Making Money in God's Name

A debate is raging in a smallish office. The young men, sales executives for a laboratory equipment firm, are discussing the merits of going into business. In the midst of the argument, a cool voice intones: "Church is the best business." No one laughs.

It is just another version of the conventional wisdom among Kenyans these days: if you want to get rich almost overnight, start your own church. Soon enough, greatly aided by "miracle" crusades and prayer meetings, you can expect to be swimming in riches: sleek car, trendy suits and posh house at a prestige address.

While this may not always be true, it is a powerful statement of common perceptions of the church in Kenya - what some in Christian circles describe as the commercialised gospel. Says a journalist working for a Christian outfit: "The gospel is equated with wealth these days. Many church leaders, especially among the charismatic churches, have drank from the wells of the prosperity gospel. They spend a good amount of time preaching about giving to God so that He may reciprocate with a financial breakthrough."

Religion has experienced phenomenal growth in Kenya since the advent of the charismatic churches in the 1980s - which coincided with some of the most trying times for Kenyans during the post-independence period. In Nairobi, such churches have literally taken over the old movie theatres such as Globe, Cameo, Embassy and Odeon. Nairobi Cinema, once one of the best in the city, now shows exclusively Christian movies.

The battle for the hearts and minds of Kenyan Christians has even taken to the airwaves, with FM radio stations and television competing for what is no doubt a vibrant sector. That this religious wave should sweep through Kenya is not surprising. Long before the "new age" Christianity came onto the scene, there were reports that there were up to 5,000 religious institutions registered in the country. In fact, there have been sporadic threats to deregister some of these groupings.

Underlying this has been the concern that religion has become a big industry enjoying an unprecedented boom. There are those who argue that the proliferation of evangelical churches and sects - most of them breakaways from the mainstream - has its roots in the increasing "business" orientation of religion.

While there is nothing wrong with exponential growth of the Church, the key concern is that many of the churches could be vehicles for greedy men and women - who go by titles such as evangelist, pastor and bishop - to prey on the fears and spiritual needs of Kenyans to enrich themselves.

We are at a church in the city. The singing is barely over when the bespectacled pastor, sporting a new three-piece suit, walks briskly to the pulpit, a cordless microphone in his left hand. Amidst wild cheering, clapping and ululation, he smiles infectiously, then shouts: "It is time to give!" More wild applause.

But he does not leave it at that. "You must give a good offering that will maintain the man of God and his family. My wife can't dress well if you don't give money," he says to worshippers gazing at him with rapt attention. He winds up with a passionate prayer asking God to make the people give generously towards His work.

To an outsider, such remarks may seem outrageous. In the old days, worshippers gave to the tune "Toa ndugu, toa dada, ulichonacho wewe..." (Give what you have, brothers and sisters). Today, it is more a case of the offertory taking centre stage. If it is not about buying the pastor a new vehicle, it is about building a new sanctuary. When it is not about buying a "more powerful" public address system, it is about supporting a TV programme or sending the man of God to export the "apostolic anointing to regions beyond." And when it is not a seed offering, it is a curse-breaking offering.

Zainab Hussein, a theology and Bible student at a Nairobi college, says: "When you have any kind of problem, a pastor will tell you to sow a seed (giving money) for God to answer your prayer. This is just a way for preachers to enrich themselves at the expense of their flock."

Hussein, formerly a Muslim but now a member of a major Pentecostal church, argues that this is tantamount to buying a miracle. "What is the distinction then between God and a witchdoctor?" she asks. "God's gifts are freely given."

Edward Nyaoke, who graduated from Bible college last year and believes it is crucial to support preachers and their work, argues that the decision to give should be spontaneous. "Don't give because somebody is pressing you to do so. Give to God because He is God."

But preachers maintain that there is nothing wrong with money talk in church. Says Jonah Obonyo, bishop of Cathedral of Praise International Ministries: "We are in a more demanding society and the standards of living have gone up. Preachers are part of this society, with needs just like any other person. According to the Bible, preachers should eat from the gospel they preach."

Obonyo, who has a congregation of about 4,000, is quick to add, though, that the church should not be made to finance a lavish lifestyle for a pastor. "It is wrong for some ministers to demand that the congregation buys them their dream cars or homes, he says. We should live a 'standard' life."

Some say "Critics of the high profile of cash" in the Church may be driven by early missionary teachings encouraging their congregations to wait for their reward for being good to come in heaven. Life on earth was merely to be tolerated in anticipation of paradise. This still holds for many rural preachers in mainstream churches. Since their congregations are generally poor, many have to settle for "Civil Service" pay packages - that is, if they get paid at all. They may get a bicycle for their work or have to travel by matatu. Their work is seen as a calling, and the respect and love of their congregations is enough reward.

It is, perhaps, in this context that there was such a furore over cash-for-prayers preacher Peter Njoka when it was disclosed that he had received Sh1.7 million as the official chaplain of the mayor of Nairobi. It would have been business as usual had the bishop not conducted a service at which he vilified Local Government Minister Karisa Maitha over a run-in with councillors in the city.

Today's evangelical giants, modelled on the United States of America's famed televangelists, are striking in their packaging and bearing. They reek of wealth not only in the designer suits that they wear but also in the plush studios that they broadcast their messages from. And they have no apologies to make for it.

Indeed, preachers such as Creflo Dollar are renowned for getting their congregations to physically deposit huge donations on stage. It is a sharp contrast to the life of Jesus Christ, who lived a spartan life and travelled by donkey. Though there are clear differences in the historical times, conservative Christians still grumble about what they consider the excesses of the new breed of evangelists, especially when compared with the status of their flock in these depressed economic times.

Indeed, Catholic Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a'Nzeki, found himself in a bind of sorts in the mid-1990s when prominent politicians donated a Mercedes Benz for his private use. And this regardless of the fact that he had not solicited it.

But, perhaps, it was only because his predecessor, Maurice Cardinal Otunga, lived a remarkably humble life. When Otunga retired in 1997, he moved into an old people's home - Nyumba ya Wazee - located in a grubby neighbourhood and run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Though known for his humility, the extent of the simplicity of his lifestyle became apparent only when he died. In his tribute, University of Nairobi chaplain Dominic Wamugunda said: "Cardinal Otunga was so detached from material wealth that I believe he owned two black suits and three pairs of shoes."

There is no doubt about it: giving will always be part of religion. Indeed, some faiths make specific philanthropic demands of their followers. Where do we draw the line?

Benson Kariuki, head of the Power of the Holy Ghost Fellowship in Nairobi's Mathare North suburb, holds that God's material blessings must be enjoyed here on earth. He asks rhetorically: "Shall I put on a good cloth when I get to heaven? Shall I wait to eat well in heaven? Will my children get educated when I go to heaven? Who said pastors' children must eat for the sake of eating, without considering the quality of the food?"

Kariuki, who quit his job seven years ago, reckons pastors have a "divine assignment" to take care of the spiritual needs of their people and their living standards must reflect that leadership.

The May 2004 issue of EndTime News quotes Wilfred Lai of the Jesus Celebration Centre, Mombasa, and Mark Kegohi of Kisumu's Jesus Cares Centre dismissing critics of preachers who have lavish lifestyles as being "mistaken."

According to the newspaper, published by the Redeemed Gospel Church best known for its baptism of Kamlesh Pattni, in which he took the name Paul, Lai says "preachers have the right to own good cars and live in good houses."

Kegohi says: "God did not create us to languish in poverty or live like beggars. People talk against prosperity, but this is what God has anointed me to preach about."

According to Obonyo, the fortunes of some of the preachers can be traced to foreign sources. Some clergy have had more exposure than others and have friends in high places in countries such as the US.

"Some of these friends become so close that they end up supporting the preachers financially," he says. "This enhances the preacher's lifestyle. I have no problem with that."

The gap that is wrong, he argues, is that which is created when a preacher uses money from members to enrich himself and then turns round and starts discriminating against them because they are not at par with him economically.

"Because of the cars they drive and the estates they live in, their hearts grow away from the believers. They start looking for excuses not to spend time with their members because they don't want to associate with them.

Arthur Kitonga, head of the Redeemed Gospel Church, accuses churches, especially those in Nairobi, of asking too much of their followers - besides tithes and offerings. "I have been telling pastors in the city of Nairobi that it is wrong for them to milk money from believers in the name of sowing a seed," he said at a recent leaders' seminar in his Huruma church. "They should do only what is scriptural."

There is, indeed, money in the church. During a robbery at the All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi last year, thieves made away with more than Sh700,000 in takings from the Sunday collection. Margaret Wanjiru's Jesus is Alive Ministries was at one time reported to be involved in the sale of a building worth Sh40 million. And the Roman Catholic Church is reputed to be one of the richest institutions on earth.

These days, churches fund-raise in the same manner as non-governmental organisations and fight to pull in the crowds by placing advertisements in the media and buying spots on television. With the advent of televangelism, fund-raising has crossed all previously known boundaries. Some critics have described televangelism as a "powerful combination of preaching, worship and big business."

Televangelism targets a huge network of viewers, who are encouraged to make contact with the organisation, making donations and ordering literature, videos and other products.

According to audited accounts, a church in Mombasa collected Sh69 million in 2001 rising to Sh83 million in 2002. And this fell short of what was required to finance various commitments, including constructing a new cathedral.

Over Sh45 million was spent on salaries for staff, including the pastor. A sizeable amount went into running a home for street children and donations to the mother church in Nairobi. By contrast, a more traditional church in a Nairobi estate collected Sh4.8 million in 2003. More than half came from tithe and Sh1.2 million from the offertory. The rest was derived from payments for services such as baptism and hall hire.

Churches are traditionally expected to make their money from tithing - which is expressly provided for in the Bible, which requires believers to give one-tenth of one's earnings to the church. Failing to do so amounts to robbing God of what is due to Him. But many churches these days pressure their followers to give more.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are cases where people have surrendered their entire incomes and life savings to their church in the belief that it will be returned manyfold in blessings - and ended up leaving their families destitute. Indeed, they are exhorted to dig deeper into their pockets on the understanding that the more they give, the more the glory.

Glory is the name of the game at Winners Chapel, just behind Adams Arcade in Nairobi, where the philosophy is that one has to sow in order to harvest. The pastor, a dapper man in a well-cut suit, emphasises that members of the chapel do not entertain poverty. "In this place, he says, you must have a good job before you marry our daughter."

There is no doubting the success of the church followers, going by the cars parked outside. For those yet to get personal cars, the chapel hires a fleet of buses that provide comfortable commuter service at subsidised fare.

At the end of the day, it seems, there are no straight answers when it comes to cash and Christ. It all boils down to what you do with the money raised. For mainstream churches, the answer often comes in the form of schools, colleges and hospitals that have stood the test of time and made a remarkable input into Kenya's development. Schools such as Alliance, Maseno, Mang'u, Kabaa, Kaaga, Tumu Tumu and others have their origins in the Church. There is a slew of mission hospitals to match.

The so-called charismatics cannot claim as long a history in Kenya. But who is to tell where their impact will be felt most in the next decade or so?