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Business of the Church

By Azu Ishiekwene

The church may have been the poorer cousin of business decades ago, but the tables are turning. And they are turning quite fast, at least in Nigeria. My pilgrim’s journey tells a small part of the story. After my parents and I were relocated to Lagos in the aftermath of Nigeria’s civil war in 1970, I joined the Catholic Church. I was baptized and confirmed there and soon became an altar boy. 

That was just the beginning.

The average youth of today changes jobs four times in their lifetime. I have switched churches five times since I first joined the Catholic Church in the 1970s. My experience has been less a search for salvation than a journey of discovery into how the church has challenged business at its own game and has managed, in some cases, to rewrite the rules. 

According to an article in the Christmas 2015 issue of The Economist, 105 years ago, when Africa had a population of about 100 million, roughly 9 percent was Christian. With a population of nearly 1 billion today, the continent’s Christian population has grown to 55 percent or 550 million, the fastest growth of any region in the world.

In Nigeria, one of the continent’s religious capitals, churches have bought off warehouses formerly used by manufacturers and have converted swathes of arable land into religious towns and cities. The business of serving God has expanded rapidly, yielding profits from works of charity, but increasingly also from subsidiary profit units like schools, consultancies, fast food chains, estates, and merchandising. 

But the church was not always prosperous. When I got my first job as a journalist in the late 1980s, I avoided churches that needed more time than my job could allow. It was a common dilemma among many working people that I know. But over time, the church has responded quite remarkably. A typical business response would be to fire the aging, poorly adapting workers and get younger staff for less pay. The church did something more creative.

Christian denominations outside the mainstream offered an irresistible remedy for their members: market place theology, or a chance to serve God side by side with the flexibility of doing business. In addition, they created “classical” and “model” parishes, energizing staid, old habits with the flair and exuberance of youth. It was a perfect win-win. New, wealthy members who needed an appearance of godliness to be at peace with their growing prosperity but couldn’t afford to be full-time members now had a comfortable position in the church; and the church itself, which lacked the competence and managerial skills required to reposition itself, now had access to a new set of resources. 

Before corporate governance became a fad in business, many churches had made a leap start, using the expertise of professionals in their board of trustees and in advisory capacities. Every time a business leader talks about multiple streams of income, or to use the official terminology, the need for diversification, I’m reminded that the church is already doing this. Apart from incomes that a number of churches make from their franchises, which range from fast-food shops to the sale of CDs and MP3s, and from estate management to consultancies, a number of them have grown by expanding membership to other countries, setting up branches there and earning foreign exchange.  

For example, southern and eastern Africa constitute an increasingly significant part of the income of Pastor Chris Oyakhilome’s Believers Loveworld Incorporated, Joshua’s Church of All Nations, and Oyedepo’s Living Faith Outreach. Churches like Pastor Sunday Adelaja’s Ukraine-based Embassy of God or Matthew Ashimolowo’s U.K.-based KICC remain prominent Nigerian franchises abroad. A 2011 report by Forbes estimated the worth of the five richest Nigerian pastors at $200 million, with Bishop David Oyedepo’s Living Faith Outreach World Ministry alone valued at $150 million. 

In a conversation with a Nigerian-based magazine, The Interview, Sam Adeyemi, the senior pastor at Daystar Christian Centre, a Lagos-based Pentecostal church with over 10,000 mostly youthful members, stated that the wealth of Pentecostal churches was largely exaggerated. “Most of our income,” Adeyemi said, “is from what our members give, and our schools are subsidized from church income. The law in Nigeria permits churches to set up businesses as long as they are registered and they pay taxes. Paul the Apostle was engaged in tent making when it was expedient.”

The membership profile of today’s church and its capacity to mobilize assets is a master class for any quoted company planning a public offering. One of Nigeria’s largest churches, the Synagogue Church of All Nations, boasts top politicians across Africa, including the newly installed Tanzanian President John Magafuli, as members. 

Business must ask itself what more it can learn from the church. The church understands time in relation to immortality, and pastors see themselves as invested with their members in a vision that will not die. In the business of preparing for eternity or paradise, what you do today is instrumental to your future with God. 

Businesses, on the other hand, tend to think and behave with short-term gains in mind. It’s true that inconsistent government policies can make planning a headache, but sometimes businesses can get so distracted by their immediate successes or failures that they hardly notice the long-term possibilities of their actions. For example, how could MTN, Nigeria’s largest telecommunications company, fail to deal with its personal reputation as a Robin Hood from South Africa, and instead begin to create its own eternity: a future, or even an appearance of a future, as an inclusive company? Now MTN is paying a hefty $3.9 billion fine for its self-absorption. 

Yet, above all, the church could teach business the ability to share a vision of what a desired end might really look like. I’m not suggesting that business should learn to speak in tongues. However, it should speak in language that paints a clear picture of the future and what that future offers to staff, investors, or suppliers. 

For example, when the church speaks of the benefits of walking the straight and narrow path, the promise of a guilt-free life here through faith, and a reception on the streets paved with gold hereafter, members are convinced it’s an experience for which they could give an eye. And trust me, they do.

Isn’t it an amazing irony that while versions of the Bible now read like J.K. Rowling, business speaks the language of King James and wonders whither lies its future!

*****

*****

Azu Ishiekwene is the managing director/editor-in-chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Paris-based Global Editor’s Network.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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