Christian Miracles and Pyramids in Africa
In March 2002, the New York Times reported that Christian evangelism is taking Nigeria and much of the rest of Africa by storm.  The Pentecostal Winner’s Church is a prime example of the American-style mega-churches that are now appearing all over the continent.  A 50,000-person attendance is commonplace at Winner’s Church Sunday worship service in what is Africa's largest church auditorium.  Winner’s Church founder, Rev. David Oyedepo, said that his ministry “will be our [America's] main exports to the world, our assets of highest value.”  Besides Oyedepo, there are many other Pentecostal ministers peddling this brand of Christianity.

Indeed, money seems to be the main theme of the church, rather than the usual business of saving souls.  “The quickest and easiest way to make money in Nigeria is to carry a Bible and start preaching,” said the Roman Catholic archbishop of Lagos, Anthony Okogie.  The message at the Winner’s church is that success comes to those who pray.  “Prosperity is acknowledged worldwide as the identity of our ministry,” Oyedepo writes in a pamphlet.  The message clearly resonates with the continent's poor, who want a piece of the action.  Oyedepo can point to various success stories to support his claim.  According to him, it's the divine influence of God making it happen.

The real mechanism for the prosperity is a kind of pyramid scheme based on miracles.  The minister first collects money in exchange for his prayers.  If the giver prospers, a miracle is declared and extolled by the church.  Publicity can amplify the prosperity of an individual, but more importantly, it increases number of people who want to take the gamble.  If a giver doesn’t prosper, the failure is swept under the rug; the giver clearly hasn’t worshiped hard enough or given enough money to the minister.  Better luck next time.  Notice that neither the worship nor the donation is the cause of any windfall.  Such causes are inferred after the fact and always in a way that benefits the church.  The church just collects the stories and promotes them with a self-serving interpretation.  This is the “miracle” part of the scheme.  The “pyramid” part of the scheme is that Oyedepo and other such ministers will bless other would-be ministers with his abilities, for a sufficiently large donation, of course.  As with all pyramid schemes, it will eventually collapse.  Only then will Africans fully realize that they’ve been duped.

Traditional Christians would claim that this not what Christianity’s all about.   Over the years, Christianity has used all of the elements used by the Winner’s Church.  The Catholic Church has always been in the miracle business.  The beatification of saints is just a part of that business.  They have learned from experience, not to claim divine influence immediately.  Instead, they wait until the “miracle” has aged sufficiently to let memories dim and any conflicting evidence make its way to the surface.  Once a sufficiently “good” thing has withstood for some time, the Church declares it a miracle.  Never mind that the Church has a conflict of interest in such declarations.  Also, none of the miracles are repeatable.  Nobody has yet won James Randi’s reward for proof of supernatural, although, to be fair, the prize hasn’t been around as long as the Church.  The Catholic Church has long granted indulgences, or exceptions from their strict rules, for a sufficiently large donation.  The practice has fallen out of favor in the Catholic Church, as it clearly smells of a scam.  Far from a Catholic industry, most Christians credit God for anything good that happens, and His divine wisdom is often cited as the reason for tragedy.   See the Closet Atheist's article "God and Free Will, The Original Odd Couple" for more on this illogic.

The Catholic Church is certainly a hierarchy with money flowing to the top.  The Catholic Church would like you to believe that the money they collect goes to God.  God has yet to collect any such money.  In reality, the money goes to the Church to promote itself and sometimes do some charity along the way.  The money collection done by the Catholic Church is not unlike a pyramid scheme, but there is little personal profit in it for the participants, if you don’t count eternal bliss as a form of profit.

The explosion of Christianity in Africa is due to a slight variation on the Christianity Meme that preys on the poverty and ignorance.   This strain of the Christianity Meme has adapted to its new environment and is outpacing the “traditional” version of Christianity that had adapted to infecting the minds of the more affluent and educated Europeans and Americans.  The Christianity Meme is merely evolving in a way so as to infect more minds.  The fact that the latest “mutation” involves a scam is not important--least of all to the Christianity Meme.  Africa’s infection of Christianity will remain long after the scam has been exposed.  And that’s what it wants.

Postscript (August 2004):

Apparently, the miracle claims by churches in Nigeria has reached such a fevered pitch that the Nigerian National Broadcasting Commission has placed a ban on miracles, unless they are verifiable. See Nigerians divided by TV miracle ban. Churches are complaining about the ban as they apparently need to scam the unsuspecting in order to promote themselves.