I was disturbed to read a report in The Times on Saturday headlined, “Church encourages worshippers into debt so they can donate more.” This was followed up by an editorial comment entitled, “Jesus would be shamed by this church.” The report, on a Brazilian-based Pentecostal church in the UK, can also be found (slightly altered/maybe plagiarised but I can’t link to The Times on the web as you have to pay for it these days) on http://www.seek4media.com/money/10345-church_encourages_worshippers_into_debt.html
There’s a lot of criticism here of Pentecostal styles, but the major attack is on how funds are raised, with allegations that people are being encouraged to default on mortgages and other debts in order to give to the church. If true, this is worrying, but I do think that there is a great deal of misunderstanding. For example:
Times Money also attended a “healing” session, at which pastors “laid hands” on the sick, shouting at them in Portuguese. They afterwards called for offerings. The pastors then said prayers, first for those who “gave the best”, then for those who had paid tithes, and finally that those who had “nothing to give” might come into some money “so you can thank God”.
The journalist is predisposed not to believe in divine healing, has presumably never witnessed the mainstream procedure of the laying on of hands, and is probably not used to hearing loud prayers, but why is it surprising to him that the prayers were in Portuguese, in a Brazilian congregation? Or that there should be an appeal for an offering? Maybe it seemed over the top, but there is no damning evidence here; to pray for people with no money to come into some is sensible and compassionate, and of course they should thank God when He answers.
There are some allegations from a “former worshipper who spoke to us on condition of anonymity” who says his wife gave too much of her income:
He believed that their situation was not unusual and that some worshippers ended up worse off. He said that the Church brainwashes members by repeating that refusing to tithe is “robbing God”, for example, and telling the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who were struck down dead after withholding money (Acts V: 1-11).
Emotive language, but put another way, they sometimes preach from Malachi and Acts. This is not evidence of exploitation: this is one disaffected, anonymous, unsubstantiated source.
The most serious allegation is of false testimony:
Further videos promote the Church’s campaigns. In one example, a young man states that he gave his car, salary and bonus in a campaign. However, he did not make a complete sacrifice because “the Devil” tempted him to keep £60 of credit on his Oyster travel card, so had only been promoted to manager of Europe at the City stock-brokers where he previously worked.
In the next campaign, he says, he gave “everything”, defaulting on his mortgage and bills. The result: a top job at another firm, involving trips to Cyprus and Eilat, Israel, with free time to spare. This man’s story is, in fact, false. He tells it again in another video on the site but names a different employer. We have learnt that he worked for neither company at the senior level described.
I have been around Pentecostalism for getting on for 30 years and have certainly seen and heard teaching about money which has been unbalanced and even exploitative. This may be such a case but, leaving aside the video example, I believe the Times has not proven its case. There is cultural bias here against a mixture of Pentecostal/Charismatic/Latin American enthusiasm, combined with an expectation of what should be given to churches which is based on a (fairly pitiful) Anglican norm.
What I found most revealing in the article were the figures: they say there are 10,000 worshippers in this group of churches and that the income in 2008-9 was £8.8 million. I work that out to £880 per person. In my south of England Pentecostal congregation (fairly working class, plenty of students and elderly people, a mixture of races but predominantly white), we have 85 members and an income in 2009/10 of just under £90,000 – just over £1000 each. The journalist tells us that the giving in the church under scrutiny is 6 times that of the Church of England; we are meant to be scandalised. The C of E reports that the average giving of its committed members is 3.2% of their income (Andrew Britton, Chair of the Finance Committee of the Archbishops’ Council: 2009. http://thinkinganglicans.org.uk/uploads/gsmisc913.html). I hope that the average Pentecostal figure is indeed much more than that!
Ah well, what can we learn?
- We must be transparent in all our financial dealings so that we can be seen to be people of integrity. I am very glad that in my own denominational structure there are national finance and admin directors who work closely with the Charity Commission to ensure that our procedures are understood and stand up to scrutiny. Also for our local treasurer and other leaders, who do things by the book.
- We must do our best to explain Kingdom finances in language that is accessible to those outside our structures, but we need not, indeed must not, stop talking about things such as tithing, faith or sacrificial giving. These are mainstream Biblical concepts.
- We must protect the poor – also a mainstream Biblical concept. We must never suggest that people default on loans, mortgages etc. in order to tithe, though we may help with budgeting and other financial management to help people to do both those things, to give to Caesar and to God what is respectively theirs.
- Leaders who are paid by churches should be especially careful to maintain integrity. Nehemiah in the Old Testament (Neh 5) and Paul in the New (1 Thess 2:9; 2 Cor 8:20-21) are examples to us.
- We must never, ever use false testimony. Check out testimonies before allowing them to be publicised, especially on promotional material.
- Finally, though it is often tempting to think that the world, especially the media, is anti-Christian and out to get us, I don’t think that’s the case. In this case, a national quality newspaper thinks it has uncovered exploitation of the poor. I hope it is not correct, though it may be; I think it has yet to prove its case, though there may be more evidence than has been published. Certainly there is a clash of world-views. But Christians are called to live lives that stand up to scrutiny from the world as well as internally (Neh 5:9; 1Peter 2:12)
May God grant us all grace!