Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Overcomers Church, Dalston Lane, 8.05.11

What makes a Church successful? Surely, a church that provides spiritual salvation to all its members can be regarded as successful.  But how can one person’s spiritual salvation be measured by the next? Is it to be judged by the individual? Or the church! Or God! And why do they have to be saved in the first place? I don’t have the answer to these questions and that is why I ask them but often Churches claim they do.  The churches on Dalston Lane are keen to advertise themselves as providing a spiritual service and guidance to the everyday; moving away from religion as tradition and towards being a modern Christian theology. In my visit to The Mission of Faith Christ Gospel Ministries (on 16.01.11), Christ Apostolic Church’s Fire Chapel (on 24.04.11) and now The Overcomers Church (08.05.11) I have found all three churches  follow the theological belief of the ” prosperity gospel.” “Prosperity Gospel,” united these churches in theology but are they also spiritual competitors?

Prosperity gospel is a Christian religious belief whose proponents claim to have millions of adherents (primarily in the United States) centred on the notion that God provides material prosperity for those he favours. Not a clearly defined denomination, “Prosperity Gospel” emerged from the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement in America after World War 2. Championed by American televangelist Oral Roberts, the prosperity gospel grew to huge popularity in the 1990s and has been exported to countries across the globe.  In following Jesus Christ through prayer and donations, adherents of the prosperity gospel believe they are sowing the seeds for a more materially rewarded life. Under the theology of “Prosperity Gospel,” Christianity becomes a motivational provider for a consumer led society leaving behind the sacrifice and toil of the Catholic and Anglican Church.
The churches material theology is reflected in the modern terraced building that houses The Mission of Faith Christ Gospel Ministries, Christ Apostolic Church’s Fire Chapel and The Overcomers Church. The placards mark the entrance but they could be mistaken for any commercial building, the unassuming exterior merging into the high street. The three churches clustered into one building: The Fire chapel has the entire first floor, The Mission and The Overcomers Church are situated on the ground level, only separated by “1ST Class Master Dry Cleaners.” The dry cleaners are a Muslim family business that has been on Dalston Lane for 20 years but were unhelpful when asked questions on recent history, they rented the space but would not disclose to who and they claimed they were unaware of the existence of their Christian neighbours (in fairness the dry cleaner is closed on Sunday) stating that so many businesses have been and gone it was hard to keep up.  In comparison to the dry cleaners the churches were of a younger age; Christ Apostolic Church had moved to Dalston lane three years ago, The Overcomers and The Mission had only been in the building for a year. The ownership of the building interested me and appeared to be a moot point to its tenants. Congregational members of The Mission and The Overcomers stated they paid rent to Christ Apostolic Church but their ministers merely described their tenancy as an agreement and looked puzzled when asked about money. Despite Christ Apostolic Church being an international organisation with ministries in the US and Africa I got the impression that they did not own the building but were sub-letting the space to The Overcomers and The Mission (for a material or spiritual fee). As every minister told me they all worship the same God but have different forms of worship.
Differences I could not personally see in my visit but I could find in my research. The Christ Apostolic Church is an international organisation, Nigeria’s first Pentecostal Church with 20 ministries across the London area and churches based in North America and West Africa.  In comparison The Overcomers Church was founded in Nigeria and its Dalston Lane branch is its only European church. Even rarer is The Mission which is the one and only church of its kind made up of a mixture of West African and some West Indians it was formed in London and is only two years old. Talking to ministers they do guest appearances at each other’s churches but seemed perplexed when I suggested they join together. I got the impression the Ministers are protective of their congregation as any firm would be protective over the ownership of its clients. Despite these cultural and historical differences the sermon delivered by Pastor Sylvester Oyibocha would have fitted in any of the churches within the building, his passionate baritone voice providing classic “Prosperity gospel” rhetoric.
The conference room setting had only one noticeable religious symbol which was the plastic transparent stand in which laid the bible. It would not have been surprising if the room was rented out during the week but the noise from the communal prayer was unmistakably evangelical. Pastor Sylvester conducted the small congregation from testimonies, readings, hymns, communal prayers and blessings interspersed with some amazing sound bites. I have listed below my favourites
1.       “There is power In the name of Jesus Christ may he wash away my enemies.”
This is a classic communal prayer opener in which the congregation constantly repeat the pastor’s words out at the top of their voices but interject more their own personal grievances. I find the term enemies worrying but key to prosperity gospel that one group prospers over another.
2.       “You do not need a passport to be successful; to make it in this country….Who owns Harrods… Mohammed Al Fayed…. He does not own a British passport. Who owns Chelsea football club…. He is not a British citizen. A British passport will not make you rich.. there is no excuse.”
I personally love the use of contemporary cultural figures in a church sermon and its shocking that both Al Fayed and Abramovich are referred to as role models for the immigrant experience. Plus the Al Fayed reference is out of date as Fayed sold Harrods. Arguably the focus on passports has more to do with the congregation’s Nigerian roots than a belief that God is materially punishing them for a lack of faith but the pastor’s rejection of stagnant social mobility for positive thinking is pure prosperity gospel. 
3.       “It is not a sin to be rich. ….I am sick hearing it is holy to be poor, there is no pride in being poor.”
Pastor Sylvester’s rejection of the austere and humble Christian life (commonly advocated by the Anglican and Catholic Churches) is a key controversial facet of “Prosperity Gospel. Following Pastor Sylvester’s logic if you believe in God you will be rewarded but if you don’t believe in God you will remain poor. Prosperity gospel promotes capitalism and consumerism in a much more open dialogue than Christianity of the past.
4.       “This church just needs one Donald Trump and we will rise.”
How Donald Trump got to be a role model I will never know but this fixation that an individual can help to save his church is common, it is symptomatic of evangelical churches merging with mainstream celebrity culture.
The above quotes could be put in any church that ascribes to “Prosperity Gospel” and not be out of place.  The irony is the familiar formula of the impassioned preaching detracts from the minster’s individualism; therefore it becomes important that the minister keeps his followers. If the churches had all joined together certain ministers would be marginalised but by fragmenting the potentially large congregation they remain powerful. Christ Apostolic Church holds the purse strings as it is their charitable letting that makes The Mission and the Overcomers be in their debt. I would compare Christ Apostolic Church’s hegemony over the The Mission and The Overcomers to when a company invests in its rivals.  The Mission and The Overcomers remain separate from Christ Apostolic Church but they are non-competitive rivals as they depend on each other’s success.
The micro politics of the three churches does reflect my key criticism of “Prosperity Gospel,” that despite promoting social mobility and material wealth through positive thinking it actually plays into the hands of the already powerful.  All the ministers I talked to on Dalston Lane shared respect for each other but were also protective of their congregation. The most interesting Minister was The Mission’s Minister Sonny who runs a text message daily prayer service called Textministry. Minister Sonny made it clear that this service was not the work of The Mission but his own project for his own followers. The innovative and individual thinking of Minister Sonny made me realise that “Prosperity Gospel” means ministers can exist outside their church affiliations as they promote their own relationship with God. If The Mission dissolved then Minister Sonny would still have his Textministry followers to persuade him to join a new evangelical sect.  Prosperity Gospel takes the notion of success away from the church and onto the individuals that form the congregation.
Personally, I believe “Prosperity Gospel” is a reductive theology that limits Christian faiths that are too insecure in their position in the modern world. The desire to answer the opening questions “What makes a Church successful?  How can one person’s spiritual salvation be measured by the next?” Led to Christians following “Prosperity Gospel” as a simple philosophy to understand their faith. “ Prosperity Gospel takes Christianity way from more complex moral questions by declaring that heavens rewards can be had on Earth.

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