Letters from TZ

Paying the toll on the highway to heaven

Televangelists have been on air for almost a century in the US where they first originated. Since then, they have become widespread and commonplace. But the phenomenon is fairly recent in Africa. Even so, African preachers have taken to television ministry like ducks to water. Every pastor and his mother are buying airtime on a station close to you to take the good news to the world.

There is one rather large bump on the road to on-air domination however – televising sermons doesn’t come cheap. It takes millions of shillings to buy a 30-minute spot on television, and much more if it is a recurring one. But God will provide, they say. Only, He needs your help to do it.

If anyone has benefited from the proliferation of mobile money services, it is televangelists. Sowing a seed has never been so easy to do as it is in the 21st Century – you can send your ‘love offering’ via the mobile network of your choice, instantly and without having to move from your armchair. After that, all you need to do is remain in that position and wait for your breakthrough.

‘Love offering’ is a term more commonly used by American televangelists. I thought it was just a religious euphemism for shillings and cents, but I recently came to understand that love offerings, as opposed to the kind of payment that one would make in a shop in return for goods or services, are exempt from tax. Churches don’t pay tax. Sometimes it seems as if they don’t pay for anything. They routinely receive money on the expectation that they will spend it on good causes, which invariably includes buying for the airtime to ask for it.

Oddly enough, I do believe that giving is better than receiving. But I take issue with this pay-per-prayer system that has evolved over time. The modern Protestant church it seems is preoccupied with money, and it goes about getting it by trying to convince you that God will only work wonders if you pay for His labour. What utter nonsense.

I couldn’t tell you precisely what the official position is with regard to how much believers should give to the church but I can tell you this: God doesn’t need your money. Anything you surrender to heaven is intended to benefit you on earth. Giving is not about God – it is about you. So if you’re tossing coins into the offering basket with a sneer on your face because you feel pushed to a wall by your pastor’s incessant begging, you might as well leave the money in your pocket for all the good its going to do you.

I once attended a church service in Nairobi’s central business district. The pastor is one of East Africa’s better-known preachers, who as it turns out is also a Member of Parliament. The congregation was filled to brimming with lower income Kenyans who looked like they worked hard for their money but didn’t take much of it home. So it was shocking to hear an announcement that three different offerings were required on that particular Sunday – the usual church collection, a payment in tithes and a donation towards the pastor’s wedding, which the announcer said, would cost Sh90 000 000. True story. I remember looking around at the weary and overburdened group and wondering what kind of person would disenfranchise them even more than they had been disenfranchised already. It seemed as far away from divinity than was humanly possible.

But these things happen and they happen regularly. There are churches and religious groupings all over in East Africa that demand cash for spiritual breakthroughs. Pastors and prophets who promise to alter destiny for a fee. There is no shortage of believers who have emptied their pockets in a last ditch attempt to save their lives from ruin, not knowing that redemption may have just been a prayer away.

God’s people, so they say, perish for a lack of wisdom. They are preyed upon by all manner of predator, including unscrupulous and money-hungry ‘spiritual leaders’ who have figured out a quick way to get rich. These people have turned ‘giving’ into a dirty word. They have deprived many of the joy and fulfilment that comes from a genuine spirit of generosity. Some have said that things such as these are indicators that the world is coming to an end. Well, thanks to Richard Branson and his Virgin group of companies, you can now buy a ticket to outer space – it would seem that you can pay your way into heaven as well. If that’s not an earth-shattering thought, I don’t know what it is.