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A mass of African women standing and singing in a choir
A Zion Christian Church choir performs. Monirul Bhuiyan/AFP/Getty Images

Christianity is changing in South Africa as pentecostal and indigenous churches grow – what’s behind the trend

Studies show that South Africa is one of only three countries in the world where religious participation has increased in recent years. The other two countries are Italy and the US.

The 2022 Census data show that South Africa’s Christian adherence has once again increased. However, the kinds of Christianity that are growing, and those that are declining, tell us some interesting things about the religious, cultural, social and political sentiments of South Africans.

Only 2.9% of the population claimed to have no religious views at all – this means that 96.1% of South Africans profess or practise some form of faith. Even though COVID-19 restrictions meant a 31% undercount in the 2022 census, the trends are clear.

Christianity is the most popular religious affiliation, with 85.3% of South Africans identifying as Christian of some kind or another. One simply needs to drive through any city or town in South Africa to see the diversity of “Christianities” on display. They range from cathedrals to store-front “miracle centres” to African indigenous communities worshipping in nature.

While there are some similarities in their general beliefs, one would hardly be able to say what a west African styled neo-Pentecostal community has in common with, for example, a Dutch Reformed church group. Or the beliefs of members of the Zion Christian Church (ZCC). They may all be labelled as Christian, but their beliefs and practices seem worlds apart.

In South Africa there has been a steady decline in membership of the so-called “mainline” Christian churches, such as the Methodists, Anglicans, Catholics or Dutch Reformed. At the same time, the country has seen the membership of African indigenous Christian groupings (such as the ZCC and the Johane Masowe and Johane Marange churches), and postcolonial Christian groupings (like prosperity and neo-Pentecostal groups) increasing significantly.

My research as a public theologian has focused on the religious, social and political changes in southern African Christianity for almost 30 years. Understanding a nation’s religious beliefs helps explain the fabric of its society and also maps how that society changes.

And churches exert political influence. This is particularly evident at election time when political leaders attend mega churches to campaign for votes and be endorsed by church leaders.

Church leaders also attempt to shape politics. Some of the fastest growing Christian groupings in South Africa, for example, have pledged to “shut down South Africa” if corruption-tainted former president Jacob Zuma and his MK party don’t win the 2024 national elections.

It’s crucial to make sense of the worldviews of South Africa’s diverse Christian churches, and understand the potential impact of their moral and theological beliefs on the country’s collective future.

The colonial churches

Like many things in South Africa, religious traditions have important links to a painful and racist colonial and apartheid history. My own religious tradition, Methodism, was among the earliest colonial Christianities to arrive on the southern tip of Africa.

Early forms of British, Dutch and French Christianities that arrived in South Africa were as committed to their cultural and political identities as they were to their religious beliefs. As historians have shown, missionaries often mixed their religions beliefs with the political and economic interests of their countries.

This had devastating effects on the cultures, identities and religious beliefs of the indigenous African populations. African religion was vilified as evil and even labelled as witchcraft. Local ethical systems were replaced by foreign western ideals. Languages, art and customs were eroded and replaced with foreign symbols and practices that alienated people from their histories.

So it’s not surprising to see that these colonial Christian churches are being rejected in favour of postcolonial and African indigenous beliefs.

The new churches

My research shows three broad reasons for the growth of these “new” churches over the past decades.

First, there are cultural reasons. There’s growing interest among both “ordinary” believers and scholars in the decolonisation of religious beliefs and practices.

A stream in a field with buildings in the distance. People, some in flowing white robes, gather and watch a baptism in the stream.
Members of various churches performing rituals in a suburban park. Michele Spatari/AFP/Getty Images

The largest proportion of South Africa’s Christians (40.82%) are expressing a longing to bring together African identity and African philosophical systems with their religious beliefs. They’re opting to join church communities that preach, sing and pray in African indigenous languages and that wear culturally appropriate clothing.

A notable debate is even taking place in South Africa’s largest “mainline” Christian denomination. There’s an appeal that Methodist ministers who are also traditional healers (ukuthwasa) be allowed to practise as both at the same time.

Second, there are socio-economic reasons. As South Africa’s predominantly young population struggles with poverty, unemployment and inadequate social provisions, there’s a turn to churches that promise supernatural pathways to wealth and social prominence.

These churches, which often have links to either west African or US prosperity gospels, have long abandoned the central elements of colonial Christianities – like religious vestments or liturgies that still pray for the King of England. They’re devoting themselves to new forms of imperialism – like capitalism, individual liberty and identity politics.

Third, there are political reasons for the growth of these churches. Many South Africans have found the historical ties between “mainline” Christianity and political parties to be a disappointment. In the last parliamentary census, 63% of parliamentarians indicated they were members of the Methodist church. The church recently posted on social media that politicians should not be “given the mic” in church services.

As South Africans lose faith in the promises of politicians, they’re also losing faith in the religious communities that seem to uncritically support them.

Why this matters

A history of Christianity offers insights into the hopes, dreams, frustrations and sorrows of South Africans. This can be seen in how religion has shifted along social, political and economic lines.

South Africans remain religious, and are growing in religiosity. Some of the forms of Christianity to which they are turning are politically dangerous and economically harmful, while others offer the promise of a more authentically African way of believing and living. What people believe matters, and what they no longer believe matters too.

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