There's been a lot of publicity about innocent people being unduly influenced into giving huge sums of money to religious organisations to which they belong. Various religious leaders have been charged in court, some have been convicted and what's puzzling to most people is not so much the crimes committed by these supposedly holy men of God but the reaction of the congregation. The blind, dogged, persistent support given to the church leader even when there have been accusations that he has improperly used the money of these very supporters is something most people find puzzling.
As a long-standing Christian (and a devout one, even if I say so myself), I am in the best position to explain the psychology of these believers. I have heard of a couple who sold their only home and gave the entire proceeds to their church. They are obliged to rent from their meagre salaries a modest flat to live in. You'd probably think they are insane. But the reality is they aren't any more insane than you and I. Why then do they do what normal people wouldn't dream of doing?
I'm sure this happens in every religion but I will only give the Christian perspective which is the only one I'm familiar with.
Every organisation needs money and the church is not unique here. The church needs money and it's not wrong to give to it. First, I would like to classify churches into traditional churches and non-traditional churches. By my definition, traditional churches are churches that do a lot of charitable works. They build schools, hospitals, hospices, old folks' home, orphanages and other kinds of welfare homes. These churches do a lot of good for society and giving to them is good and right. But these are churches that usually don't demand money from parishioners. They don't threaten parishioners or frighten them into giving money. By my definition again, non-traditional churches are usually new-fangled churches, usually independent and sometimes they become really large and they are called mega-churches. A mega-church almost always has a single person who holds all the power in the organisation and nobody questions his power and authority and because his church is new and probably started by him, there aren't any real checks and balances to curb his untrammelled power. Another feature of a non-traditional church (remember, this is entirely my own definition) is that it does not build schools, hospices, orphanages and other welfare homes. It probably does some charitable work but nothing as major as running welfare homes. Not all churches that are non-traditional and don't run charitable homes, hospices and orphanages are bad. I'm sure some are all right but those churches that have been getting bad publicity on the local press are almost always non-traditional churches that don't run welfare homes. I have to make this clear because it's not my intention to tar all independent churches with the same brush.
I'm sure many people will disagree with my classification and I really don't bother about the distinction. I'm not out on a crusade to draw people to traditional churches and frankly, I haven't got any evangelistic zeal. I am all for everyone following his own religion and the religious culture of his community. What I want to examine here is not which church is good and which is bad but I want to peer into the minds of believers and see what makes them tick. What makes a person give the bulk of his money to the church and when accusations are made by impartial authorities against the church leader, what makes this same person defend the leader mindlessly and with the ferocity of a wild beast?
A lot has to do with the teachings of the religion. In Christianity, the worthlessness of man is something that is stressed all the time. We are like dust at God's feet. As the famous hymn goes, "Amazing grace.... that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see". Or as St Paul writes, he is nothing without Christ, that Christ should increase and he decrease. The worthlessness of mankind leads to the concept commonly called the "total depravity of man". We are told from the cradle that we are utterly worthless and not only are we worthless, we are totally and irredeemably depraved. Irredeemable? Well, not quite. There is one redemption open to us and it's only through Jesus Christ, the Redeemer that we may be saved.
Together with this idea that we are utterly worthless and depraved without Christ is the concept that we own nothing. As the book of Job tells us, "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither". And the New Testament carries on the same imagery with St Paul saying "For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out." All things come from God and when we give our money to the church, we aren't giving God what's ours. We are returning to God what is really his. As the hymn goes, "We give thee but thine own". We are but stewards of the property that belongs to God even though the law of the land says we have a legal title to the property. We hold all our possessions in stewardship for God's ultimate use and for the purposes of his Kingdom. These are lofty-sounding words that don't mean more than that the money should be used by the church.
That is in fact the correct teaching of the church. It's not something the mega-churches cooked up. What the mega-churches have done is to build on this concept as I will illustrate later.
What Christianity has done to the average parishioner is to make him in a sense vulnerable. This was vitally important in the history of Christianity when the church was always fighting tooth and nail with the State and controlling the parishioners was what the church sought to do. Of course many of us don't really care what the church teaches and we don't give a hoot for this concept of stewardship and we would use our property any way we like and the church can go to the blazes for all we care. That's the stand of the majority of Christians even though they may not admit this and many don't even realize this.
But there is always a group that feels keenly the pricking of their conscience every time they fail to give huge sums to the church and it is this group that can fall prey to errant pastors who know this weakness of a segment of their flock.
In traditional churches, there are some safeguards against exploitation of these faithful few. Traditional churches NEVER coerce parishioners into giving money. Giving is always considered a matter between the parishioner and God. Everything is left to the individual to decide for himself or herself how much, if any, he should give to God. The guiding principle is what St Paul says - to give cheerfully. So, if you don't feel good about giving, don't give. It's that simple. Traditional churches too have a proper system of accounting and they have rules in place and the money given by the parishioners do not go to the pastors.
Now I have to be careful what I say because, like I have already explained, not all non-traditional churches are bad. What I'm going to say next is not applicable to all non-traditional churches but only to a very few of them. What do these very few errant churches do to ensure their ecclesiastical coffers are filled to the brim?
First, they teach their members properly. These churches always refer their members to the practice in the Old Testament. Now, the structure of the temple in the Old Testament is very different from the church that we have today. They had Levite priests and much of the giving to the temple went to the Levites, a group of people who were by birth ordained to be priests. The traditional 10% or tithe comes from this practice. But in the Old Testament, the giving of tithe was not all there was to the financial obligation of a devout Jew. He had to give from his crops to the Levites, something which is called "First fruits". The system is extremely complex and if you want to cream off your parishioners, you can do it quite effectively by going into detail on what exactly the ancient Israelite had to give to the House of Levi and of course you extrapolate the whole thing and you, the pastor, becomes the Levite in order to give profitable meaning to that Old Testament practice.
Next, you tell your congregation that because they are obliged to give so much to the church, withholding it from the church would be tantamount to robbing God. This is a frightening allegation - that the Christian is robbing God! But you can always find something in the Bible to support anything you want and all you have to do is to turn to the book of Malachi (that's the last book of the Old Testament) in which the prophet tells the people that they have robbed God. I assure you it's very effective when used on a compliant congregation.
Now is the time when you can talk about God's curses. He who has the temerity of robbing God must surely expect curses from the Almighty. Extend the curses to the entire family and to the children of the sinner. That's usually very effective in bringing a hardened person to his knees.
But a good pastor will not just stop there. The Gospel of Christ is always called the Good News and that's what the congregation wants to hear. You tell them that God will break the curse if they are obedient (ie give abundantly to the church). Say to them, "Jesus is waiting at the door to give his blessings. He wants to give his blessings but as long as you are disobedient, he can't do so. What will your answer be today? What is YOUR response to Jesus who now stands at the door with his blessings? Will you let him in or will you chase him away?"
Now, you do not end there. If you end there and let the congregation leave the church, you have failed. It's natural for even the most pious parishioner to have some sense knocked into his head the moment he leaves the church. What you should do at this point is to ask everyone to pray with you. Of course you lead in the prayer. You speak for the people to God. You tell God how WE have sinned against him. We have robbed him, you confess. We have disobeyed him. But we now repent of our grievous sins. At this point, you should look over the pulpit to see if some in the congregation are beginning to weep. There should be some, usually among the ladies if you have done it right.
You thank Jesus for his patience and his compassion. There he stands at the door with blessings in his hand and we have shut him out. Lord, we open our hearts to you. We invite you in. We receive your blessings. NOTE: You mustn't say anything about giving money to the church because that would be too obvious but you need not worry. Everyone knows that that's what he's supposed to do and it's their hateful disobedience and sin that have prevented them from doing so.
At this point, you don't end the prayer but you go into a period of silence but before I continue, I should say something to those who attend traditional churches. Those who attend traditional churches will no doubt notice that there is a departure from the Liturgy but we are not talking about traditional churches with boring liturgy cast in stone. We are talking about the modern non-traditional churches that do things "as the Spirit leads". What I have said is not something I have made up myself. It's something I draw from my personal experience when I attended non-traditional church services a few times in my younger days.
Let's go back to the pulpit. Because you have not ended the prayer but have lapsed into silence, the congregation would still be in a prayerful mood. You break the silence with an admonition: "The Spirit is speaking to you now. Listen to that still small voice." This last bit is important. Of course nobody really hears the Spirit of God speaking. I mean if you really hear something audible, you'd do well to see a psychiatrist. That's why the Bible refers to the "prompting" of the Spirit and the voice of the Spirit is always described as the "still small voice". A devout Christian is trained to "hear" the voice of God by the IMPRESSION that he "senses". Basically, an impression is no different from a thought. Of course the parishioners will "hear" the voice of the Spirit. The pastor has just spoken at great length about the importance of giving to the church and it is impossible that the parishioner senses no impression that should go along the same line. The devout Christian will believe that he "hears" the Spirit "in his heart". He feels that the Spirit is telling him to give more money. Just in case some of them are a little obtuse, you should help them along. "Is the Spirit of God telling you to do what you have thus far neglected?" Again avoid talking directly about filthy cash. You are above all that, surely!
Next, you can add this which I have actually heard in youtube from a sermon taken from a mega-church. You tell the congregation to put God to the test. Give him a fixed amount and see if God will shortchange you. There is something in the Bible about God giving a ten-fold blessing. Seize that verse for this purpose and tell the people that God has promised a ten-fold return. Try him out and see if he will go back on his promise. Give $1000 and see if you do not receive ten times that amount in return within the week or month. Or if you are wise, give God $10,000 and you'll get a lot more in return. A website I have seen even talks about a hundredfold blessing, which is better. Google "tenfold blessings" and "hundredfold blessings" if you don't believe me. This is religion - you can't sue the pastor if you don't get your ten-fold or hundredfold return.
Sometimes, a bit of soft and slow music can go a long way to goad the believer to reach deeper into his pockets. Tell the organist to pick a familiar slow hymn.
I recently learnt from a friend who attends one of these non-traditional churches that the pastors force all the members to give their payslips and income tax returns to the church which will ascertain that tithes are collected. He assures me it's true but I find it preposterous. Honestly, I know people can be stupid but I really doubt there's anyone in Singapore who wouldn't walk out of a church that asks for your payslip.
Another thing I understand from people who go to non-traditional churches is that they are given a lot of lessons on tithe-giving, etc. They are always told to look at Malachi 3:10 which reads, "Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need." It's funny that although I have been a devout Christian all my life and have served the church from being an altar boy to various ministries in adulthood, I have never heard such a creative reading of Malachi. The Levites' storehouse becomes the church!!!
What they tell their congregation is that their duty is to give 10 percent of their earnings to the church (the Levites' storehouse) and once they have done that, their duty is fulfilled. If the church misuses the money, God will deal with the perpetrators himself. But your duty to give 10 percent to the church remains. Can you believe this?
But this is all perfectly legal. It's more than legal. It's religious and nobody dares to say a word against religion. But to be fair, in most churches, all money goes through a proper accounting process and everything is above board. Churches generally do a lot of good in society and the scandal of a few black sheep should not tarnish the good name of the holy church, the Bride of Christ.