A free market of religion

I’ve written before about the competition in Nigeria for church members. This morning, I experienced it for myself.

I visited a new church plant in Bachure, a small neighbourhood of Yola. The congregation is led by a seminary student, Joe, and his wife. (Since he is often away at school, she does most of the teaching, preaching, and leading. But women can’t be ordained in Nigeria. Go figure.)

The service began at 9 and we arrived at 8:30. We drove past these two churches on our way in.

The first one is only a few months old. The second one is one of the established churches in the neighbourhood.

This is the Anglican church – the same church that we laid the foundation for on Thursday.

The established church we drove past has a band and a loud sound system so we could hear every single word of their service throughout ours. (And the echo in their sound system: pray-pray-pray-se-se-se the-the-the Lor-Lor-Lord-d-d-d.)

At 9am, we had seven people in church: me, Joe, his wife, and their four children. We began anyway. Slowly, over the next hour, people began to trickle in. The congregation peaked at 14. I preached and the service was fine all around – some nice bits of Anglican liturgy and some nice free-flowing bits as well.

It’s hard to convey, though, what it is like to preach with another church less than 100 feet away. (Kind of like going to a funeral with three others going on simultaneously, actually.) If people don’t like what they’re hearing here, they can just get up and leave – taking their offering with them. It may not happen in the middle of the service – people are too polite for that – but they might not return next Sunday or show up for the mid-week service. Where does that leave the pastor? This close connection between the quality of the pastoral leadership and the success of the congregation is something that I am not familiar with in the U.S. It’s a free market of religion and if you can’t perform, you’re done.

The city of Yola is growing quickly and there are lots of new neighbourhoods like Bachure springing up. Bishop Marcus would love to plant Anglican churches in all of them – the Pentecostals are so he needs to as well – but he lacks enough talented clergy and the money necessary for the task.

The Anglican church – as well as that new one in the tent – are operating under a significant burden. People see those bricks outside and know that the congregation is trying to erect a building. That takes money. And being in a tent or a grass-walled structure means you don’t have electricity, which means no band, which means bad worship (so goes the equation here). Prospective members will wait until after the church has built the building and then join. But the congregation struggles to put up the building with such a small number of people.

But this little Anglican church has made good progress. They began in a person’s living room before getting together the money for the land and their current structure, none of which came from the diocese. Joe and his wife have already planted one church outside of town. That one began under a tree and now has 60 to 80 people on Sunday and a really solid building.

So it’s possible. But it sure seems like a long row to hoe.

(Is this the direction the American church is headed? The decline of endowments and collection receipts could be leading us in this direction. Our problem is that we have gigantic buildings that take so much money to support. We’ll collapse under the weight of our infrastructure before we learn how to live off the effectiveness of our pastoral leadership.)

Joe’s daughter Deborah danced around the church while her parents and the church treasurer counted the collection receipts.
This is possibly my favourite picture I’ve ever taken.

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3 thoughts on “A free market of religion

  1. Pingback: Needed: a little dash of prosperity gospel? | Mission Minded

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