SOWETO, South Africa – “Jesus wants you to drive a brand new Nissan Navara 4×4. He’d also like you to live in a classy house, use the latest cell phone and wear the snappiest designer clothes.”
That was the message from a recent Sunday sermon at the new Soweto branch of Brazil’s huge Pentecostal-style Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG).
UCKG is expanding fast in Africa and bills its gleaming new cathedral in Soweto — which seats 8,000 and has room for hundreds of plush cars in its vast underground car park — as the biggest church on the continent.
UCKG’s “prosperity gospel” message, which tells members to expect financial blessings from God as long as they give “sacrificially” when the collection plate comes around, is proving a hit in the world’s poorest continent.
And it holds special resonance for the faithful of Soweto — a sprawling township once gripped by violence and poverty and now home to a burgeoning black middle class.
“God doesn’t want you to be poor and ashamed — he wants you to drive a new car,” the preacher at the new Soweto church yelled into a microphone, to delighted whoops from thousands.
A Zimbabwean couple take to the stage to explain how they gave a large chunk of their money to the church then watched their business grow. They were soon able to buy their own house and two new cars — including the much-vaunted Nissan Navarra.
“A brand new Nissan Navarra people,” shouted the preacher “God wants to show his power in your life too.”
MISSIONARIES FROM THE SOUTH
UCKG started in a park shelter in Rio de Janeiro in 1977 and has spread to more than 90 countries with 10 million members, according to its Web site. Its journey reflects a growing trend for churches in developing countries — once the target of European missionaries — to evangelise other parts of the world.
While church-going is on the wane in Europe, Christianity is booming in Latin America, Africa and Asia with Pentecostal-style churches often attracting thousands to raucous Sunday services.
People in developing countries are attracted to Pentecostal churches for their lively worship, the emphasis on the supernatural that chimes with indigenous religion and teaching that often promises riches in return for piety.
But while many Pentecostal churches preach that God will bless those who make sacrifices — both financial and spiritual, few are as explicit as UCKG, which teaches poverty is unnecessary, and holds special “campaigns” to pray for specific “goals”, like a new car, house or even swimming pool.
Critics say UCKG is a cult that manipulates its members.
The church, which has a whole section on its Web site dedicated to correcting “misconceptions”, insists it is part of the mainstream Pentecostal movement and notes members are not forced to donate money.
It has sued several media organisations for publishing what it says are false allegations and warned Reuters it was not afraid to use legal action to correct a “negative story”.
When this reporter jotted down a few notes during a UCKG service an usher demanded to see them, and threatened arrest when he was refused. A request for an interview with the church’s senior leaders was denied.
“I am sorry but we have had trouble with the media,” explained Pastor Guilherme da Silveira, the church’s PR boss in South Africa.
HELICOPTERS AND THE HOLY SPIRIT
The sermon in Soweto was more like a business pep talk, with the preacher spending a good portion of the 2- hour service encouraging worshippers to dream up money-making schemes ahead of the 2010 soccer World Cup, which South Africa is due to host.
“There will be important people coming to South Africa and they will need helicopters,” he told a rapt audience. “I want them to be hiring out your helicopters.”
Many members say their lives have changed for the better since joining UCKG — whether by divine intervention or because they halted money-draining pastimes like drinking or gambling.
Nonhlanla Nelly said her life improved after she joined a UCKG church and gave 5,000 rand ($724) — the most she could afford. Since then she got promoted at work and bought a car.
“God doesn’t want us to be poor,” she said after the service, adding she still gives all she can to the church. “He wants to give us blessings and to show his power in our lives.” ~Rebecca Harrison, Reuters.