The longer we’ve been in Tanzania, the more convinced Arthur and I have become that we need to come to terms with Tanzanian Pentecostalism. What are its distinctives? How is it different from Pentecostalism in Australia? What is its history? Where is it at these days? As I’ve chatted with various Pentecostal people about it, both Tanzanian and expat, here’s some of what I’ve learned so far.
There are lots of Pentecostal denominations – Tanzanian Assemblies of God, Pentecostal Assemblies of God, Free Pentecostal Church of Tanzania, etc. There are also Vineyard churches and independent Pentecostal churches. The oldest denomination is the TAG which has just celebrated 75 years in Tanzania. In 1939 an American missionary from a Pentecostal Holiness church in Azusa called Paul Deer planted a tiny little church in Mbeya. When he returned to the US on account of ill health, he instructed the fledgling church not to accept any suspect doctrine and growth stalled. Later on some American Assemblies of God missionaries from Malawi came to help restart the church and it expanded from there. The TAG now has 34 regions in Tanzania and thousands of churches.
The Assemblies of God is a mature church. It has had national leadership for 30 years, trains its own leaders at its own Bible schools, sends its own missionaries to unreached people groups in Tanzania and further afield in Africa, handles its own finances, implements its own social programs. Of course there are needs, but the TAG is poised to meet them. They continue to have relationships with churches in the US and receive missionaries and money from them but missionaries work as partners and consultants.
Pentecostals self-identify that discipleship is one of their distinctives. They contrast themselves with the mainline Protestant denominations (Anglican, Lutheran, etc) which they see as largely nominal and only about services on Sundays. They see themselves as leaders when it comes to holiness and lived faith. They point to their programs for youth, marriage ministries, mentoring networks, etc. .
A danger for Pentecostals, perhaps the flip-side of their emphasis on discipleship, is legalism. There are often hard and fast rules about dress, conduct, alcohol, etc. In some churches, shunning or excommunication are practiced or people who have found to be in sin are denied Communion for a set period of time. There’s not a lot of talk about grace.
Prosperity gospel is in the Pentecostal church and its presence has increased in the last 10 years. However, Pentecostal churches are not uniformly prosperity gospel churches, and the more established the Pentecostal denomination (e.g. having a Bible school) the less likely the prosperity gospel is to flourish. Likewise the mega-church and personality cult stereotypes of African Pentecostalism are less prevalent among the denominational Pentecostals. These Pentecostals are also far from anti-intellectual. The head of the TAG church has 2 PhDs and the pastors at Dar es Salaam Pentecostal Church all list their academic qualifications in their bios on the website.
There is a variety of teaching and practice when it comes to speaking in tongues. Some churches are chaotic with everyone yelling in tongues; in others speaking in tongues is reserved as the initial sign of faith, or when it’s used in the church service it’s quietly for personal edification or if it’s loud enough for others to hear, they quieten down so there can be an interpretation. Speaking in tongues is often associated with exorcism.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.