Who wins in the “Winner’s Chapel”?
African Christianity landscape is shaped today by the proliferation of neo-Pentecostal churches. In this context, great Catholic and Protestant churches are losing the monopoly of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the promise of salvation it implies. Christians and non-Christians are attracted presently by neo-Pentecostal churches, which, for most part, promise paradise on earth in a context of growing impoverishment. People go to them in search of things like health, a job, a partner, or even a visa to the west.
Here, I would like to focus one of the most famous neo-Pentecostal churches in sub-Saharan Africa: Living Faith Church Worldwide, commonly known as Winner’s Chapel. Even in a country like Sierra Leone where Christians are less than 20%, Winner’s Chapel is enjoying such a popular success that obliges to inquire the reason of its attraction. As this mega-church intends to be for “winners”, I try, following its doctrine, to understand who the winner really is in it?
1. The Origin of Winner’s Chapel
The original name of Winner’s Chapel is Living Faith Church Worldwide, a neo-Pentecostal church founded in 1983, by a Nigerian architect, David Olaniyi Oyedepo (born September 27, 1954). He is now the presiding bishop of the Mega-church Faith Tabernacle or Canaan Land in Ota, Ogun State, Nigeria, a 50400 - seat church auditorium, reported to be the largest church building in the world. Canaan Land is also the international Headquarter of the ministry. Started in Nigeria, Winner’s Chapel is today a church worldwide. Only in Nigeria, it has 300 implantations. Winner’s Chapel has several branches both in Africa - presently in 43 countries- and in the West.
2. The doctrine of Winner’s Chapel
Winner’s Chapel shares the traditional teaching and characteristics of the classic Pentecostalism movement whose pioneers are the Americans Charles F. Parham (1873-1929) and William J. Seymour (1870-1922): obligation of conversion: being born again as condition sine qua none of enjoying God’s blessings, the importance of personal experience of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the speaking in tongues (glossolalia) as evidence of being baptized in the Spirit, emphasis on spiritual healings and casting of devils…
However, Winner’s Chapel’s doctrine is distinguished from classic Pentecostal teaching. One of its specific marks is the centrality of the theology of material prosperity. Moreover, the obligation to pay tithes, the investment in the media as means of evangelizing and the hyper-emphasis on healing rituals are its marks. Interesting in this neo-Pentecostal church is how material success is explained as sign of God’s blessing and therefore evidence of human salvation.
Indeed, according to the theology of material prosperity, the life of abundance that flows from Jesus’ victory over sin and death is not primarily concerned with the next life but with this present one. It’s demonstrated by wealth and health, prestige, well-being and prosperity. The proof given is the life of wealthy pastors and few members of the community whose luxurious houses, cars and expensive clothes and jewels are ostentatiously displayed.
In Winner’s Chapel, the obligation to pay tithes follows the “logic of sowing”: who sows much harvests much. Thus, the members are invited to give generously to the church with the hope and conviction to be rewarded generously by God in return. This practice explains why Winner’s Chapel’s pastors are very rich. They harvest from the rich as well as from the poor. Here, the rich give abundantly hoping that their business will prosper. But the poor, for their part, deprive from themselves even the little they have, expecting a hundredfold. At the end, all the benefits go to the pastor.
It’s not difficult to understand that the first winner in Winner’s Chapel is the pastor himself. His material prosperity far from being explained as a blessing from God because of his conversion, instead, comes from the contributions and collections of his flock. For instance, the founder of Winner’s Chapel, D. Olaniyi Oyedepo, is reported to have a fortune of 150 million dollars. In March 2011, he bought a Gulfstream V Private Jet Aircraft for $30 million, according to the American magazine Forbes.
The theology of material prosperity spread by Winner’s Chapel has some political implications which profit for the ruling class. Once this theology designates money and power as signs of divine election, it justifies the economic inequalities and the ruling unjust political system. Furthermore, claiming that misfortune, diseases, employment…are due to devils and other occult powers from which one is delivered by God’s intervention does not question the responsibility of public officers whose duty is to care for the Common Good and to build up a just social order where all citizens are given same opportunities. Indeed, many African politicians have understood well that the theology of material prosperity constitutes no danger for their power. Because it’s on their favour, they have become members of neo-Pentecostal churches. Thus, if there are some other winners in Winner’s Chapel, they are exactly politicians and their partner business men and women.
Nevertheless, ordinary Winner’s Chapel followers have their own part. Even though they are the ones milking their shepherds, at the end they gain something. In fact, most of the people who attend Winner’s Chapel as well as other neo-Pentecostal churches are mainly people burdened with destitution, broken family relationships, sickness, unemployment and the crises of the social and political order. They come seeking not only health and their daily bread but also a spot of human warmth. At least, in prayer gatherings, people can dance, sing, express freely their feelings, and so forth.
In a situation of heavy daily life, this opportunity cannot be looked down. That’s why this theology of success, even if it tosses the poor in blank of illusions, says the Cameroonian Jesuit Ludovic Lado, it is seductive in that it; at least; makes people dream of a change coming from God. This hope for a better future makes them stronger, for a while, in bearing their daily cross. What they win is that convection that tomorrow will be better than today. Unfortunately, in a context of social injustice this preaching may appear, and it’s the case in our context, as an objective support to the “structures of sin” whose consequences are known as mismanagement, corruption, favoritism, tribalism…
The spread and success of neo-Pentecostal churches such as Winner’s Chapel challenge the way of preaching the Gospel in African context. Until now, on the Catholic side, the approach has been either to criticize neo-Pentecostalism, in a negative sense, or to imitate it blindly, especially in worship. In my view, both approaches miss the goal. It’s true that there are good reasons to denounce neo-Pentecostal churches and their theology of material prosperity as a deformation of the Gospel. But it’s also worthy to acknowledge that their success indicates that people go there with “good daily questions of life” which seem not to be taken in consideration in traditional churches: catholic and Protestant.
Therefore, in my view, before any attempt to imagine a pastoral response to the challenge of neo-Pentecostalism in sub-Saharan Africa, there is the need of studying, searching and understanding well how this religious phenomenon works and functions. For this purpose, the second synod of Bishops for Africa calls for a pastoral outreach to the life of the intellect and reason so as to foster a habit of rational dialogue and critical analysis within society and in the Church (Africae Munus, n°137).
The wish expressed here is not that of a more intellectual African Christianity. It is rather to promote a Christianity which enables Christians from Africa to distinguish between churches that awake and those that benumb (Fr. Ludovic Lado, sj). For both of this kind of churches are spread in Africa but their multiplicity does not serve life in abundance (Jn 10:10) and the advent of a new earth and a new heaven where death will be no more (Ap 21:4).
 L. LADO, “African Catholicism in the face of Pentecostalism”, in Concilium, n°4/2006, p. 22.
 Article, « Living Faith Church Worldwide”, in Wikipedia
 W. J. HOLLENWEGER, Pentecostalism: Origins and Development Worldwide, Peabody (Mass.): Hendrickson Publishers, 1972, p. 22-23, quoted, L. LADO, art., p. 24.
 L. LADO, art., p. 25.
 Article, « Living Faith Church Worldwide”, in Wikipedia.
 MESSI METOGO E., « Religions, christianisme et modernité : question pour le second synode ? », dans NDI-OKALLA J., (dir.), Le deuxième synode africain face aux défis socio-économiques et éthiques du continent. Documents de travail, Paris, Karthala, 2009, p. 34.