The African Church in the Public Eye

Segun Adeniyi

By Olusegun Adeniyi

Let me begin by thanking the organisers of this programme, the Centre for Biblical Christianity in Africa, for inviting me to Ilorin, even as I thank God for making it happen despite all the challenges of the past 24 hours. Let me also express my appreciation to Rev Moses Owojaiye for his words of encouragement and prayers throughout the period I spent at the airport in Abuja yesterday waiting for the flight that was eventually cancelled at night. I am indeed very delighted that I finally made it here this morning. But if there is anybody who has come to listen to a fantastic sermon or an academic lecture, I am happy to disappoint you this morning. I am a journalist, not a pastor. I am not a Bible scholar either. However, it should not be too difficult to engage on issues around the 21st century church and the perception of the world.

For me, there can be no better illustration of the state of the church in Africa than the story of a pastor who was posted to a village where there used to be many Christians whose faith had waned. Although the new pastor spent the first week making personal visit to each of the congregation members, the church was almost empty at his first service. Following that experience, the pastor decided to do something crazy: He placed an advertisement in the local newspapers, stating that because the church was dead, it was his responsibility to give it a decent Christian burial. The funeral, he also stated in the advert, would be held the following Sunday morning. Quite naturally, the notice elicited curiosity and on that Sunday a large crowd congregated at the church where in front of the pulpit, a closed coffin was placed.

After a brief sermon on the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross and the essence of the Christian faith, the pastor opened the coffin and invited his congregation to come forward, one after the other, so they could pay their final respects to their dead church. Filled with curiosity as to what would represent the corpse of a ‘dead church’, all the people followed the instruction of the pastor. But as each peeped into the coffin, they quickly turned away with guilt and shame. In the coffin was a large mirror!

I am sure we can all relate to the story which speaks to the state of the church in the world we live in today but most especially in Africa. Whatever people say about the Church of Christ today in our country or continent or even globally, they are talking about us. Since we are a reflection of the church, the question therefore is: Do we like what we see in the mirror?

According to the late evangelist, John R. W. Stott, Christians are no longer living by the precepts Jesus set and that, he argued, is also why we have no positive influence on the society. Using the metaphor of salt and light in the Sermon on the Mount, Stott wrote: “Jesus teaches about the responsibility of Christians in a non-Christian, or sub-Christian, or post-Christian society…The world, he says, is like rotting meat. But you are to be the world’s salt. The world is like a dark night, but you are to be the world’s light. Like salt in putrefying meat, Christians are to hinder social decay. Like light in the prevailing darkness, Christians are to illumine society and show it a better way.”
Another question here: Are we illuminating the society?
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, before I go into the substance of this intervention, let me quickly make an observation on the topic I was given to tackle. I believe there is no such thing as African Church. There can be the Church of Christ in Africa, with predominantly African attendees. If we confine the church by nomenclature to the African continent, such would be difficult to defend with the Bible. Yes, you hear of the American Church, the English Church and so on. The truth however is that the Church of Christ is one. A Christian in Nigeria is no different from a Christian living in Australia or China. Though we are many, we belong to one body.

But then, I understand. According to Conrad Mbewe, a Baptist Pastor in Lusaka, the origin of the contradiction can be traced to the time the indigenous leaders took over what he called ‘denominational power’ from western missionaries. “The leaders emphasize their ethnicity so much that someone listening to them may soon start thinking that the new agenda in the church should be to rid themselves of anything that smacks of the West. We must now be truly African.”

Of course we can argue that this problem dates back to the beginning of Christianity. One of the battles the Apostles fought was against sectarianism, ethnicity and cultural differences. The Jews and the Gentiles had different cultural experiences. But the Apostles regularly played down this factor so much that it was not allowed to bring schism into the body of Christ. Listen to Apostle Paul in Galatians 3: 26-27 “…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

I am aware that there are differences that we cannot gloss over. In a country like Nigeria, we have about 250 ethnic groups with different cultural leanings. But when we allow these differences into the church, we become a joke to the world. Sadly, the reality with us today is that a Yoruba pastor attracts predominantly Yoruba parishioners while a pastor of Igbo stock appeals mostly to his kinsmen. This is not only pathetic, it is shameful. Sometime ago, a cleric was posted to a parish in a regular reorganisation effort of the church. Upon resumption, the priest was rejected by the parishioners. Guess what their reason was: He was not their son!

In his presentation at the conference on “African Christian Theology: Memories and Mission for the 21st century” in Rome in March 2017, Archbishop FortunatusNwachukwu spoke to this problem. He warned that ethnocentric biases make “people think that the blood of ethnicity could be thicker than the water of baptism.” Nwachukwu, a Nigerian who is currently the Vatican representative to Nicaragua, said that in Africa, “we don’t speak of racism, we are now speaking of ethnocentric discrimination based on ethnic or sectional affiliation”. The challenge, he added, “is that ethnicity is deep-seated, and the ethnic group is a measure of value.”

This is a challenge that the church in Africa must deal with. When it becomes normal for us to encourage ethnicity and all kinds of regional agenda, we fall short of Christ’s expectations and to our shame, the world knows. Let us be honest with ourselves, it is difficult to be truly Christian yet discriminate against fellow believers on the basis of ethnicity. But to properly situate our conversation, let us probe the meaning of the word church?

Knowing I will definitely have theologians in my audience today, I took time to read a little about the church. Many people understand the church to be a building or a place of worship. This is not the biblical understanding of the church by my findings. Church is about people and not structure. According to Bakers Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, The New Testament word for “church” is Ekklesia, which means “the called out ones.” In classical Greek, the term was used almost exclusively for political gatherings. In particular, in Athens the word signified the assembling of the citizens for the purpose of conducting the affairs of the polis.

In the New Testament, Ekklesia is used to describe the community of God’s people about 109 times. Although the word only occurs in two gospel passages (Matthew 16:18 ; 18:17 ), it is of special importance in the book of Acts where it occurs 23 times and 46 times in the writings of Apostle Paul. It is found 20 times in the book of Revelation and only in isolated instances in James and Hebrews. We can draw three general conclusions from these data. One, Ekklesia applies to a local assembly of those who profess faith in and allegiance to Christ. Two, Ekklesia designates the universal church (Acts 8:3; 9:31; 1 Corinthians 12:28; 15:9, especially in the later letters of Paul: Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:18). Three, the Ekklesia is God’s congregation (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1) etc.

Brian Roden makes it even clearer. The church, he argues, “is invisible in the sense that it is spiritual in nature and consists of all true believers in Christ from all ages of history. The visible church is the group of professed believers throughout the world at any one time. A person may be part of the visible church and yet not be part of the invisible church, if his or her profession of faith is not genuine. However, only God knows whether a person is truly part of the church, because only He can see what is in a person’s heart”

What this reveals quite clearly are two important facts. One, the church is you and I and not some buildings with stained glass windows and high stone arches. Two, because the heart of men, according to the Bible, is ‘desperately wicked’, it is possible to be part of the visible church and not be part of the invisible church. Yet, there is no way we as Christians can show the light if we do not live by the examples of our Lord Jesus Christ.

One of my favourite Biblical passages is James 2: 18 which says, ‘But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works”. In interrogating that text, one Christian scholar argued that it should be read carefully because the writer was not disconnecting salvation from faith as some people assume. Rather, the message is that faith must produce good works. “James’s argument here is entirely practical: show me. Show me any evidence for your faith without any works. It can’t be done. On the contrary, James writes, I can show you what I believe by the good works that I do.”

In essence the message from James is that Christians who shape their societies are those who can connect their faith more with their life by refusing to bend to the pressures of their environment while fighting for their convictions. So, the church is not a building; we, as Christians, are the church. At the end, the central message remains that Christianity is a faith that demands adherents to live by what they believe. That was what that village pastor was telling his congregation with his morbid antics.

Sadly, the picture of the African Church, if I may use the term, is not pretty. With all manner of charlatan setting up their own church and coming up with doctrines that are not Biblical, what many project is darkness rather than light. But they are also not new. According to Walter Kaiser “it is clear that such ‘professional prophets’ existed throughout much of Israel’s history and that they were diametrically opposed to the canonical prophets. Scripture, however, regarded them as mere imitations of the genuinely appointed prophets of God.”

At this point let us go back to examine one of the biggest heresies the church has had to contend with which is the perverted gospel of prosperity: You just name it and you claim it! Many of the clerics who preach this sermon also attach a condition to it: The bigger the financial seed you sow in their ministries, the higher your financial reward from their God. As one writer put it, this is “an aberrant theology that teaches God rewards faith—and hefty tithing—with financial blessings, the prosperity gospel was closely associated with prominent 1980s televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Bakker, and is part and parcel of many of today’s charismatic movements in the Global South.”

When a minister claims that God offers health, wealth and prosperity to those who sow seeds in his ministry and goes further to say, the bigger the seeds, the bigger the prosperity, it is false and should be condemned as heresy. We cannot and will not all be rich. We cannot and will not all be healthy. Many things happen that humans don’t have control over. That is why we all need God.

I know much of what is called prosperity gospel today in Africa comes from America. I also know quite a number of these American prosperity gospel preachers are extremely wealthy and are currently under federal investigations. An online reporter in a secular newspaper recently wrote that “Spreading the gospel has become a very profitable business for several well-known televangelists, affording them the opportunity to live in mansions, own private jets, take exotic trips, relax in hotel rooms that cost thousands per night, and even own second and third homes”

Are we shining the light when we bring the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to disrepute for money? That is the question church leaders in our country and on our continent must always ask themselves. Last year, there was controversy about tithing in Nigeria in the social media. Unfortunately, those that we expected to enlighten us only burst out with emotions that I considered unnecessary. Like I said in one of my interventions, I pay tithe and God keeps His part of the promise. I also know a lot of people do the same in sheer obedience to God. What we have seen in the tithe controversy is the revolt of the public against what is perceived as misappropriation of the fund given to honour God.

I believe tithes and offerings can be used to support missionaries and staff of ministries, to support evangelism and provide for the needy. What I do not believe is for the tithe to be expended on enhancing the ostentatious lifestyle of an individual. This was what led to the outcry against tithing and where I think we should be circumspect.I am against taking advantage of the poor, the sick and the vulnerable. I do not begrudge any preacher for buying private jet, taking exotic trips and living in mansions. When you do this at the expense of the poor, it is being insensitive and wicked, no matter how you deodorize or spiritualize it… and the world knows!

Perhaps of bigger interest is the contribution of the church to corruption in African states. Since men of God are here, you may help in providing perspective to this malaise which is fast becoming a norm in the body of Christ. When a politician or political appointee enters the church, there is only one thing on the mind of most of our ministers: to shake him down. The late Chief OjoMaduekwe told an interesting story about this.

Shortly after he was first appointed Minister by President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, according to Maduekwe, a pastor visited and told him that God had directed that minister should buy him a vehicle for his evangelism. After ruminating over the ‘heavenly message’, Maduekwe said he asked the pastor whether God also told him where he would get the money to buy the vehicle. We may laugh but those are the kinds of pressure to which public officials are being subjected in our country, including by clerics.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I have not come here this morning to lampoon the church. I just believe we should be able to tell ourselves some inconvenient truths. Meanwhile, let me add that I have also read positive reports coming from the Church and that gladdens the heart. So it is not all gloomy. There are churches deeply involved in charities. Where governments have failed, I have seen churches blazing the trail. Giving to the poor and needy, setting up schemes to alleviate poverty and offering scholarships to indigent students. We know that the best universities in our country today are privately owned faith-based universities. This is pleasant news. The cost of attending these institutions has been a subject of debate. If you asked me, I would say, education is not cheap anywhere in the world. ‘Obet’odun’, as the Yoruba people would say, ‘Owol’opa. ’While there should be scholarships for brilliant and indigent students, provoking the sentiment that education should be free or ridiculously reduced at private faith-based universities is inadvertently advocating for their extinction. I do not buy such argument.

Regardless of the negative stories we read in the media, the church still remains a beacon of hope to many people in Africa. Of course we are all aware that when the going is good, not many care about God or church. But wait till the economy tanks or something happens that turn their lives around, you’ll find them rush to every prayer retreat and breakthrough seminars. That the church fills the void in the lives of our people, in a continent where there is so much poverty, is stating the obvious. There is something about personal tragedies and deprivations that reset peoples thinking and push them closer to God.

In Africa today, with all the weights and pressures that come with daily living, people expect divine answers that only the church can provide. With unemployment on the rise for our teeming young populations, more and more people are becoming suicidal as a result of hopelessness. However, Church outreaches have saved many from despair and sudden death. We have heard of people listening to the radio or television broadcast that brought them the much needed message of hope and salvation. Counselling and advice with relevant resources have been made available by the church to people with various needs free of charge.

We can spend the whole day complaining about the church, what it has done and what it has not done, but can you imagine what our societies would look like without the church and the values it espouses? However little, churches are giving positive responses to social problems. We should therefore appreciate the church for various programmes, seminars and sermons that have met people at their areas of need.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, You are the light of the world. Being light of the world means being models. The church should not be shy to do exceptional things and make an exceptional difference. With the amount of resources available to city churches, missionaries in our home fields should no longer suffer with their families. Equipping them with educational, medical and financial resources will go a long way in bringing the light of the gospel to the dark corners of our land. Where the government cannot reach, the church has the responsibility and the mandate to go and shine the light literally and otherwise.

However, Christianity devoid of power should worry us all. Is it not the same God of Elijah that we claim to serve today? Why then is criminal enterprise booming and terror taking over while we busy ourselves with motivations, self-development, commerce, sowing seed and reaping messages. The church is spreading and it is good. When it is not followed by godliness and righteous living and people who claim to be Christians freely misbehave, we should begin to check the content of our messages. Like I said before, it is high time emphasis shifted to practical Christian living messages.

The public expects so much from the church. There is poverty all over our continent. It is an opportunity for the church to shine the light. The Christian faith emphasises the pre-eminence of charity. The Lord Jesus Christ provided food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless and generally offered comfort to widows, children, the prisoners, the elderly and all those who are suffering. That is the ministry to which we are all called. From the founding of early Christianity to the modern age, genuine Christians have carried with them a beneficial concept of charity that has had, and continues to have, a substantial impact on humanity.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, let me conclude my presentation this morning with one of the best sermons I ever heard. It was based on the disturbing but rather significant parable of how one rich man failed to attain eternal life, even though he had been abundantly blessed. I want to take the story from Luke 16: 19 to 21: “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table…”

It is a story we are all familiar with. But I am sure many of us have never bothered to interrogate the reason why the man failed to make heaven and neither had I until I heard that sermon. If we read the passage very carefully we will realise there is nothing in the parable which indicates that the man was dishonest in his dealings or that he was a bad person. Neither did the Bible say that he maltreated the poor man called Lazarus who was at his gate. The main problem really was that he just could not be bothered about Lazarus or his plights.

Here is what one commentator wrote: “This is what I would suggest is the failure of the rich man: he did not notice Lazarus at his gate. The two of them did not live far apart. Lazarus was sitting at his very door. Yet the rich man lived his life isolated from the poor man. There was a gap between them. After his death, the rich man certainly noticed Lazarus. Not only did he notice him, but he wanted to bridge the gap between them. He begged that Lazarus would bring but a bit of water to cool his tormented tongue. But after death we discover that the gulf becomes a chasm, and it is no longer possible to cross it. Obviously then, the point of the parable is to notice Lazarus at our door and to reach out to him now…”

Whether we want to admit it or not, far too many people that we know are going through hard times in our country and on our continent. There are many Lazaruses at our gate in Africa. The several children who are out of school because their parents cannot afford the school fees as well as those who cannot put food on their tables. I know that Christians in Africa do give but we must cultivate the act of giving to those that we know are genuinely in need.

There is a Lazarus at our door. But it does not have to be about money. The Lazarus at our door could be that person in our school or in our office that cries out for respect but must face ridicule every day. She is that next door neighbour who recently lost her husband and is looking for a friend. As Christians, we should stop pretending that the need of one so near to us is not our concern. To embark on an authentic journey of faith, our Christianity must light an exemplary candle in the darkness of want. For us to be the light of the world that we are called to be, we must set the agenda of moral change and let others follow.

Thank you very much for listening and God bless.

• The third Vitality Lecture 2019 delivered at the Centre for Biblical Christianity in Africa, Ilorin, Kwara State on Friday, 7th June, 2019 by Olusegun Adeniyi, Chairman, THISDAY Editorial Board