We’ve been thinking a bit about the prosperity gospel and keen to learn from local sources here in Tanzania. So when we had dinner recently with a Christian leader from a region about 2 hours north of Dodoma, we took the opportunity to ask him what he thought. He doesn’t like the prosperity gospel, which he conflated with Pentecostalism, but the reason he gave was pastoral.
He said most Tanzanians are poor village people and the prosperity gospel is basically irrelevant to them. If your message is about upward mobility, you have nothing to say to people who will spend their whole lives in a village. He points out that Pentecostal churches are situated in Tanzania’s towns and cities, not its villages.
This coheres with the idea that prosperity gospel even in the west finds its natural home in the aspirational classes, those who are on the way up. Rich people don’t need the prosperity gospel; it’s cruel to really poor people; but it sits well with those who are looking to improve their station in life. They’re the higher lower classes, edging their way into the middle class. In Adelaide terms, they’re the tradies and managers at Target who’ve just bought their investment property and want their kids to be teachers and physios.
Here are three things I took away from that conversation:
First, only 25% of Tanzania’s population live in urban areas. If this leader’s assessment is correct, it nuances the idea that the prosperity gospel is taking over Africa, since 75% of Tanzania’s population live in areas in which Pentecostalism has limited influence.
Second, I’d be interested in learning more about how the prosperity gospel does flourish in urban areas. Places like Arusha and Dar es Salaam have their slums and I’m told that in massive slums like Kibera in Nairobi, the prosperity gospel is huge. That might not be because people subscribe to it – boredom is a huge factor that leads people to go to anything that’s put on and doesn’t necessarily indicate that they believe it – but I’d be interested in finding out how aspirational slum communities are.
Third, for student ministry, prosperity gospel is a big issue. If there was ever an upwardly mobile demographic, it’s uni students. Many come from the village context and are blown away by the university world. Few return to their original contexts. They are almost all in search of a better life. Students complain that there are no employment opportunities, yet there is a massive shortfall of teachers in rural Tanzania. The St John’s University motto is ‘to learn to serve’ and that’s a massive call in Tanzania where university might better be categorised ‘learn so you can get ahead’.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.