Churches Big Business
Critics of wealthy pastors like tele-evangelist Creflo A. Dollar of Creflo Dollar Ministries and Nigerian pastor Chris Oyakhilome, overlook the historical glue between organised religion and money.
A building, be it Vatican City in Rome, a cathedral, small church, temple, synagogue or mosque is the ‘organised’ part of religion.
It can even be a storefront converted into a church in Berea, Johannesburg. Some pastors from other countries do not particular care for South African zoning laws.
What is important is that the exchange of money for church services takes place within certain walls.
We are deliberately excluding television evangelists and online churches for the moment because they are a completely different ball game.
Charismatic Churches Definition
Countries in Africa define ‘charismatic’ churches in their own languages. I use this term for lack of a better word. It is a borrowed term.
It is the creation of somebody who thought that men who own these churches use their charisma effectively, to attract followers.
I will not equate the Baptist Church in the United States with charismatic churches because it is a historical institution on its own and deserves an exclusive examination and analysis. So does the Baptist church in the Caribbean.
Open Air Worship
It should also be remembered that there are people all over the world who worship god in open spaces, like the Zionist Church members in South Africa. They are simply called ama-Zion. They worship near water.
You cannot miss them in white robes trimmed with blue or green, baptising each other along the Indian Ocean in Durban. They also use river banks in Pietermaritzburg because this city is inland.
That is what I found fascinating when I first arrived in the United States. I saw pastors immersing people in water right in church. It reminded me of growing up seeing those Zionist members along the sea in Africa doing the same thing.
The Church as a Market Place
Charismatic preachers are not materialistic. They are preserving the religious tradition established by white missionaries when they came to Africa, Asia, and the Americas looking for a better life than the one they had in Europe.
Church is this instance is not limited to Christianity and includes all religious persuasion. Brown and silver coins, dollar notes and cheques on the collection plate, have one name: money.
Pastors who claim that they make people walk, see or get riches might use new means of exchange like credit and debit cards, but it is still money.
People who belong to these churches give money voluntarily for services rendered. Pastors that claim to be messengers of god or prophet provide a service through a microphone with the help of energetic church choirs.
When I asked an acquaintance who is a medical doctor why she gives a percentage of her salary to a pastor who used to be a night club bouncer, she said his church provides a service she needs. She also likes guitars and drums in her church.
‘I don’t want the boring music in traditional churches. They sound like funeral music.’
That love for inclusive music grounded in African beats is the reason why gospel music is the biggest selling music genre in South Africa.
The Bible and the Tithe
It will be hypocritical to call charismatic pastors wolves in sheep’s clothing, who squeeze money out of poor folks.
Traditional churches from Europe that came with French or British army generals and money men introduced what we could call the ‘pray and pay' policy.
Most churches still have the collection plate. Rich people have better things to do with their time, so most of them do not go to church. They sent money electronically every month.
‘I don’t have to,’ said one friend. ‘I just send money to make sure that the priest will bury me.’
Some pastors insist on getting a tenth of worshippers’ salaries. I understand it is in the good book. “Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord's; it is holy to the Lord.” (Leviticus 27:30-34)
Salaries tend to be confidential, even for married people. It is not clear how pastors come to know the salaries of their worshippers. Do they tell them or the pastor would just have to believe me if I say my take home pay, is $20,000 a month?
Once again, this is not new. Charismatic churches did not invent the importance of having wealthy congregations.
In some countries, the ‘triple X’ of wealth is the suburb you live in, the cars in the garage and your pastor. Such worshippers therefore do not have any problems with giving pastors the tithe.
Parking lots on Sunday look like showrooms for Italian, German and British cars and women tote handbags from the same countries.
It is no different from what worshippers in traditional churches did i.e. choose a church that will complement the Rolls Royce, the title bestowed by the Queen and the pearls around their necks.
Style of Worship
The pulpit and the choir box are main pillars of these churches which is the same as the traditional church. What is different is the content that is delivered from the pulpit and the music.
The traditional Catholic or Protestant priest bases his sermon on a scripture he chose from the bible. The congregation listens attentively or dozes off.
The congregation in charismatic churches is very active, and punctures pastors’ sermons with Amen or Hallelujah. The choir director might beat the drums in support of the sermon. It is basically free for all.
We will limit discussion to West African charismatic churches that have followers around the world including South Africa.
Questions about pastors and their business interests made headlines in September 2014, when the guest house in Lagos, attached to the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) collapsed killing 115 people including 84 South Africans.
The church is owned by Nigerian Pastor T.B. Joshua.
Traditional churches have formal training seminaries or theology colleges where students learn the fundamentals of let’s say Catholicism or the Lutheran faith. Some form of apprenticeship usually follows.
There is no formal training for charismatic pastors because it is a personal decision. Pastors ‘hear voices’ calling them to serve the lord and they go ahead and start their own churches.
Anyone can be a pastor: ex-convicts, nightclub bouncers, taxi drivers, teachers, anyone. Pastors usually use their past life to their advantage. They are proud of their illegal activities, claiming that they led them to Jesus.
Yoruba Movie Ipe
Movies are fiction, with a grain of truth. Ipe, which means calling, is a Nigerian movie about how and why people create their own churches.
Ipe directed by Segun Ogungbe, is a movie based on a story idea by Adesoji Adeoti. Rebecca (Mercy Aigbe) goes back home to Nigeria penniless, after five futile years of dead end jobs and an abusive husband she married to get British citizenship.
She takes the advice of a local clergyman and revives her parents’ church which is lying empty. She prays for a few people and their problems are solved.
That is when she realises that they give two donations: one for the church and another one for her personally.
She now has money in the bank and members come flocking in to wear the white robes of her church. Her friend Lara is deported from the United Kingdom and returns to Nigeria.
Lara advises her to incorporate roots and herbs into her church routine, telling her that most pastors mix Jesus Christ with some bark from medicine men to perform ‘miracles.’
Charismatic Churches and Honesty
Older members of the church who worked with her parents do not like Rebecca’s changes. She encourages women with big breasts to stand in front of the congregation and flaunt them.
Older members want to maintain the staid way of worshipping. Rebecca is here and now with her cellphones and getting scriptures from her i-Pad. She also demands cars from her followers who compete to give her the best.
In the movie, Prophetess Rebecca is proud to say, ‘The god of Rebecca is a god of Bugatti, Ferrari, Lamborghini and FX Infinity Two.
Ipe the movie might be fiction but it resonates some pastors’ sentiment that money is good for the soul. Most church members are proud that their pastors wear Italian suits and clothes and that their watches are bling, of the highest order.
Traditional churches are not that honest. They preach that those who suffer will be happy in the afterlife, and happy in the arms of Jesus.
It is easy for priests to say that when they live in big houses, with servants and church cars to run the business. The Vatican is one example of the dividends of praying and paying.