God is a Democrat, After All: Nigerian Pentecostal Discourses and the Mixed Multitude of Social Media
In July, a cleric with the Living Faith Church International (famously known as the Winners Chapel and one of Africa’s most prominent megachurches) made a video that trended on social media.
In the video, Pastor Peter Godwin alleged that the church sacked him and approximately forty other pastors in Ekiti, a state in southwestern Nigeria, for not generating enough revenue to remit to church headquarters. These sacked pastors, Godwin revealed, had been mass recruited just a year earlier by the church management to head the 10,000 branches that Winners Chapel was opening all over the country.
A relatively unknown cleric like Pastor Godwin standing up to a powerful church like Winners Chapel and challenging its administrative decisions is one of the mundane acts of blasphemy against religious authority that social media has made possible. Some years ago, Pastor Godwin’s annoyance with the church would have barely gone beyond a squeak within certain quarters where such resentment could be registered. In the age of global media technology, his voice resounded so much that the church was forced to justify itself on the issue.
It was not unusual for a megachurch to aspire to open that many smaller churches. In 2011, patriarch of Nigerian Pentecostalism Pastor Enoch Adeboye boasted that his church’s administrative mission was to plant parishes within a five-minute walking distance in every town and city. Almost a decade later, this franchise system of building churches like coffee shops faced challenges. The Nigerian society currently feels over-churched, leaving mass recruited pastors like Godwin to scramble for lost souls to populate them.
In the sack letter, which also went viral, the Executive Secretary of the church, Adebisi Aboluwade, who officially relieved the pastors of their duties, noted that, “Consequent upon the recent performance reviews which revealed that your church growth index falls below expectations.” Both the video and the sack letter spurred serious debates on social media about what constitutes “church growth” and whose “expectations”—whether that of God or the church administrators— truly mattered. Many commentators were also quick to remind Winners Chapel that Jesus Christ himself was the kind of shepherd who would leave ninety-nine sheep behind to pursue just one lost sheep (Matthew 18:10-4). However, prioritizing quality over quantity remains only an ideal for Pentecostal churches due to their overly corporatized and bureaucratized structure. Rather than expend resources to pursue a singular soul at the expense of ninety-nine, economic logic tilts toward numbers because of its capital generation potentials.
By the time the Winners’ Chapel’s General Overseer Bishop David Oyedepo responded to the strident critiques of the church making rounds on social media to justify their leadership decisions, it was clear that a lot had changed in the Nigerian Pentecostal relationship to the public. No thanks to the social media and the mixed multitudes it generates, Nigerian religious leadership has been serially forced to a level of accountability to the public on issues that would have otherwise remained an intra-mural matter within their hierarchical systems. At least twice in the past five years,Nigeria came up with laws to regulate the activities of religious organizations, but the Pentecostal churches resolutely stood against them. They insisted that subjecting churches to secular accountability was a prelude to persecution by political authority, and they mobilized their members to shoot down the proposed laws.
“In recent times, religious authority finds itself dealing with a “mixed multitude” and facing the imperative of accountability to a parallel congregation of people, consisting of both church members and non-church members, that converges on social media.“Mixed multitude” is a term from the Bible that describes an admixture of God’s children, the Israelites, with those deemed outsiders, the foreign nationals. As used in the Bible, “mixed multitude” positions foreigners as a threat to the purity of the Israelites’ heritage. For Nigeria, where the mixed multitude, from their privileged perch on social media, demonstrates varying interests in the church’s affairs and discursively profane matters that religious leaders would have restricted among church ranks, this alchemy of insiders and outsiders signals some hope of democratic accountability in the religious sphere. The ability of the mixed multitude to generate debate on serious issues relating to religion in the public sphere clears a discursive space where the deliberation necessary for democracy to grow and for the civic sphere to thrive now takes place.
In the essay “‘God is not a democrat’: Pentecostalism and Democratization in Nigeria,” political theorist Ruth Marshall explores Nigerian Pentecostal culture. Writing in the 1990s, when the country was still largely in the throes of military dictatorship and civil rule was an aspiration people fought for with their blood, Marshall noted how the Pentecostal movement provided hope of access to supernatural power. For beleaguered Nigerians, the oppressiveness of political leadership is resourced from the transcendental powers. Pentecostalism helped people counter denigrating forces by formulating new subjectivities and new ethics of being. It also taught them to expect new possibilities within the Nigerian socio-political sphere if they acted in certain determining ways.
Now, in 2021, one aspect of the essay stands out to me— how much contradiction was evident in how Pentecostals critique authoritarian uses of power in the country and yet enforce similar dictatorial principles among their ranks. Marshall cites Pastor Adeboye’s remarks to fellow pastors within the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), an umbrella body representing the Pentecostal denominations, saying, “God is not a democrat.” At the time, Adeboye was the leader of the PFN and he was making it clear to other pastors that his inspired decisions would not be subject to public debate. The political context in which Adeboye spoke was one where despotic soldiers ruled the country. It was thus fathomable that secular political tactics could percolate to the church. For Adeboye, the power and authority of the Pentecostal leadership is most effective when it is not subject to the discussions and negotiations that take place within democratic settings. Marshall concluded in the essay that this tendency is “the personalization of power in Africa….an essential ingredient in any context where conflict has not found a means of being politically institutionalized and struggles for power are zero-sum."
About three decades after Marshall’s essay was published and 22 years after Nigeria got on an unbroken path of civil rule, people like Pastor Godwin are bypassing the institutional structures that allowed God to afford not to be a democrat. With the mixed multitude now empowered with social media devices, pastors have had to shelve the former stances of insisting that certain decisions are not open to debates and clarify their positions by engaging their critics either in their sermons or by making certain institutional changes to their practices. I would not be hasty to conclude that the conflicts in the Nigerian political spheres have found the means of political institutionalization or that the power struggles are no longer zero-sum as Marshall’s essay indicates, but we have somehow reached a phase where pastors can no longer merely declare that the principles of church governance or religious authority are not a matter for democratic debates.
Religious leadership is increasingly forced to reckon with the mixed multitude—the blasphemers and iconoclasts—who, empowered by the new tools of social media, resoundingly question the judgment of religious authority. Their frequent takedowns of ideas and decisions that should otherwise have been considered sacrosanct do not mean they are merely looking to destroy the faith. From observation, many of them identify with Christianity. What they reject is the all-knowing claims of religious authority that has grown so powerful that it considers itself above the people that legitimate it. By building up a mass of sentiments among people similarly empowered to punch up at these leaders, the mixed multitude forces men of God to debate church administrative decisions publicly. Many church leaders now—judging from their sermons—are more mindful of “going viral” over a wrong or poorly thought-out remark that gets Christianity and their fellowPentecostal leaders pilloried on social media.
While this breed of blasphemers presents a challenge for the church, they also offer an opportunity for a church growth index measurable in both numbers and ideological progression. As social media is a vast and infinite space where an indeterminate number of people can be reached with the message of the Gospel, the debates that emerge from the mixed multitude that congregate online make for the revision of worn religious ideas and ideologies that no longer meet social and spiritual needs. The NigerianPentecostal church of the future is the one that successfully develops a paradigm of church growth index that does not count value by the mere number of people who come to their brick and mortar churches. Instead, it is the one that learns to “church” the mixed multitude right there on social media, where they enact the principles of democracy when they deliberate on the things of God from a digital distance.
Dr. Abimbola Adelakun is Assistant Professor of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Performing Power in Nigeria: Identity, Politics, and Pentecostalism (Cambridge, 2021) and Under the Brown Rusted Roofs (Kraftgriots, 2008).
 Marshall, Ruth. "God is not a Democrat’: Pentecostalism and Democratisation in Nigeria." The Christian churches and the democratisation of Africa (1995): 257.