Christ and capitalism reconciled

“People say money is the root of all evil but it’s not. How you use the money is what matters. You can have a lot of money and contribute to the church and change people’s lives. Or you can be corrupted by money. So it’s not the root of evil, it’s how you use it,” Pastor André Olivier explains only a few minutes into a sermon at the Rivers Church’s Sandton campus last month.

Earlier the auditorium doors had been locked and a “security notice” appeared on the three big screens: “For security reasons, the doors will be locked and no one is permitted to leave during the offering.”

The notice is usually accompanied by Bible scripture.

“Proverbs 3:9-10: ‘Honour the Lord with your wealth and the first fruits from all your crops. Then your barns will be full, and your wine barrels will overflow with new wine’,” reads the Rivers Church website, under the special “giving” tab.

Though the open incorporation of capitalism into the service and in the church’s daily functions might appear out of place to first-time visitors, it is an integral part of what it takes to keep the church open and Christianity itself alive, Olivier said.

“Many mistakenly believe that the Bible endorses socialism, but private property and profit are the reason Jewish people are generally so successful,” Olivier said.

“The Bible talks a lot about business, profit and wealth. Jesus talked more about possessions and wealth than he did on prayer.”

Capitalism is a biblical system endorsed by the Bible, he said,

Financial contribution is not compulsory or a way to secure a prominent role in the church, Olivier explains in his sermons.

This week he told the Mail & Guardian that the church is maintained and supported by the “free-will gifts of its members. No one is bound, except by the principles of scripture, to give or contribute.”

With about 5 000 people attending two services every Sunday and a dozen or more initiatives to enhance spirituality and church life, Olivier understands what it takes to balance being a man of God with the demands of everyday capitalism in the 21st century.

“Capitalism is not the problem; greed is. And greed cannot be prevented through any political system,” Olivier said.

He started preaching to about 70 people in Sandton in 1992, as freedom fighters and their oppressors started negotiating the structure of what Archbishop Desmond Tutu would later call the rainbow nation.

There are two Rivers churches in South Africa but they are not linked; Olivier’s church is part of the Hillsong Family, a worldwide network of nondenominational churches.

On its website, the Hillsong Family describes itself as a “group of like-spirited, forward-thinking, kingdom-building visionaries and ministries working together for a greater cause”.

Olivier is also the host of the television show, Life by Design, a Christian ministry programme that first aired on South Africa’s free-to-air in 2010 and is now shown in 48 countries and reaches half-a-million people every week.

In his latest books, The Principles of Business Success and 12 Things that Undermine Our Success, Olivier tackles the pitfalls of running a business without guiding Christian principles, for only R190.

Kogi Nareen, the church’s head of media, says one of the Rivers Church’s biggest strengths is its safe learning environment for children. “It’s a space where they can come in and enjoy teaching and friendship. It’s an integrated learning space that reflects the diverse and multiracial South Africa for infants, toddlers and pre-teens.”

Rivers Church has two branches, or campuses, in South Africa: one in Sandton and another in Ballito, north of Durban.

The Sandton branch is a fully fledged multipurpose centre for Sunday services and worship, Bible study and trade.

The trade centre resembles a mini-mall and franchise stores such as the Italian Illy café compete with family-owned and -operated food and drink shops, as well as a Christian bookstore.

The area is an effective networking space for the church’s first-time visitors and members, many of whom are public figures and include some celebrities.

Inside the auditorium, a revamped stage with automated big screens, state-of-the-art lighting and audio systems operate with the same seamless transitions as broadcast-quality sports games. A small army of ushers and church staff co-ordinate the congregants’ movements.

A feeling of community rather than cut-throat competition dominates the trade centre’s atmosphere. Capitalism never felt so good. One doubts whether Christ, during his anticipated visit to Sandton on his return, would again whip the shop operators and declare: “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.”

Rivers Church is about much more than Sunday worship, donations and a “miracle offering” that brought in R18-million during one week last year. The church hosts inspirational seminars such as Sisters, Young Adults and Heroes. Heroes is a men’s conference at which motivational speakers and preachers from around the world gather to “equip like-minded men” with the tools they need to become “men of God” for just a little more than R1 000 each.

Besides reinforcing the Christian ideology of a man’s role in a patriarchal society, ethical business management features as one of the most prominent talks.

Many South African churches have developed a stigma because of pastors who have amassed huge amounts of money yet many of their congregants suffer in poverty.

Olivier reserved judgment on these flamboyant pastors, describing his own lifestyle as modest.

“Ministry is about serving, and blessing should be a byproduct of that, not the goal … If any pastor or leader wants a level of living that the working person has, they should go into business and not consider ministry, as [business] is the area for accruing wealth, not the church,” he said.

The steady flow of income at Rivers has afforded the church an opportunity to start its own nongovernmental organisation, the Rivers Foundation.

“We feed 51 000 meals a week to poor children, have 10 orphanages we sponsor and 50 compassion child­ren in Africa we sponsor monthly,” Olivier added.

In its investigation into the commercialisation of religion in South Africa, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities were told by the 230 religious leaders interviewed that most of their money is raised through collections, followed by giving and then through donations.

The commission found that 92% of religious bodies interviewed collected less than R10-million a year in total.

Olivier’s Rivers Church is among the 8% that have managed to buck the trend and grow their finances and church activities during the current difficult economic times.

He ascribes the support the church receives and the generosity of its congregants to “offering excellence to our members and serving their needs with their money, as well as doing a significant amount for the poor”.

It raises questions about big money’s role in the practice of Christianity. Despite the explanations about why money is necessary and the justifications of how it is spent, there is an underlying principle that distances worldly riches from Christian belief.

Christ is known to have told a rich family to sell all their possessions and follow him, and there is the famous quote that many feel sums up the religion’s view of wealth:

“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus told his followers nearly 2 000 years ago. 

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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