The meteoric rise of Pentecostal churches in Ethiopia

Text by to Serge Dewel / Photographs by Claudio Maria Lerario taken during a sermon held by a preacher in a private house in Hawassa, Ethiopia

Anyone who travels frequently in Ethiopia can easily see that – among the many things that are changing at the speed of light – the growth of Pentecostal churches, in recent years, have had a meteoric rise and the Protestant religion has become the fastest growing religion in the country.

Ethiopia has a long Christian History with roots connecting into biblical substratum. The country has also developed an old suspicion against all foreign kind of faith at a stage that the national identity is shaped in the mould of the Tewahedo faith.

Ethiopia was in fact one of the first countries that would adopt Christianity as their state religion. Orthodox Christianity began to be the state religion during the reign of King Ezana during the Axsumite Empire in 333 C.E.

But Christianity is not the only religion that is found in Ethiopia: in this multiethnic country other religions such as Islam, Judaism, and indigenous African faiths are practiced and those of differing religions live together in peace (though this may not always have been the case).

However, even in such context, it is not easy to understand the impressive rising trend toward Evangelical or Pentecostal Protestantism in Ethiopia.

The rise of Pentecostal and charismatic movements is a worldwide phenomenon that does not affect only Ethiopia but also the entire African continent and the rest of the world too.

Anthropological and sociological researches led in several African countries tend to demonstrate how the adherence of so many Africans to charismatic movements or Pentecostal faith seems natural and does not need any external influence beyond the preliminary missionary action.

The main salient features characterizing the Pentecostalism are also those that might seduce Ethiopians as reflecting indigenous cultural practices: an open space for the expression of individual experiences, an oral theology and a direct contact between the worshipper and God with no hierarchy to interfere.

The healing doctrine that brings a new therapeutic hope with the help of the Holy-Spirit is not the less. Oral theology, a large part dedicated to the expression of the individual experience and the therapeutic wrapping are certainly counting a lot.

Considering the fact that a large part of the population has no direct access to medical or sanitary structures, the healing doctrine that brings a new therapeutic hope with the help of the Holy-Spirit is not the less/considerable.

And last but not least, the prosperity gospel, the possibility of becoming rich here and now, without culpability and without needing to wait for the paradise, must also have attracted some of the followers.

But, as far as now, there is no any in-depth research led on the current situation. Are the new churches really conquering Ethiopia which would let think that a foreign missionary influence is acting behind? Or could the success of Pentecostalism be the result of a national internal dynamic that trends to redefine the social and cultural identity?

Which social layers or nationalities are mostly receiving the Pentecostal message? In which age range people are mainly joining them? Do the worshippers definitely cut their link with their former religious community? What are the enculturation supports? Where are the churches located and who are the owners of their buildings? How are they financed?