By Olabisi Deji-Folutile
Guest Contributor & 2016 Leadership Fellow
The billboards come in different shapes and the messages are captivating. The words are carefully crafted and the message clear: Jesus is able to make you rich. Come to Jesus and end your days of poverty. Are you tired of lack and want? Jesus is the answer.
These are some of the ways the Christian message is marketed in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. And it works.
A majority of the country's 182 million people live on less than one dollar per day, making poverty Nigeria's greatest challenge, according to the Director General of the National Population Commission Ghaji Bello.
The economic situation could get worse. The International Monetary Fund predicts that GNP will shrink by 1.7 per cent this year, which would be the first full-year contraction in over 20 years.
So anyone offering a solution to hunger and want is sure to get attention. People are hungry, and a message of salvation becomes more attractive when packaged with a promise of a full stomach.
Little wonder then that some pastors capitalize on the problem of financial stress in the lives of non-Christians to woo them to their churches.
A pastor identified only as Dele, based in Warri, Delta State, one of the 36 states in Nigeria, explains why he and other pastors organize programs promising to liberate people from poverty.
“That’s how programs sell,” Dele says.
"The type of messages and programs a pastor preaches or organizes depend on the needs of the people. If the people are poor, definitely, anything that anchors to how they can achieve financial prosperity will appeal to them.
“If a person is sick and you organize a program on salvation, they will not come," Dele says. "You have to tell them that there is going to be healing and working of miracles. Likewise, if the people are looking for money, which is usually the case among many Nigerians, you have to organize a program that is anchored in getting rich. If you tell them there is an anointing to get rich, they will buy it. People don’t attend programs because they want salvation. It’s the truth, and it’s unfortunate.
“I used to shy away from using this tactic to entice people to programs before, but I discovered from my pastor friends that it’s working for them. You have to tell people what they want to hear so they will attend your program. If they don't hear what they want to hear, they won’t come, and you’ll be frustrated.”
New converts soon realize that they can’t get something for nothing. After the initial response, the pastors begin to teach their converts the importance of sowing financial seeds in order to get financial rewards.
Referring to the planting of "seeds," Dele says, “I do that because it is biblical.’’
“That’s not a gimmick. If you sow, you’ll reap. If people sow in faith, they will be blessed. I sow, too, and I encourage people to sow anytime I organize a program. You can’t be blessed if you can’t give. Personally, I don't force or persuade people. If they feel like doing it, fine. If they don’t want to, it’s also fine,” he says. “No matter how many church programs you attend, if you can’t obey certain natural laws, you can’t be blessed.”
Dele claims his church usually uses part of the seed offerings collected during programs to cater to the needy among the congregation and those outside the congregation.
“People think pastors pocket ‘their’ money. Well, though I can’t answer for every pastor, I know that we usually use part of what we collect to feed the widows in the church. There are also some people who need food and other things. I don’t [abuse] my authority,” he adds.
But is it right to use prosperity as bait to lure people, especially the poor, to the church?
“It is not right, in any way," says Rev Remi Badru. "I want to make it clear that most of the pastors that do this are actually preying on the people's needs and ignorance to exploit them.
“It is true that God wants us to prosper, but then the question is: What is prosperity? Our message is to preach the Gospel of Jesus to the world. Our assignment as pastors is not to make our members millionaires. It is unfortunate that pastors are now merchandising the gospel, preaching money, and not Jesus.
“Poverty is bad and God has often revealed in His word that He as the good Shepherd will always meet our needs, but when we call people to the Lord, we should not call them promising that when they come to Jesus, they will become rich. Jesus never preached that kind of gospel. The apostles never preached that kind of gospel. Where did we get that from?”
Badru, whose church has hundreds of members, admits that some pastors take advantage of people's poverty to lure them to their churches, but he remains critical of them.
“The focus of the shepherd is to feed the sheep, and not to feed from the sheep," Badru argues.
While luring people to God on a false premise could backfire, Joseph, another pastor in Lagos says, “People must first of all be brought to hear the gospel of Christ.’’
“Yes, salvation could bring an end to poverty in the life of a Christian, but it is not a magic wand that ends poverty as it were. The only thing is that when people are saved and they consistently hear the word, it transforms their lives.
"The scriptures make it clear that as a man thinks in his heart, so he is. Working with that understanding, we know that when we show people the way, it changes their mentality and helps them to take better decisions that ultimately shatter poverty in their lives.’’
Another cleric, who does not want to be named, states that Jesus Christ also capitalized on the needs of the people to draw them to God. According to this cleric, scriptures are full of examples of Christ touching people at the point of their needs in order to draw them to salvation.
The Bible does record Jesus Christ meeting the needs of the people. He healed the sick and fed the hungry multitudes, among others. Jesus Christ always delivered a cure for affliction.
But what happens when people are promised riches but stay as penniless as ever?
Timothy is one of those lured to church on the premise that God would make him rich. He shares his experience.
“Sometimes, you feel empty. It's like being up there on the mountain and suddenly finding yourself back in the valley face to face with reality. The [Bible] truly gives you hope, but you soon realize that your pocket is still empty.”
This can be counter-productive, as in the case of Chibuzor, another Lagos dweller. After attending many church programs promising riches, nothing changed financially for him. Chibuzor says he has since given up on attending such programs.
“I used to fall for all those programs — anointing for this, anointing for that," Chibuzor recounted. "Not anymore. There was a particular program I attended in 2012. It was a vigil. I was looking for some money to start my electronics business, and so my friend invited me to her church.
“The pastor prayed and prayed, and I was totally happy. Even though I had not left the church, I already felt my prayer had been answered that night. Just when he was about done, the pastor said we had to prove our readiness to receive God’s blessings. We should dip our hands into our pockets and bring the biggest denomination of currency out. He said he wanted to pray over the money.
“But after the endless prayer, he said the money should not be returned to our pockets. We had to sow it. He said we would see the result of his prayer in seven days. It was the last N1,000 (then about US $7) on me that night. You needed to see how people were rushing to drop their seed offering. I reluctantly dropped mine. It was my friend who gave me N200 ($1.2) to get back home that night.”
But seven days later nothing had happened.
“Imagine, because of the prophecy, I was expecting people to give me some money to start my business. Two months passed, nothing happened. I had to come back to my senses.
“I had to go in search of some odd jobs, from which I raised money. Today, I have my own shop. I realized that no matter the amount of prayers and anointing, if a person fails to do what’s to be done to be rich, they will wallow in poverty forever. I think some of these pastors use our lack as a people to lure us. People have to be wise.”
It’s been years since Adelabi Doyinsola left his former church, but he has yet to forget what made him leave for another church that is even farther from his house.
“The pastor was always telling us to sow seeds and make giant offerings that would move God. He would say it in a way that if you don’t come out to drop something tangible you are an enemy of progress. So to avoid guilt and developing some dislike for the church, I had to leave.
“Where I am now, the pastor teaches us and encourages us to give reasonably to God and that we should place value on whatever we are giving God. I feel better with that, and since then, I only give my best to God," Doyinsola says.
For her part, Elizabeth Ajayi, says she stopped going to her former church when it became clear that she was in the wrong place. “Every Sunday was always about sowing seed, making sacrifices and donations towards God’s work, and it was never about what the church could do for the members.’’
Rev. Badru warns that, “People should stop seeing Jesus as a magician that will turn their poverty around instantly. People should know that any pastor who promises prosperity or riches to the members are not of God. They are businessmen.
“You have to understand what it entails to prosper. Even if someone who is not a Christian follows the principles of prosperity, he will prosper. It is foolishness for someone to go to a church program, thinking that by attending that program, he or she will become rich.
“You don't automatically become rich because you have given your life to Jesus. You have to follow the principles of hard work and investment, the principle of resources management. You have to understand the principle of generosity, and you have to understand the principles that guide money management. No church makes people rich. God makes people rich, but not because they are Christians only, but because they do what is required of them.”
He explains further that though giving is rewarding, it is wrong for pastors to tell their members to “sow” their money before they can be rich. Rev. Badu says that applying such method amounts to manipulation of members.
“[My] question has always been, where did we find that example in Jesus? Giving and receiving is a universal law. It is not peculiar to Christians," Badu says. "...I have not found a place in the scriptures where Jesus or the disciples called people to come and give their money to be rich...
“Teach the people the law of harvest, but don't manipulate them to give what they don't have. Most of what is seen in churches today is witchcraft. It is manipulation, intimidation and domination, and it is high time we spoke against it.”
Seyi Adeyemi, pastor of The Worship Centre, a fast growing apostolic gathering in Lagos, says the important thing is the motive of the pastor.
"It’s going to be foolhardy and unscriptural for a man of God to see somebody in need and still want to place a demand on that person, rather than being a blessing to him.
“The Bible says if a man is hungry and he comes to you, first give him something to eat, before he would be able to listen to whatever you want to say, and doing otherwise could mean that such a person has a motive to exploit the people, which is evil.
“However, one could have a specific instruction from God on a specific issue, like the case of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath [from the Old Testament book of I Kings]. That case was different, because you would find that that kind of sacrificial giving led to an instant replenishment because it was ordained by God.
“People just need to be guided so that they would have the conviction in their hearts," Pastor Adeyemi says. "The widow of Zarephath was convinced that Elijah was a true man of God. So pastors should also be a blessing to people.”
An analyst, Pius Adeyemi, says churches should not just be spiritual organizations but also charity organizations where people in need can benefit. He thinks the country needs laws in place to guide the social responsibilities of the church in Nigeria.
“I’m not sure there are regulatory requirements in that regard, but I believe a church has both spiritual and social responsibilities," Adeyemi says. “...I think churches should be exemplary, not just about praying but in terms of touching lives.
“But I must say that a lot of churches are [touching lives] now," Adeyemi notes. "I think more than ever before, churches are more socially relevant. Just that many of them don’t make noise about it. I know people who give the poor food and all kinds of outreach programs. It’s not anything they could get the press to cover, but God sees everything.”
Pastors Dangle Wealth To Lure Poor to Church
By Olabisi Deji-Folutile