Before I say another word in this article, let me quickly state that I have already put my neck on the chopping block for the guillotine, slipped a hangman's noose round my neck, and tied myself to the stake ready for the firing squad.
I say this in acknowledgement of the fact that when you dare to raise issues with a Nigerian's religion, ethnic group or political allegiance, however valid your facts or the argument, you might as well be ready for all of the above.
For when issues pertaining to these arise, you quickly realise that the Nigerian person is probably the most emotive of all of God's creations. As even the celebrated Chinua Achebe has recently found to his probable chagrin with the publication of his new book, even the "well educated" and "learned" Nigerian throws intellect out of the window, opens the door wide for primordial sentiments and, quite pitifully, he or she will not provide a superior argument to thump yours. Very often, abuse and insult, the resort of the intellectual scoundrel, are proffered in place of sound reasoning.
But as Igbo people will say, you do not chicken out of a battle just because people can get killed in action. Besides as writers and journalists, if we worried about the bruising our ego would suffer, among other consequences, we would be failing in our commitment to truth and a better society.
Anyone who has read the expose carried in the British Mail on Sunday newspaper on October 21, cannot but shudder at what the paper had to say about "Bishop" David Oyedepo and how his Winners' Chapel ministry had stretched its tentacles to the United Kingdom and into the wallets of its British congregation which is made up of largely African and Caribbean under--class. The article stated that Oyedepo's UK church, run by his son David Oyedepo Junior, had "exploited its British congregation" to the tune of more than £4 million in 2010 alone; nearly double its takings the year before.
The writer estimated Oyedepo's personal wealth at a little under £100 million. The paper carried photographs of Oyedepo luxuriating in the plush cabin of one of his two private jets; it showed him in the notorious photograph in which he was alleged to have slapped a young girl in his church who was accused of being a witch, and gave a catalogue of Oyedepo's assets, from his Rolls Royce Phantom limousine to his business empire that includes everything from bakeries to petrol stations. The paper had infiltrated the congregation with an under-cover reporter who was able to give an eyewitness account of how church members were given envelopes with slips of paper to make donations with their debit cards in return for promises of prosperity from above.
There is probably nothing that The Mail newspaper unearthed in the Winners' Chapel in the UK that does not happen on a larger scale in Nigeria where the church has a large following and owns a 50,000 capacity church in Ota, Ogun State. But the one significant fact here is that the newspaper categorically accused Oyedepo of "exploiting" British citizens and of "enriching" himself.
In a country where churches are given various types of concessions and considerations because they are by their nature non-profit making, any suggestion of exploitation of, and or personal enrichment from donations made by the congregation immediately attracts public condemnation and the attention of the Charities Commission, the body that oversees non-profit organisations and ensures that resources are used for the purpose for which they are intended. But because Nigeria is a moral no-man's land, her mushrooming churches, which see Britain as rich pickings for hard currency among the hard-up immigrant Black population, fail to realise, first that Britain is not Nigeria and that Big Brother is always watching. Secondly Nigeria is not a country much loved abroad. Also Oyedepo clearly did not learn from the lessons of Matthew Ashimolowo and his own ministry which got into a similar mess in the UK some years ago.
Now there are two ways of looking at Oyedepo and the so-called 'pastorpreneurs', prosperity pastors who have turned their churches into commercial enterprise with themselves as the CEOs, and for which Nigeria has become as globally notorious as she is for her 4-1-9 exports. Sadly, either way you look at the Oyedepo phenomenon, the exercise is fraught with the danger of irrational and emotive attacks from the fanatics of the new wave Christian denominations who will, as I said earlier, abdicate any attempt at theological logic and resort to insults and name-calling. Notwithstanding, we have to face a few fundamental facts.
The first is that except in theocratic societies like Iran and Saudi Arabia, religion is globally regarded as a private as well as sensitive affair in which neither the state nor indeed anyone, except the adherents, have a say. The second is that when any Nigerian organisation, be it a church or a bank, extends its operations beyond our borders, it ceases be a private matter. For however you look at it, the type of adverse publicity generated by Oyedepo's church in the UK cannot any longer be the exclusive business of David Oyedepo and his followers. It impacts on the image of Nigeria and her citizens.
The other aspect of the matter, and one for which I should put on my bullet proof vest, is the question that many of us who have witnessed the activities of these new wave churches, have shied away from asking, probably because as I said earlier religion is a sensitive affair. Nevertheless the question needs to be asked: What is the theological agenda of Oyedepo and his fellow 'pastorpreneurs'? Are they businessmen and millionaires or are they followers of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man who had "no place to lay his head;" who rode not on a gold-plated chariot or white stallion, but a donkey, the lowest form of transport of his age? One has to ask, which Christ are we following, the one that commanded his apostles:"You have received without paying, so give without being paid"? As pastors and priests, are we following in the footsteps of the apostles who "left everything" and followed Jesus? Are we following in the example of Peter, the first apostle, who, before he healed the lame at the entrance to the synagogue, declared "silver or gold [or private jets] have I not, but that which I have I give to you..."and what he had was the power to say "...in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!" Are we preaching prosperity of the pocket or of the spirit?
As I was working on this article, I stumbled on a posting on the internet which read: "If your pastor is not telling you to be prepared for the rapture but always preaching about prosperity, you are in danger." Dare I say then that many Nigerian Christians are in danger when our sermon consists of how the congregation can improve their socio-economic status through "giving to the Lord" [conveniently citing the widow's mite]; when we equate the Lord's treasury with the bank account of the pastor, are we preaching the gospel of Christ or exploiting the economic woes of the down-trodden?
Of course there is little question that the cottage industry which the Pentecostal faith has become in Nigeria grew with the severe economic hardship of the military dictatorships of the 80's. Clearly, the pastors quickly spotted a lucrative opportunity: the preachment of prosperity would resonate with the impoverished population; never mind that many of the preachers knew little or nothing about true religion. Indeed a research carried out by the defunct NEXT on Sunday newspaper two years ago claimed that many of "the Pentecostal clergy are equipped with no more than six months of Bible college in America". As if to prove this point, a few weeks later, I watched one of the leading 'pastorpreneurs' in Lagos say on television that "the original sin was sexual intercourse"! But the fact is that in these churches, money is the centre of sermons and worship; God becomes a money-doubler, and religion is used in the manner a drunkard uses a lamp post - more for support than illumination.
Sadly the majority of the exploited poor may not read this article. One such person who will not is Peter. In search of deliverance from poverty Peter attended his local Pentecostal church in Ikeja recently. The pastor cajoled his congregation into giving all they had "to the Lord," reminding them about the "widow's mite." Peter gave all N200 in his pocket "to the Lord". After the service, Peter was desolately trudging home when he saw "the Lord" cruising past him in his brand new Toyota Land Cruiser.
Peter many not afford to buy this paper; but his Pastor can. And I hope it will give him an opportunity to re-examine the real mission of his ministry.