For long, Nigerians have been accustomed to sensationalist prophecies by pastors at the beginning of every new year. So, when the COVID-19 epidemic hit the world, sent the most powerful economies of the world into a tailspin, exposed not only the vulnerability of our human bodies—both rich and poor alike—but also our constructed economic, political, and religious systems, the apocalyptic effects of the global pandemic landed on our consortium of Pentecostal pastors too. Their spiritual sensors, long attuned to picking tabloid stories and “trend-able” gossip, failed to detect the most significant historical event of the twenty-first century so far. People, bewildered by the scale of events, turned to their pastors to ask how they could not have seen any of these incidences coming. Even the Bible says in Amos 3:7 that God will not do anything without revealing it to his servants, the prophets. So, how come none of the Nigerian prophets saw this coming?
At this point, it safe to conclude that COVID-19 has demystified the Pentecostal pastorate, their claims of miracles of healing, the foresight of their prophecies, and the unrestricted access pastors say they have to the supernatural realm. What matters from now on is the astuteness of their response to this historical event.
For now, Pastors are still scrambling for an answer these world-changing events. From the frivolous ones who threaten to go to China to destroy the virus or confront it with “corrosive anointing,” to pastors of mega-churches such as Pastor Enoch Adeboye of the Redeemed Christian Church of God have to provide a moral meaning to the moment, to pastors like Johnson Suleman of Omega Fire Ministries International and Chris Oyakhilome of Christ Embassy, who, in their desperation to seize control of the narrative, resorted to circulating anti-vaxxer and 5Gtruthers conspiracy theories about a looming “new world order,” it is apparent that these pastors are still grappling with what their roles in this pandemic tragedy should be. They are missing a crucial point: with the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic, the “new world order” they are warning us about is already happening. And because their responses were still caught in their old schtick of mystifying almost every phenomenon, its force is about to sweep them away.
The new world order: Between reality and conspiracy theory
If there is something every sociologist and historian can agree on in their analysis of pandemics, it is that it brings forward a new world order. Forget, for a moment, the conspiracy theory of the televangelist, Pat Robertson, whose idea of “new world order” was that a secret elite establishment would create a singular government to rule the world and which evokes fear in people. The new world order is one where structures of political and economic power, deference to traditional authority, and social relations, are re-aligned in the wake of urgent changes that needed to be made during the pandemic.
That is because, in abnormal times such as this one, time itself compresses. The legislations and social processes that would have taken forever to prepare, and whose instituting norms would have crept on us gradually, happens in a matter of hours. That sense of urgency envelopes us and evokes the trauma of a looming apocalypse. Without clarity on what this historical moment means and no viable source of information than conspiracy theories circulated on WhatsApp and other social media networks, people lost in this meaning-destroying event will eventually see through the pastors’ old gimmicks of attributing things to demons and supernatural forces.
As prophets who have claimed the ability to see beyond what the rest of the human eyes can see, pastors missed this event already. Their responses in the past few days about new world order, demonic attacks, anti-vaccine campaign, retroactively claiming God warned them about the pandemic but they kept it to themselves suggest they are still reeling from the aftershocks and have not yet fully processed what the pandemic would ultimately mean for them. In the days ahead, they will need to stand back and see that their established roles as the mediators of the existing social order are becoming outdated, and they need new techniques of managing their religious empires before they are swept away by the rising tide of new worldwide changes.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Pastor Adeboye’s responses have been met with an admixture of scorn and bafflement. Across social media networks, people are gleefully circulating memes, jokes, and long essays about pastors waiting for scientists to come up with a vaccine for COVID-19 so that they can safely resume their healing miracles once again. It has also been a busy period for Christians who have taken it upon themselves to fight the public back on behalf of their pastor. None of those defensive strategies will match up to the force of ridicule the churches will have to face when they want to resume talking about miracles in a post COVID-19 world.
Surviving the pandemic: A way forward for pastors, Pentecostals, and the society
The reaction of two pastors to the pandemic particularly interests me here, and they might be pointers to the way forward for not only the church, but also for the rest of us who believe that the Pentecostal movement has a lot to offer the world in a way similar to how older dispensations of Christianity shaped the modern world in western societies. Both Pastor Temitope B. Joshua of the Synagogue Church of all Nations, and Apostle Suleman said God told them the virus would go the way it came, that it would simply “disappear.” Rather than dismiss these pastors as merely fishing, we should acknowledge that what they said is, in fact, consistent with the scientific understanding of the lifecycle of viruses and diseases. Viruses indeed do “disappear” after containment initiatives like social distancing, quarantines, travel restrictions have slowed down the spread of the disease, the transmission chain broken, and the population of the survivors developed an immunity. As for Pastor Joshua, who included the specific date of March 27 in his prophecy, he most likely envisaged when the transmission of the virus would have peaked, and suppression efforts worked from the mathematics worked out by disease modelers.
For me, the question therefore is, if pastors privately defer to empirical knowledge to make prophetic utterances, why mystify knowledge? Why not let the people see the secular sleight of hand that underpins their prophecies?
In an article written about the exploits of the African Pentecostal churches in the USA by The New York Times in 2009, a part struck me strongly. One of the pastors—the head of the RCCG in North America at the time, was also a former automotive-design engineer with an MBA and business experience running a Wendy’s franchise—brought his secular experiences into setting up the church chain in the USA. We can make many claims about how the power of God instituted Pentecostal churches, but the naked reality is that worldly business knowledge and techniques by their pastors also played an important role. Nigerian Pentecostalism would not have been as successful as it has been if the people that became pastors had not been trained up to a certain level of education and expertise. Now that the church has attained a level of power and prominence, they can afford to be open about their methods. They can institute the reign of knowledge that is purged of mysticism.
That pastors would seek viable answers that they believe would work for their church from the world of science to dazzle their congregation, is at some level, understandable. Pastors come into prominence as performers who claim a close dalliance with supernatural forces, but soon find that they needed tested and trusted materials to legitimate their act. Underneath the public act of praying for a miracle and receiving them, they also consult secular experts to learn things. The effect of their mediation is that people see them as a repository of transcendental knowledge and stop short of also empowering themselves in the same way. The trouble is that the workable techniques cloaked in mystery has limitations and cannot promote social growth and development. Is it not time for these pastors to let the people know that the wizard is just an ordinary man behind the curtain working a set of machines?
Although the belief in the supernatural has had its share in propelling the Pentecostal movement to such great heights, the emergence of COVID-19 also shows they have run the limits of how much they can sustain the mythologization of temporal concerns and solutions. The case of Pastors Paul and Becky Enenche’s donation of medical equipment to healthcare workers while they themselves wearing face masks and gloves is an indirect acceptance of—and capitulation to—the forces of secularity and rationalism. To play in the exacting confines of the secular, you have to face up to the powerlessness or irrelevance of the claims of supernatural powers in the affairs of the modern world.
Having come this far and with well-grounded success to boot, they can afford to scale back on the primalism of their faith practices and create a secular priesthood instead. By that, I envision a Pentecostal investment in the enterprise of knowledge and a deliberate agenda to centre empiricism and scientific analyses into their public engagement. At this point, I should note that several of the mega-churches like Living Faith Church (Winners Chapel), the RCCG, and Mountain of Fire and Miracles, all run churches, but none of their professors of science has been called upon to engage the public on COVID-19. Pastors’ responses to the pandemic have precluded their own academics and scientists and instead focused on superstitions of supernatural power and secret demonic elites. Pastors have over-exploited the intellectual gap that exists in society, and COVID-19 should show them the limitations of relying on occult knowledge rather than scientific techniques.
In a 2009 interview Adeboye had with the The New York Times, he highlighted the difference between western societies and Africa. He said,
It begins to give man the impression that man is the almighty, that man can do anything. He can go to the moon, go to Mars, perform operations with a laser beam without spilling blood. The problem, the way I see it, is that because of the advance of technology, science and investing, the Western world began to feel that they didn’t need God as much as before. Whereas in Africa, we need him. We know we need him to survive.”
The trouble is, the Africa that found God and constructed itself as the religious “other” against the irreligious secular order of the west has arrived at a critical juncture where it needs more than God or the supernatural to survive.
We still need the church for social development
Today, we cannot talk about the making of western civilization without the contribution of different church epochs. Catholicism might have had its inelegant historical moments, but our modern society owes quite a significant aspect of its heritage to them. Such legacy ranges from the format with which we run our university systems, development of scientific knowledge and technological inventions, shaping of religious and political thoughts, and to the ethics that underwrite contemporary ideas of morality. These were achieved through the self-mastery and a commitment to learning that was redolent of religious traditions of older periods. We cannot catalogue certain ideals of liberal freedoms such as the right to free expression and worship, public accountability, and a de-anchoring of the state and religion, without a reference to Protestantism. As Pentecostal scholar and ethicist, Nimi Wariboko outlined in his essay, The Moral Roots of the Global Financial Industry, the global financial systems that run our modern world itself was a creation of Judeo-Christian ethos and ethics, and the intellectual framework the church bequeathed the society. For the Nigerian Pentecostal movement to have a similar transformational impact on the society, their approach to public engagement has to move away from the undue emphasis on magic and miracles to the secular processes that actually get things done in the world.
For a developing society like Nigeria, science and religion cannot afford to antagonize each other. We cannot survive on religious obscurantism. A unit of the society that has the resources (as Pentecostal Christianity does) to confront our complex problems of development and inability to advance to become a modern society also has the responsibility to invest in the culture of systematic rational knowledge that unleashes the potentialities of the nation. That is why Pentecostalism needs a priesthood that composes of people who are trained and have developed expertise to speak on issues of weighty concerns. Rather than these secular prophets stay behind the curtains working as prompters for pastors who pretend they are actual oracles, they will lead the agenda of social transformation for these churches. Imagine for a moment how different things could have been if the church had responded to COVID-19 with scientific knowledge, reassures the public, and is at the forefront of urging people to adhere to containment measures?
Of all the social and cultural movements that exists in Nigeria today, we challenge the Pentecostals more frequently because they have the most power to galvanize a better society. First, their congregation composes of a broad swathe of the middle-class demographic, and quite a number of them are strategically placed in important positions in the society where they can network symbolic resources, wealth, and their clout to boost the church’s social agenda. Second, Pentecostal churches have not only sown deep and fibrous roots in the soil of the society, but they also run some of the best-functioning universities in the country. Beyond the boast that their graduates are the ones lapping up all the jobs in the society, they need a long-term impact on the society’s ethos. Third, the responsibility to engage the society with secular prophethood also falls on them because Pentecostalism is at the stage of church development where it is grounded enough to risk their social, political, and economic privileges for the benefit of millions of people who are trapped in poverty, underdevelopment, and macabre spiritualistic mindset.
Pastors have to understand what is at stake for our future and commit resources to free people from the trap of underdevelopment. There are huge developmental challenges ahead for us as a society, but we are not irredeemable. There is nothing in our present social history that more formidable societies have not passed through. If they could overcome their conditions, we can too. But it is not going to be by magic or miracles. We will tow the same line of critical thinking, empiricism, scientific knowledge, and de-mythologization of phenomena as modern societies did. We need to raise a secular priesthood to undertake this task. The route of learning scientific techniques is the only hope of survival that all of us, including pastors too, have of surviving in this new world order.
Abimbola A. Adelakun studies Pentecostalism and spirituality as political performance. She teaches in the Africana studies program at the University of Texas at Austin, Texas. Her book on Nigerian Pentecostalism will be released in 2021.