Philanthropy as Image Politics in Ghana’s New Churches

Today’s post by Professor Michael PK Okyerefo analyzes the new Pentecostal-charismatic churches and the roles they play in African, especially Ghanaian, public culture. This is the latest post in our series of presentations from the 2nd Annual CIHA Blog Conference in South African on discussions on religion, governance, and humanitarianism in Africa. (Check out other posts from the conference by Professor Gerald O. West, Imam Dr. A. Rashied Omar, Cherif Keita, Ndeye Ami Diop and Khadidiatou Dia, and Cecelia Lynch.) As always, we look forward to your comments, and stay tuned for more posts from our conference!

Ghana’s new Pentecostal-charismatic churches are steeped in Faith Gospel theology, a way of life that believes in spiritual and material success for adherents. “Faith Gospel, the Gospel of Prosperity, or the Health-Wealth Gospel”, Gifford (2004: 48) avers, essentially asserts that “God has met all the needs of human beings in the suffering and death of Christ, and every Christian should now share in Christ’s victory over sin, sickness and poverty. A believer has a right to the blessings of health and wealth won by Christ, and he or she can obtain these blessings merely by a positive confession of faith”. At the same time, these churches increasingly engage charitable deeds, which some of them publicize widely, including via TV channels. If Ghana’s new churches of the Pentecostal-charismatic tradition are steeped in Faith Gospel theology, then it stands to reason that they would be concerned with their own economic success. How and why, then, would they promote philanthropy for its own sake?


In brief, the philanthropy of the new churches augments their public image and solidifies their influence in the public sphere, while Faith Gospel theology continues to drive the churches’ growth in material wealth.

Okyerefo (2011: 205) has argued that “Pentecostal-charismatic organizations have taken on new, unexpected roles in African public culture” such as the provision of social services in the areas of education and health, thereby augmenting their public image, not least because the public questions their contribution to society. While some of these projects may not lack the profit motive entirely, the shift into the provision of social services is evidently a new path these churches are charting, mirroring the tradition in the historic mission churches, and verges on the spirit of philanthropy. In fact, it is a development that favourably lends credence to Lindsay and Wuthnow’s (2010:87) idea of “strategic philanthropy.”

Ghana’s newer churches, in other words, are modeling themselves on the historic mission churches. Their practice of “strategic philanthropy” (Wuthnow 2010: 87) copies mainline denominations’ trajectory of legitimacy in the Ghanaian public sphere. This is important, not only for gaining acceptability, but also to stem criticism in the face of the opulence to which their Faith Gospel theology has propelled them.

There is no doubt that the socio-economic influence of the historic mission churches is still formidable. For example, of the 290 registered Health Institutions under the auspices of the Christian Health Association of Ghana (CHAG), 72.46% belong to the historic mission churches (Anglican, Catholic, Evangelical Presbyterian, Global Evangelical, Methodist, and Presbyterian). The leading single denominations in the provision of the said health institutions are Catholic (42.07%) and Presbyterian (17.24%). It is this reality, this study argues, that the Pentecostal-charismatic churches are replicating in their philanthropy.


The study forms part of a continued research into Ghana’s Pentecostal-charismatic churches and their transnational engagement since 2008 (Okyerefo 2008). I conducted in-depth interviews in Accra with spokespersons of selected churches between September and October 2016. They include Archbishop Duncan William’s Christian Action Faith Ministries International (Action Chapel), founded in 1979; Pastor Mensa Otabil’s International Central Gospel Church (ICGC), founded in 1984 (Gifford 1994, 2004; Darkwah 2001; De Witte 2003). The study, however, focuses on Action Chapel and ICGC for the sole reason that being the two oldest, their level of institutionalization in the light of their philanthropic actions vis-à-vis older churches makes interesting analysis.


Since their inception, both Action Chapel and ICGC have had an almost similar trajectory of reaching into the wider world. Action Chapel will be 40 years in 2019. This celebration will be anticipated with the founder’s 60th birthday in 2018. The church prides itself in having established 71 branches in Ghana, 21 in West Africa, therefore 92 branches in Africa. Ten branches are in Europe and 13 branches in North America, making 23 in the global North (Spokesperson, interviewed on August 26, 2016). ICGC, on the other hand, has since 1984 grown to a membership of 97,086 worldwide by 2013, 93, 856 of them being in Ghana. It has 596 branches, 560 of which are in Ghana, 2 in other parts of Africa, and 24 in the rest of the world (Spokesperson, interviewed on September 6, 2016).

Charitable activities of the churches

‘Compassion in Action’, the church’s NGO, consists in Action Chapel’s Social Services Wing. The establishment has a number of sectors. First, the Compassion Rehabilitation Centre, located at Dawhenya in the Greater Accra Region, caters for drugs and alcohol addicts. The church claims that one (1) out of every five (5) persons at the facility is treated free of charge. During fieldwork in August 2016 twenty-five (25) clients were at the facility. Second, every month the Social Services Wing of the church donates food, clothing and 2000 Ghana cedis to the Basco Orphanage at Nsawam, which was established in 1996 but not owned by the Church. Some of the orphans there are students of Dominion University College owned by Action Chapel. Third, the Students’ Scholarship Foundation established in 2009 has disbursed over 200 hundred scholarships to-date to gifted students in need of financial aid at basic, secondary and tertiary levels. Fourth, the church has sunk boreholes in a number of communities since 2014, and helped to refurbish High Grade Academy, a school on the Spintex Road in Accra. The headquarters of Action Chapel are on the Spintex Road; its university college and one clinic are hosted at the same premises. The church has no basic or secondary schools but says it has donated 100 school uniforms to the Street Children Empowerment Foundation (SCEF) at Jamestown in Accra in 2016.

ICGC initiated the ‘Central Educational Trust’ in 1988, a scholarship programme for Ghanaian students in Secondary, Vocational, and Technical Schools. This charitable project was rebranded in 1996 into ‘Central Aid’, moving beyond providing just educational needs to Social and Community Development Projects, Relief Services (takes care of distressed people during times of disaster), Career Guidance and Counselling (to help beneficiaries of scholarship, youth groups, and others who come for help), and Advocacy (mobilizing experts to speak on national issues in areas like youth development, education, and social welfare). The flagship project of Central Aid, however, remains the allocation of scholarships, moving from 51 beneficiaries of the scheme in 1989 to over 3,000 in 2016, landing some into jobs in the field of medicine, the media, and other responsible positions. The funds for Central Aid are solicited internally in the church.

The church has awarded a total of two hundred (200) scholarships to Second-cycle school students each year since 2011, making sure it is supporting 200 students at any point in time and hopes to cater for students at the tertiary level of education in future.

Apart from Central Aid, ICGC’s ‘Institutional and Community Support’ assists the Ghana Heart Foundation financially monthly, supports the Princess Marie Louis Children Hospital, Mammocare-Ghana (a facility for breast cancer screening), while members of the church donate blood to the National Blood Bank twice a year. In 2006, the church built a two-story boys’ hostel at a cost of over $200,000 at the Osu Children’s Home, a state-owned and state-run orphanage. It furnished the hostel with beds, mattresses and bed sheets, a canteen/dining hall, providing plates and chairs. The church established an E-library for the school and constructed a caretaker’s hostel and a water tank.

‘ICGC Clean Water Project’ constructed twenty (20) boreholes fitted with hand-pumps at a cost of $200,000 in nineteen (19) selected communities in the Ga West municipal area of the Greater-Accra Region, being mostly Buruli ulcer endemic areas and those with high iron levels in their groundwater sources. It is estimated that a total population of over 12,000 people will be served with good drinking water in these communities. The boreholes are under the supervision of the Water and Sanitation (WATSAN) Committees. Beneficiaries pay 0.20 pesewas each time they access water, being money used for maintenance.

In 2008, ICGC established a $100,000 recreational facility, ‘Game Centre for both Church and Community’, comprising basketball, volleyball, and tennis courts for the mutual use and benefit of its members and interested members of the public. Later the church added a gym. The church’s spokesperson said “this Game Centre is to help the will, emotions, and minds of the individuals, thus, keep the spirit, soul and body sound. It helps to minister to all facets of persons” (Spokesperson, interviewed on September 6, 2016). The church has also 17 Early Childhood to Junior High Schools and a University.

Publicizing churches’ charity

Action Chapel’s philanthropy is publicized via the Dominion Television, which is owned by the church, as well as on the church’s website[1], a means by which the church promotes its own television. The publicity given to their philanthropic acts is important to Action Chapel so “that those outside the body of Christ and in other churches can see what Action Chapel is doing.” It wants non-members of the church “to sponsor and support such endeavors”, as displayed on a flier designed by the church captioned ‘Dominion Covenant Partners-DCP’.

ICGC, on the other hand, says it makes a conscious effort not to advertise its philanthropic activities in the media, although its website[2] discusses some of these projects. “Basically, advertising such works of piety is not the focus of such activities. Dr. Otabil likes keeping the good he does and not blow his own horns. It is a responsibility to community and nation. Thus, the church gives back to humanity from the many she received. More so, the church is not taxed. Therefore, the only way you can consciously help is by ploughing back into the system. This becomes almost like a corporate social responsibility (CSR)” (Spokesperson, interviewed on September 6, 2016).

Meaning the churches attach to charity

Action Chapel claims its philanthropic projects are done in the spirit of the founder of the church who says the “true essence of Christianity is best defined by how we serve humanity. Eternity will reward and record these good works for our profit” (Spokesperson, interviewed on August 26, 2016). The background of Archbishop Duncan Williams serves as a great inspiration for this philanthropy to support and emancipate people in similar situations in which he found himself in his youth; he engaged in substance abuse and fell out of school due to financial difficulty.

The church established the Rehab Centre to help reduce substance abuse and crime, while the orphanage as well as scholarships invest in the nation through its youth. All these activities are ostensibly aimed at gaining membership and encouraging non-members of the church to contribute to their DCP project. The church understands success “not as a destination, it is actually a journey. It is about how many lives you have touched both spiritually and physically. The words of Matthew 25 are thus relevant here. If you have not impacted onto others, you are not successful” (Spokesperson, interviewed on August 26, 2016).

Just as Action Chapel, the social responsibility of ICGC is predicated on the life experience of its founder, Pastor Otabil, “who in his youth lost both parents in one year and was catered for by friends and the extended family. Thus, he feels obligated to do same. More so, Christ asked us to cater for one another (cf. Matthew 25). The philosophy of the founder also holds that practical Christianity is essential” (Spokesperson, interviewed on September 6, 2016).


The philanthropic institutions the new churches are developing are similar to those of the historic mission churches, notably their health and educational institutions. To that extent the scholarship scheme of ICGC’s Central Aid or Action Chapel’s Rehab Centre also extend the said educational and health philanthropy. As growing religious groups’ Action Chapel and ICGC advertently or inadvertently find in the older religious groups paradigmatic institutions in the field, and are thereby modeling themselves on the precursors in the environment. The ensuing process encapsulates the neoinstitutional theory’s characterization that “organizations within the same institutional environment tend to be similar” (Lindsay and Wuthnow 2010: 90).

The religious group with the largest educational and health institutions in Ghana is the Catholic Church, followed by the Presbyterian Church of Ghana. This fact, coupled with the moral authority these groups exert on the Ghanaian public as conscience of society, particularly in matters of ethics, has undoubtedly contributed to the respectability both historic mission churches enjoy in the Ghanaian public sphere. The new religious groups to seek to relish similar leverage by engaging in mimetic isomorphism through modeling themselves on churches “they perceive to be successful” (Lindsay and Wuthnow 2010: 90). What Action Chapel and ICGC are participating in is not new in the institutional landscape of the philanthropy of churches in Ghana. They try to extend their charitable actions in creative ways but theirs have stark similarities with those of the long-established churches. Church schools and health institutions belong to an extensive history of evangelization by the historic mission churches in Africa (Hastings 1994), mostly a part of the churches’ understanding of charity as a theological virtue to be lived in practical terms through the provision of free or subsidized education and health services, for example, to the people they serve, not just their members.

While mimetic isomorphism of religious institutions could replicate the provision of healthcare, for example, and increase concentration in a particular area of societal need, it at the same time increases service and stems an otherwise dire need in the area of social services, for instance, especially in poor countries. For example, in Ghana as in a lot of African countries, many functions traditionally perceived to be the prerogative of the state have been taken up by foreign donors, religious and non-governmental organizations (van de Walle 2001: 276). The consequences of the belt-tightening liberalization policies in Ghana since the mid-1980s and the drastic reduction in public spending on health and education have been well-documented (Overa 2007). The Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) came to be replaced with Poverty Strategy Reduction Papers whose drafting created the expectation of involving more collaboration between African governments, civil society, and international aid and lending institutions. A closer inspection, however, reveals that the process has continued to impose donor-driven constraints on democratic governance in countries such as Ghana (Whitfield 2005), plunging such countries into even more poverty and exclusion from the wealth of nations. The Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative is the next stage of the spiral of indebtedness poor nations were hurled into.

The socio-economic conditions prevailing in countries like Ghana that warrant the various near-successful and failed internationally-led policy interventions outlined above are so dire that citizens of these societies crave for anything that promises them hope. Prosperity Gospel has succeeded in igniting such hope, real or unreal. In view of the “general distrust in the weak state in Africa”, “church organizations” have been projected into “the limelight, thereby making Pentecostal churches” “wield power by exercising their authority in the public sphere” through “public discourse on individual success and wealth creation” (Okyerefo 2014b: 74). Consequently, the more the new churches trumpet their philanthropy, the more opulent their wealth, thanks to the Gospel of Prosperity they preach, even if a fraction of it is “plowed into development projects such as schools and hospitals” (Okyerefo 2011: 214).


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[2] See projects under: