The promise of prosperity and ‘assurance’ of life-changing miracles are fêtes that would lead anyone to the doors of church, especially when you see supposed miracles with your own eyes-albeit on the television screen only.
The Pentecostal religion has mushroomed in the past decade in Namibia, so much that thousands of Namibians have forsaken the conventional churches such as Roman Catholic, Evangelical and Anglican churches to join the more ‘charismatic’ churches.
Pentecostalism owes much to energetic missionaries, especially from the United States, who are increasingly focusing on Africa. In recent years Africans parading as prophets have also joined the lucrative faith business.
More than 90 percent of Namibian citizens identify themselves as Christians. The largest Christian group is the Lutheran Church and the second-largest Christian denomination is Roman Catholicism.
The Lutheran church has over 703 000 members according to online statistics provided by the church while official figures presented years back indicated that Catholic members are over 250 000 while the rest belong to other faith groups.
Although numbers in the more conventional churches are said to be dwindling, Pentecostalism is overtaking traditional Catholic and Anglican faiths brought by European colonisers over a century ago, drawing large crowds of young people.
Young people often claim that going to the more conventional church does not fulfil their spiritual hunger because of the manner in which church services are conducted.
The conventional churches have started to concede defeat with some pastors admitting that the absence of traditional liturgical methods is part of the reason why younger people and some older folks move to Pentecostal churches.
“I changed my church because we are a new generation. I believe in the same doctrine, the same God and study the same Bible, but we are also imperfect human beings who mess up, who are not always living out those beliefs,” says regular church goer Matthew Hamutenya.
The momentum of going to church has changed over the years and people tend to change, move or simply not attend regular church services anymore not necessarily because they’ve turned a deaf ear to the voice of God; chasing money or material things but seemingly because of the church itself and the new generation.
An ardent churchgoer, who chose to remain anonymous, is of the opinion until the church give people something more than a Christian-themed performance piece; something that allows space and breath and conversation and relationship, many people are going to sleep in and stay away.
“The stage, and the lights, and the bands, and the video screens, have all just become white noise to those really seeking to encounter God. They are ear and eye candy for an hour, but they have so little relevance in people’s daily lives that more and more of them are taking a pass.” Said the churchgoer.
The former secretary general of the Council of Churches in Namibia Maria Kapere said there are still conservative Christians in Namibia, despite acknowledging the rise of Pentecostalism.
“The Church has been since its inception an ever expanding institution. There has been a trend of new movement every 20-30 years, meaning the generational shift is generated. Younger leadership looks for alternative ways of liturgical expression [methods for praise and worship] because they want to participate fully in various activities of a service,” she noted. Kapere further said: “Young people want to sing contemporary praise and worship songs whereas in the traditional or conventional Churches the manner of praise still remains the same. New Churches have Altar Calls and opportunities for witnessing. I think the Pentecostal Churches are giving the freedom of expression so that younger people can see signs and miracles happening” said Kapere, who also serves as pastor at the St. Nicholas AME Church in Keetmanshoop.
She said there are still conservative Christians “who do not appreciate the noisy type of worship.
“Our Church remains steady. We had members who left and came back after a few months or years. I have about 300 members on average who attend our service on a Sunday at both the parishes. Normally we also have five to eight new visitors on a Sunday,” Kapere said.
As for the Catholic faith, Father Josef Hatutale from St. Mary’s Cathedral does not believe on placing limitations on people’s choice of faith.
“If they want to attend any other service of any Bishop or Pastor coming from abroad it is only fair that they express their freedom,” he said, adding that people need to be free to choose a religion of their own.
According to the clergyman: “Ever since I have been here, the church has been full. We receive new people and we have four services which include Saturday as well. All services have a good attendance. The reasons people leave my church are unknown, but it is visible in terms of the old members,” said Hatutale.
KICC Pastor John Kamati and Pastor Lorenst Kuzatjike from the Lutheran Church in Katutura also expressed their views from an evangelical perspective.
Kuzatjike said the reason people leave the church to join Pentecostal churches is because they feel their needs are not met.
“They reach out to services where they hear messages that are about the daily life so they can relate,” said the Pastor.
He also added that people are interested in rushing to any church event if they hear a Pastor or Bishop from another country comes because of what the media plants in their heads.
He further lamented: ”The people must make sure who and what the person is before running to such events, they should not do so just because everyone does it.”
Kamati on the other hand said people move because they are pursuing fulfilment of their spiritual needs.
“There is a lot of exposure now through media, especially television with regard to the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. The decision to move remains an individual one and I believe each individual has their own unique reason why they would decide to move,” he said.
He acknowledged that part of the growth of Pentecostal churches is because of the “thirst for evangelizing, unlike the traditional church, they are able to capture those that are hungry for the gospel beyond tradition.”
“At the core of this, I believe, people are driven by a hunger that is yearning for a deeper and meaningful encounter with God,” said Kamati.
The Pentecostal/Charismatic movement has produced many unruly and undisciplined splinter groups.
Dreams, visions and spurious prophecies dominate their proclamation. A milestone was the establishment of the first multiracial Afrikaans-speaking congregation in Namibia.
“While the Spirit prepared me for my ministry in Namibia, the Lord showed me how nations of hungry people will flock together,” said Pastor Johnny Kitching from a Pentecostal Church in Hochland Park.
The members of the congregation in Windhoek consist of people from different racial groups, such as Damaras, Ovambo’s, Herero’s, Namas, Basters, as well as coloreds and whites. Some of their members are from other countries in Africa. “We are a very big group and we feel at home every Sunday. I am seated amongst almost 1000 people,” said a church member from the Pentecostal Church.
“What makes this congregation so unique is that as a team we move together in unity, living out a vision and that is maybe why I have such a major increase in members every year” said Pastor Kitching.
According to Kitching: “Demonized people are delivered, and multitudes are miraculously healed from sickness. Many people travel long distances, even from South Africa and other countries, to be saved or to receive bodily healing. Many are healed without anybody laying hands on them – His awesome presence is enough.”
Kitching also claims to heal the blind, wheelchair-bound and those who suffer from cancer, HIV and other diseases.
The religious community remains divided over the most adequate way to worship with some accusing Pentecostal Churches of misleading the spiritually starved members of the flock. Others accuse traditionalists of failing to keep up with modern times.