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Order: Basic Principles of Ethiopian Neo-Pentecostal Sociology

Written by  Saturday, 11 June 2016 21:46

Every social entity organizes itself in particular, generally predictable ways. This basic order provides the framework for the community’s general identity, public recognizability, and internal uniqueness vis-à-vis similar communities and the wider society.


From a business perspective, every corporate entity functions within a market, seeks to project a brand, and claims to add special value to the industry. That is, every human community has an (often implicit) political economy or sociology, a generally consistent way of ordering, understanding, expressing, and expanding itself. This applies to bars, restaurants, theaters, and other social entities.


Pentecostal churches in Addis Ababa are no exception.


In some twelve years of participant observation and study, the following eight principles seem basic for what I will call Ethiopian neo-Pentecostal sociology or political economy. (With the term “neo-Pentecostal,” I indicate that I’m particularly focused on more recent independent church start-ups.) They are not exhaustive, nor do they apply to every church. Still, these eight principles seem to be generally descriptive of Ethiopian (specifically urban-based) neo-Pentecostalism and its way of ordering, expressing, expanding, and sometimes understanding itself in local churches or franchises. Exceptions seem to prove rather than problematize the rule.


1. Personality:

The community gathers around a charismatic, articulate, well-dressed man with an impressive title like “Man of God” (M.o.G.). In performances and pictures, the M.o.G. should be represented as authoritative (e.g., a grimacing face with outstretched hand) and happy (e.g., a smiling face with a stylish suit).


Executive leadership is preferably reserved for the M.o.G.’s family, who are often prominently positioned in important church gatherings.


2. Group:

The community that gathers around the M.o.G. is described as a zone of special access to blessing, favor, miracle, prosperity, breakthrough, anointing, the next level, success, glory, the kingdom, etc. The M.o.G. is the mediator or access point for the community’s unique, God-given promise of wealth, particularly through his words, touch, and sometimes other materials (e.g., special oils, clothes, etc). This wealth can include finances, assets like houses and cars, promotions, fertility, weight-loss, healing, victory over enemies, etc. Access to these blessings is governed by a pattern or mechanism, the center of which is “submission” to the “authority” or “covering” of the M.o.G. and his ministry. A deep sense of belonging, meaningful relationships, and partnerships sometimes grow out of this community through time.


This community and its zone is often announced with an impressive name like “Heavenly Sent Mighties of God International Church” (see the picture above), “Favor and Glory International Church,” or “The Gospel of the Kingdom International Church.” This social zone is optimally organized around a physical building with cameras, screens, a booming sound system, live band and choir, and perhaps its own special building name, though the infrastructure is often much more basic. Youth are often highly involved in these dimensions of the community.


A TV channel, TV show, and/or Youtube videos posted to a Facebook page (sometimes belonging to the M.o.G.) add weight and reach.


3. Agreement:

The community of people is trained to say “Amen!” instantaneously whenever the M.o.G. and other leaders declare things (often holding a microphone while standing on the stage). Statements from the stage are met with resounding affirmation. This habituated echo demonstrates and deepens the order of the community and its submission to the God-given authority of the microphoned M.o.G. as he (sometimes she) proclaims “the Word.” Great emphasis is put on the unlocking power of this immediate, uniform agreement. The only sounds, gestures, or words expressed during the service are exclusively positive and affirmative in nature.


4. Money:

Real participation in the community is typically associated with giving money. The people are habituated to experience requests for money as a trigger of happiness, preferably manifested with physical responses like clapping, smiling, and shouting. Bank account information is usually made available on brochures, websites, and video clips. (I’ve seen one church website in which the “About” section and its location pages only list bank account information, with no indication where the church actually meets or how to attend.)


No information is volunteered about where the money goes and how it is spent. To ask for records about 4. would implicitly go against 3., indicate a lack of faith in 1., and thus endanger one’s participation in 2.


5. Out-group:

People outside of the community are implicitly or explicitly described as missing out, as being unfortunately excluded from access to the special work of God through this M.o.G. and his ministry’s anointing. These others may sometimes be described as captive, blinded, or lost. It is made clear that victorious believers do not want to be part of this unfavored group.


6. “Blessed”:

The community says that everything is going well and does not talk openly about anything being wrong inside itself, especially with regard to the M.o.G. and church leadership. Mismanagement of money, extramarital affairs, abuse of authority, emotional manipulation, spiritual doubts, and open-ended questions are topics that should be avoided, except in certain controlled contexts. (Again, to raise such topics reflects lack of trust in 1., questions 2., violates 3., and brings one closer to 5.) Suggestions that such things exist in the church and its leadership should be condemned as satanic attack, malicious jealousy, or ridiculous gossip.

The church usually avoids talking about urgent matters in society, e.g., street children, homelessness, human trafficking, un(der)employment, prostitution, government mismanagement of funds and positions, arbitrary imprisonment, violent killings, etc. If these things must be talked about, vague and general language (e.g., “corruption”) is often used, and the issues are talked about as already having been fixed through prayer. (Here a resounding “Amen!” would be expected.)


7. Jesus:

Discourse in the community makes it clear that everything above is based on Jesus and his Word. The Bible is often interpreted in very elaborate ways, and the M.o.G. insists that everything is done for the glory of God. Even so, Jesus is noticeably spoken about only in ways and to the extent that doing so will reinforce 1-6.


8. Success:

The successful community (e.g., one that avoids or survives a split) grows bigger, gets noticeably richer, and thus materially proves that 1. and the following principles are true and come from God. Great emphasis is put on the claim that this pattern works, that it gets results, and that this makes certain that God is behind it.



From a sociological perspective, it is worth examining to what extent the features described above mirror and/or deviate from other significant social entities in wider Ethiopian society like the family, businesses, schools, government, etc. What is similar and what is different, especially with regard to leadership, popular participation, and the shape of the community? Why? And what are the effects on society, whether to “reform” society, to reflect it back to itself, or something else?


From ethical and political perspectives, it is worth examining the ways in which Ethiopian (neo-)Pentecostal communities enrich or impoverish individuals and their human faculties, other communities, and wider society. What are the unique strengths and weaknesses of Pentecostal community? In what ways do (neo-)Pentecostal groups promote or diminish human fullness given our complex capacities and vulnerabilities? And thus what should be celebrated and/or criticized in these human-forming entities from the perspective of public life?
From scriptural and theological perspectives, it is worth examining the extent of the continuity and discontinuity between these communities and their sources. Many of these communities claim that their sociology or way of ordering themselves comes straight out of the Bible. To what extent is this recognizable or unrecognizable, plausible or implausible, true or false? How should the answer to this question affect the legitimacy of these communities and their leaders from a normative Christian point of view?


There is no question that Pentecostalism and Pentecostal communities are growing in Ethiopia. A quick trip around Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, and other cities or a few searches on Facebook make this obvious. (Several Facebook pages for individual ministers and/or their churches attract tens of thousands of “likes.”) As its demographics grow, to what extent is Pentecostalism’s societal influence – its “external results” (Max Weber) or “sociological consequences” (Ernst Troeltsch) – growing in Ethiopian society, and what are the basic features of that influence (positive and negative)?


These are questions that must be basic to Public Theology in Ethiopia. That is, these questions must be basic to a theology that is from, about, and for the life that we share together in public as persons with powers of speech, action, and judgment who are created, loved, and called by God to lives of flourishing and faithfulness with our neighbors.

Seen 3360 times Last modified on Saturday, 11 June 2016 22:03
Andrew Decort

Dr. Andrew DeCort earned his Ph.D. in Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School and is lead professor for the Authority, Action, Ethics: Ethiopia Program at Wheaton College. Andrew edited and wrote the Foreword to Professor Donald Levine’s Interpreting Ethiopia: Observations of Five Decades (Tsehai Press, 2014) and is the author of “Authority, Martyrdom, and the Question of Axiality in Ethiopian Political Theology” (under revision for the Journal of Ethiopian Religious Studies). His dissertation is entitled Bonhoeffer’s Beginning: Universal Entry, “the Problem of Morality,” and the Ethics of New Beginning. In the summer of 2016, Andrew will join the faculty of the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology and promote the work of ICCG in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with his wife Lily Atlaw DeCort.

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