While South Africa can be called a "churched nation" demographically, prosperity gospel, or a "parallel, post-biblical Christianity," is spreading throughout the country, warns the rector of a reformed evangelical Anglican church who has ministered in Durban City for 17 years.
A churched nation is not the same thing as a "gospeled" nation, writes Grant Retief, the rector of Christ Church Umhlanga just outside of Durbin, in a blog post. Eighty percent of South Africa is Christian, according to the 2001 census.
When people from well-known bigger churches attend his church for a little while, the rector says, "they tell us they are surprised to regularly hear in the preaching and the liturgy that they are sinners."
That is because of the prosperity gospel phenomenon, of what Retief calls a "parallel, post-biblical Christianity." "When you stop to look inside these churches, you hear Christian-like things and you see Christian-like activities … Sermons aren't built on biblical theology, but employ an occasional verse to springboard toward the preacher's pre-chosen point," he laments.
Their meanings of biblical terms are vaguely assumed, or are informed not by theology but psychology, he adds. For example, "sin" might be described as the failure to achieve your goals, not as rebellion against an Almighty God.
"All this produces nice people instead of godly people," Retief argues.
Of course, prosperity gospel churches vary considerably along the theological and socio-economic spectrum, he says. But the various versions of this kind of Christianity are spreading throughout South Africa. "Superficially, it looks alive because it's vibrant and growing … The gospel is assumed, personal godliness is optional, and theological education is held in suspicion."
In middle class suburbs, people are generally suspicious of authority, establishment and tradition, he points out. Formal theological education is seen as unnecessary, even harmful by some.
Therefore, there's a churchscape dominated by independent charismatic churches, Retief writes. "Their leaders are exceptionally gifted, invariably young and powerful motivators and predictably trendy. Yet I cannot think of one that I know of who has had any formal theological training."
The rector adds: "It is my conviction that the greatest danger posed by these prosperity gospel churches is not only that they get the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit wrong, which they almost always do; they get the doctrine of the work of the Son wrong."
As he concludes the blog post, Retief offers a solution. It's found in the New Testament, he says. "It is not macro-organizations or reformed evangelical denominations, as helpful as those may be. It is gospel-preaching local churches."
Prayers are needed that God would raise up more churches "where the clear gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ remains front and center – come what may!"