I was chatting to one of my sisters about church stuff yet again – oh yet again just yesterday, ie when I was actually supposed to be writing the Sunday Note! These blog posts often come about through the things I discuss with her, and this is true both for this blog and “Finding Mr Huggie-Wuggie!“. Does anyone else do this with friends or close relatives – have the same conversations about exactly the same things over and over again?! Making the same observations, identifying the same examples… Because she and I talk endlessly about the same subjects, over and over again, as if each time we are trying to find a slightly new angle from which to view the subject, or, more likely, we are seeking to confirm and justify ourselves ever more strongly in the conclusions that we have allowed ourselves to draw.
And yet yesterday, I did come away with a new understanding and a fresh perspective which I would like to spend some time reflecting upon to see if anything beautiful and practically useful could come of it.
Regarding church matters, this sister and I have been pretty much dancing around the same conclusion for a number of years, having arrived at this same conclusion independently and in very different circumstances to one another (although we probably did unconsciously influence one another quite a lot.) I wrote a few weeks ago that I am through with church (but definitely not with Christian fellowship). This decision makes complete sense to me and I am completely confident of my own maturity and groundedness in Christ to make it. And yet it has always upset me whenever a friend or close family member has announced something similar. I am always the one to encourage people to keep looking for churches to belong to, to keep trying things out, to keep giving people a chance. This is because I know how vulnerable individual Christians can be, even very very strong grounded Christians, without the consistent support of other believers around them. (Now what I guess I will do is that I will keep encouraging people to build a consistent means of fellowship around themselves, regularly meeting up with other grounded Christians.) So in this one conversation with my sister, some things finally occurred to me, which made me realise why I, and possibly a few other members of my family, might have struggled so much with church matters in recent years.
Unmatchable Experience in childhood
I can’t think of a more concise way to say this. In short, growing up we had an outstanding experience of church, led by our fantastic father. Since then, every other experience of church has fallen sadly and miserably short – like the analogy I used about ice-cream in a recent post. In the church we grew up in, we really were like a big extended family – a family that is constantly bickering, but ultimately full of love and acceptance (on the whole! Even within that environment there were definitely a few people who were treated as outsiders!) Here is the thing though, and the cause of my personal frustration: I have always considered that close-knit, loving church environment of my upbringing as normal! In the other churches I have known where this environment has been lacking or very different, I have always considered all these other churches as somehow being weird or strange. I’ve always unconsciously tried to revert everything back to the normality of my childhood experience. Now I realise that it was actually my childhood church that was abnormal, in that it was exceptional. All these other churches with everything I have experienced within them, these are “normal” churches. So expecting to easily find a church that matched what I had growing up was always going to be an unrealistic expectation.
Firstly I think that I should identify the fact that in our church growing up, we were mainly from similar cultural backgrounds: at least one of the “outsiders” was from a different cultural background. Most of us quite literally spoke the same language (in addition to English.) It would be naive to overlook the extent to which this helped make us feel united. Many of my complaints about churches I have known in adulthood, for instance predominantly White churches, stem from the fact that they treated me differently, because I am Black. But then I have to acknowledge that even in my own excellent childhood church people from different cultural backgrounds were to some extent also treated differently. Obviously in that situation, because our parents were the pastors, we as their children were automatically “insiders”. But in all sincerity we were a lot more inclusive, and welcoming to others. I think that that is a cultural thing. This following is a very blunt statement: In my experience, people in predominantly White British churches have tried to be welcoming, but I have always discerned an us-and-them distinction, and also in many cases an extreme readiness to
gossip sneer about people who are culturally different, and simultaneously patronise them in every respect. Needless to say in predominantly White gatherings I was always the one who was different. That has been my candid experience. To my shame, as I am writing this, I would always sneer right back. Imagine how ridiculous it was to be spiritually patronised by people who habitually immersed themselves neither in prayer nor in God’s word! But that is an attitude that I have now repented of and turned away from, or I am at least trying to turn away from giving my thousand percent to uproot from my heart.
I could say so much more on this subject; I secretly itch to do that, but it is unlikely to be edifying.
Integrity and Christlike character
On my blogs, I am always talking about the importance of Christlike character. It remains my big heartbreak about Nigerian Christianity especially that it has so deeply imbibed the poison of the Prosperity Gospel. And yet I still distinctly remember a few years in my childhood, when Evangelical Christianity on the whole in Nigeria was so very fervently faithful to the Bible, and everyone talked endlessly about God, integrity, righteousness, holiness, heaven! (When I say “on the whole in Nigeria”, I obviously mean “within those very limited circles that my little childhood eyes were exposed to”, courtesy of my parents!) In the church we grew up in, that emphasis on character was carried over, and my Dad was also very strong on the power of God, which is why I too am also strong on the power of God! My Dad has an amazing revelation about the power of God and also about God Himself. Wow! He preached some sermons about Elijah and the prophets of Baal which I still remember to this day. Wow! Those “Elijah” sermons are probably the reason why as an adult, woman or not, I refuse to bow or to compromise my faith for absolutely anyone, but I am rather bold and fearless in my faith – and also kinda tend towards having a big head! Do you know who I am?! Do you know who my God is?! Do you know who my human father is?! I am the daughter of the Most High God! He also knows the names of all those obscure Old Testament characters, and what each one did – you know, all those names that no-one else bothers to learn – like whoever it was whose hand was stuck to his sword after some very intense fighting, and they had to wrest the sword from his hand, or whoever it was who ran like a gazelle – and in his sermons he would just be reeling off the names and examples, and as a child I would be listening in fascination – “how do you do that, Daddy?!”
It is not only loyalty that is making me say this; it also happens to be completely true: It was true then, and it remains true to this day that my father’s sermons are the best sermons I have ever heard in my life – ever. And then my father is also a sincere man of prayer. In my childhood he prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed. I find it so hard to respect people who call themselves pastors, and yet are devoid of prayer – this describes at least half of the pastors I have come across in this particular city. Shaking my head! My Dad has a very, very deep relationship with God, which is apparently very strange and abnormal among pastors! These days he and I disagree on a lot of things theologically but what an unmatchable grounding in the faith he gave us as his children! And he still remains without any qualification whatsoever, the single best human Dad in the world, quite possibly the single best human Dad that has ever lived! It is also because of the extremely high standards he set for us in masculinity that I am struggling to find a potential husband who matches those standards – a subject which has also been flogged to death in sisterly discussions. You don’t understand; I simply cannot accept anything less as a valid expression of manliness, even if I wanted to – which I don’t! So yes Daddy, as I’ve said so many times, this unending Huggie-Wuggie palaver is all your fault!
All told, the theology in the church we grew up in was very very balanced, and, by God’s grace, very very faithful to the Bible. And the pastor was also outstanding! And yet that used to be completely normal for Nigerian Christians. Sadly, since then, Nigerian Christianity has almost jumped wholescale into that big fat lie which is called “The Prosperity Gospel”. Let me make this clear: I completely believe that God is a God of abundance; I believe in health as our covenant right through the blood of Jesus; I believe in God’s abundant and supernatural provision for our physical needs. What I don’t believe in or agree with is the focus that these things are given in the prosperity gospel. The Gospel is no longer about God, rather it is about money and success and prestige, and “fulfilling your destiny”. That might sound a bit ironic because I talk a lot about being ambitious, and I am, and I do plan and expect to be extremely successful. In that I hope that I never lose my focus that ultimately it is all about living for God’s Kingdom, and all my goals are directed towards expanding the Kingdom of God. I have also made up my mind to live a life of simplicity down here on earth, no matter how much financial blessing God pours upon me and my husband, and our various endeavours. This is the only thing that makes sense to me in a world where so many people are suffering and are destitute of the most basic human needs.
I also believe that as Christians our primary purpose here on earth is to preach the Gospel to get other people into the Kingdom of God. All the provision that God gives us, in terms of health and material blessings are to be directed towards that; for us to live well and enjoy our lives, yes, but not for the sake of living lavishly. These prosperity gospel churches emphasise money (that is, living lavish lives of material success down here on earth) so much that everything else in the faith is essentially cast aside. For instance Christlike character. This, I believe, is why you can enter these “Churches” and be treated very badly by these supposed “Christians”. There is no real encouragement to pursue excellent behaviour; once again I am shaking my head at the kinds of things I have seen in these churches.
So on entering various churches, both predominantly White and mostly Nigerian/African I would always be seeking that childhood experience, without truly appreciating how extraordinary that childhood experience actually was. So I would always come away extremely disappointed, if not disgusted. And surprise surprise, the one person I would have to complain to, (before I started blogging!) who would always agree and sympathise, was my own sister – that is, someone else who also grew up with that same outstanding childhood experience!
So what does all this mean in practice? Should I just try to be more understanding within these other churches? I think we all know that that is not going to happen! I need to sit down and think seriously about what this all means, and how to use this knowledge. For me though, church/Christian fellowship, like marriage, has to be outstanding! If other people can accept less excellent expressions of faith then all power to them. And this is also why I find it extremely bemusing when people say: “There is no such thing as a perfect church”. It is not like our childhood church was perfect. I have already described how people from other backgrounds were treated differently. And yet there is no comparison at all between what we had then, and what is often on offer now. No comparison whatsoever. To be honest, I think I already know the conclusion. It is all coming together in my mind… I just know that I need fantastic fellowship as surely as I need a fantastic husband – now let’s just hope that the right person will read this, and “get it”!