by Chude Jideonwo
Who would have thought: that one of the things the Twitter Outrage Machine – a small minority of vocal people who are easy to quote, and quick to offer judgement – would eventually turn on something as innocuous as a group of young people coming together to worship?
Of itself, it sounds ludicrous. This is easily the most harmless thing a group of people could do – come together, without obstructing anyone, making a noise, proselytising, or in anyway consuming any form of illicit energy, to bond together in a common, empowering activity.
But the criticism speaks to a truth.
Yes, it means that many of the critics who speak on social media are often facetious and reflexively cynical. The first public critic, Joy Bewaji, after all confirmed that indeed, she was looking for attention. But the bigger truth it speaks is, quite simply, the power that the Nigerian church has – and its vulnerability to claims that it uses that power only for itself, and not for the larger society.
The church – especially the evangelical (Pentecostal) church – has been claiming for decades that it is a force for good, and that its God and its prayers will change Nigeria.
Yet here we are, decades after, and that promise has not been fulfilled. If anything, the church is often seen as colluding with the same vehicles of oppression it is supposed to be praying against. What gives?
In response, predictably, members of the Christian tribe turned on the critics – dismissing them as naysayers, atheists (though why that would be a pejorative confuses me), close-minded, shallow. The responses were understandable, and in some cases even true. But nonetheless, they were not very useful.
First, even though it is a hard temptation to avoid, matching critics derision for derision is decidedly un-Christian.
Second, the critics had a legitimate launch pad. The convener of the revival (and a revival it certainly is) clearly spoke of a generation rising to change Nigeria, a constant theme of the sessions and oft repeated by his congregants. Considering that as a young boy who grew up in the church, I have been hearing about this same prophetic transformation for at least two decades, the frustration with more rhetoric is perfectly understood.
Thirdly, it is very tempting to charge – what have you done to change the country before attacking whatever efforts we are making? But, so what? Critics, even unconstructive, derisive ones searching for foil rather than engagement, are yet useful.
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have,” Peter told the church in his first letter. “But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.”
Instead, in this case, we have ignored Peter and responded as a tribe offended by dissent. Unfortunately, this is how the church globally has often responded to cultural wars – ‘us’ versus ‘them’. And, often, that is why we lose the argument.
But in that case, how is the church different from any attacked tribe of people anywhere in the world?
In place of ‘us’ against ‘them’, how about we try listening to what these guys are really trying to say beneath the derision and the frustration, and then see if we, by ourselves, can reason together?
Big, wide, deep
I haven’t joined any edition of the #HallelujahChallenge. This would be surprising news who know me or follow me on social media.
I have after all been called a “worship junkie”, going from church to church, looking for any excuse to join congregations in absorbed, involved music. ‘The Experience’, held every year, is my most important event of the year and Nathaniel Bassey one of my three favourite musicians in the world. He even led worship at my 30th birthday service only two years ago. So, evidently, I stand with the worshippers.
But, I suspect, I have been unable to connect with the worship on a spiritual plane because I have been so consumed with its character and consequence on a cultural and social level.
This, the #HallelujahChallenge, is the most fascinating thing I have ever seen in a long, long time. It is so big, and so wide, and so important that it just… quiet-ens me.
Nathaniel Bassey has started a revival.
That revival is in the way that a new generation of Nigerian Christians are engaging with the church and the way that they are expressing both their identity as Christians and their relationship with God.
This revival is both spiritual and cultural.
In the case of the former, he has brought God’s children back into the church in the most powerful way (the bible says God is “fearful in praises”) possible by breaking down the boundaries of tradition and convention and ushering in a digital dispensation. This is more important than it first appears.
Pope Francis delivered a seminal 261-page exhortation called the ‘Amoris Laetitia’ in 2016. In it, he identified the biggest crises facing this generation is one of identity. “Francis’s catalogue of the cultural factors gnawing away … includes ‘extreme individualism’, the ‘pace of life’ that militates against decisions for permanent relationships, and the mantra of “choice” as the highest of human goods,” noted a summary in America’s National Review last year.
The global movements to upset political establishments, expand the definitions of gender, and fight institutional inequality, all of which I am sympathetic to, are centered on this crucial question of identity.
These movements are a revolt against centuries of institutions and conventions that have insisted on the way people should live, eat, have sex, worship, pray, dance – all without good reason, and most to the detriment of the mass.
Many young people are revolting against that institutionalized repression of which the church, sadly, has historically been at the forefront of, with faith imperatives often subverted by human, political considerations. Cheated by institutions, many young people have retreated into themselves, and are re-asserting their individual identities.
To win back (and bring back into a spiritual community) those young people who have left the church physically, or disconnected with it emotionally, I believe God is making a new move – one that dispenses with the prejudices and discriminations of the past, and that breaks down its barriers.
This is a move that, for instance, expands the definition of prayer to include praise, one that opens its arms to those traditionally excluded and stigmatised, and one that returns the church to its true purpose – not as an expensive building that keeps some in and others out, but as an ever-expanded organism saving as many souls as it possibly can – without condemnation, without restriction, only with the purpose of establishing personal, intimate relationships with God.
That is the spiritual dimension of this revival.
Then there is the cultural. And here I will make a possibly contentious statement: The church is the most powerful institution in Nigeria, outside of politics.
This is not a religious statement. It is a cultural statement. It is not about being Christian or the superiority of the religious content. It is a simply a statement of observable fact for students of social engineering.
Because of the agility of its expressions, the attractiveness of its message, and the allure of its ambassadors, Christianity has become the most important singular influence in the mainstream culture – for proof you need look no further than how many Nollywood movies have had dominant Christian themes, how many Nigerian artistes must include the obligatory chant to ‘Baba God’ in their albums, and how pastors and their brands are dominating internet search and social content.
Churches have become the nation’s biggest charitable organisations, each of them having extensive outreaches to widows, orphans and the homeless (though we can debate proportion); they have become the biggest investors in education from Covenant University to Redeemers University. They have even become the biggest builders of our human resources, the biggest platforms for career training in the country belonging for instance to the Daystar Leadership Academy.
That is the cultural statement that Nathaniel’s revival makes – as you will see from the glut of celebrities, the biggest ones we have – struggling to associate with him, and swelling his Instagram followers from barely 100,000 two weeks ago to over 450,000 as I write.
“You are the light of the world.” Matthew reports Jesus having said. “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”
The church is here to stay, and to lead.
But while this might be something for the tribe to celebrate in ‘us’ versus ‘them ‘battles – boasting about the number of worshippers as we often do about the size of church congregations – this is sadly not enough in terms of the assignment that God has given his children.
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works,” Matthew writes, just two verses down. “And glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
This, it appears, is where Christians have failed in their duty.
Our brand is strong and it is powerful – but to what end?
God is not the problem
Now, of course, there are those that say religion is one of Nigeria’s biggest problems. They are wrong.
Nigeria had already murdered the children of Biafra in a brutal war, suffered permanent secretaries dipping their hands into public monies, and welcomed successive military coups long before religion exploded as a mainstream cultural force in the country, and certainly long before the Pentecostal invasion of the 80s and 90s.
Nigeria didn’t get bad because of religion. Nigeria got bad in spite of religion.
Saudi Arabia is a country run by religion yet it has often posted budget surpluses and has the 14th largest Gross Domestic Product size in the world, according to the World Bank. The United Arab Emirates is a religious country, yet its unemployment numbers are less than 5 percent, and is projected to lead its region in economic growth this year. The United Kingdom evolved from an apparent theocracy, even as it spread its empire across the world. And, America, the world’s most powerful superpower, is so defined by religion that its Vice-President campaigned on being a vocal born-again Christian; and debates over everything from the economy to abortion are defined by aggressive religious disagreements.
The Nordic countries eschew religion and they succeed. Arab nations have religion and they succeed. Religion is not the reason why we are here.
Still, the question is relevant: why has religion not helped us, like it has other nations in the world? How can we, as the cliché now goes, have so much God and yet so little good?
What’s the point of faith and the triumphal Christian identity if it doesn’t improve morality, inspire the body politic; improve society?
If we spend all this time praying for our nation, how can it be that our nation continues to plunge downwards, while the churches continue to post surpluses? Why should society have faith in the church if the church appears to do nothing for society but cause traffic jams, provide cover for thieving politicians and condemn sexual agency?
That is a question the critics are asking between the lines, beneath the pain and through the cynicism. And it is a question worth answering.
I am Christian. I like to speak about my faith publicly. I allow my faith guide my private and public decisions and I have a lot of respect for the men and women that God has used to build my spirit and build the church in Nigeria, yet I have to acknowledge that we have done a very poor job in answering this question, both in words and with deeds.
The church can choose to answer by saying its assignment is only to take people to heaven, and that is a valid answer. But that is not what it has chosen to say in Nigeria. If anything, many churches have insisted on getting involved in the media, in the culture, in the economy and in politics.
So now that it has chosen to get involved, why has it been ineffective in shining its light? Surely, if Nigeria has the most number of churches in the world, this has to count for something, yes?
I believe the problem is that we have refused to rise up to the challenge, and it is time for that to end.
A revival of action
The time is now for the church in Nigeria to stop pretending only to be a charitable organisation and face up to its reality. Business theorist, Jim Collins calls it the ‘genius of the AND’ – in this case, that the church is a spiritual institution AND a social, cultural and, yes, economic institution.
The church is the biggest, most well resourced institution in Nigeria, outside of (or perhaps equal to, since it won’t be transparent about its numbers) business. It has become, in essence, Nigeria’s biggest competitive advantage.
With that much power, must come much responsibility. What this means is that the church can and must pray for Nigeria, but the church must also work for Nigeria. Its revival of words must be matched with a revival of action.
Because the church in Nigeria is not like the church everywhere else in the world – combining an aggressive character with robust, inspiring enterprise – it cannot behave like the church everywhere else in the world.
It needs to be repeated: the church in Nigeria has become its biggest competitive advantage.
The one thing that attracts Africa’s presidents to the Synagogue Church of All Nations and Britain’s Prime Ministers to the Redeemed Christian Church of God is not something that our nation must take lightly.
Rather than see it as the enemy, critics should see it for what it is – an asset. Rather than see it as a primordial possession, adherents should see it for what it is – a gift.
And from this re-focused perspective, we can all begin to demand from it as much as it capable of.
We need to hold our pastors to higher standards. We need their institutions built to past – with proper boards, and defined structure. We need congregations awake and engaged. And we need the capacity of the church expanded to meet its potential.
If faith is a key driver for our actions as a nation, then we must face that truth for what is and ask ourselves – now that we have this, what can we do with it?
“Like America, every society has its character; its inbuilt essence – the collectivity of its peoples’ behaviours and worldviews; the intangibles that inexorably define the way they engage themselves and the world,” I wrote in a 2013 piece.
“To actually deliver a society that is, apologies to Jim Collins, built to last; we will have to construct it; brick by brick. We will have to mentally and then physically build our country based on an understanding of where we are coming from and where we can go: based on a set of ideas and concepts that are inspired by and guided through sociology (who we are), history (where we are coming from), philosophy (how we think), even cosmology (how we view the unseen) of both our constituent parts and the constructed whole.
“(This) will lead us in building what system of government we need, what theories our economy should follow, the relationship between church and state, the place of our traditional institutions in a modern society; the grund-norm of our legal system; the philosophy for our education.”
This is the challenge and the opportunity that faces the church today, and it is one that presents itself to serious-minded nation builders who understand the power of a national competitive advantage.
Churches have become bastions of excellence. Hosting half-a-million strong concerts at the Tafawa Balewa Square that have become a model of modern management, expanding rapidly across communities in ways businesses have been incapable of, building protocol operations and running operational efficiencies that Nigerian banks can learn more than a thing from, and building a chain of sub-institutions that reflect the minds of global entrepreneurial genius.
The time should come when we begin to see the incredible mind that built a chain of Apple Stores in the same light as the incredible mind that promised to set up a Redeemed church in every street corner and did.
And to do that, the church needs to hold itself to higher standards. Its finances need to be transparent; its institutions need to be systematised, its brand ambassadors subject to minimum standards.
It should begin to think seriously of the enlightened self-interest of tax paying, succession planning and corporate social responsibility.
It may need to open up its large spaces for society’s benefits. For instance, turning the former factories it has repurposed into auditoriums into human factories by partnering with governments and companies to host massive capacity building programmes that teach people to fish. How about deploying those massive resources not just for revivals that end up in offerings and tithes, but revivals that end in transformed lives, and equipped hands?
How can we match the power of the church with its potential to truly change society?
These are the most important questions for a true building of our nation, and in this mission, unquestioning devotion and derisive heckling will both be useless.
Let’s all take a break from our version of the global cultural wars that make us feel better about our echo chambers and think about the real thing that Nathaniel Bassey’s #HallelujahChallenge is saying to us, and about us.
Especially the gloating critics.
Going on your knees may not rebuild Nigeria’s education system or repair its roads, true. But neither does screaming in the wind.
Or, for that matter, preaching to the choir.
*Jideonwo is managing partner of media network, RED. One of its companies is the faith-focused brand, Church Culture (churchcultureinc.com)