Nigerian mega-churches practice the prosperity they preach
“THE LORD love a cheerful giver, ”proclaims a preacher as she warms up worshipers for Bishop David Abioye’s third service of the day at the 15,000-seat Living Faith Church near Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. “As you abandon your offers today, your financial captivity will definitely be reversed,” she promises. Among the Bible verses are instructions on how to pay by check or online. What the Lord thinks of the reluctant gift of your correspondent is not said.
As ushers waving lime green baskets take the offerings, a choir hums, “I am made well and I have been rewarded.” Mr. Abioye, resplendent in a pinstripe suit and gold tie, explains how God reimburses the prayer in hard cash. “This week people will give to you,” he proclaims. The faithful stand up and applaud. “As I speak, they are already looking for your phone number,” he shouts. All of this, he says, is thanks to the “purchasing power” of the blood of Jesus.
Mr. Abioye is a pastor in a Pentecostal empire known as the Winners Chapel. It is headed by Bishop David Oyedepo, who practices the prosperity he preaches. He rides in a private jet. He once dismissed a report that he was worth $ 150 million as an “insult” and “too small.” Its business model combines the power of the chair with the finesse of corporate marketing. His books include “Understanding Financial Prosperity” and “Satan Get Lost! “
Like many charismatic pastors, in Nigeria and elsewhere, he preaches that faith will bring material rewards, and that the faithful should express their devotion by tithe, that is, by giving a tenth of their earnings to the Church. church. Some millionaire pastors suggest that their wealth is proof of their piety. Stacks of money sent up the chain from their church branches can also help.
“There’s really no line between what belongs to the pastor and what belongs to the church,” says Ebenezer Obadare, professor of sociology at the University of Kansas. Christian forgiveness seems insufficient for those who fail to deliver. In July, a pastor at a branch of Winners Chapel said he was fired for not raising enough money. Winners Chapel says it’s because he didn’t attract a bigger herd.
Some holy men have earthly business interests. Pastor Enoch Adeboye’s Church has a construction company, window factory, and hundreds of vacation cabins in its religious camp in Redemption City. Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, a televangelist, operates satellite broadcast channels in America and Britain and an online store, which accepts payment in 120 currencies. Bishop Oyedepo’s Church has a 10,500-acre campus called Canaanland which has a water bottle factory, bank and gas station, as well as a lavish mansion for the bishop.
Several Nigerian churches have universities. These are popular with parents, in part because many public universities in Nigeria are mediocre. Covenant University in Canaanland has strict rules: cell phones are prohibited. It also has an impressive sports stadium, high-tech amphitheatres and taekwondo lessons. Posters touting his academic rankings adorn the walls, alongside photos of Bishop Oyedepo. The university says 98% of graduates either get a job or employ people themselves within two years of graduating.
Yet for many church members it is unaffordable. The young staff member who showed your pen pal wanted to study there, but his family, who have been attending church since 2003 and giving tithe until it hurts, couldn’t pay the fees. It was cheaper to send her to university in Ghana. The university says it is good value for money and that Bishop Oyedepo’s foundation gives scholarships to students at Covenant University and other universities. Yet in Covenant, which has at least 6,000 undergraduate students, the foundation currently only offers around 30 scholarships.
An employee of another Winners Chapel church laughs when asked if his salary is enough to send his children to church school. Matthew, a parent who attends the 100,000-seat Glory Dome at another mega-church in Abuja, says the church’s school is too expensive for his children. “My father went to a missionary school for free,” he says. “Why don’t we do the same? The reality, says Obadare, is that these are “lucrative businesses”.
Covenant says he is reinvesting his earnings back into the university. But “the university belongs to the church,” adds Vice-Chancellor Abiodun Adebayo. Does the church expect a certain return on its investment? “You grow up until you are old enough to support the church as well,” Mr. Adebayo said dryly.
The blurred lines between mega-churches and their businesses are important for fiscal reasons. Churches are not taxed. In theory, their businesses are. But figuring out where churches end up and where their businesses begin is not easy.
Critics don’t mince their words. The logic of prosperity churches is similar to that of Ponzi schemes, says Obadare, but with the added bonus that when people don’t get rich, pastors can promise their riches will come in the next life. Criticism of these beliefs can be expected to come from intellectual institutions such as universities, he adds, but in many cases these have adhered to the church worldview. The result in Nigeria, where more than 80 million people live on less than $ 1.90 a day, is that “church members are getting poorer and poorer,” says Francis Falako, professor of religious studies. at the University of Lagos. “And the pastors are getting richer and richer.” ■
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the title “Somme d’un homme prêcheur”