The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) is under pressure from the Angolan government to close its places of worship in the country after the church was accused of fiscal crimes.
This may not seem like much; Christian churches as conduits of wealth for a few charismatic people have long been suspected and confirmed. But the UCKG is not just any church – it is probably the biggest success story of the “prosperity gospel” revolution from Latin America.
Founded in Brazil in 1977 by then-modest evangelist Edir Macedo in a former funeral home, the UCKG is now truly an international brand. It boasts of congregations in the United States, Europe, and southern Africa.
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The church now says it has about 20 million congregants worldwide. Macedo is now a billionaire, too.
Angolan prosecutors say they have found “enough indications of the practice of crimes of criminal association, tax fraud, illicit export of capital” among other illegalities by the UCKG. These accusations are not new, neither in Angola nor in Brazil but it is the first time a criminal case has been brought against the megachurch in Africa.
So, how did a prosperity gospel-preaching church from Brazil, of all places, set up camp in southern Africa becoming a huge regional faith organization? Such international successes are usually American or European.
Sociologist Paul Freston called the UCKG the first “successful church which is neither First World nor African, origin but is part of the growing transnationalization of Third World evangelical religion.” Freston adds that “it is possible” no other church from the global south can be said to have grown bigger than the UCKG.
Africa’s own megachurches that have crossed borders, including the famous Christ Embassy which was founded in Nigeria by Chris Oyakhilome, are testaments to the fact that there is a very concrete demand for what evangelical churches provide on the continent.
Africa is going to be the biggest home of Christianity over the next decade, according to a Pew Research. This trend began decades ago, not in small part to the messaging of evangelical churches like the UCKG.
The UCKG preaches chiefly, the possibility of financial and economic health to its congregants. If one commits their physical resources, energy and psyche in obeisance to church-directed goals, one will find the comfort they seek.
The theology of prosperity gospel is essentially a self-help message conceived on a philosophy of individuality – it is one’s responsibility to seek out one’s metaphorical and literal demons and overcome them.
To mostly the poor, prosperity gospel is an assuring promise of gainful reward for persistence and hard work. For the rich, the message speaks to the results of their hard work and provides an opportunity to accumulate even more wealth.
But the UCKG’s success in Angola and other parts of Africa is not solely down to the promise of wealth. The UCKG benefits from what Freston describes as “the cultural and racial mix” of Brazil.
Brazil’s diversity has turned out to be the UCKG strength in appealing to Africans. The church in Brazil has a lot of black congregants and that is one of the ways representation has mattered in its advertisements in Africa.
The Lusophone connection between Brazil and some southern African countries has also been beneficial. The UCKG’s first churches in Africa were founded in Mozambique and Angola, both former Portuguese colonies just like Brazil.
But the cultural and racial mix of the UCKG does not exactly count as the presence or the capacity for sensitivity towards natives with whom the Brazilians have shared the gospel. Indeed, in 2019, 300 Angolan leaders of the UCKG in their country, broke away from the church citing the church’s ways which are at odds with “African and Angolan reality”.
For all of its three or so decades, the UCKG has faced an opposition that it has managed to push aside. When the church was banned in Zambia in 2005, that did not stop it from growing its membership in South Africa.
The church has denied any wrongdoing against the Angolan state. Whether or not it defends itself successfully, the UCKG has woken up to a new dawn like never before.