Ten New Zealand locations and one in Australia. Over 9,000 followers. Countless appearances in the media. Yet, the true nature of the Destiny Church is unclear. Are they financial blood-letters of the uneducated or providers of valuable community services? Saviours or false prophets? A cult or not? The Destiny dichotomy has lead to the church becoming one of our nation’s most infamous institutions.
The Church’s infamy began with its political forays, which began in 2003 through the formation of the Destiny New Zealand Party. The Church saw New Zealand straying from God’s path—we needed a return to “Christian moral values,” which is not an oxymoron in the Church’s opinion. These “moral values” equate to homophobia, a parent’s “right” to use violence to discipline their child, and the Government’s secularity being described as “evil” and “modern-day witchcraft”.
In August 2004, enough was enough for Destiny. Clad in ominous black, 5,000 church members protested against the upcoming Civil Union Act—a piece of legislation which provided a legal framework to recognise same-sex partnerships—in a rally appropriately titled ‘Enough is Enough’. The Church aimed to stop the advancement of the “radical homosexual agenda” and come the 2005 election, Destiny’s stance resonated with 14,210 people—0.6 per cent of voters.
What sets Destiny apart is their leader, Bishop Brian Tamaki. Tamaki is a man who holds the dubious honour of being voted New Zealand’s least trusted person two years running. He is as enigmatic as he is charismatic, as cunning as he is suave. He is the Church’s rock, known as much for his flashy clothes, million-dollar home, expensive cars and swathe of bodyguards as he is for his preaching. His autobiography, More Than Meets The Eye, tells the tale of a real transformer. Growing up with an alcoholic father, he dropped out of school in fourth form and worked in agriculture before establishing a number of churches, the precursors to Destiny.
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Tamaki established the Destiny Church in the mould of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, a 25,000-strong American mega-church run by Senior Pastor Eddie Long. Described as “virulently homophobic”, Long ran into trouble in 2010 with allegations of sexual impropriety from four male parishoners, and a Senate investigation into his tax affairs. Destiny would not comment to Salient on their current relationship with Long.
In New Zealand, Destiny’s income is tax-free via their status as a religious organisation. Due to Tamaki’s extollation of prosperity theology, this income is significant. Prosperity theology teaches that God’s Will is for material Christian wealth. Donations are actively solicited; ex-members have spoken of compulsory $300 rings, $30 ceremony charges, and perpetually-circulating collection plates. According to a number of sources Salient spoke to, families must donate 10 per cent of their income, a figure the Church would not comment on.
While the Church has made Tamaki wealthy, the trickle-up effect is not the sole mechanism in play. The Church directs funds to a very wide range of community services, endorsed by the government: in 2011 alone, $860,000 of government funding went to Destiny’s community programmes. Salient spoke to Geoff †, a former South Auckland youth pastor who worked alongside Destiny organisations, and he spoke positively of programs which prevent family violence, help people budget, provide family counselling, put kids in school and rehabilitate alcoholics and drug addicts. To Geoff, paying 10 per cent of their income to solve these problems was “a good deal,” considering “some…families are spending 60 per cent of their income on alcohol, cigarettes, court costs, fines or drugs”. Yet, stories exist of families taking loans of over $1000 to finance their Church obligations.
To understand why people put themselves under such financial duress for the Church, one can look to Associate Professor Peter Lineham’s view on the extensive role the Destiny Church has taken in the community: he sees Destiny similarly to Rātana, a Māori religion with tribal and political aspects. Rātana’s “appeal was principally to detribalised Māori,” something Geoff believes is common with Tamaki’s Destiny Church. “Māori culture…responds well to a tribal style of leadership…look at guys like Tame Iti or Hone Harawira. They’re very authoritative, confrontational, charismatic; they’ve got to be a figurehead. Destiny really in some ways, especially 5 years ago when they were very prominent, arose as a new ‘pseudo-tribe’ in my opinion”.
A lot of Auckland Māori are displaced from tribal leadership due to urban drift and cultural assimilation trends, and it is Māori who make up the majority of Destiny Church followers. Just as Eddie Long is a leader in the African-American community, Brian Tamaki is a leader in the Māori community. Regardless of their beliefs, the Destiny Church provides a disadvantaged community with services it needs. Are the claims of cultism really a reality?
Cult is a word often bandied around by media. In the case of Destiny, it is both fair and unfair in different respects. A cult is defined by certain characteristics, notably perception of beliefs, potential for harm, entrapment and control of members, and to a certain extent secrecy.
While Destiny’s beliefs are perceived as abnormal, they do not deviate remarkably from many mainstream Christian teachings. While they were against the Civil Union Act, so were many: other Christian groups and the National Front joined the ‘Enough is Enough’ march, 46 per cent of New Zealanders were polled in opposition to the Act, and current party leaders Peter Dunne, John Key, Winston Peters and Tariana Turia all voted against.
Destiny creates potential for harm through donation obligations. However, members exercise free will in this exchange: a sincere belief in the teachings of the Church may see some buying in to donation rituals.
For others, donations may be a part of reasoned cost-benefit analysis with respect to Destiny’s community services. Ex-members do not speak of entrapment and control as a problem in the Destiny Church; members join voluntarily and are free to leave, as does happen.
Destiny is somewhat transparent; destinychurch.org.nz has a wealth of information, yet Salient was stone-walled by their Wellington office as “all media enquiries have to go through the media liaison at head office”. A call to head office was met with an anonymous answer phone, and the message was unreturned. When called back days later, no responses were given to any questions. While Salient endeavoured to attend a Destiny service— Sundays at Wellington High School, if you’re interested–the advertised service time was incorrect, although an earlier service occured as normal.
While prosperity theology ensures the Destiny Church is a money-making machine, their community projects provide real benefits—a fact recognised by the government’s contributions, and implied by their role as a tribal-esque institution for many urbanised Māori. While their beliefs are bigoted, they are (worryingly) not far out of touch with many New Zealanders. In following the Destiny dichotomy, we place normative views on what followers should be doing with their money, time and minds. By dismissing them as a cult, we ignore their value to a disadvantaged community. Though the majority of New Zealanders see Destiny’s practices in a strange light, this ought not cast aspersions on the validity of these practices. Live and let live—a message Destiny and non- Destiny members can take alike.
†Name has been changed.