After church on Sunday, a friend of mine mentioned that the kind of prosperity teaching I’ve been blogging about, which doesn’t neatly fit the western stereotype of prosperity gospel and which conceives of itself quite differently, is somewhat new in Tanzania. Often we hear of the prosperity gospel itself as the new thing sweeping Africa, but her view was that in the past the kind of prosperity that was preached was much less biblical than the one Arthur and I have seen living here almost eight years.
Our denomination, Tanzania Assemblies of God, has put significant resources into theological education in the last several years and that is bearing fruit. We actually know some American missionaries who were involved in building up the TAG’s Bible college in Dodoma: their role came to an end because it was able to be handed over to Tanzanians. We’ve continued to be impressed with the quality of theological education at the college. (Several TAFES staff have done courses there.)
Do you hear the good news story here? Investment in theological education has been good for this Tanzanian church. It’s meant a degree of quality control: better, more biblical preaching and pastoral care, as well as a focus on church planting. (Our church has planted 10 new churches in the last year by the way!)
Western theological education has a long tradition in Africa. After all, this is what the earliest missionaries did: they told people about God, from their own theological perspective! However, this meant they left some huge gaps, issues which African Christians needed to deal with which western theological education was ill-equipped to address. An example of that is the African concern with the spiritual world and its impact on day-to-day wellbeing. When the Christian church has ignored or disdained this in Africa, it has driven people into the arms of witches and witchdoctors because the implication is that Christianity has nothing to say to these issues and no solutions for these realities.
I largely see any prosperity gospel in Africa as responding to this need; this is why people tend to categorise prosperity preachers as a Christianised version of a witchdoctor. The difference in the theology I’ve been documenting is that it responds to the same need in a way that draws people towards trusting Jesus and persevering in faith. Different from both American prosperity gospel and its opponents, it does what western theology could not.
Nevertheless, talking to my friend today made me thankful for western theological involvement in Tanzania; when it’s done with Tanzanian Christians as leaders and collaborators, filled with the Spirit under the authority of the Bible, it has had a part to play in producing this new kind of prosperity theology with its concern for faithfulness and perseverance.
In the course of our conversation I tried to explain to my friend why westerners tend to be suspicious of any prosperity gospel, including the above kind of prosperity teaching which sees itself as different. She identified this suspicion as imbalance on the part of western traditions, and I can’t help thinking she’s right. We have so much to learn, and perhaps the first thing is to start seeing ourselves as theologically needy.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.