By Emeka Otuchikere, a geologist from Calabar
The recent gift of an aircraft to the President of the Christian Association of Nigerian (CAN) Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, on the anniversary of his forty years in the ‘Lord’s vineyard’ in unbroken fellowship and service to God and humanity seems to have opened a hornets nest as all brands of criticisms have greeted this seemly innocuous act of appreciation from the laity to the distinguished clergyman.
The most vitriolic was from none other personality than Pastor Tunde Bakare, a self-styled prophet to the nation and a 'polipastor' - pastor, practicing politics. One must make efforts to understand the psyche of the average Nigerian to begin to appreciate how he thinks and acts.
The truth is that the Nigerian church is indeed advancing faster than the rest of the country. We witness better organization and excellence in our churches in the nation than elsewhere.
Notwithstanding, there are equally areas of deficiency in this institution. The Nigerian church is a vocal, visible member of the world wide council of churches. She has been very influential as a pressure group in determining outcomes of contentious and controversial issues within the body of Christ. A case in study is the clamour for the ordination of gay pastor/ministers within the Church of England. The Nigerian Anglican communion threatened to sever relationship with Canterbury and as such, this decision was rescinded.
While the Bible standards of morality has been upheld by majority of our Nigerian churches, their perceived Achilles heel might just be the sheer sybaritic lifestyle of Church leaders: The open competition to outdo the ‘world’ in wealth and earthly possessions. What many have failed to discern is the purpose of money in the church. Many have wrongly applied it to mean making the pastor/minister as comfortable as possible.
The church, or the 'called out ones'
The church of Jesus Christ implies those called to emulate the teaching and lifestyle of Jesus Christ as a historical teacher, a prophet and Son of God (like all humanity can lay claim to, as very few will answer to sons of devils).
Over the years, the church in Nigeria has undergone various stages of metamorphoses and transformation both in worship, message content, relevance and social responsibility. Christianity came to our shores through the activities of selfless men and women, known as missionaries.
Notable amongst these were people like Mary Slessor, Hope Waddell, Bach Freeman, Bishop Aggrey; these men and women forsook the relative comfort of their home countries and families to propagate the gospel or good news of Christ salvation to the nations. Most times, they were in peril.
They had to contend with harsh weather and environmental conditions, tropical diseases, wild animals, unfriendly seas, savage and 'uncivilized' natives. In spite of the challenges and affliction they forged ahead with a message they believed was life transforming. Many of them lost their limbs and lives in the course of this noble mission to our dark shores.
Jesus salvation or soteria [Greek word meaning - deliverance from sin, sickness, ignorance and poverty etc], message was their goal to win and redeem souls bound for hell. In course of passing out this message, the missionaries saw the need in our society and went ahead to build schools, health care centres, and hospitals. The monies for these projects came from donations from their home churches in Europe. They tried to confront the twin monsters of ignorance and poverty. Like Chinua Achebe noted, they were determined to emancipate the dark continent.
The next phase of church development in Nigeria can be regarded as the stage of innocence. The church and the people had a harmonious relationship, more schools were built, teachers trained, the church had succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of the locals at least a majority benefited. A new social consciousness had been created.
Members of the churches gained ascendancy in the social ladder within the community. Their exemplary lifestyle distinguished them as many were known for truth and forthrightness. They were made community leaders, treasurers and secretaries, especially the literate amongst them.
The missionaries were revered as men and women with a higher calling. They gave sacrificially to the communities they found themselves. They became ingrained into the social fabric of these communities. The Catholic priest stood out as many of them had taken vows of celibacy and poverty.
They owned just the basics of life. Though, some, because they managed more than one parish, later drove Volkswagen beetle cars which were really pool cars for the priests within a parish. They had graduated from the fabled ‘white horse’ bicycles of yore.
Soon after political independence in 1970, an era of consciousness set into the Nigerian Church as we know it today. The civil war and the discovery of crude oil, acted as a catalyst to the social restructuring that took place thereafter. Nigeria had become prominent on the global map. The war attracted religious relief agencies like CARITAS and the Red Cross, while oil attracted British and American multi-nationals.
The indigenization policy of government helped to reposition and realign the major key actors in the Nigerian project. Nigerian music was incorporated to worship service, Nigerian ministers were equally growing in number, a new social class was been birthed. The minister, priest or pastor as he was called, is to intercede between God and the people. Many went by the name, 'Man-of-God'.
As the social consciousness grew, a segment of believers felt that local churches needed to control their finances. They desired autonomy in certain areas of relationship with the mother churches overseas. Prior to this time, the practice was to remit all collections, offerings and donations to Rome and England first before reimbursement back to the local churches were done.
At this time, the American version of the Pentecostal movement was gaining ground in Nigeria being championed by the Assemblies of God Churches, Four Square churches and other American faith based organizations.
It gained instant popularity because, like most American exports, they were big and aggressive on most fronts; these evangelisms were tagged 'crusades'. Preachers like Oral Robert, Billy Graham, T.L Osborn, Fredrick Price were popular and demonstrated the Pentecostal powers through healings and deliverances from satanic powers and stronghold.