All grown up now: our very own evangelical cult, or something close to it

Brian Tamaki convinced 700 men to "pledge allegiance" to him at a Destiny Church conference. Makes the tithing and chastity rings look pretty harmless, doncha think?

It's not often that I read one of Garth George's columns from start to finish, but I was riveted by his account of Brian Tamaki's latest step towards evangelical superstardom.

The man with his own television show, line of t-shirts and hats, and the requisite blonde and glamorous helpmate, has convinced 700 members of his Destiny mega-church—all of them men, naturally—to pledge an oath of loyalty to him. Apparently Tamaki is not just a hair gel-abuser and motorcycle fancier, he is the "tangible expression of God" and therefore his "sons" must never "get in his face".

"Even though he is very sociable and open—remember who he is!" says a document called Protocols and Requirements Between Spiritual Father & His Spiritual Sons, which the wily George obtained after Destiny's Labour Weekend conference in Auckland.

"Above all, we stand here today in the presence of God to enter into this sacred covenant with our man of God, Bishop Brian Tamaki," says Protocols and Requirements. The "sons" must "feel Bishop's flow and be attentive to his thoughts and directions", which "gives unity and power to what God is saying and doing through him".

Sons are to wear covenant rings on their right hands to remind them of the commitment they've made to Tamaki, which is reminiscent of the chastity rings Tamaki convinced young members of his flock to wear a few years ago, and just as creepy.

At first glance this all seems like nonsense. Tamaki has always had a theatrical flair and healthy ego. He is very much reminiscent of shamed American televangical preacher Jim Bakker who, with his chipmunk-cheeked wife Tammy Faye, preached prosperity gospel in the 80s and set up his own now defunct theme park, Heritage USA, in Ohio, a sort of far-right Disneyland with a water park, conference centre and luxury hotel. Bakker got into difficulty when he over-promised theme-park privileges to church members who paid exorbitant fees for the use of hotel suites. Before that there was widespread concern with his practice of asking viewers of his Praise the Lord television show to send him money, a glitzy form of panhandling. Oh, and then there was the business with Jessica Hahn, a church secretary with whom he dallied.

Bakker wrote a book, I Was Wrong, in 1996, now available on Ebay for $1. Tamaki has also written a book, More Than Meets the Eye, sold on the Destiny website for $30. It is advertised with this breathless pronouncement: "Never before have the forces of religious, political and social activism converged more powerfully than in the life of Brian Tamaki."

I interviewed Brian Tamaki and his wife Hannah for the Herald five years ago, when their churches were spreading round the North Island like an unholy rash and Tamaki was trying to extend his influence to the political sphere with the establishment of a Destiny political party. I went to their Mt Wellington headquarters with the memory of various offensive Destiny Party pronouncements on male-female relationships and homosexuality fresh in my mind.

And I found to my surprise that I rather liked the fragrant Brian and Hannah, despite their problematic beliefs and their blindingly white teeth, big hair, and love of leather clothing. They struck me as charming, confident and in love. They also struck me as folks with their eye on the main opportunity. They were undoubtedly flourishing as their church flourished. I have never known another minister (and it so happens I know a number of ministers fairly well) to enjoy as much personal wealth and self-satisfaction. There was something off about Destiny and I left their complex feeling unsettled. I kept abreast of their comings and goings as they hit the headlines for one absurd reason after another but my unease dissipated as the clownishness intensified.

And then Brian Tamaki faded from public view. His political party achieved nothing except to entertain a pack of gallery reporters who didn't treat Destiny with any more gravitas than they would apply to the McGillicuddy Serious Party or those yogic flyers. I had forgotten all about the charismatic preacher until I saw a story in the Herald on Sunday about the sale of his luxurious Maraetai Beach home. And the mention of last year's Destiny Labour Weekend conference, at which there was, reportedly, talk of establishing a Destiny walled city in South Auckland, a claim the church has denied. Back in 2006 Tamaki was quoted in Rotorua's Daily Post as saying the church wanted to create a "city within a city".

And now this. My unease is back and a quick tour of the Destiny website has just made me more uncomfortable. Reading one of the self-proclaimed Bishop's messages costs $4.99. You may buy a notebook to record your sermon notes for $15, one emblazoned with a picture of Hannah and a heart pattern for the ladies and one with a picture of Brian next to the word "Gladiators" for the guys. There is a special page for donations with this message: "If you will be faithful with what you have right now there is no limit to what God can do with your life". Sounds like the faithful are being promised good things if they donate to the church, which sounds like a bad idea to me.

I don't know if I agree with Garth George's charge that Destiny is transforming itself into a cult but certainly when a church is all about glorifying its human leader and not its God there is something afoot. And if it costs money to share a church's message, well that's fishy too. I have a feeling we are about to see a whole lot more of Brian and Hannah.