Bishop Marcus of Yola was explaining to me the other day all the work he had done on the cathedral in the last five years – new roof, new generator, new flooring. His next project, he said, is adding air conditioning, which will require a larger generator. I was a little curious why he would be so obsessed with making his cathedral so nice when he has a number of other projects on in the diocese – schools, clinics, farm – that could use the money.
We were driving past a new pentecostal church under construction as I asked. “See that church?” he said. “I’m sure when it is finished that it will have a big generator and air conditioning. If we don’t have air conditioning, people will go to that church instead.”
The competition between churches for members is intense in Nigeria. Anglicans have long had a position of prominence. The “big men” in a community have often been Anglican. (We can talk about the mixed blessings of this legacy in another post.) When they tithe, that makes the churches rich and enables them to run good schools and offer good programs. But now there’s a fear – and I’ve heard it from many people – that those people are aging and that the new generation of business people is going to the “new generation churches” – the catch-all term for the pentecostal/charismatic churches that are flourishing here.
So it is a perpetual competition for nicest church, best pastor (defined as the one who visits you at home the most and brings you the nicest gifts in the hospital), choicest location, largest sign, etc. I visited one church that has laid the foundation for a bigger building. But they don’t have money to complete the project. So they’re in a Catch-22. They need more members to raise the money to finish the church. But no one will come to their church until it is complete because they know they’ll be asked to contribute to its construction. So they go to the church across the street.
(Competing church signs at entrance to a neighbourhood in Yola.)
This competition helps explain the influence of the prosperity gospel in the Anglican church (we’ll tell you what you want to hear so you come to our church), the changing worship styles (we can out-pentecostal the pentecostals), the rapid growth of the church (so many pastors entreating people to come to church that they eventually do), and even the fierce opposition to homosexuality (if the Anglican church is “tarred” as being unfaithful to the Bible, everyone will go somewhere else).
For me, this raises all kinds of interesting questions. What does it mean to be an Anglican (or Lutheran or Methodist) if one’s church choice is determined by what one gets out of it? This is clearly not true for all people but it is for some. What can the Anglican church uniquely offer in this context?
But what I have been thinking about most of all is what weakness as power would mean in this environment. What if the Anglican church, in keeping with its heritage of incarnational theology, “emptied itself” (Phil. 2) and stopped caring about this competition and focused on its faithful witness to the Gospel, regardless of its size? Is that even possible? What impact would it have?