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Opinions of Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Columnist: Amankwah, Kasadiimu Gyekye

Doing Church in Ghana - What Would Jesus Do?

I am always struck with awe when I pass by very magnificent buildings that are used for church services. This and other intriguing experiences with our churches have always piqued my curiosity and hence this piece. Permit me to ask all of us a few questions - I have been pondering over them for some time now – as well as throw in recommendations for us all to consider.

Firstly, could these churches have built more modest worship centers and then channeled the remaining resources into helping the majority of the members who are among the lower ranking members of the society? I am talking about the poor-but-very-loyal who contribute all they have to build these edifices to glorify some people’s personal egos. It is almost as if the meganess of the church is defined by how large and magnificent their place of worship is. But here’s an alternative – how about all the mega churches in Ghana instead of building several “powerful” church buildings to cater for the spiritual needs of their congregants, teaming up to build a modern hospital?

This is a pretty neat idea, and I am thinking you are getting excited about the idea. This would be our first indigenous mission hospital. As a mission hospital, I trust that the Christian community could coordinate the excellent human resources of professional medical practitioners to provide free service as part of the church’s mission work. Of course most people would pay – through an insurance scheme like the NHIS.

Ghanaian doctors are some of the best in the world and if there was a better health administration in the country, I have no doubt that these doctors would perform miracles. But if the church leaders and their immediate families can afford first class airline ticket to the western world or South Africa for medical treatment (while staying at plush suites at luxury hotels), why would they care? Well, maybe it is because they do not realize that Jesus would not do that. Could Jesus have cared as little about his followers (usually people who just came to listen to him preach – and complained about being hungry) as the leaders of our churches do about the members? Definitely not.

I hope you are paying attention, because this is serious stuff.

I am thankful that Ghanaians are as religious as we are – we love church – and we are easily guilt-tripped when it comes to giving money to advance the cause of the church. It’s all good. But the disturbing part is when the giving of the people is exploited for the self-interest of the churches’ leaders.

Almost all of our home-grown mega churches (and even the not-so-mega churches) have several branches around the US and Europe, and these branches are reasonably doing well and most of them sending their 10% or whatever portion they are required to send to Ghana. For some of these churches, this is several thousand dollars and pounds every month.

In some cases, 2 different Ghanaian churches rent space from the same entity and run shifts or take turns in conducting church service – on Sundays, one church has morning services and the other has afternoon services, and then they split the other days. If sharing space in the US is okay, why is it such an impossible idea to replicate? I think Jesus would look on and smile at our efforts to optimize our use of resources if we did things like that. Two churches sharing resources - a building or auditorium in this case – and channeling their resources towards building an international-standard hospital to cater to the physical health needs of their members will be very Jesus-like.

Oh no, we are waiting for the government to build the hospital! Well, I have news for you – your politicians’ first priorities are not hospitals, or schools. Ever heard of a Presidential Palace? Ever heard of BMW 7-series? Your politicians are a greedy bunch and I have a different plan for their awakening (so let’s not be distracted). With that said, if you are waiting for the government, more people will continue to die of treatable diseases. Oh no, you are waiting for Bill Gates to provide a grant?

What about us? What about your pastor not looking to build a million-dollar house for himself at the expense of the church? How about your pastor and mine joining the Noko Fioo Party (as Ato Kwamena Dadzie calls it) and looking out for the greater good of the society?

Could we do a little more than we are doing? Absolutely. Can we cut the excesses and put resources to more relevant use? Most definitely. I know of a pastor of a mega-church in Atlanta, GA with over 10,000 members. The pastor drives a Toyota Camry and takes a salary of less than $70,000. That’s a church he founded and has shepherded for over 15 years. The church’s outreach to the community and the members include subsidized tuition for members of the church, unemployment benefits and skills training programs among others. And it is not because the church cannot buy him a BMW 7-series. They know there is a better use for the people’s money. Meanwhile, next door to him is an affluent minister, who you might have even seen on TV, who owns a house on the hill, a Bentley and several other luxury cars, a private jet, a penthouse in New York City, among other things.

Bringing it home, there are several examples of excesses and I welcome you to make a list.

I pray that I don’t come across as anti-Christianity, because there are people who will find biblical justification for all the excesses, but common sense would have me believe otherwise. And I hope my sayings and writings do not prevent you from participating and contributing to the body of Christ. I am asking for more vigilance. Get involved and pay attention. Ask questions and don’t just go along for the ride.

And to the leaders of the church, consider this a peer review. I can’t help but draw your attention to the fact that, when Christ was here, he did not only preach to the people but he also fed them, even when they had only five loaves and two fishes. In addition to healing them, he performed such little acts of kindness to show us the value of not being consumed by excesses. Jesus performed a lot of miracles, and most of these miracles had practical implications. He fed the multitude with the resources of a little boy for example, teaching us to think about the greater good of the society (and not our selfish interest when in a position of trust).

So when a pastor boasts of owning a million-dollar home and plugs in a caveat that, the Lord said he will bless his followers, there is a disturbing reality that the pastor does not need a million-dollar home. Please tell me why your pastor needs a million-dollar home in Ghana (or anywhere in the world for that matter).Do you get my point? Jesus admonished us that whoever wants to lead must be a servant of the people he is leading. You don’t need to set yourself in an ivory tower in order to be an effective leader. You don’t need all the excesses and think beyond your personal enrichment, my dear minister friend. So when you think of Creflo Dollar as your model of success in ministry, look beyond him and make Jesus your model.

One of the core problems with the excess in our community is that most of our church leaders, at their core, do believe that the bible is good for whatever you want to use it for. It is their tool of justification and as long as they can be convincing enough, we will not blink but only believe. So the business of the church has knocked out the purpose of the church. It is like an artist who abandons creativity for commercialism. At the core, such an artist loses his essence. Likewise, the church ought to take a moment and ask what its essence is. Essence, according to Webster, is the basic, real, and invariable nature of a thing or its significant individual feature or features. Said in another way, essence is the inward nature, true substance, or constitution of anything, as opposed to what is accidental, phenomenal, or illusory.

If I were the president of this noble republic, I would not permit anyone to come in and set up these organizations that take in so much of the people’s money and time, and then put up the buyer-beware pose. I am wondering how to say what I am going to say next without sounding like a bigot? How about this – Because of what we have seen of church fraud, every church should be required to file a Statement of Financial Disclosure with the Ministry of Interior as a condition of operating in the country. As a side note, before we get on TV to preach to the lost – even though what we are truly trying to do is command bigger ‘appearance fees’, there are bunch of con artists in the leadership of the Christian church who need salvation. Can we please call the roll, and let all the real Slim Shadys please stand up!?

And if all things were equal, churches should not be a public concern. We should not worry about the integrity of a pastor. Unfortunately, all things are never equal and it is better to be safe than sorry. I am a firm believer in Christ and also lean, currently, towards the school of thought that, churches, almost all of which are run as businesses, should be taxed accordingly and also be made to perform their share of social responsibility. Some churches are doing their part while others are flamboyantly parading around. So let’s pursue a policy of fairness. Maybe somebody should take this tax thing seriously and let’s cut out the fat before the church falls and dies of a heart attack. You think the high cholesterol from being obese applies only to individuals?

Think about this – all churches will be required to have a license (why not?), required to file a Statement of Financial Disclosure with a government-sanctioned Office of Religious Integrity, pay 10% of their ‘revenue’ into the church Common Fund. I know what you are thinking – I am about to call it a tithe and not a tax. You are right – it is a tithe. From this common fund, we will build the hospital. From this fund, we will carry out the great commission corporately. We could send relief aid to people in poorer nations and hopefully minister to a hungry kid in Sudan.

And just before the IRS gets all excited and start getting any ideas for the money in this fund, somebody tell them you need holy hands to touch this money. This money is not for buying a presidential jet – it is for outreach (building hospitals and feeding the poor). And all licensed churches will have votes to select a Fund Manager – a man or woman with integrity and a vision larger than him or herself. I have a name in mind. Ask me and I will tell you.

In a country where elders of the state need a fleet of BMWs to assert their profile in society, it is hard to call on the Bishop of a mega church to drive a Chrysler. But the one thing we ought to realize is that we are of a different breed – we are the salt of the earth – and Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5).

So Bishops, Reverends, Pastors, Prophets, let’s wake up as I leave you with the wise words of Jimi Hendrix – when the power of love overcomes the love of power, there will be peace.

Kasadiimu Gyekye Amankwah Ghana Institute For Human Development May 4,2009.