Prosperity knits a man to the world. He thinks he is finding his place in it while really it is finding its place in him.
Imagine the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ pausing for an hour-long interlude of jokes. Imagine Jesus getting off his rocky perch with a flourish and switching on a baritone WWF announcer’s voice to introduce the joker. Imagine words like: “with an earth-shaking, heaven-pounding round of applause, ladies and gentlemen, join me as I welcome to the podium, the award-winning (smattering of applause); rib-cracking (rising applause); tongue-talking (applause echoing through the hills and valleys); comedian-general of Jerusalem (everybody now on their feet clapping enthusiastically).” Imagine that Jesus continues. “He is a man called of God to give life to that proverb that says ‘laughter doeth good like medicine’. He will knock you off the grass with Holy Ghost anointed sucker punches. Even the uptight Pharisees and the Kill joy Sadducees will find him irresistible. I guarantee you; your life will never remain the same.”
Hard to imagine right?
It is just as hard to imagine that many other frivolous practices like the one described above that are common place in the church today would have found a place in the ministry of Jesus. The church; the Nigerian Church in particular seems to be losing its moorings and drifting rapidly away from the message of Christ as he delivered it and had it recorded for us in the bible. In reality, that’s putting it mildly. The unvarnished truth is that, there is a large-scale, insidious misinterpretation and misuse of the bible to justify the most inane and carnal aspirations of men.
To my mind the sad irony that we are living is that although Jesus spoke (Matt 7:13) of the gate that leads to destruction as being wide and the road easy, the church has appointed itself as the main contractor undertaking the inglorious task of widening the gate and smoothening the road.
And how has the church come to this pass? This zone of deep identity crisis where the quest for vain adulation has been perfectly disguised as an altruistic striving for earthly relevance? Put simply, unlike Jesus who ran off Satan with a stern “be-gone” (Matt 4:10), when he offered him the kingdoms of the earth in exchange for worship, the church has failed woefully in dealing with the allure of corrupted power and prosperity. To Satan’s condition of “will you bow” our boisterous response has been “how low?”
To be clear, all through the history of the church, Christians have frequently erroneously believed that God wants the church to appropriate civil power in this age. In fact, after the resurrection of Jesus, just before his ascension, he had promised to send the Holy Ghost to empower the believers, to which they had responded; “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). In their minds, the agenda of God and the purpose of the Holy Spirit was to empower the believers to take over civic authority from the Roman occupation army.
This sad misunderstanding and misappropriation of the kingdom of God has pervaded church history with serious consequences for the integrity of the message. In the words of Jesus “…The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matt 13:33). In essence, the kingdom in this age functions best as a grassroots, organic movement which eventually permeates society. Unfortunately, unlike yeast that bakes with the dough and causes it to rise, too many zealous men in history have tried to sprinkle the yeast of the kingdom on already baked dough – hoping that it will still make it rise.
For a while now, the Nigerian church has been languishing in this poor understanding of how to push the frontiers of the kingdom. We have focused too much energy on gaining the respect of the world by acquiring the things of the world using the methods patented by the world. We are so devoid of inspiration, so destitute in our sense of who we are that all the devil needs to get tons of invites to make a round of pulpits in Nigeria is to win a few awards on MTv or hold political office.
So while crowds thronged the house of Mary and Martha to see Lazarus their brother whom Jesus had raised from the dead, all we seem to have to attract the crowds today is the promise of striking it lucky in the spiritual sweepstakes or listening to an otherwise pricey stand-up comic for free.
What is really worrying is however not the infantile mimicking of the world with our ‘shows’ complete with red carpet paparazzi, what is really worrying; what widens the gate and smoothens the road to destruction is the complete misapplication of the words that Jesus taught.
Faith and prophecy for instance have been reduced to a spirited shouting of positive declarations over a riled-up crowd of the faithful, who in turn compete to scream the loudest and most drawn out “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaamen” to guarantee them the biggest blessing. Jesus on the other hand didn’t simply declare people’s physical needs met, he gave them bread. In fact on one occasion, his disciples took the view that having listened to Jesus preach, the least folks could do was to go help themselves get something to eat. Here’s what Jesus thought…
“And he got out, and saw a great mass of people, and he had pity on them, because they were like sheep without a keeper: and he gave them teaching about a number of things. And at the end of the day, his disciples came to him and said, This place is waste land, and it is late: Send them away, so that they may go into the country and small towns round about, and get some food for themselves. But he said to them in answer, Give them food yourselves…” Mark 6:34-37
Like those disciples wanted to, the Nigerian church is content to send people in need away to fend for themselves. We hold that faulty understanding of faith that the Apostle James writes so disdainfully about:
What use is it, my brothers, for a man to say that he has faith, if he does nothing? Will such a faith give him salvation? If a brother or a sister is without clothing and in need of the day’s food, And one of you says to them, Go in peace, be warm and full of food; but you do not give them the things of which their bodies have need, what profit is there in this? But a man may say, you have faith and I have works; let me see your faith without your works, and I will make my faith clear to you by my works. (James 2:14-18)
Somehow, the devil has succeeded in blinding the church in Nigeria to the fact that the reason the gospel took root in our country is because the missionaries built schools and hospitals and used them to support the grassroots, organic essence of the kingdom. On our part, we insist that to keep excellent standards, our schools must cost a fortune; as though the institutions the missionaries ran for free were mediocre.
We are building huge cathedrals – monuments to our egos, oblivious of the fact that a hostel for orphans is of greater value. For it is written, “The religion which is holy and free from evil in the eyes of our God and Father is this: to take care of children who have no fathers and of widows who are in trouble, and to keep oneself untouched by the world.” (James 1:27)
Not only have we been touched by the world, we are smooching the world. That is why being so besotted with image, when we read that Jesus is returning to receive unto himself a church that is without spot of blemish, we act as though the bible is talking about the smiling pastor-ing couple on the highway billboard whose skin is fresh as a day old’s; thanks to madt skillz on Photoshop.
If it is besotted with image, the Nigerian church seems to be absolutely ravished by money. Judas must rue being born in the wrong age, for were he to be alive today, the Nigerian church offers him amazing opportunities, and justification for ‘wealth’ as to not need to pilfer from the paltry sums in the purse that he kept for Jesus.
The recent $9.3million money laundering scandal that has smeared the CAN presidency is a natural consequence of the church focusing too much on acquiring ‘wealth’. Rather than focus on building an organic, grass roots movement, we have used the ‘needs’ of the kingdom as excuse to take on board all kinds of schemes in order to finance agendas which have nothing to do with God.
I recall being sent once to pastor a small parish where the former pastorate had absconded over a scandal. Apparently, the platform of the church had been appropriated for pushing a forex trading business and members had poured in their savings. Think of it, it would have seemed to the parishioners that there could be no faster route to seeing those billions that pastor had been calling forth by ‘faith’. What could be more potent than having your ‘prophet’ manage your portfolio?
One particularly sad case was that of a widow who had put in her husband’s benefits. She and her teenage son came to me one Sunday after I had preached what I thought was a moving sermon, they wanted to know where the former pastor was; he had gambled away their inheritance. Caught in a strangulating web of greed, the booming voice of the shepherd kept the sheep from hearing God say, here comes burst.
The most shocking part of the entirely sad episode however is that, to the best of my knowledge, no one was sanctioned. There couldn’t have been a more literal re-enactment of the conversion of the house of prayer to a den of thieves. But while Jesus left us the example of unleashing his horsewhip and upturning the tables of the money changers of his day, the forex traders in my story walked, leaving behind shattered hopes and seared consciences.
Of course the church does not only seek to outdo the world, there is also an intense level of intra and interdenominational competition all of which spills over into petty and carnal deification of men. So believers are trained to be happy with stickers that say ridiculous things like “I am proud to be an (put in the name of your denomination)” or to pray to the God of (put in the name of your pastor). This is what the Jews meant when they tried to claim human parentage as their unique access to God, but Jesus said to them, “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). He says the same thing to us today, “Before your pastor was, I am”.
Critically, as the 2015 elections approach, the church is allowing itself to be co-opted into politics. Like the early disciples who wanted to know if the coming of the Holy Spirit would facilitate the capture of political power, church ‘leaders’ are thinking that the victory of particular candidates is victory for the church; nothing can be more erroneous. No matter who is in power, God will reign.
What the church needs to do is, rediscover that authentic, organic, grassroots movement and continue pushing the message until our Lord returns to set up his true kingdom.