I had a shave and a cold shower and then changed into my Sunday best. I looked at myself in my bedroom mirror and was pleased with the blend of the blue and white striped suit, white shirt and grey tie reflecting in it. Brilliant, I thought. I ate a couple of apples and off I wheeled. The church was only a few miles away. It was now few minutes past nine.
I was born into a Christian family. We were Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians, as most people in Southern Nigeria are. Even those in Orthodox churches more often count themselves as Charismatics. Most Nigerians, if not all, are religious. I, for one, would add that we’re also overly spiritual. We believe God is responsible for everything that exists or happens, and we believe that he can intervene whenever called upon. If there is any problem in your personal life, family or even the nation, you just pray. And pray. And keep praying. We are always searching for the best way to serve God and to be served by him, and so it is not unusual for Nigerians to run from one church to another, from one prayer house to another, from one cult to another, seeking solutions which prove elusive to age-long problems. If a condition goes from bad to worse, we even change religion. But never do we drop religion as a whole. It is unthinkable. We believe in the supernatural. We believe in miracles. We believe dreams are real. We believe in such things as demons and living spirits of the dead. We also believe in local ‘native doctors’ and ‘witches’ who have power to heal and afflict, bless and curse, and to divine.
I arrived just a bit late at the church. There were clapping of hands and rolling of hips to loud drumbeats as the congregation sang choruses in their African-styled worship. They used a repeated refrain in answer to a duo of female leaders prancing around the pulpit with a microphone. Then there was a time of prayer for various issues ranging from the security in the country, the growth of the church, and the needs of the people. The prayer was loud and emotional. The cue was given to pray by the leader behind the pulpit, and everybody at once began talking to God individually and simultaneously. This was followed by a hymn ‘To God Be the Glory’ accompanied by a piano and trumpet. Another ‘moderator’ then took the stage and gave a series of notices or ‘announcements’. Then came the choir. They staged a lively performance to the rapturous approval of the audience as they sang some scintillating tunes. As if this was not enough, the pastor came forward leaping and cheering on. He kept shouting ‘Praise the Lord!’ at the joyous congregation which kept replying ‘Hallelujah!’ Then he led in a simple prayer and ordered the congregation to sit down. They usually stood while praying. Of a sudden an unusual hush (the first in the service so far) descended as the people sat still to listen to what he had to say. The topic was ‘The Key to Prosperity’, with the text:
Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.
‘Brethren,’ he thundered, drawing out the main point, ‘the only way to wealth is to be generous. If you don’t open your hand to give, nothing will fall in.’ The sermon was captivating. The message was clear and simple. It was generally understood as this: Give more tithes and offerings to this church, and God will surprise you with material prosperity. Obviously the ‘man of God’ was a talented motivator.
The ushers were still at their positions, guiding latecomers to seats. The church building was slightly filled to capacity. About 300 were seated. Most of those present seemed to be in the age range of 20 to 45, although some older and younger people were present. Some children were with their parents, others were in a small group of their own in the gallery. The congregation were using their King James Bibles and taking notes. Truly, many of them found the KJV difficult to use but they persisted. The building was rectangular and had concrete walls painted in white with lots of pillars supporting a corrugated iron roof.
The sermon lasted about an hour. The pastor then encouraged the people to pray aloud, telling God that prosperity will not elude them. Half an hour was spent listening to a dozen of detailed testimonies of what God had presumably done for some people in the past week. The ‘testifiers’ were asked to come forward and climb the podium, but not to stand behind the pulpit, and declare the miracle they claimed to have received from God: maybe ‘salvation experience’, healing, deliverance or provision. Then gifts were invited. The people danced to melodious songs as they filed to drop their tithes and offerings into the boxes provided at the foot of the podium. Every single person went, none excluded himself or herself. The collections were blessed and taken away and another request was made this time for church maintenance and welfare. The people once again danced on their way to the front to make their donations. The sermon had done its intended job.
A brother, who I supposed had earlier informed the church of his intended thanksgiving, was requested for by the officiating minister. He stepped in from the front door accompanied by friends who helped him carry along the gift items and danced with him to the lively band. The congregation joined in the dancing. He presented before the church his gifts, which included a bag of rice, some tubers of yam and a live turkey, and gave a short address on how he had just completed his new house, giving thanks to God for the feat. In his own words, God had catapulted him from being a tenant to a landlord. They danced back to their seats. Those celebrating any event that month: birthdays, wedding anniversaries were called to the altar. Well, I joined the happy throng since I had a birthday coming up in two or three days’ time. Prayers for longevity and blessings were made for us.
Later newcomers were welcomed. They were invited to stand and move to the open space in the front where some special ministers would properly welcome them. As they went, a number of them, the remaining congregation applauded. They were prayed for and their contacts were collected on bits of paper so that they could be followed up after the service. After this there was a repetition of notices and some new ones were made. Then the closing prayer followed. They prayed for God’s protection for the entire week and said the grace. Finally, after about four hours the congregation was dismissed. But stay! The people were not leaving yet, neither did they appear to want to. They gathered in several groups, chattering. Some of the groups were of people in a serious mood receiving or giving counselling, praying together; or of a department or ministry in the church having meeting; or even of friends talking excitedly to one another. I moved from one of such gatherings to another, and after I was done went up to a sister who was sitting all alone somewhere at the rear. It turned out that she was waiting for a friend. She was a chorister with both an angelic face and voice. I struck up a conversation with her and in only a matter of time she was reeling with laughter. I could tell she liked me. Why won’t she, when I was apparently a man of good looks and decent status? I collected her number then thanked her for the nice time we shared together. In all, I spent half an hour in the church after service was over, yet leaving behind more than a few other people.