … mindset of looking for someone to give you something,” one of the sermons argues. “Start looking at yourself as successful,” exclaims another. “Go and succeed, build, live well, get a job in the name of Jesus.” Each listener is regularly reminded of her own worth in the eyes of God. She is encouraged to believe that she can achieve whatever she sets out to. Her goals might be financial, or they might be related to family, health, her profession or any other sphere of life. (In fact, in contrast to conventional wisdom that these churches are primarily about getting rich quickly, we find a striking number of warnings in the sermons against focusing exclusively on material possessions.) Whatever the goals, handouts are not the solution. Self-confidence, faith and positive thinking are. Each individual is responsible for lifting herself up through faith.

Our research confirmed that these churches and their congregations are demographically diverse. They range from mega-churches in affluent suburbs to small, temporary structures in slums. But, remarkably, the approach to poverty did not vary much from congregation to congregation.

What are the consequences of this individualistic approach to poverty? In related research based at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics in Nairobi, we randomly assigned participants in a lab study to listen to different audio recordings and later gave them a chance to participate in a text message political campaign. One of the audio recordings sounded very much like the papal message, asking listeners to think of others and to care for the poor. Another audio recording instead sounded like the Pentecostal sermons, telling listeners to remember their God-given potential to make a change in their own lives. The text message campaign then gave them the opportunity to articulate their top priorities for the government to work on.

In comparing behavior after exposure to these two recordings, we found that it was the Pentecostal-like message that motivated the highest level of political engagement. People who listened to the Pentecostal-like message were more likely to participate in the text message campaign than those who listened to other messages, including the papal-like one. But the texts that were sent from those exposed to the Pentecostal message were largely about personal concerns (e.g., requests for loans or jobs) rather than collective ones (e.g., greater spending on education). In other words, the Pentecostal message seemed to give people a sense of internal efficacy to take action and voice their concerns, but those concerns were largely individual.

This research should remind us of the diversity of approaches to poverty among religious associations in sub-Saharan Africa. While Pope Francis calls this week for more resources to be distributed to the poor, increasingly popular churches are communicating that the burden of poverty alleviation falls instead on the individual. Two important questions arise: which message will find the broadest resonance and with what consequences?

Gwyneth McClendon is an assistant professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University where she researches ethnic and religious politics, political participation and political psychology.  

Rachel Beatty Riedl is an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University and author of the award-winning book, “Authoritarian Origins of Democratic Party Systems in Africa.”


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