Five centuries ago, Martin Luther reformed the Christian church to prevent the marketing of religion. But in Africa, the debate over blending God and money is a very timely one.
Every miracle grows from a seed - at least that's the main tenet of the "prosperity gospel" as preached in an online video by Pastor Chris Oyakhilome of Nigeria. According to the pastor, a believer seeking God's help should first consider which seed is the most likely to produce his hoped-for crop. Someone who is in financial dire straits or is praying for a miraculous recovery from a disease must sow this "precious" seed. But Pastor Chris, as he calls himself, is actually talking about money.
"All giving is a demonstration of our faith in God and his word," he says. To the believers who give generously, the preachers of the prosperity gospel promise wealth, health and good luck. Those who sow a lot will reap even more later, they say.
Pastor Chris is the founder of one of many African churches that celebrate wealth. His "Christ Embassy" is one of the most successful, with two million followers on the social media platform Facebook. Three satellite TV channels broadcast his sermons, miracle cures and exorcisms to Nigeria, South Africa and Great Britain. And the pastor's acolytes are pretty generous. In 2011, Forbes Magazine estimated his wealth to be between 30 and 50 million USD (26 - 44 million euro). Wealthy preachers often live in luxury, as proof of the power of their prayers. But heavenly intervention is not responsible for this kind of success - all of the money comes out of the pockets of the faithful.
Blessed are the rich
Using faith as a money-maker is an age-old tradition. Five hundred years ago, the Catholic Church allowed sinners to redeem themselves by buying so-called "indulgences." The money was then channeled to the Pope in Rome. Martin Luther criticized the practice and started the Reformation of 1517, splitting Christianity into two and leading to the founding of Protestantism. The division persists to this day, although indulgences were abolished in 1562.
The prosperity gospel took over the practice of selling the blessing of the church. Critics say that this is tantamount to modern indulgences. Zambian pastor Conrad Mbewe, a 55-year-old Baptist who has a blog on Christian faith, sees an increase of people who go to the church hoping only for wealth, instead of building their relationship with God. "Rather it's that attraction that if they do so, they will get the money. It's superstition that is moving them,” Mbewe told DW.
In Luther's time it was difficult to check whether an indulgence was really saving souls from purgatory, Mbewe pointed out. But today anyone can see that the faithful who trust prosperity preachers are not getting rich. "A lot of people are embittered because they have parted with the little money that they had and it has not multiplied. Consequently, the name of God is getting a lot of bad publicity from these bitter individuals."
A global movement
The prosperity theology propagated mostly by Pentecostal churches is not a purely African phenomenon. In Latin and North America, as well as in Asia and Europe, there are self-appointed prophets and apostles who trade salvation for cash. Often this brand of Christianity has elements of spiritualism and shamanism, which attribute supernatural powers to the priests and pastors. According to Mbewe, the promises made by the churches' propaganda are similar to the ones made by traditional witch doctors.
Both market themselves as all-purpose weapons against disease, poverty, unemployment and childlessness. Often they are sought out by the poor who are looking for an explanation for their place in the world through the prosperity gospel and hope for a miracle to escape poverty.
Pastor Conrad Mbewe is one of the rare African clergymen who dare to openly criticize the gospel of prosperity
Criticism of the prosperity gospel is also growing outside the churches. In 2015, Ghanaian artist Wanlov the Kubolor published a satirical song in which he prophesized the deaths of two famous TV-preachers. For Pastor Chris Wanlov he predicted death by an overdose of skin bleach. The artist was imitating the preachers who terrorized people with their prophecies only to sell them their personal prayers as a form of salvation. His song tried to turn the tables on the preachers.
"It's a game of numbers. They just try to keep increasing their congregation and membership size," Wanlov told DW, because this increases the chance that someone has a stroke of luck. Then the preacher can tell it happened as a result of their prayers "and people will show them their gratitude financially," Wanlov said.
Indulgence selling as a modern business
"It was the same in Luther's day," Conrad Mbewe told DW. "There were no indulgences in the Bible for anybody to refer to. It is the same today. There is nowhere in the Bible where they can go and point at a verse that says if you give your money to a preacher, God will multiply it." And as was the case in those far-off times, the people selling salvation are very powerful, Mbewe added.
According to the Baptist pastor, the preachers of the prosperity gospel increasingly occupy leading positions in church circles and are enhancing their political influence. Most clerics dare to complain only behind closed doors. Mbewe says he can afford to criticize the prosperity preachers publicly because he leads his own "Kabwate Baptost Church". Others would risk their jobs. But Mbewe hopes that more spiritual leaders will grow the courage to preach against the "modern business of indulgences", as happened once upon a time in the Protestant Reformation. "Individuals like Martin Luther spent their time teaching the word of God publicly in such a way that it clearly showed the error of those who were abusing the people,” Mbewe said.