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Big God, bigger churches?

By Flavia Nassaka

What Pastor Imelda’s mats to tiles story says about religion in Uganda

Does God approve of the new big churches? Does the emergence of the mega-church phenomenon in Kampala signify a rise in religiousness? These questions and more have been aired since the charismatic Pentecostal Christian preacher; Pastor Imelda Namutebi, in May opened her 15,000-seater church atop Namungoona hill in Kampala.

Pastor Imelda’s Liberty Worship Center International is in Lugala village of Rubaga division. From a distance, the mega-church building looks like a five star hotel with its striking golden brown walls, extensive gardens, and sprawling parking lot.  It sits on 17 acres of land.

The first sign of its churchliness are its numerous wide rectangular windows with their curved tops. Although not ornamented with stained glass found in most basilicas, the windows make the three-storied church look even bigger in the sparsely developed neighbourhood of small single-story buildings. Nearer, one notices the shiny white and brown marble tiles on the outside that hint at the glitter inside the auditorium.

The all-tiled interior is painted cream and all the metallic frames are coated gold. Immense pillars curve into C-form in the middle, and a mezzanine to accommodate more worshippers. The auditorium has a comfy corporate-look with banquet chairs in place of pews, wide stage, a sanctuary adorned with modern lighting, and clear Plexiglass podium for the preacher. It has a `presidential lounge’ for high profile people and reserved space for the media.

So does God say it is alright for churches to be this magnificent?

Wotsuna Khamalwa, a professor of Anthropology and Science of Religion at Makerere University, says mega-churches are an inevitable trend. He notes that unlike during ancient biblical times when, in Jerusalem, there were aspects to follow when building a temple; for instance the size and sitting arrangement, modern religion no longer follows that.

“Although Namutebi’s church is so far the biggest in the country, we are yet to see bigger churches coming up because the population is increasingly picking interest in going to church,” he says.

Liberty Worship Center is by far one of the biggest Pentecostal churches in the region following Living Faith church in Nairobi, Kenya, of Bishop David Oyedepo which can sit 20,000 worshippers at the same time. The world’s largest worship center is the Haram mosque in Mecca that has capacity to sit over four million worshippers. It’s at this place that Muslims perform pilgrimage. Basilica of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil is the world’s biggest Catholic Church with capacity to sit 70,000 worshippers.

But do these gigantic places of worship, therefore, mean people are becoming more religious?

Not necessarily, according to Prof. Khamalwa. He explains that it is the “social dimension” to religion that is becoming bigger.

“As the economic situation is becoming more difficult, people are increasingly seeking solutions from religion,” he explains. Some, he adds, have resorted to magic.

When asked about why Pentecostal churches are becoming stylish, Prof. Khamalwa says Pentecostals believe that when one sows a seed, God blesses that seed, and to the Pentecostals, wealth is a sign of having God’s favour.

Prof. Khamalwa’s point is one that Pastor Imelda Namutebi recognises. She says she believes churches are supposed to be comfortable places that allow contemplation, meditation, and reflection. To her, people are getting more attracted to the Pentecostal movement because it is perceived to answer people’s needs urgently unlike the three traditional religions.

“We are attracting more masses because in our churches, there’s a more personal relationship with God. People achieve results quickly unlike the other religions where they are conservative in a way that they pray the exact way our great grandparents used to pray yet society is dynamic,” she says.

Everyone’s miracle

The message of Pastor Imelda’s sermons too is biblical without traditional dogma. Her tool of persuasion is the power of miracle. This is what her mega church appears to be telling her congregation; if I can move from a mat (Biwempe) wooden church to a brick, metal, and glass basilica in six years, then you too can have something equally dramatic happen in your life. Pastor Namutebi says the church cost Shs7 billion (Approx. US$ 3 million) to build.  Most was raised entirely from tithe and other offertory by the worshippers.

She says her church is “a success story of everyone”.

Namutebi’s journey to owning one of the biggest churches in the region is a true rags-to-riches story. As she happily explains, in 1986 when she joined the Pentecostal church, she was a hopeless house help. Then she started her ministry by preaching the gospel door-to-door.

In 1998, having visited many churches, she got the idea of starting her own church in Lugala. She says she realised that there was no major Pentecostal church within the vicinity and Christians would move long distances to Pastor Robert Kayanja’s Miracle Centre Cathedral.

Following the beaten path of Pentecostal churches that sprout throughout the country, Namutebi started by putting up a temporary wooden structure which is still in place up to date. In 2006, she started constructing the mega-church.

“At first I doubted I could complete such a huge enterprise within the duration of eight years considering that the money would come mainly from tithe and other church offertory,” she says. She says she worked and prayed hard to fulfill her dream. To design the church, she hired James Musoke.

“When I was contracted to design this church, my client had no idea about how exactly the church would finally look but considering the financial capacity of the church body, space and the number of worshippers, I thought of designing something modern,” says Musoke.

He explains that the initial plan presented to him by the church body was not so different from that of a warehouse. In the end, he says, he considered employing both secular and religious architecture to come up with the structure.

When asked about why he had to divert from the traditional style of building churches, he said that Church-building reflects the changing strengths in the denominations at different times. He points out that, in the past, born-again Christians were few and had limited resources to build bigger and better churches. That is why many built temporary church structures.

“Modernity has come with a lot of new things. Then, people never constructed churches with tiled floors because tiles were not there just as every one building a house now days whether small or big is considering using tiles”.

With religious architecture, the church building is supposed to be in a shape of a cross to represent the cross on which Jesus died but this is not the case with Liberty Worship Center.

Also, its main entrance is unique and unlike the traditional church where worshipper enter the auditorium directly. Liberty has a reception area from where worshippers are directed to their respective seats.

Spiritual entrepreneurship

There have been murmurs about some pastors in the Pentecostal movement demanding large sums of money from followers. Pastor Namutebi’s church may attract some high profile worshippers these days, but in the beginning, it relied a lot from it low income congregants. At one point, Pastor Namutebi is said to have advised them to stop dropping coins in the offertory.

Prof. Khamalwa explains this phenomenon: “To some extent some pastors have turned religion into business. In sociology of religion, this is called “packaging religion” or God. Pastors are packaging religion in a way that people are buying blessings as they are urged to sow the seed. In short they have to do something in order to be blessed.”

Prof. Khamalwa says, however, getting money from the congregation is not totally bad if the motive is right.

“Since many churches begin in ‘biwempe’ and graduate into glamorous cathedrals, and the pastors who may have started preaching on the street soon acquire property including expensive cars and mansions, these tend to be evidence for the poor that their own situations of poverty and deprivation can be reversed miraculously,” he says.

Isaac Kizito, a born- again Christian also finds nothing wrong with giving huge sums of money to a church as long as the pastor puts it to good use.

“The pastor may use tithe to buy a Range Rover but he/she uses this to spread the gospel,” he says, “God is the provider and there is nothing wrong to use the money He has provided to you in building posh churches and driving expensive cars.” Looking at her magnificent new mega-church, Pastor Namutebi possibly would not agree more.

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