When I was in Redeemed…

I recently came across this article on the Forbes website, about rich Brazilian pastors:
http://www.forbes.com/sites/andersonantunes/2013/01/17/the-richest-pastors-in-brazil/

I tried to add the following comment to the blog, but as I write this post it has not yet been published:

Hi Anderson, this article deeply resonates with me.
I am a Nigerian, and a born again Christian. This is exactly what is prevalent in Nigerian “Christianity” with this Prosperity Theology. I note with interest the link to the article about Nigeria’s richest pastors, an article which I have previously read and shaken my head at here on Forbes.

“It is not only about money, but also power”. Exactly, a million times over. What it never seems to be about, is God, and seeking God’s *true* power to change the world. This does not mean that God’s power is not real, because I believe it is. This does not mean that it is impossible for pastors to obtain wealth by legitimate means, unrelated to their churches. I have a Bible blog which is strictly non-commercial but I also have completely separate business interests. However, making money through the Gospel or living flashy lives of material excess are completely opposed to the clear, plain teaching of the Bible. I completely agree with the previous commenter Gerson that this is not the real faith of Christ *at all*.

I hope you will here allow me to link to my Bible blog – I have very recently written a post to remind my readers of my aggressively non-commercial stance on the blog:

Free Free Free!

Many thanks ūüėČ Tosin Ojumu

Discussing further with a friend on Facebook, I had cause to look back on what life was like when I was in a prosperity theology church movement.¬† So then, this is what life was like when I was in Redeemed: (from the Facebook comment).¬† I know and I respect many people in the Redeemed movement. However, please note that this is why I am never going to be involved with Redeemed, ever again, and I am not going to “like” anyone’s Redeemed pages on Facebook.

(Heavily edited from the original Facebook comment – parts from the original Facebook comment are in this colour)
“When I was in a denomination called “Redeemed”, everyone in the church chapter*** had to buy a Sunday school manual replaced either yearly or half yearly (I forget.) This cost ¬£5. On top of this, I was made a Sunday school teacher (as I clearly knew my stuff) (please also note that I did not in any way ask for this honour, I was just appointed one day and told to prepare a Sunday School class) and I was required to purchase the Sunday School teacher’s manual, also frequently replaced. This cost ¬£10. Both books¬†[were littered with¬† (actually, on reflection this is an exaggeration)] each¬† had a considerable number of grammatical and scriptural errors, and did not even truly correspond to one another.*¬† There were some clear errors of Bible understanding, as if the person who wrote the manual did not understand basic theology,¬†like if I was to refer to Cuba as the European country that is shaped like a boot. There were also some errors where references were made to Bible passages that simply did not exist, like if I was to refer to the Earth’s second sun.

I was always asking awkward questions about blatant errors. They (These manuals) were never made available online, where perhaps someone might have been able to download them for free.

On top of this, everyone was encouraged to buy the overseer’s publication, a devotional of daily Bible readings called “Open Heavens”. This cost ¬£10 and was replaced yearly. I don’t know whether this also had mistakes; I never read it as I would always prefer to read the Bible itself than to get the information second hand. On top of this, there were regular tithes, then there were special monthly “thanksgivings”, then there were various regular praise gatherings (ie quarterly), where we were encouraged to give special offerings.

Please do not think I am exaggerating, the list grows ever onward. Then there were “first fruits” – which they encouraged you to pay at the beginning of the year, or on starting a new job, then there were offerings to contribute towards building funds, and then they also expected you to pay to buy gifts for the general overseer’s wife – as if they did not already have enough of our money.
I eventually realised that the business model (as a business it obviously was) in at least one of the Redeemed church chapters that I attended was simply to squeeze every available penny from their members, as well as every available second to invest into “church activities”. Then multiply this across all the chapters in the movement. Naturally, aggressive growth was one of the policies of the church movement – more chapters equals more members equals more…¬† (“NO TOSIN!¬† You must not call it a business!¬† The G.O. is a very holy man!¬† He loves God! He is so humble…!”)

So you can imagine how controversial it was when I wrote my article refuting tithing as a biblical commandment. That is the number one doctrine on which all of this is based. This is part of the reason why I have made a big point of offering everything on my own blog absolutely free, also because the Word of God should be free.”

Furthermore, it was not like you could easily correct any of these errors, because in the eyes of the church movement the General Overseer was next to God, or actually was God depending on who you spoke to.  So suggesting that (gasp!  Shock!) the G.O. could be wrong was like suggesting that God could be wrong.
So if someone with a very big mouth (like me for instance – I was always the one!) tried to correct an error, and say:
“Actually, Cuba is not a European country, the country you’re thinking of is….”,
the answer would be shot down (and this is literally what would happen) “The General Overseer says it.¬† So it can’t be wrong” or unspoken words “Are you suggesting that you know more than the G.O.?¬† Are you suggesting that you are holier than the G.O.?!”

In fact, something that struck me immediately on entering the church movement was that everyone would talk in the most glowing terms about the General Overseer, that is, with the sort of reverence that I have usually seen reserved for God. “Our G.O is so holy, he is so humble, he is so…..”
He may well be all these things.¬† However, I myself have never met him so how can I comment on what he may or may not be like? Just because everyone else says he is all these things does not mean that he is actually all these things.¬† It just means that this is what everyone else says. And the majority of the “everyone else” would be people just like me who had had no chance to meet him or really get to know him either, and were therefore not in any real position to comment on any aspect of his character.¬† Every now and then, like once a year, someone would acknowledge that he was not perfect.¬† However, for the rest of the time, to all intents and purposes he was perfect.¬† It was almost as if it was an attitude that was being aggressively stirred up within the church movement, to talk of the G.O. and start to think of him as being perfect, or as being incapable of doing anything wrong.¬† Or maybe it did not have to be pushed on anyone.¬† We Nigerians are very big on respecting authority, in our very recent history we literally worshipped our leaders, or at least we did in my tribe of the Yorubas (which also happens to be the tribe of the G.O. himself). So it was like an example of infallible human authority, like the Pope, in a supposedly “Evangelical” or Protestant context.

I have to say that I know that there are pastors and there are pastors, and there are chapter and there are chapters, even within the same denomination. Different chapters that I went to in Redeemed would be “better” or “worse” depending on how they emphasised or de-emphasised the person of the General Overseer, or the infallibility of the Sunday School manual.

Some Many…most…the overwhelming majority of Redeemed pastors were holy, humble and godly Christian leaders of the calibre you would find in any excellent Christian organisation. ¬† The remaining pastors blatantly used their church chapters as vehicles for their own personal ambition – actually, this was only one person, to be honest. (Perhaps I would have grown to become disillusioned with some of the other pastors too, if the chance had developed to get to know them as well as I got to know that one pastor. Equally you could suggest that perhaps I also left many people highly disillusioned with me – but I am confident that I acted to the utmost and outstanding levels of integrity – apart from one big mistake on my own part and a few (3) spectacular, public displays of anger – and towards the end I wasn’t overly conscientious about trying to hide what I really thought about….erm….) I sometimes ask myself whether I was just unfortunate¬† to “land badly” at that particular chapter, whether I would have considered the whole movement¬† a viable place to remain if I had “landed” at another chapter of the movement.¬† Or maybe the opposite is true.¬† Maybe I was actually extremely fortunate to land at that chapter – otherwise if I had landed elsewhere it may have taken me longer to acknowledge and act on the truth, and like others I may only have left after 10 regrettable years.

In that particular chapter, the Almighty God Himself proved to be zero insufficient competition to the supremacy of the G.O.¬† Everything was “The G.O. says this, the G.O. says that!”¬† I wrote the tithing article in response to a statement that “The G.O. says that you will go to hell if you don’t pay tithes”.¬† Apart from actually reading the Bible, God was only acknowledged to help “encourage” members to give money or time**.¬† That is, I (and once again, I was always the one!) would protest constantly about the endless requests to give (money) or to serve (within the church).¬† Then the answer would be “Don’t you want to give money to the work of God?!¬† Don’t you want to give time to the work of God?!”¬† However, when that purpose had been attained, when the idea of God had been roped in to coerce us to give or to serve, then we could expect to forget all about God once again and go back to focusing on “The G.O. says this, the G.O. says that…”
[**Actually on reflection, this is a bit unfair, it was not quite that bad.¬† Perhaps the G.O. generously shared his glory with God in a 60/40 split.¬† The person of Jesus, however, was rarely mentioned; once I actually set out to count the number of references to Jesus versus the number of references to the G.O.; I think in a whole month Jesus was not mentioned once.¬† Sadly I did not seriously keep track so I cannot categorically say that that was the case. Certainly whole services would go by without any mention of the name of Jesus. [The pastor had this thing where he would shout, very loudly “Everybody say “Jesus!”¬† Everybody say “Father!”” He would do that at least once or twice a service – and then when the congregation was standing he would often invite it to sit down by saying “Please be seated with Christ Jesus in heavenly places!” – a reference to Ephesians 2v6.]]

I have to emphasise that I only observed¬† this G.O. worship in one of the three Redeemed chapters I was part of. The other chapters were like normal churches that I would be used to, with God given His true place, but with an extra emphasis on money. However, on attending some huge bi-annual overnight events called “The Festival of Life”, packing out the ExCel in London, and the Royal Highland Centre in Edinburgh (both with seating capacities of a few thousands), presided over by the G.O. himself, that same G.O. frenzy would be evident in the thousands of people present. So I think it is fair to conclude that that intense, extreme over-veneration was not just restricted to that one chapter but was quite widespread.

However, all the chapters I did go to used the same erroneous manuals, they all had the thanksgiving offerings, the emphasis on money, the gifts for the G.O.’s wife.
(I should say that I attended 3 Redeemed chapters. Of these at least two requested these contributions for the General Overseer’s wife, and other discretionary gifts for other people, and the third one I only attended for a matter of months, if that, and that erratically, so no, I did not actually come across the G.O.’s wife’s gift thing at¬† the third church chapter.)

I eventually left the whole movement because of this underlying structure; I was fed up of investing my time (and money, of course, of course, of course) into building this thing that at the very base was about the General Overseer and his empire  rather than about God.

Well Tosin, why did you not just leave (earlier)?
Frankly, these and the other “exciting” things I have witnessed in other churches are the kinds of experiences that make you realise that no, it is not that “no church is perfect”, but rather that some gatherings do not even qualify to be called “churches”.¬† So firstly, it starts off, you notice a few things, you easily overlook them, and you put the mistakes in the manual down to typos….¬† And then a few further things happen, you notice more mistakes, you frown in confusion at the fact that people in authority make “schoolboy errors”, and then yet more things happen to bring you to the point of actively thinking “no church is perfect”….and then some more time passes bringing yet more surprises until I eventually got to the point of realising that I had to leave, but by that time I was so involved in that chapter of that church movement that the dilemma was how to extricate myself as¬† neatly and as quietly as possible. This was the point that I was at when I actually got kicked out of that chapter of the church as a result of writing the tithing article. (I’ll admit that writing the tithing article was not a very “quiet” action – but the pastor in question challenged us in church, and when I took him up on it he even prayed publicly that God would open my eyes or something similar – and that of course was like waving a red flag in front of a bull.) [Regarding this particular church I should also make it clear that I lived for many months in the flat rented by the church, so naturally, that was not very conducive to leaving the church.¬† This also led to my own very big mistake in this church.¬† I know what you’re thinking – “Was that not the mistake itself?!”¬† Especially as it was entirely my own idea.¬† However there was an even bigger mistake that I made,¬†which involved being too shy/scared to speak up about something very important. It was a big issue – in fact, huge, and sadly not an example of shining behaviour on my own part.¬† However huge as it was, my own efforts and contributions to the church far, far outweighed it – and effortlessly so.]

And then while you’re there there is lots of “giving people the benefit of the doubt” – they’re new, they’re young, they’re inexperienced…. until all the benefit has been exhausted and there is no longer the slightest trace of doubt…and I come to the point where I am today, where I am never ever again going to give any church any benefit of any doubt. In fact, I am not even going to go to your church to check it out.
I want the news of the power at work in your church to reach me where I am, right here, spread through people who are not Christians, like it was in the time of Jesus, and then I will believe that God is at work in your church, rather than contrived, carefully orchestrated mass hysteria,  and then I might come to check you out.
The Bible says: “By their fruits you will know them” in Matthew 7v16, and I want to see the fruits of the power of God at work in your midst before I go anywhere near you. (In the meantime though, while you are getting to that point, they will have collected from you all the money that they possibly can, wrung all the service out from you that they possibly can.)

And then of course it has been drummed into you since childhood that “you must go to church” (otherwise your Bible will drop off!) and then you look around, and you reject the seeming alternatives to this particular church (as you’ve actually tried them all out already, and been similarly unimpressed), and you weigh it up, and ask whether the pros might counterbalance the cons….
In short, with my solidly church-based upbringing, it could only have taken a lot of “exciting” experiences in a lot of “exciting” churches to bring me to the point of saying “Show me first, then I’ll check you out!” (or “Show me the money”, as it were!)
Through the things I saw in this and a few other churches, I have been brought to that point, and pushed far beyond it. Now I’m here though, it feels like the most obvious and logical place to be to cut out all the noise of so many different church movements¬†¬† shouting about their various ministries and their various General Overseers. Every church movement and church chapter claims that God is “powerfully at work” in their midst, but I want to see the tangible evidence first.

To conclude, here is a  Forbes post about the richest Nigerian pastors.  See if you can spot the leader of the Redeemed movement: (hint, try the comments)

http://www.forbes.com/sites/mfonobongnsehe/2011/06/07/the-five-richest-pastors-in-nigeria/3/

 

*I only refer to the mistakes in the manuals for these reasons:
1) This person is presented to us as having a deep and unparalleled knowledge of and intimacy with God.  And yet there would be basic theological mistakes in the literature produced by his church movement?

2) It was obligatory that everyone across the whole movement, in different countries, should follow the same manuals and lessons, and we all had to pay money towards these manuals – and they could not even hire editorial teams to produce a quality product?

*** The word “church” can refer both to the overall church movement, IE here Redeemed, fully the Redeemed Christian Church of God, (commonly abbreviated to RCCG or RCCOG), or it can refer to individual church units within the movement.¬† So in this post I have tried to distinguish by using “church movement” to refer to the whole of Redeemed, and church chapter to refer to an individual church unit within the whole movement. These can also be known as branches.

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