Thursday, January 23, 2014

pulling it all together

In Cape Town in October, we worshipped with Jehovah Reigns, the church of ANiSA steering committee member, Bonolo Makgale.  The church meets in an old factory in an industrial area.  The service was energetic and lively and fit with what we have experienced at other Pentecostal churches.

However, the sermon introduced a new take on prosperity gospel--one that has helped me to bridge some disparate elements in my own thinking.  In my time in South Africa as a Mennonite, working with various Pentecostal forms of church, and doing weekly Bible study with mainline Anglicans and Presbyterians, I have often reflected on what each tradition views as God's will for us. As a Mennonite, I believe that God calls us into a life of discipleship which means means taking up the cross and suffering for the sake of the gospel. I observe mainline Protestants to emphasise spiritual faith without God seeming to care what happens to our bodies. And Pentecostals are known for their teaching that God wants us to give and in so giving we will be materially blessed, without ethical limits. 
While each of these summaries is stereotyped and arguable, it is an attempt to communicate the essence of the extreme of each tradition.   Just as Mennonite and mainline pastors would not preach the messages exactly as I have attributed to them above, likewise very few Pentecostal pastors would preach the most un-nuanced form of prosperity gospel.  Most preach a modified form.  Working with people in tough circumstances, they assure them of a loving God who cares about their situation and the benefit of living responsibly and not giving up hope.  And the people flock to these churches, not because of the promise of future riches but because of the empowerment they receive to take some control of their lives right now and the practicality of what it means to live faithfully.

Pastor Tlali upheld the best of this tradition while subverting it at the same time.  He said, "there are principles in here [the Bible] that work. But that is not the point.  They work whether you are righteous are unrighteous.  The point is to be transformed into Christ."

These "principles that work" have been endlessly teased out by one charismatic pastor after another. And indeed in a context of historical oppression in which people have had very little control over their lives it is good news to hear that the widow's mite was honoured, that even a person with one talent can invest it and please the master, and that the leper's expression of gratitude saved him.  Thus when the pastor asks the people to give and to support the work of the church, they are given a chance to contribute to something larger than themselves.  This message is often turned into a promise that they will receive direct, tangible, ostentatious rewards as a result of giving which is also not an unwelcome thought. 

Pastor Tlali recognised the hope that this reading of the gospels gives to people. Yet he didn't stop there, he said that there was salvation beyond this and that the point was that we be spiritually renewed and live as disciples of Christ. In so doing he pulled together the major emphases which I have lived between for eight years. I thank him for that.


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