It was a lethal combination! A small church, a large congregation, and the hottest month of the year in Malawi — October — odiously referred to by a former British colonialist as ‘suicide month’.
I watched from my seat on the platform, sitting next to the well-dressed pastor (in a neatly pressed avocado-green suit), as the crowd enthusiastically worked through one animated song after another.
This was all fairly typical. The only thing that seemed a bit unusual was the brand new porcelain toilet sitting proudly on the stage a few feet in front of me!
It wasn’t long before the pastor stood to make his pitch for the new outhouse that was apparently already under construction — the deacons needed additional funds for roofing sheets and a septic tank.
It was then that the pelekani started — a Malawian custom borrowed from weddings and engagement parties, where the guests dance forward in a broad line to shower the bride with kwacha notes.
But today, instead of a radiant bride we had a sparking toilet bowl. Soon the bills were raining down, most missing the ceramic target, as the crowd tangoed by.
In one of Africa’s poorest countries (per capita income is only slightly over $150 annually) the church’s financial problems are many — underpaid pastors, inadequate facilities, and insufficient capital to pioneer new programmes.
Monetary woes are the result of at least two problems. First, it is impossible to evade the reality that Malawi is among the six poorest nations in the world. Disposable income is a rarity.
Secondly, the mainline denominations established in the late 1800s were funded for decades by their Western mother churches. Historically, pastors have been paid by denominational headquarters supported financially by their Western partners.
An indigenous congregation supporting its own pastor is a relatively new concept. Consequently, it is not surprising that churches lacking biblical teaching about giving find it necessary to cultivate ‘creative’ fund-raising methods.
One Presbyterian church, where I occasionally preach, is situated on a historic mission station just outside the capital city. It is a young colourful and enterprising congregation.
At one holiday-time service I came in through the back door, stepped onto the platform, and stared up at the rafters over the pulpit — my sermon about the birth of our Saviour was about to be delivered beneath a large, inflatable, red and white, vinyl Santa Claus!
This church is also the champion of ‘creative giving’. One Sunday they had five large wicker baskets on the stage. The baskets were labelled 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, and 200 kwacha respectively.
At offering time those with 5 kwacha notes could dance up and toss bills into their basket; then the 10 kwacha holders had their turn, and so on. The method worked beautifully!
Another profitable Sunday morning tactic is the ‘Township Competition Offering’. Each neighbourhood assigns a resident to stand at the front holding a large basket.
With an elder at the mike giving play-by-play commentary, the congregation come forward to drop money in their township’s basket. The offerings are tallied in full view on the communion table, so that both winners and losers can be announced.
It is still typical for members of rural churches to give chickens, goats and cows to the church or pastor. This heartfelt traditional giving continues today in many urban churches once a year on ‘First fruits Sunday’.
People bring to church their first and best crops — maize, potatoes, beans — covering the aisles and platform with bags of produce.
Malawi’s poverty sometimes feels overwhelming, but the generosity of the African people is extraordinary — despite giving methods which need toning down to a biblical modesty.
Malawi could be a wonderful example to the affluent world of the true meaning of sacrificial giving. The typical layman may not be a faithful ‘10% tither’, or in a position to underwrite a new Sunday school block — but his giving is almost always a sacrifice, and it does come wholly from the heart.
As Jesus taught his disciples in Mark 12:43-44: ‘this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty … all she owned, all she had to live on’.