Enter The Holy Now

How African Pentacostalism is commercializing global Christianity

Photographs by Christopher Frey
Worshippers at the Action Chapel International in Accra, Ghana

“Are you writing your prayer request? ” I looked up from my scribbling to take in the pretty, grinning young woman in camouflage trucker hat, reflective sunglasses, rolled-up jeans, and canvas trainers. Most everyone around her was either writing on scraps of paper, or, having already done so, was now standing in place, arms pitched heavenward, hips swaying, shuddering to a junior pastor who stamped the concrete and shouted, “Die! Die! Die, demons!” Some of the congregants jitterbugged vigorously, as though trying to shake off a shroud of dust. A few stood solemn, waiting for a breeze to lift them.

“No, I’m just taking some notes,” I told the woman.

“Well, please enjoy the service. May I have a piece of paper? ”

I pulled one from my notebook.

“Can I ask you what you’re praying for? ”

“By the grace of God,” she said, “I’m hoping I will get a visa to visit relatives in London.”

It wasn’t an unusual request. Most of the worshippers were happy to share their deepest wishes with me: a passport or a visa, money, a job, protection from witchcraft, a cure for whatever ailed their bodies. They jotted down their requests, sealed them in white envelopes, and tossed them onstage. This paper mountain of human desires grew steadily for more than half an hour, until a guest preacher arrived. He began by grabbing a handful of the envelopes and holding them aloft. “Your miracle awaits you… Today your world will change!”

The regular Thursday-morning service at Action Chapel International, one of the most prominent charismatic churches in Accra, Ghana, had yet to begin in earnest. This was only the setup, a cataclysm of emotion at first swell. Hundreds more worshippers would yet stream into the hangarlike auditorium, packing the main floor, the mezzanine, and the upper terraces, until the congregation neared a thousand strong. Befitting Pentecostal orthodoxy, no crosses or other iconography could be seen—just a billboard-sized banner behind the stage, proclaiming, “Theme Divine Acceleration.”

For the next three hours, sermons that promised healing and prosperity alternated with cloying gospel power ballads, gyrating high-life shuffles, and feverish incantations that descended into glossolalia. Early on, the preacher introduced a woman in a traditional blouse. She was Linda Wendy Asante, the recent mother of three “miracle” babies. Only after seven years of daily prayer had she been able to conceive.

Later, I spotted my new acquaintance, the girl in the trucker hat and reflective sunglasses, now at the lip of the stage and in full, frenzied grip of the moment. She was performing what appeared to be stomach crunches while standing upright, some kind of spiritual calisthenics. I was reminded of another Pentecostal service I had witnessed, in Guatemala City, in another full auditorium. A young man engaged in a similarly furious ab-busting exercise while a Casio keyboard–led band droned on and the preacher exhorted the assembly to give up drink, give up adultery, give up their sinning. The trappings were different—the music, the atmosphere, the preacher’s emphasis on social ills—but the ecstasies palpably the same.

During one of the ballads, I invited Asante, the thirty-seven-year-old miracle mother, outside to talk. We chatted about her triplets. She had prayed for two but was blessed with three; although she had taken fertility drugs, her pregnancy, coming after so many years, was surely God’s reward for her patience and faith.

Asante was raised a Catholic, but was born again in high school. As an adult, she joined Action International, where she now led a small prayer group. “In Catholic church, we didn’t even clap. We used to stand there sanctimoniously and listen to the preacher. Here the people jump around; we rejoice; we have revelations. It’s a personal encounter with God.”

Feeling a touch Jesuit, I wondered aloud how the church’s talk of money and success fits into the Bible’s message.

“We are always taught that God does not want us to be the tail,” she said. “He wants us to be the head. You don’t have to be the underdog. We should be at the forefront of society, in politics or business. A church of this nature has to mix up with society, encourage its people to be educated, get involved with politics, so one day we will be able to change this dying world.”

God has long been global. Go almost anywhere in the world, the farthest you can get from the beaten track, and chances are good you will find Christian missionaries—say, two college-age Mormon boys in whitey-white short-sleeved shirts with nameplates glinting in the tropical sun—or hear stories from locals about those evangelicals from Dallas-based SIL International way back when.

Photographs by Christopher Frey
Worshippers at the Action Chapel International in Accra, Ghana

But God wasn’t supposed to be this global, not still. Just twenty years ago, the academics were insisting that as societies became more modern, they would necessarily grow more secular. Secularization theory, the prevailing orthodoxy when I was studying sociology of religion at university, argued that religious observance would decline, religious institutions and symbols would fade from prominence, and religion in general would drop out of public life. In his seminal 1967 book on the subject, The Sacred Canopy, Peter Berger argued that “the modern West has produced an increasing number of individuals who look upon the world and their own lives without the benefit of religious interpretations.” He identified industrial capitalism as “the original ‘carrier’ of secularization,” adding that these secularizing forces had spread worldwide alongside westernization and modernization.”

While secularization theory appears to hold true in Western Europe, Australia, and perhaps Canada, these places are exceptions. In most of the world, religion is playing an ever more prominent role both within countries and as a vehicle for outreach across borders. Islamism, for instance, is challenging the flagging promise of pan-Arabism as a motivating collective identity, its array of rival sects and sub-movements proactively addressing peoples’ spiritual, social, and material needs where the state lacks the capacity or will. Post-Soviet Russia is experiencing a resurgence of indigenous, mystically inclined Orthodox Christianity that compliments its resurgent nationalism, while India’s Hindu nationalists have risen to become part of the governing establishment in the past decade. Societies are demonstrating that they can absorb many aspects of modernity and outside influence while reserving a powerful role for religion in public life.

Only a decade after The Sacred Canopy was published, Berger himself began to realize that the empirical evidence no longer supported secularization theory. During a lecture in 2006, he said, “We don’t live in an age of secularity; we live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity.” Religion, as much or more than anything else in our lives, had been overwhelmingly globalized. Some observers explain this about-face as a reaction to the failure of various secular ideologies—Marxism, Freudianism, market liberalism—to meaningfully improve peoples’ lives. But it’s misleading to speak of religiosity as simply reactionary. Just as, in sociologist Max Weber’s famous account, Protestantism’s moral values of self-denial and rational planning had a unique, inadvertent fluency with capitalism prior to the twentieth century, today’s most successful religious movements demonstrate an inborn capacity for reconciling themselves with the uncertainties of contemporary life.

Photographs by Christopher Frey
Worshippers at the Action Chapel International in Accra, Ghana

Berger attributes their persistence primarily to pluralism, mass migration, travel, and the ubiquity of communication technologies: “Everybody talks to everybody else,” he says, “and as everybody talks to everybody else, a highly pluralistic situation is enhanced by technology, and people begin to influence each other.” Modernity is all about the move from a society predicated on fate to one based on choice; from a society in which one’s religion is inherited and taken for granted to one in which we can pick our affiliations. In the resulting marketplace of faiths, one particularly demonstrative, individualized, and telegenic religion—Pentecostalism—is proving itself singularly well positioned to compete.

A 2006 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life called “renewalist movements”—an umbrella term that includes Pentecostals, evangelicals, and mainline Protestants and Catholics with an interest in charismatic-style worship—the fastest-growing religious population in the world, accounting for one-quarter of the world’s 2 billion Christians. Thirty years ago, they made up just 6 percent. The phenomenon is most evident in the developing world of Africa and Latin America, whether in the form of cramped storefront churches, carnivalesque redemption camps, or gleaming new mega-churches. The world’s largest Catholic nation, for example, is growing less Catholic by the day; Brazilian Catholics are leaving the church, and when they do so they’re more likely to join Pentecostal congregations than to abandon religious worship in general.

One of the singular features about this expansion is that, unlike in Weber’s day, it isn’t being directed from above, by imperial powers or centralized churches in the northern hemisphere, but from initiatives within developing countries such as Nigeria, Brazil, and Ghana. The Ghanaian spin on Pentecostalism takes full advantage of modernity while reaching into its own past for a little spiritual frisson. As the country has modernized in the past twenty years—its democracy becoming more entrenched, its society more transparent—Pentecostal leaders have in their own way helped nudge it along. The preachers may disparage the sexual and cultural mores attendant to modernity, but they nevertheless conceive of themselves as smoothly modern. Their success is predicated upon their savvy uptake of new technologies, from text messaging to the Internet; their promotion of education; their aptitude for marketing and business; and their obsession with theories of organizational bureaucracy and competitive advantage. But for all these sophisticated overlays, the core of the religion’s appeal remains its capacity to connect people with a deep, enduring substratum of primal spirituality and the hidden ecstasies of human experience. In the process, they are rewriting what it means to be modern in Africa.

Travel along any major street in Accra: the hand-painted placards for its bewildering array of churches are as prominent as those for any other goods or services, from hair extensions to used tires and wash basins. The places of worship themselves—some as slight as timber-framed hovels hosting so-called “one-man churches” and their prophets, others arena-scaled “chapels” like Action International—variously boast of miracles, prophecy, healing, or prosperity, as though communicating their divine mission were a matter of brand differentiation.

Much of my time shuttling between Accra’s churches in tro-tros and taxis was spent in the company of slim, twenty-five-year-old Albert Successful, a loquacious and hustling young evangelical clad in a crisp white, wide-collared dress shirt, sports jacket, pointy Italian shoes, and an unfortunate belt bearing a large Dolce & Gabbana logo at the buckle. I was introduced to Albert by Girish Daswani, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto who has focused much of his research on Ghanaian Pentecostalism. “He represents some of the main reasons why someone would become Pentecostal,” Daswani told me. “It helps him deal with his fears, his marginalization, the obstacles he faces. And it feeds his aspiration for something better.”

As I learned through Daswani, Albert was born Albert Atta Gyimah to a poor farming family in arid west-central Ghana. When he was still quite young, a spiritualist preacher foretold that he would enjoy a rich, prosperous life and one day lead his family. Rather than feeling blessed by the news, his stepmother grew envious and suspicious of his powers, worrying over the future status of her own, preferred kin. He began to suspect her of consulting a local fetish priest and using witchcraft to cause him physical discomfort. “I was so sick; I believed she was trying to kill me,” he said as we sat, stuck in one of Accra’s endless traffic jams.

Later, after Albert’s twin sister died under peculiar circumstances, his father accused him of invoking the spirits that killed her. He ceased paying Albert’s school fees, threw him out of the house, and revealed that they weren’t biologically related. Albert had by then already converted to Pentecostalism, but, cut off from both sides of the family and denied his inheritance, he embraced the feverish intensity of multi-day prayer camps, disposing himself toward their promises of wealth, travel abroad, and personal transformation through an intimate relationship with God.

He eventually migrated to Accra, and there he took his new name—an act that represented a conscious break with his troubled past and enabled him, along with prayer and worship, to conceive a new, liberating narrative for himself. He tried out several congregations before joining the Church of Pentecost and immersing himself in its social network, which helped clothe, shelter, and feed him. The Bible provided him with symbols and stories that sustained his goals—he identified especially with Joseph of the Old Testament, whose jealous brothers sold him into slavery. And as Joseph overcame his plight, rising to the rank of Pharaoh’s viceroy, so, too, would Albert Successful.

On a return visit to Action International, Albert gamely chatted up various church officials while I waited to speak with its second-in-command, Bishop James Saah. I lingered at a bookstall lined with self-improvement paperbacks, the most thumbed-over and prominent of which were dedicated to the topic of God and the wealth he wants us to enjoy. The leading counsellor in the field appeared to be one Isaac Giwa, prolific author of Provoking Your Harvest; Be a Super Achiever; Million Dollar Generating Habit$; and my personal favourite, Get Ready… Money Cometh, whose cover teased prospective readers with a fluttering pile of American dollar bills.

Although some Ghanaian assemblies, including Albert’s Church of Pentecost, oppose the open commercialization of Pentecostalism, preachers like Saah embrace the marketplace with entrepreneurial flair. They know they’ve helped create a soup of competing creeds, and insist that their canniness hardly diminishes the integrity of their faith. They are merely making religion relevant. And the competition forces them to innovate. “The question is always, how can we immediately connect the gospel to people’s lives? ” explained Saah. “We tailor our message to the needs of day-to-day life. We can take the gospel into peoples’ marriages and relationships, but we can also apply it to their work, money problems, and businesses. This is where we bridge the gap.”

This sort of prosperity preaching isn’t unique to Ghana. In impoverished African countries with few clear routes for upward mobility, little in the way of state services to address social ills like alcoholism or spousal abuse, and complex kinship systems that place onerous financial stress on those who achieve even modest success, the church promotes itself as one of the few ladders to wealth and happiness that is accessible to all. The first time I witnessed Saah onstage at Action International, he was talking up the prosperity angle, but with this warning: “God wants you to have success, but having success also means you will have more enemies.”

Saah earned a master’s in leadership and governance from a Ghanaian business school, and gives leadership seminars almost as often as he preaches. For him, many of the “secular principles” that engender success in the business world are present in the Bible if you read it correctly. He likes retelling the Old Testament story of David and Goliath, for example, as a lesson in competitive advantage. “When I studied strategic management,” he said, “I could see the building blocks and benchmarks of a successful organization. Strategic advantage, core competency, critical factors, treasury—all the things we don’t normally apply to life I applied to the word of God. It was a hit.”

Indeed, much of the Pentecostal movement’s success is attributable to internal dynamics that would impress any corporation. Pentecostals may believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, but during services there is a far greater focus on personal experience than on doctrine, which makes it highly adaptive to local culture. And, to use the vernacular of the market, there are few barriers to entry—anyone can open a charismatic church, and almost anyone can train to be a preacher. (Catholic priests, by contrast, are in far shorter supply, due to the required years of study and commitment to celibacy.) The fact that many of the churches’ organizations are decentralized also helps. Action International boasts more than a hundred affiliated or “sister” chapels, including diasporic congregations in Europe and North America, but oversight from headquarters is modest, leaving each preacher to run his own show. Last, there is the movement’s singular intensity of belief. According to the Pew Forum study, revivalists insist more strongly than other Christians that God plays a decisive role in daily life through miracles and revelations. They are more likely to believe in the coming rapture, making them the most avid of proselytizers.

While on my way to meet Bishop Saah, I had noticed his face on a billboard that advertised an upcoming self-help conference promising lessons in personal success and management. Half the keynote speakers were business leaders, the other half leading preachers like Saah. Such events are evidence of another evolution in Pentecostalism’s character: it isn’t just attracting huge numbers of the poor from dispossessed neighbourhoods, but increasingly the aspiring middle classes, elites, and even political figures. Few of the poor could afford the conference’s entrance fees.

Modern Pentecostalism begins humbly, out of a low-ceilinged converted stable in a working-class precinct of Los Angeles. It’s here, on Azusa Street, in 1906, that a one-eyed, peripatetic black preacher from Texas named William J. Seymour relocates his worship services after the home and yard of the family with whom he’s staying can no longer accommodate the crowds.

Seymour has already demonstrated that he can speak in tongues and invoke the Holy Spirit for baptisms, but once he settles in at the Azusa Street Mission, word really starts to spread. His face scarred from a bout with smallpox, the thirty-five-year-old preaches in the round, spitting fire from the pulpit (two crates nailed together) or huddling in fervent prayer behind it. Slain in the spirit, worshippers jerk, foot-stomp, moan, and holler to their own measure, expressing the presence of the Holy Spirit in the most individual ways. It’s reported some burst out in languages—Russian, Chinese, Hebrew—they’ve never heard before. Others tremble and collapse from the weight of possession. One woman is suddenly gifted with a talent for playing the piano, although she’s never touched one before. This raucous, primitive capitulation to the spirit is libidinous, electric, untamed—fired up by insurgent, spontaneous currents of song, the original punk rock.

Seymour invites his flock to share their own revelations and visions of the apocalypse, of great cities falling, of capitalism run amok. The numbers grow from the dozens into the hundreds, then thousands, with three services a day. Contemptuous outsiders, whether secular or mainstream Christian, deride the goings-on at Azusa Street as disgraceful, pagan, even “the last vomit of Satan.” Seymour’s movement is too populist and, in its own way, too egalitarian for Theodore Roosevelt’s segregated America. The nascent church, already predicated on a style of worship found only in black congregations at that time, welcomes all. In addition to African-Americans come poor whites, Hispanics, and Asians. An evangelical writer observing Azusa Street reports, “The color line was washed away in the blood of Jesus.” Seymour even encourages women into the pulpit, and they turn out to be among Azusa’s most formidable preachers.

The original mission lasts only three years—its earliest days coinciding with the earthquake that levelled half of San Francisco (an event that only enhances worshippers’ certainty the end times are at hand). But other evangelicals take notice of the movement’s uniquely raw, compelling power. What few at the time fathom, though, is that Seymour, who dies broke in 1922, has stumbled upon the most potent template for Christianity in the twenty-first century.

By the 1980s, Pentecostalism has gone from a maligned and marginal curiosity on the fringes of American culture— associated with snake handlers and holy rollers—to, if not widespread respectability, at least a potent national force and a key player in the culture wars. It has also acquired a somewhat suburban character, boasting extravagant mega-churches, rock concert spectacles, and celebrity pastors like Robert Schuller. And it rarely recaptures the belly fire and anarchic spirit of Azusa Street. That torch has passed abroad.

The money generated by American churches in the 1980s enabled them to go international, to preach more aggressively and with greater sophistication than ever before, their reach penetrating still farther with the proliferation of television and video recorders. During this time, many of Ghana’s current big-time preachers were born again, developing their enthusiasm for evangelization while studying at university campuses. They soon began pursuing missionary work in rural areas, starting their own churches or fellowships, and adapting the gospel to local realities.

“There was Pentecostalism before, but in the ’80s a new wave of the spirit dawned in this nation,” one preacher in Accra told me, “a wildfire that swept up the youth. Students were praying together everywhere—in classrooms, in the forest, on the grass. For some, the fire was so strong in them they said they couldn’t cope. The rest of us just ran with the fire, and have carried it until today.”

Sometimes Albert Successful takes the stage to preach at his church. One day over instant coffee, I asked him what went through his head when he was preaching. “At first, I read from something I’ve written down on paper,” he said. “I want people to understand clearly what I’ve come to tell them. But while I’m presenting what’s on the paper, in my mind I’m communicating with God. As I’m preaching, I feel this intuition. It falls upon me. I can even focus on a person, and God tells me what they’re going through, and what I should say to them.

“You also have to impart some fun and energy, because not everyone there is happy. Some are going through a lot of stress. What you are doing can bring some kind of happiness into their souls.”

Albert Successful had yet to live up to his new name, but he was winning the struggle to overcome his origins. His circumstances were better now than when he first arrived in Accra, jobless, friendless, hungry, and shabbily clothed. Through his new church, he had received financial support to go back to school; the father of a church friend got him a part-time job; and he worked as a prayer assistant to one of its prophets. Once, a church member gave him an unexpected gift of 300 cedis ($250). “What he gave me was going to solve some big problems in my life,” Albert told me. “It would help me buy things and pay for more school. So I went home, put the money down, and I kneeled down and prayed to God. I said, ‘God, I have nothing to offer you other than my worship.’ Whoever comes into our lives, God has channelled that person to be there.”

The core message of Pentecostal conversion, as Professor Daswani points out, “is a personal and spiritual transformation that promises an enhanced agency in the world.” Although limited in means, Albert carried himself politely, but with the force of a man climbing above his station through sheer will. Nothing seemed impossible. In part, this was because Pentecostalism supplied him with helpful guides and reinforcements. “It gives you a new cultural paradigm for positive change,” says Daswani, “with structured goals and ways of achieving them.

“The global reach of these churches, through the Ghanaian diaspora, which often posts their services on YouTube, allows worshippers’ imaginations to hook onto the possibility of going abroad. People give testimonies about how a pastor has helped them get their visa or solve their financial problems through prayer and consultation. Prophecies of future wealth, success, travel are a part of what churches do, and members participate in these prayer performances, making these prophetic outcomes ‘real’ through their very commitment to change.”

Although being born again marks a defining break with the past in a personal sense, Pentecostalism appeals to Ghanaians in large measure because it accepts that the realm of ancestor spirits and witchcraft actually exists. It’s an accommodation you will not often find in Latin American Pentecostalism, but will in South Korea, for example, which has its own indigenous custom of shamanism. In Ghana, active engagement with the spirits expresses a uniquely African struggle to reconcile deeply felt cultural traditions with what is perceived to be contemporary life. As Daswani observes, “Ghanaians are continuously engaged with the spirits they’re supposedly trying to leave behind. The ancestors, spirits, and traditions—which commonly have both positive and negative attributes—become associated with an African past and the power of the devil. In the Christian context, it’s seen as the reason why people are unable to move forward, become advanced or successful in life. Pentecostalism promises to liberate them from the world of the spirits and allow them to become modern.”

Without the Church of Pentecost, I can’t imagine how Albert, a farm boy chucked out of his family with no money to pay for school, would have made such an enterprising, upwardly mobile life for himself in the big city. There he was in his snazzy shoes, dreaming he was Joseph—dreaming, with a fair shot that it might happen, that he would preach abroad, even visit the Holy Land. He almost made it to Malaysia once on a student exchange, but a middleman in Botswana bilked him out of his money. He remained undeterred. “When I close my eyes, I see heaven opening,” he told me. “When I open my eyes, I just see the world.”

Bishop Charles Agyin-Asare led me past a maquette of the new campus his Word Miracle Church was constructing, before welcoming me into his office and declaring that he was a “Third World preacher.” He was referring not to his status at home, but to the opportunities his nationality and skin colour have created for Word Miracle Church elsewhere in the world. In the past four years, he has staged crusades in Bahrain, India, Nigeria’s Muslim north, and most recently Karachi, Pakistan, where he claims he drew the biggest crowds of all his foreign visits. Fifty thousand people, the women and girls spanning the spectrum in their saris and head scarves, showed up for the first night’s crusade at the ymca grounds. When local authorities revoked permission for further large gatherings because of security concerns, organizers invited him to continue his preaching at the handful of churches around the city. An article Agyin-Asare published about the excursion claims a woman was healed of paralysis, a club-footed boy began to walk, and twelve “deaf and dumb mutes” were cured.

“We can more easily go to places where people haven’t heard the gospel,” Agyin-Asare told me, “especially Muslim or Hindu nations that seem to be closed to Christians. Surprisingly, they change the laws for me. They have to. You don’t just hold an open-air crusade in Pakistan, but they let me. I don’t know how it happens, but it happens.

“Of course, we don’t call them ‘crusades’ in Pakistan; we call them a ‘Miracle Healing Signs and Wonders Festival.’ We focus on healing, because that’s the proof Jesus rose from the dead—and he’s able to perform now the same miracles he did before he died. If we’re going to present Jesus [to Muslims], we’re going to present a living Jesus.”

“It’s just dawned on us,” added Bishop Hansel Adjei Frimpong, one of Agyin-Asare’s deputy preachers. “People in Asia will accept an African preacher, a black person, someone from the Third World who maybe understands their poor circumstances. They’re not as afraid or suspicious—there’s less baggage than there would be with a white preacher from the West.”

Just as in Ghana, Agyin-Asare is careful to calibrate the Pentecostal message to local sensibilities, hence the less controversial focus on healing in Pakistan, and little emphasis on biblical texts, parables, or explicit conversions. When addressing the crowds in Karachi, Agyin-Asare even wore a shalwar kameez rather than the fine suits or pastor’s collar he normally sports in Accra.

Other Pentecostal churches in Ghana and Nigeria have also discovered the power of the Third World preacher, and have made tailoring their message an important part of the process. As Bishop Saah told me, “When it comes to raising pioneering churches, we need to look at local cultural differences. The gospel is the same, but there are certain realities we have to work with—parts of the world where idolatry, heathenism, paganism, mysticism have deep cultural roots. Like in India. You have to study historical trends, how you can bring their culture to the gospel. You don’t just go there and start preaching to be accepted—it’s like hitting your head against the wall.”

The fact that African preachers like Agyin-Asare are making inroads overseas reflects the shifting dynamic of global religion, as its power base and momentum tilt from north to south, and its energy and impetus derive not from popes and archbishops, but from preachers unencumbered by bureaucracies. “The flows are all over the place,” says Peter Beyer, a professor of religious studies at the University of Ottawa. “There are connections between these movements in Africa and Latin America—what they are doing is the same thing—yet Pentecostalism is not an organized movement. It has a lot of little organizations, and some large ones, but it’s by and large just a movement. There’s an episodic awareness that ‘we’re all involved in the same thing, a movement of the spirit that is global. But what we actually do locally, we decide.’”

Sociologists like Beyer have a term to describe this dynamic: “Globalization doesn’t happen; ‘glocalization’ is the only thing that happens. If you ask where does globalization happen, it always has to happen somewhere local, where there’s a give and take. A bird has to have a nest.

“For the Africans, Pentecostalism isn’t exactly new. It’s like they realize, ‘Hey, we invented this; this is just old-time stuff, our way of being religious, and it’s being recovered.’ This isn’t just an African Christianity. This is, for many Africans, Christianity, period. And now they’re returning the favour by proselytizing in other non-Western countries.”

As an aspiring preacher, Albert understood the need for what Bishop Saah described as “a little local flavour” wherever the gospel is taken. When we last met, I described to him some of the differences, and indeed contradictions, I’d witnessed in Pentecostal messaging in Ghana and elsewhere. He cut me off. “When you look at the words Jesus spoke, sometimes they are contradictory and you can be confused,” he said. “But look at the particular environment, and what kind of situation [the people he addressed] were going through, and the kind of message they deserved. Wherever Jesus goes, he gives them the message they need to hear at that particular time.”

In Ghana, that message may be about to shift once more. Despite Pentecostalism’s apparent success, its influence in society, its network of diasporic churches (including those in Canada), and crusades in Asia, some members of the country’s evangelical leadership are concerned that the movement has grown complacent and is unprepared for the challenges it now faces. That it is in danger of overestimating its strength.

“The fire is diminishing,” said Bishop Frimpong. “It’s difficult to tell if evangelism is still experiencing real growth, or if what we have is the recycling of believers going from one church to another. Maybe it looks like the church has grown, but perhaps it has only stolen new members from smaller churches.”

He’s also troubled by the spread of Islam across the country. Until now, there’s been little friction between Ghana’s Christians and Muslims (in nearby Nigeria, it’s a different story). But migration from Ghana’s poorer, predominantly Muslim north to the more populated south, where job prospects are marginally better, is making the prospect of direct confrontation more likely. Mosques are now appearing in places where there were previously none, and preachers worry that Muslims are having better success at converting traditional worshippers or nominal Christians. And just as the explosion of Ghana’s charismatic churches in the ’80s was inspired by visiting American preachers, many of the new mosques are receiving financial support from patrons in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Some Pentecostal leaders referred me to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations as though it were a local primer.

“We need to devise new strategies to make our gospel appealing to those unconverted; otherwise, we may be surprised. While we feel big and comfortable, we might lose our focus on the people who are waiting to hear the gospel. In a few years, this growth in Islam could catch up to us. The interest is already there, especially in rural areas that have poverty.”

Frimpong worried that demographics could also be working against the charismatics. In many parts of Ghana, polygamy remains a common traditional practice—one that Muslims permit but evangelicals do not, which can make conversions to Christianity more challenging. “The Muslim man, he can marry more women than a Christian man, having two, three, or four wives. A wife to convert, and they’re all having bigger families. How do we as a church react to that? ”

I was reminded then of a familiar Ghanaian colloquialism that Bishop Saah used during his lecture to me about competitive advantage: “If you’re not careful, some small boy will come along and steal your shine.”

So it goes, in business and in matters of God.

Christopher Frey