/ 7 May 2020

Churches are struggling in lockdown

Digital word: Reverend Thembelani Jentile, who heads the Mamelodi Baptist Church, has been preaching over social media since the beginning of the lockdown. He is confient in the ability of his church to adapt to the new normal. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Since the emergence of the novel coronavirus late last year, most communities around the world have been left scathed by it. The virus — which spreads like wildfire when people gather in close proximity — has disturbed normality, shaken up countries’ economies, put pressure on their health systems and forced churches to find creative ways to preach the gospel. But this has come at a financial cost for many churches. 

“Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven and put down for you a blessing until there is no more need, ” reads Malachi 3:10 in the Bible.

Reverend Thembelani Jentile, who heads the Mamelodi Baptist church in Pretoria, told the Mail & Guardian that his church has been negatively affected by the virus since it stopped its Sunday services. This is after the government imposed a national lockdown and prohibited gatherings of more than 100 people. Since then, some churches have congregated in small numbers or chosen to use social media to preach. 

Jentile’s church has been doing the latter. But this has also resulted in few offerings made to the church. “It has affected us badly — one [way] is that it’s in terms of finances,” he says.

The church has been housing about 60 people from an informal settlement nearby, who have had their shacks swept by floods in December last year. Now it is servicing members of the community who have been affected by Covid-19 by providing two meals a day and assisting with food parcels.

“The income has dropped and we are now faced with a situation where the only person who is going to be paid a salary next month is me,” says the reverend, adding that it’s not even guaranteed that he will be paid 100% of his salary. “The longer the lockdown takes, the worse it’s going to be for us. Some churches have even started saying they cannot pay pastors’ salaries.”

Asking for money has been at the core of multiple faith systems. This practice is not without controversy. The Bible encourages giving: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver,” states 2 Corinthians 9:7.”

Practically, churches need to pay the bills. 

Pastor Simon Lerefolo from Every Nation in Rosebank says the church is regarded as a nonprofit organisation. He added that there may be aspects of the church that operate as a business, such as a bookshop, but that is covered under a separate legal entity and most churches outsource the business part to private companies. 

Auxiliary Bishop of Cape Town Sylvester David says usually the money collected by the church is used to help poor people and to sustain parishes that cannot afford to financially care for their buildings and other programmes.

(Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

“Wherever there is an organisation, there are administrative costs, so we need to pay salaries and stuff like that and we have taken the stance to pay a living wage.”

Although other churches have succeeded in using EFT to encourage giving, Jentile says if you are the pastor of a church in a township, you have the challenge of technology. Few people use banking apps, and a only small percentage of congregants will go to the bank and deposit money in the church’s account.

Jentile says he has recognised that people will give only if you preach to them: “There is a transaction, which is subconscious in people’s minds — you give us the word, we give you the money. That is why you are giving to the same church — you are not going to give to someone who does not preach to you. I did not believe it. But I see it now.”

He says people want the word, but the church is not only about preaching: “It’s also about helping people, and sadly people think that when you preach, that is when you work.” This means that people often do not see the church feeding people in the community as part of its work. 

Bishop Joshua Maponga says attending services is not safe in the face of Covid-19, and people must start ministering and praying by themselves.

“The very form of church is the individual, and without a church in your heart you are wasting your time in a building. Right now we have been [told] that churches are a holy place, [but] I am so glad churches have finally been closed. People can finally look for God for themselves,” Maponga says.

He adds that the idea of mega-churches is going to fall away and digital ministry is going to gain traction. In this future, more personalised ministers, who have relationships with their congregants, and organisations such as cell groups are going to succeed.

“Funding models of the church are going to change. Now people are not going to contribute towards the building, but to the programme itself,” Maponga says.

Jentile says no matter what change might arise from this crisis, churches will adapt. 

This is because churches have a way of transmitting and perpetuating any change occurring in society, he says, adding: “Whatever sociological change that is there, the church has always been the driver. The church will not die — it will survive”.

Although churches have long taken in money to keep running, and to help communities, there are parts of the church that have raised eyebrows in the way in which they do so.

Last month, a video of prophet Shepherd Bushiri asking his members to send tithes and offerings through EFTs surfaced on social media. Outsiders questioned his request, especially at a time when people’s jobs are threatened because of the virus. He subsequently shared another video depicting proof of payments being printed, in which he says he will pray for people for financial breakthrough, healing and deliverance.

Tshegofatso Mathe is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian