People & Money

BIG READ: Pentecostal Pastors, COVID-19, and the “New World Order”

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.

The 5G conspiracy theory is the latest sensationalist spin on the COVID-19 outbreak

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.

Pastor Chris Oyakhilome has dominated headlines for his bold comments on the “hidden truth” about COVID-19 .

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.

Also Read: BIG READ: AfDB – The True Cost of Dr. Adesina’s Victory

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?

Worshipers at a Pentecostal church in Nigeria

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.

Churches still play a role in shaping thought and culture

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.

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11 Comments

  1. Good write up and I largely agree with you.
    My concern though is that the duration of this pandemic will tell if the present grip religion has on the populace will weaken or morph. If it is short, you can be sure someone will come up to testify in church that he/she was healed after a man of God prayed and will not give any accolades to the health workers or medications that played a big role. We saw this during Ebola.

    However, I will not wish that the pandemic prolongs just because I need the church to rise to their responsibility. Rather, i hope they will be sincere and buckle up before many begin to doubt the existence of God.

  2. A man from God in Nigeria actually saw it enter the planet December 2019 and prepared his congregation through prayers to escape it. The name of d ministry is Omega chapel. His page on Facebook is ‘Living like Jesus’.
    He has a short clips of brief description.

  3. @Obafemi Raji:
    I am not so optimistic of Nigeria re-focusing towards the right direction in the aftermath of this pandemic. I think the pentecostal entrepreneurs have a grip on their congregation that is probably much stronger than we think.
    Which is why couples who have been on fertility treatment will come to testify to “God’s goodness” without remembering the Fertility Specialist who placed them on therapy before the miracle occurred.

  4. I believe this is mis positioned. Amos 3 . 7 is one scripture but also read Deaut 29.29. The secret things belong to the Lord our God. Men only deal with the things which are revealed
    No Man of God can claim to know everything about God. That said. Some men of God spoke about it. Cheers

  5. What an insightful and apt write up for this period.An intelligent and unbiased analysis.
    I

  6. @Peace King, I think you didn’t quite get the theme of this write up. She seeks that Pastors should understand what is at stake for a developing society like ours. And as such Science and Religion cannot afford to antagonize each other, as Religion particularly Pentecostals have the platform to create the new world order which should be premised on critical thinking, empiricism, scientific knowledge and de- mythologization of phenomena. An illustration that readily comes to mind which I think can help drive home her point is when we choose to adopt phrases such as ‘I reject it ‘, ‘it’s not my portion’ (macabre spiritualistic mindset) as precautionary measures against COVID 19 instead of practising personal hygiene and social distancing as advised.

  7. I think you meant to write, “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 UNIVERSITIES, but none of their professors…”

  8. Our Religious Leaders Need To …

    We are certainly living in trying times and for the majority of people with access to the internet, surfing the net or browsing, as we call it, is a sure way to pass time, read more and stir up the imagination of others.

    And this is exactly what the introduction of 5G has birthed. Anyone in an intellectual capacity must have dissected for and against the supposed benefits or otherwise of the 5G to humankind.

    Of course, we have been inudated with opinions about it ranging from the absurd to the probable. In fact, it is safe to state that there are two extremes about the 5G, with thought leaders and followers rarely conceding to the other party’s perspective.

    Expectedly, those who have led the campaign for and against have been scientists in different fields. They are authority in that aspect and we gave them the audience because they rightly deserve to be heard, either for or against.

    Interestingly though, we have another group of thought leaders on this and you guessed right, the religious leaders.

    At this point, let me state that this article is not in anyway casting aspersions on their credibility to offer their opinions on the subject matter, 5G. It is to the credit of many of the modern day Nigerian preachers that they were professionals in various fields before they embraced their calling as earthly shepherds of the Lord’s sheep. So, it would amount to great injustice if their opinions have to be jettisoned simply because they are religious leaders.

    In addition, to further lend credence to their expositions on this matter, the sequence of events of this season gives credibility to the signs of the last day foretold in the Bible.

    Accordingly to our Lord Jesus Christ and some of his Apostles such as Paul, the signs of the last days include famine, wars and rumours of wars, pestilences and many more. To summarise it, it simply denotes a time when living on planet earth would be such a burden than many would gladly wish for visas to other planets, if possible.

    So down the centuries, especially since the ascension of Jesus Christ to heaven after his ressurection, every church age has identified local and global chaos as imminent to the fulfillment of the return of Jesus Christ.

    This is why the current pandemic, COVID19 is having the spotlight as a precursor of the Great Tribulation, an event which its end will mark the beginning of the end of world and a promise of a new world.

    However, the Tribulation isn’t supposed to be a child’s play, hence the adjective, Great. It is going to be a global operation, whereby life and living is based on one’s willingness to comply with the dictates of the political rulers of the era. Whoever is unwilling to partake suffers excruciating discomfort which is better imagined than experienced. This can only be achieved using a technology that makes the world a Big Brother arena, something the 5G is touted to achieve.

    Hence, in interpreting the introduction of the 5G, many Christian leaders have made their position on it. To some, it is the tool of the coming Anti-Christ, to others, it is merely a technology that should be embraced for its benefits, such as making the world a truly smart city.

    Yet, in the midst of all these postulations, there should be an understanding of the times that we live in- the social media era. It is quite disheartening to see pastors pitched against one another and followers taking sides. Maybe that should be expected, as it always seems to be.

    However, where do we draw the line between social media etiquette and biblical civility which should help strengthen the global Christian brotherhood.

    I want to assume that many of the top Christian leaders are sufficiently acquainted with one another. Even if there are opposing views, why not let’s make an intelligent exposition on it using technology that connects, to have them jointly discuss this in ways that will not breed acrimony and disenchantment.

    Now, we have Pastor A telling a global audience this is what 5G is all about. Then we have Pastor B having an Instagram chat telling his followers what 5G is. Then we have the online media, pitching both against each other, further tearing the body of Christ apart with endless controversies, which is expressesly forbidden in the Bible.

    I urge every believer to please be mindful of HOW we put out information online. I also urge our leaders to use their common platform to disemminate relevant information to the people.

    This is not to say unity is unanimity. It is quite possible that some might have a contrary opinion on what is agreed, but whatever the outcomes, let’s have a semblance of harmony that doesn’t keep us being object of ridicule among opposers, apostates and unbelievers.

    Whether 5G is a tool for the Antichrist or not, it won’t change what will happen when the end of the world comes. Rather than consolidating on factions due to theories, let our religious leaders equip believers on what to do to cope with the signs of the time.

    It is time the Church makes Amen the prayer of Jesus Christ in John 17: 20-21.

    Abike Akintuyi Awojobi

  9. Dear Abimbola Adelaku,
    I do read your write up in the punch newspaper. Most of it is about criticism of the church leaders and the churches in Nigeria. I noticed you no longer write for punch. I guessed you were relieved of your role when you started writing against politicians.

    Kindly stop your criticism of the church in Nigeria because it is very unfair of u.

    You go set up a church and grow your members up to 5 million people. Talk is cheap, criticism is easy. Do u know how difficult it is for those pastors? The pain, difficulties, sleepless night and heavy price they pay? The pastors you mentioned in your write up are the leading pastors in Nigeria. Please leave our pastors alone. They have helped milions our of poverty, shown them the way to eternal life, help mend marriages, restored families, paid school fees, paid house rent, hospital bills countless things. Enough of these criticism.
    Thank you

  10. The involved issues in this development is not farfetched. Because the Christian scriptures include end time signs of global significance, pastors who have largely focused on themselves rather than God, are in a haste to connect the dots especially when they have so obviously missed the prediction.

    It’s simply a struggle for relevance between these persons who normally claim to have “tea time” with God yet missed such a huge development in their crossover night predictions.

    They can only be taken seriously when they study prophecy in full culminating in counting the number of the Antichrist, which is the number of a man and pronounce to the world who he is, rather than talk about a rather fluid term like “New World Order”.

    The only denomination that has so far been open on this from its study of biblical prophecy is the Seventh Day Adventist Church which sees the papacy leadership (Vicarious fili Dei) as eventually exposing itself as the beast and Antichrist.

    But for this denomination and the others still pursuing prophecy by observing the time, only time itself will reveal all truth.

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