A woman should not be at the head of a family. God created male and female genders. And the more money you give to the church, the more blessings you will have in your life.
Those are just some of the messages being taught at churches in Aotearoa today, as I learnt when I attended services at several different evangelical Christian churches in and around Auckland recently. While organisations like Destiny Church and religions like Islam are often in the media spotlight, there are other groups that haven’t received much in the way of media scrutiny. My experiences left me wondering whether perhaps they should.
The churches I visited were C3 Church, LIFE Church, City Impact Church, The Upper Room, and Harbourside Church, which were visited in person and via online live streams of their services over several weeks over the last few months. They had much in common. No te reo Māori - not even normally widely-used phrases such as “kia ora” - was spoken at any of the services I attended or watched. While the congregations skewed younger, they were overwhelmingly Pākehā. Furthermore, all of the speakers at the services I attended were middle-aged Pākehā men, even on Mother’s Day when women were brought on stage in celebration of their work in the community (as happened at LIFE Church).
Jeans and jumpers were the most common clothes people wore, but tattoos and any piercings other than earrings were rare. Most young women were there with young men and families instead of other young women or by themselves. None of the church buildings had gender-neutral bathrooms, either (a staff member at LIFE Church even said “we wouldn’t have that” when asked if there were any).
While the messages about women preached at some of the churches were concerning enough (and also contradict one of Jesus’ core teachings, that all people are equal no matter who they are – which, of course, is pretty bloody feminist), what was most eye-opening was the use of high-pressure tactics to get attendees to give money – and the ways in which people are pressured to keep giving money.
While attending the services was free, some speakers claimed that it was the duty of everyone who attended to give money to the church if they wanted to save their souls and go to Heaven when they died. They also voiced their support for the so-called prosperity gospel, a controversial Christian movement that preaches that the more money you give to the church (and thus God), the more blessings you will receive in your life, whether it’s better health, a better job, better personal relationships, or nice things like new cars or houses. Popular among many evangelical churches in the United States and Australia, the prosperity gospel has been widely condemned for having nothing to do with Christianity, including by Pope Francis.
The supposed need to give money was emphasised time and time again. Few events any of the churches advertised – apart from their Sunday services – were free. For example, at LIFE Church, listed fees included things such as $10 per person per week for Bible study sessions and $60 per person for its “Life Pass” conference that promised to teach what the church believed and what it was about (and which was touted as a $50 discount from the normal price of $110).
At C3 Church, flyers advertised a conference called “Everywoman,” which would allegedly empower women to focus on applying the teachings of Jesus in their lives. Such empowerment would only cost $75 per person for early-bird registration, plus $40 for a special “leader’s lunch.” Getting a recording from the conference would cost an additional $25. The practice bears similarities to the Church of Scientology, which charges fees for various courses that teach people about the religion.
Another tactic was the solicitation of “extra” donations, which were encouraged under the guise of helping guest speakers who had supposedly fallen on hard times. LIFE Church featured a guest sermon by Australian evangelist Steve Kennedy at its Mother’s Day services. After speaking, attendees were asked if they could give a “bit extra” than normal so that Kennedy could “get back to Australia.” Whether or not he was truly in a difficult financial situation in terms of being able to afford a plane ticket across the Tasman was never discussed. “We give not out of convenience, but out of conviction,” a church leader said.
To help encourage donations, C3 Church, LIFE Church, City Impact Church and Harbourside Church operated their own on-site gift shops and bookstores. LIFE Church and City Impact Church also had “giving stations” – kiosks where church members and visitors could give money. While all the churches strongly encouraged automatic payments to be set up via online banking, City Impact Church leaders talked about a mobile app that had been created to make paying easier – an app they said everyone should use, even if it was for just “small amounts.” Cafes charging money for coffee and baked goods were another feature at the churches. At every church’s services, forms were available on the seats or backs of chairs where people could provide their credit card or online banking details.
Interestingly, traditional Christian symbols such as crosses or pictures of Jesus Christ were difficult to find – the LIFE Church I attended did not have any visible at all.
In my opinion, the emphasis on money was concerning in how it could make parishioners feel that their “worthiness” in the eyes of God is based on how much money they can give, or the false hope that you will get healthier or that you will have a better life if only you give money. What if someone simply cannot afford to give money to the church, or doesn’t feel comfortable doing so? Does that mean they can’t ever be successful, or that they might go to hell? According to some of the churches and their teachings, it could logically follow that the answer could be yes.
It also goes against many of the things that Jesus taught. Not once in the Bible does Jesus ask someone for money, despite spending several years travelling throughout the Middle East with no obvious source of income. Furthermore, in one of the most famous stories of the Gospels, Jesus becomes enraged upon discovering religious leaders taking people’s money inside a synagogue, flipping over tables in anger and throwing everyone out. In other words, it seems likely that Jesus would not be a fan of churches pressuring people to give them money.
This is not to say a person shouldn’t believe in God, or even that they shouldn’t go to church. But belief or unbelief shouldn’t be influenced by money, or thinking that bad things will happen to you if you don’t pay up. And religious organisations – no matter the religion – should not pressure people into believing that they have to pay in order to be saved.
Paying money to get something? There’s a word for that: a business.