The church is essential to the flourishing of society, but it must be a church which is rooted in the gospel. Sadly, the church in Nigeria needs a renewal in this regard.
A 2015 research by the Pew Research Centre (chart pictured below) shows Nigeria as one of the most religious nations on earth. With about 90% of the population saying that religion is very important to them, it is far from being a secular nation.
Yet it has a problem of corruption which gravely paralyzes the smooth working of its public institutions as well as the availability of essential infrastructure. With a corruption index of 148 (out of 180 countries)*, it certainly needs some help. And my point in this article is that the church really is crucial in providing that needed redirection.
There is a brilliant article by Marilyn McEntyre, an American writer and professor, which discusses how the church, both as an institution and a place of worship, is essential, no, crucial, to our flourishing as humans. And there are several ways in which this is so.
First, a church is a place of divine encounter. Being places where believers gather in the name of Christ to worship God, they are rightly seen as points where we meet with God. In her words, the church ‘provides a place, a way, an invitation, and a sacred space in which, if you come with an open heart, you may find yourself, in spite of yourself, practicing the presence of God’.
Also, the church, through its preaching of grace and forgiveness, allows people to experience the same. In a modern world awash in diversions and pleasures of all sorts, it can be surprising that individuals can still speak of ‘feeling’ guilty. But that is the reality of our God-stamped natures. We were made for God and our fleeing from him does not alter that fact. While some ‘carry around guilt like a stone in a pocket’, others get to admit theirs only upon a personal crisis or at some point late in life. Either way, when we get to own up to our guilt, the church is the right place or community to go to.
Most significantly, I think, is the recognition that the church is a counter-cultural community. Regardless of the society or country in which we find it, a healthy church invites us to live by a different ethos and march to a different beat than what obtains in the halls of power. With a creed centred upon a King who became like his subjects in order to die for them, the church is human wisdom turned on its head.
In short, a healthy church:
‘will “afflict” the comfortable. It won’t offer cheap grace. It will help you share—and want to share—accountability for practices that affect the vulnerable. It will expand the repertoire of questions you raise about what is “normal” in the culture you inhabit. A healthy church will look at norms with a critical eye, holding them up to the light of Christ, which involves deep reading of Scripture and deep engagement with biblical ethics. It will lift you out of your cultural landscape enough to take a long, even transcendent, view of it.’
And this why the gospel, and a clear grasp of its content, is crucial for not only individuals, but entire societies. The gospel is what makes this community counter-cultural. The gospel is the substance of the message of grace and forgiveness held out by the church. And the gospel is how we truly encounter God in a world so eager to forget him.
The presence of the church in Nigeria is definitely a great blessing to the country. However, where the church loses its hold on the gospel, she loses that which is vital for her existence and non-negotiable in her role as a transformative power in society.
But we may ask, how does the church’s faithfulness to the gospel affect the nation, beyond the help it provides for individuals who are seeking forgiveness? How does the gospel make us a new nation?
The gospel is a different way of understanding reality, and as such shapes different aspects of our national life. The gospel will heal our political system by pointing officials to a Jesus who came to serve and not be served. It will turn around our educational system through the influence of a Jewish rabbi who poured himself into the lives of twelve ordinary men and shaped them into ambassadors of a heavenly kingdom. The gospel is the bedrock of human rights because it reveals a God who cared enough for the weak and helpless to heal them and die for them. The gospel is a display of divine justice in harmony with divine mercy; it is a lesson for our justice and legal system. The gospel reveals the profound love of God which does not destroy in the name of religion but restores and redeems through grace. The gospel condemns arrogance for it tells us the King of glory left his throne and came to die for us. The gospel subdues empty boasting and displays of power for it proclaims that the crucified Jesus is the reigning Lord over every nation.
But what is the problem with the church in Nigeria today? How does our loss of the gospel display itself? Here are some of them:
There is a widespread ignorance of Christian beliefs, key aspects of the gospel. This contrasts starkly with our level of religious devotion. From conception of God’s character to the nature of salvation, many have a rather shallow grasp of biblical teachings. This situation is itself a direct reflection of the quality of preaching and teaching dispensed in our assemblies.
Traditional worldview and beliefs
Traditional beliefs play a huge role in life and society in Nigeria. And these, in turn, influence the church as well. As a result, several unbiblical practices and customs are tolerated and even promoted within Christian gatherings.
There is a subtle but widespread reliance on good works and involvement in church activities as a criteria for acceptance before God. The great theme of justification by faith alone, while professed, is barely understood.
The modern secular narrative of success and affluence has influenced Christian communities. This tendency has been variously described as ‘prosperity gospel’, ‘health and wealth theology’, etc. It is the tendency to understand the blessing of salvation in terms of material and financial blessings. Sadly, scripture is always enlisted to provide support for this unbiblical perspective.
In view of her role in God’s plan, the church needs to recover the gospel. Without it, she does not exist. And without her influence in society as salt and light, our nation would remain dark and dreary, mired in corruption and lost in sin.
* Source: Transparencey International (https://www.transparency.org/country/NGA)