For centuries, one primary responsibility of religious leaders has been helping worshippers find meaning to life beyond their immediate realities. The church, like other religious institutions, has come a long way in this regard. But the fast changing times we live in makes it imperative for churches to go beyond the traditional one-cap-fits-all approach of only teaching people how to see God’s love in the world, and to adopt a more proactive role in shaping the socio-economic fortunes of society.
Especially in climes where the political class struggles for social cohesion due to a culture of mistrust, impunity for rule of law, poverty and avarice among its people. The challenge for Christian leaders in such regions must be to first subdue these cultural tendencies themselves, and then proceed to help the congregation overcome the same barriers holding it down from practicing what is preached. The Nigerian reality, for example, is one where citizens are faced with a recessive economy that encourages selfishness than selflessness: a reality that creates further resistance to embracing the Christian principle of selfless love.
So what happens when Nigerian pastors preach the need for love in abstract or teach business prosperity without acting to ease societal inequality and the economic woes of the nation on congregants?
The result is a church with less impact on society and more political power for the pastors. Consequently, we see in Nigeria a proliferation of ‘status’ churches whose leaders are disconnected from vulnerable members. We see pastors exercise less moral influence over the conduct of their most successful congregants. Furthermore, we see a string of opportunist pastors who have failed to improve their own lives try to pass on life skills to needy congregants, many of whom, too often, are injured by petty grievances and in need of genuine guidance on how to love one another. And as more and more churches embrace the pop culture of prosperity and motivational teaching, we see pastors in both old and contemporary churches define their leadership as a business oratory competition to remain relevant and make profit.
Yet, even as today’s church is hemmed in along this path, pastors should be aware that business/wisdom talks alone will prove unsustainable to satisfy the emptiness and leadership needs of congregants. No matter how deep, talk is cheap without action.
That is why, for example, people immediately resume hostilities on road, at home, at the office and with the world even after hearing a deep Sunday morning sermon. There’s a high level of frustration, bitterness and stubbornness peculiar to Nigeria’s society and the church can heal its people through wisdom acts, seeing as talks alone has only brought the Nigerian Christian community so far.
How can pastors connect talks with action?
Pastors can setup business incubators (a cluster where professionals and resources are provided, and business oriented members hand-held through the storms of starting innovative 21st century businesses); churches can make investment in agriculture and its value-chain, putting as many members to work and helping them earn a dignified living. Re-igniting and exemplifying love and a sense of fulfillment in today’s worshippers through love in motion/acts of wisdom as these is the evolution Christians earnestly desire for the church.
Today it is no longer new to see international evangelists/speakers team-up with their Nigerian colleagues to organize praise events, conferences and seminars where worshippers are challenged to offer thousands of dollars in seed offerings to key into ‘special’ prophetic declarations –a practice not peculiar to the Nigerian church alone. “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am with them in their midst.” So yes, God responds to partakers of this type of challenge. But while such prophetic exercise may produce one or two champions of faith in a gathering of thousands, will Jesus employ such selection process that limits participation and widens inequality?
There is a line from an old running Nigerian TV soap theme song which captures the plight of vulnerable Christians “…where the fish drowns or even die of thirst…” Today, the church is in danger of becoming an Oasis in the desert where people drown due to leadership which does not exemplify love in its actions, and die of thirst due to ‘ministry expansion’ imperatives which, too often, place importance on revenue generation over the welfare of members.
Today thousands of people go to worship hungry, give offerings and return home hungry –some sleep in church toilets or lack transport fare to return home after service, as I witnessed sometime last year in one of the churches along Lagos-Ibadan expressway. Members contribute tithes and effort to build schools they cannot enroll their wards for because it is priced above their means. And as ministry expands, more wealth and power is concentrated in the hands of a few pastors who have leveraged the church platform/audience to build careers and business empires –profits of which does not trickle down to members nor used to fight societal ills that influence Nigeria’s unpopular narrative for better.
The Nigerian people, notwithstanding her poor global image, have a proud history; a history of industriousness, faith, resilience and hope. I believe the church will find more fulfilling prosperity when it pursues inclusive growth that harnesses the strength of worshippers by helping them put their dreams to work. Hope is all but lost when our religious institutions supports the prevalent inequality of society. The overarching principle of religion is sympathy for humanity. Who says Nigeria will grind to a halt, if, for example, our two largest religious community’s (Islam and Christianity) pool resources together, identify the needs of millions of Internally Displaced Persons and provide the needed support through intervention projects like toilet upgrade, environmental fumigation, internet provision? The point is our religious institutions, especially the church as the world’s largest religion, must become people oriented. Less money should be spent on the church; more spent on the people. If the church uses its platform to empower members financially through viable empowerment initiatives, then members are enabled to be blessings to a larger body of unreached, agile and needy people in a diverse world than the church can reach alone through visitations and missions. We can put love in motion in our society and the church can be the biggest beneficiary. After all, an empowered congregation is an empowered church –a maxim which holds true for progressive governance as well; an empowered people is an empowered nation.