Segun Ilori spent much of his time cleaning a local Foursquare Gospel Church in 2005 when he won an immigration lottery enabling him to move to the United States.
Today, he drives a 2010 Toyota Camry and has been able to share his comfortable life in the U.S. by sending six cars back home. He attributes his good fortune to the grace of God.
Tedius Makwari heard promises of faith leading to health and wealth while attending the United Family International Church in Zimbabwe. But he said he never realized any benefit of going to the church besides being stripped of his hard-earned money in the name of offerings.
In a continent where many churches are growing by emphasizing both the material and spiritual benefits of faith, Ilori and Makwari represent different faces of a religious movement that can evoke both spiritual revival and disillusionment.
What is sometimes called the “prosperity gospel” is gaining followers across Africa.
Religious communities throughout the world are challenged by the issue of how much material comfort their faith promises in this world. In Africa and elsewhere, many people go to church for different reasons and economic empowerment through divine intervention is one of them.
In Nigeria, where a majority of the population lives on one dollar a day, churches promoting the practical benefits of religion are filled.
In Zimbabwe, pastoral figures such as Prophet Emmanuel Makandiwa and Bishop Trevor Manhanga have become household names for those seeking redemption and the acquisition of both spiritual and material wealth.
Makandiwa’s United Family International Church is said to have won the hearts of many partly through his use of the local Shona language and by touching on issues that affect ordinary people in their everyday lives.
“When I joined United Family International Church in 2010 I had been burdened by some evil spirits so when Prophet Makandiwa came to Chinhoyi preaching and praying to people with problems like mine, I took the decision straight away so that I could be redeemed,” said Grace Urayai, 66, from Chinhoyi.
Urayai said there has been considerable improvement in her life as well as her family’s after going through prayers with the UFIC family. She said she used to constantly suffer epileptic bouts, which she attributed to evil spirits.
However, Makwari, a former follower of the same congregation, has a different story to tell.
“I have been to this church before and nothing seem to have worked in my favor save for the fact that I could only lose my hard earned money paying for offerings which sometimes appear to be forced matters,” Makwari said.
Pastor Tony Egbe of Nigeria’s Redeemed Christian Church of God said church is not a place where every problem will be necessarily solved. “It’s a place that where you go, you find Christ and He will give you peace.”
How does the church respond to those in need? Egbe, who heads the Turning Point parish in Lagos, cited the example of a man who is jobless and upset about it.
“What the church does is to give him an assurance that ‘if you trust in God and you know His Son Jesus Christ and you have accepted Him, then your issues are not lost to Him.’ God is working out something and in the fullness of time He will address your challenge.
“In the meantime, before that fullness of time comes, the role of the church is to give such an individual peace and rest and occupy him in more meaningful things before the fulfillment of God’s promise, regarding a job,” said Egbe.
In reflecting on his success since moving to America, Segun, 30, said the gifts he has received are tied to his faith.
“I felt in my heart that God has compensated me for all the services that I have been rendering in the church and to people,” he said in a Skype interview from Houston, Texas. “I dedicated my time, everything in serving the Lord and others while focusing on my career and academic pursuit.”
Segun is quick to add, however, that his Christian faith is stronger than ever and his work in the church continues. He is the head of horticulture and a member of the prayer band at the Redeemed Christian Church in Houston, Texas, where he worships.