LONG READ: The #HallelujahChallenge is the counter-cultural church event we have needed for a long, long, long time

HallelujahChallenge

In 2017, YNaija committed a big part of its time and resources towards carefully documenting the big stories happening in the country and on the continent and highlighting the efforts of young Nigerians and Africans challenging the tired narratives around the continent through personal achievement and social good. Sometimes these stories are forgotten, buried under the avalanche of a year’s worth of news reporting and spot analyses we

Our reporting has been diverse and extensive, and we have chosen to start our reporting in 2018 by returning to these stories, to remind ourselves and our readers just how much ground was covered in 2017 and reaffirm the level of quality and care we commit to telling our stories in 2018.

We hope they resonate with you now, as well as they did when they were first published.


I have an ambitious family friend and adopted brother who moved back to Nigeria to ‘make it’. Let us call him Anietie.

Anietie studied for six years straight in England; the results of his labour, a Bachelors and Masters’ Degree in Business Administration from reputable English universities. This was before the exchange rate took a ravaging nosedive in our collective purses but it wasn’t easy for his parents to pay still. His father, a proud man, is a civil servant. His mother is a better-paid director in a research organisation but she knows better than to make a contribution that might compromise her husband’s honour. So she prayed often for sustenance.

When Anietie wrapped up his Masters, he was already on the other end of 30. He knew he would be playing catch up but was determined to rise up quickly in Corporate Nigeria. His parents had no strong connections to give him a leg up.

Soon, Anietie learnt of a church where Lagos’ most affluent worshipped every Sunday. He soon became a member, taking great care to look as sophisticated as he could with his student days Zara, H&M shirts, trousers, and the odd, saved-up-for Gucci belt.

Anietie soon decided he could do more. He joined the Traffic Team of the church; which offered parking directions for attendants and sometimes offered a valet service. Anietie reckoned this was an excellent networking opportunity; to meet important, influential people and to sell himself.

After church, every Sunday, Anietie brought back news of business cards he was able to secure, who was driving what recently released luxury automobile, who got to sit in the church’s VIP rows, who was spotted giving a blank cheque offering (though I suspect this might have been an exaggeration).

The day’s sermon was hardly ever the hot topic of discussion.

**

When I was about 13, my mother decided it was time for my first church deliverance session. I can’t recall if anything, in particular, had inspired this decision.

I was a slightly above average student in school at the time though I reliably failed Mathematics every term. I was not a troubled or troublesome child, though I had reason to be; given the fractured, polygamous seedbed in which I was planted. This deliverance included a daily trip at intervals to an actual mountaintop where I would pray, be prayed for, and having fasted for hours prior, would break with a meal prepared by the church. One day this meal included boiled eggs, to which I am very allergic. The smell or taste is a paralysing episode which ends with me vomiting. My mother knew this. I refused to eat the eggs.

The pastor forbade my refusal. My health was secondary to his command.

He insisted that eating the eggs was a crucial part of the deliverance, which would not be complete – or whatever I was being delivered from, freed – until the eggs found their way into my stomach. My mother, torn between disobeying her Pastor and disgorging my stomach (I had already been eating other things), attempted a compromise. She dipped the boiled eggs in honey – somehow made available – and entreated me to swallow the egg whole without maybe tasting it too much.

In seconds, everything I had eaten prior to boiled eggs ended up back on the plate – and on the wet, marshy floor.

**

This is Nigerian church culture, today.

The institution of the church is less a place of refuge and more a place of social currency, access or favours granted by an imperial god. The declarations of overseeing Pastors are unimpeachable. Their words, no matter how coloured by personal perspective, are as good as – if not better than – The Word.

Pastors and churches are namechecked in conversations by those they lead, to assert some kind of spiritual, religious superiority. Pictures with pastors are shared, captioned with the eagerness you might show a famous celebrity.

Church members are judged and classified by the standards and prejudices of the world it preaches against: status, gender, tribe, sexuality. VIP rows are reserved for the moneyed. Services are delayed for members of government to arrive.

Prayers, previously a private dialogue between God and his creation, have now become a public performance. Prayer sessions with people in perhaps their most vulnerable state: on their knees – humble, crying, giving supplication – are photographed and distributed for all to see. Perhaps the most disturbing (to me, at least), the faithful on the fringe who are not like everyone else are taught shame, to be unworthy. If you don’t speak in tongues, if you don’t go to church three times a week, if you are struggling with sin…

“In a place created to come as you are, when you are, doesn’t look like them, you can leave feeling worse than you entered,” J. Wesley wrote in his poem ‘When the House does not feel like Home’. “We pray to a Father who loves his children the same but I am given siblings when under the same roof act as if they are better than – me – the one who listened – and came, as I am.”

I do not go to church as often as I used to. I no longer feel any guilt about it.

I am uncomfortable around Christians who, repeatedly, publicly rehash their commitment, professing their love to God as if they have something to prove or as if there was any doubt previously undetermined. If I do not join in this, I am considered with suspicion. Then there are those – Christians, in name – who, attempting to explain God’s word concerning a certain matter or a person, sidestep to judging and pointing fingers, too easily forgetting what the Bible itself calls the ultimate commandment: love (and with it, tolerance)

In the last few years, I have gone from not knowing what atheism and agnosticism meant, to having friends who are non-religious; all of them kind, generous, loving people.

All of them were once Christians.

***

I came across the #HallelujahChallenge a few days ago, by accident, on Instagram.

I did not follow Nathaniel Bassey, creator of the movement, prior, nor knew much of his music. I knew his song ‘Onise Iyanu’ but I was not aware it was to his credit. I have since recognised that the challenge is a singular, counter-culture occurrence and one that came at a time when we (and I mean this in the most expansive sense possible: Christian or otherwise) all needed it most.

Its premise and structure is simple. Every midnight, throughout the month of June, all those who desire to pray and praise God come together unhindered by borders or limitations.

For the longest time, these borders and limitations have been formidable; some of which I have mentioned prior: religion (yes!) judgment, self-righteousness, distance, status, gender, ethnicity, amongst others.

Tonight at 12AM, Christians, those struggling to be so-called, Muslims (this has been confirmed), the rich, the poor, men, women of different tribes, ethnicity and race will join each other in relative anonymity and in praise of the Most High, where the focus is solely on Him. Him alone.

Too many times, these things have gotten in the way of, and coloured the message. With the #HallelujahChallenge, no more. Or, at least, no.  

The challenge deconstructs what is considered as the church, the body of Christ. At the risk of sounding preachy, we carry it with us. It is in you. It is in me. The institution of the Church can act as a powerful, clear passageway to Christ yes but we have ascribed to it powers which God has not.

We have made it appear that the way to Jesus is so narrow, so difficult, so far out of reach that we hand over bearings and the responsibility to find direction to someone and something else. We outsource our claim to salvation to our Pastors, home cell worship leaders and those supposedly further along in faith than us. Our faith is a series of actions governed by, “My pastor said…”

The #HallelujahChallenge does not allow for this self-inflicted subversion.

It is each individual, taking charge and ownership of that and who they believe in, giving glory, honour and deference to whom it is due. The challenge is not about Nathaniel Bassey. (even though, of course, some have tried to make it so) It is about God.

The challenge also reminds us that there is no one-way to worship God. The fellowship of a physical church is powerful, but it cannot invalidate the individual acting alone or with friends, or with strangers praying and praising – even in front of a mobile screen.

God, according to the Bible, is mobile. He is everywhere. He will meet you as you are, where you are. In the pew. In front of the pulpit.

In a corner of your bedroom.

***

Not surprisingly, and in perhaps truly Nigerian fashion, we have tried to turn the challenge; something radically different from what we know, into something we are used to.

We have started to focus too much on the numbers of those joining the Challenge every day – more than 170,000 in one day, by many accounts – as we are wont to boast about Church membership numbers.

In press coverage about the Challenge so far, a few people have been adamant about giving sufficient credit to Nathaniel Bassey. A CNN piece about the challenge published recently had comments split between the focus of the challenge, God and the question – why the article titled ‘How One Man started a praise and worship movement on Instagram”?

To these critics, Nathaniel Bassey was not just ‘one man’ or any man, the questions implied.

He isn’t.

He is the chosen vessel through which the movement has taken flight – a movement that breaks through the walls of the church, and opens the arms of the faith, to all, whoever they are, wherever they are… however, they are.

Perhaps the article should have read, “How Jesus started a praise and worship movement on Instagram.”

After all, who did Bassey get the idea from?

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