I recently read an essay in which the author described the scene at a San Salvador Pentecostal church: “Within two minutes it is holy bedlam—high-energy guitar music, electronic-generated images on two big screens, girls waving flags, hands raised, people dancing in the aisles, crying and singing so loud the windows vibrate.” Such a description could apply to hundreds of Pentecostal churches across the world.
In July, I had the privilege of teaching in Kenya at East Africa Baptist School of Theology. This was my third year teaching there and ministering at Emmanuel Baptist Church of Nairobi. One of the classes I have been working on in recent years is a “History of Christianity in Africa.” This class necessitates a study of African Pentecostalism. During last year’s session, I happened to attend part of a service at a satellite church of the Winners Chapel founded by David Oyedepo of Lagos, Nigeria. This summer, I decided to attend a regular Sunday morning service at the main Winners Chapel in Nairobi. All churches in the denomination bear the common name Winners Chapel or Living Faith Church Worldwide. Coincidentally, we have a local branch here in Minneapolis.
The visit in Nairobi was eye-opening. First, we were heavily screened when we entered the property. Armed guards, some with AK-47s, checked our vehicle outside, underneath, and inside. They even lifted the hood and looked in the trunk. Since the 2013 Westgate Mall terror attack in Nairobi, Kenya has been a bit edgy, fearful that another soft target will be exploited. Winners Chapel, with its 10,000-seat auditorium, is one possible soft target. Having passed the security checkpoint, we navigated around a string of buses, perhaps thirty or more, to find a parking spot. Winners Chapel has a large “bus ministry” that brings the faithful and the curious to the Sunday services.
Exiting the vehicle, we were met in the parking lot by a well-dressed greeter who assumed we were guests. Three of us were white and we may have been the only Wazungu in the large crowd. Outside the church, several hundred students were dressed in academic regalia. It was graduation day for the church’s Bible college. Today would be a special service for the church.
We decided to sit in the balcony to be less obtrusive and to have a good view of the activities of the service. The service began with the graduates marching into the auditorium, taking their seats near the front of the church in a section reserved for them. The building is a simple, six-sided steel structure, with the interior seating divided into six pie-shaped sections. I estimated that the building could easily seat 10,000 people, although there appeared to be only about 2,000 in attendance when the service began. As the service progressed, the building continued to fill, and by noon it appeared 80% full with perhaps as many as 8,000 participants.
The service lasted around four hours, the first three of which we attended. There was singing, some praying, and a lot of shouting and dancing. A baby dedication gathered twenty or so couples at the front, and one of the church’s many pastors prayed for the parents and their children. There were several choir specials and a youth theatre group who performed on the center platform, a six-sided stage that matched the shape of the auditorium at the heart of the church. Men in business suits surrounded the platform, moving during the service from the head of the aisles to the edge of the platform according to the activities of the service. They stood for the entire service, limiting access to the platform itself for all but those who had the right to be there. They were rather stoic and remained unaffected by the service.
An important part of the gathering were the offerings—several as I recall. Winners Chapel is a Prosperity Gospel-style ministry. Giving (tithing) is an important part of receiving God’s blessing. As people waited for the collection baskets, they waved their offerings before the Lord. Ushers were on hand to pass out envelopes to those who needed them. Ushers then brought out large baskets to collect the seed gifts from the faithful. These tithes were to be generous so that God might pour out His blessing on the faithful givers. The ushers took their baskets and emptied them into large green wheeled garbage cans that served as collection receptacles for the gifts.
The service was sprinkled with biblical phrases or ideas—“the truth will set you free” or “Jesus is alive”—with little or no sustained biblical interaction, much less any exposition of the biblical text. At the 11:00 hour, the senior pastor, Joseph Ikechukwu, came to the platform and worked the crowd into a frenzy. About fifteen minutes into his comments, he began to run in place, and the crowd (now numbering close to 8,000) began a sustained twenty-five minutes of the kind of “holy bedlam” described at the beginning of this essay. People shouted, danced, sang, swayed, waved hankies (what appeared to be about one half of those gathered), raised their hands, and moved, sometimes in concert with those around them, similar to “The Wave” at a sporting event, and sometimes just moving as though they were the only ones present. The open space around the platform filled with congregants as the aisle guards moved to the edge of the platform from the top of the aisles—hundreds of people thronging the preacher as he “led” the bedlam, occasionally shouting to intensify the noise. The Bible college flag bearers ran through the auditorium for the entire twenty-five minutes waving their flags and further encouraging the cacophony.
The pandemonium was apparently a regular feature of this church. Sadly, what was missing from the service in the three hours we attended was any serious, sustained interaction with the Scriptures themselves. Not that the Word was absent. It simply did not have primacy of place while we attended. After three hours of head-throbbing music, etc., we left to attend to an obligation previously made.
How the service ended I cannot say. But the first three-fourths of the meeting was an eye-opening experience. I was told by an usher that the service would be a bit longer than usual due to the graduation exercises. We left with our ears ringing and heads throbbing from the noise. But our eyes were opened and our minds made aware of just how much theological error exists in some places. As far as I could understand of the loud, sometimes indistinguishable words, nothing particularly heretical was taught. But then nothing particularly biblical was taught either. To be sure, the prosperity message is a misunderstanding of the biblical teaching on wealth. That error was embraced with gusto. The service was a frenzy of excitement without any clear reason to be excited. The crowd affirmed that Jesus was alive, but just how that happened or what that meant was left unsaid. For all the hype, what we did not hear at Winners Chapel in those three hours was the gospel.
This essay is by Jeff Straub, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Heart of Stone, Relent, Relent!
Charles Wesley (1707–1788)
Hearts of stone relent, relent!
Break, by Jesus’ cross subdued;
See His body mangled rent,
Covered with His flowing blood;
Sinful soul! What hast thou done?
Crucified the eternal Son!
Yes, thy sins have done the deed,
Driven the nails that fixed Him there,
Crowned with thorns His sacred head,
Plunged Him with a soldier’s spear;
Made His soul a sacrifice,
For a sinful world He dies.
Wilt thou let Him die in vain?
Still to death pursue our God?
Open all His wounds again?
Trample on His precious blood?
No; with all my sins I’ll part,
Savior, take my broken heart!