One cultural experience I have every time I go to my Nigerien wife’s family home, such as when we celebrate Christmas there, is to watch African Christian television on free-to-air satellite (Do you remember those big 5+ ft diameter parabolas that existed before DishTV?). Perhaps one home in 20 has such a system as they cost around $300 (not including the television) and permit a viewer to access dozens of satellites orbiting over the Middle East, Southern Europe and Africa.
There’s one particular satellite positioned over Africa that carries 50 (YES 5-0!) separate full-time Christian stations. These programs originate from African countries such as Congo, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia, as well as from Brazil, South Korea, the U.K. and the U.S.A. In some cases, the whole station is owned and operated by an African mega-church (such as you can find in Lagos or Kinshasa). While the majority of the shows are in English, you can also find French and Portuguese programs, with some sub-titling shows in a second language to broaden further their potential audience. These stations have names such as “Love World”, “Emmanuel”, “Chosen”, “Dove”, “3 Angels”, “Hosanna” and “Olive”, among other faith-inspired monikers.
While their content has a mix of preaching, teaching, Gospel singing and even some family-oriented programming that was produced in the West, their most popular shows are clearly broadcasts of deliverance and healing services. Whether shot in a church sanctuary, a large tent or an open field, these programs are built around a personality who promises that he or she will deliver people from the bondage of illness or demonization. With thousands of African congregants watching, praying and/or praise singing, the healer will call for those who are blind, deaf, lame or spirit-possessed to come forward. Sometimes the personality will interview the supplicant to learn more of their troubles (and even talk to the offending spirit), sometimes the person will walk around and touch the distressed while praying (and the afflicted usually collapse from being “slain in the Spirit) and at other times, the preacher simply stays at the pulpit and orders healing in the name of Jesus. The announcers promise miracles and the camera shows person after person being healed and praising God.
Generally, these stations tend to promote a prosperity Gospel message and constantly link faith with material success. Alternatively, one could argue that the shows demonstrate how living outside of Christ results in sickness, poverty, missed opportunities/lack of advancement, broken homes, stress and spiritual bondage. Several programs, though, usually make a point of broadcasting how their ministries are helping their viewers and supporters by presenting unsuspecting followers with bags of food, new motorcycles (and the like) or envelopes of cash to attend a university or to pay a hospital bill after they have written the show with their prayer requests. As you can imagine, such gestures catch the attention of many Africans.
These satellite programs are clearly not your grandparents’ Christianity. Rather than showing a Christian faith based on quiet worship and submission, they project a vigorous and vibrant Christianity where Jesus triumphs over spirits, illnesses, trials and oppression. The latest technologies using computer generated graphics and presentation software display a modernity one wouldn’t expect to find in the poor shanty towns of Africa, emphasizing that this is a faith for today.. Without question, these shows are playing an important role in Christianity’s growth in Africa, as local pastors and churches are following the substance and style of these TV presentations. This is a Christianity that resonates with many Africans as it addresses their basic needs and their spiritual understanding much better than the Western import did two or three generations ago.
What may surprise you the most, however, is that these African ministries are branching into Europe, North America, South America and Asia. They tap into the African immigrant base that already resides in these foreign lands, but they are also drawing the local populations, too. Their broadcasts that originate in England or the U.S. show plenty of non-African faces in their audience pans. Whether these African television presentations are reaching new believers or convincing existing Christians to follow them, I can’t say, but their formats are certainly disrupting the “old time religion”.