In this piece, I analyse how some church leaders in Nigeria view the ban on religious gathering and through their utterances, project themselves as ‘protecting the Church’ against alleged plan by the devil to halt the growth of the ‘church’ in COVID-19 era. Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 era has been the age of redefinition of spaces, re-categorisation of what is important and what is not, demystification of over-rated persons, places and things as well as thebattle of persons for relevance and significance in a rapidly redefining social situation. While COVID-19 is devilish to some, it has helped others to rediscover themselves in the management of their lifestyles,exposed the loopholes in our health system, made some people millionaires and ruined the livelihoods of others. In this era, only survival and living are the two most important pursuits to the rich and poor.
As a contemporary cause of social change, COVID-19 is altering cherished values, transforming cultures, rituals and social institutions. Institutions of the family, politics, education, media and religion have been hit below the belt and are battling to survive and stay relevant. Of these institutions, religious institution is vociferous in its acceptance of the reality of COVID-19, particularly the way the virusis altering and redefining religious spaces and practices. Some would even say that the pandemic is forcing followers to re-evaluate their religiosity.
The two voices reverberating against the continued ban on religious gathering are Bishop David Oyedepo of Living Faith International (Winners Chapel) and Chris Oyakhilome of Love World Incorporated. Bishop Oyedepo smelled rat that locking the Church and opening the market space was aimed at checking the growth of the Church of God. His co-comrade, Chris Oyakhilome was badly hit with the disappearance of performances which he was usually treated to and the reverence extended to him by the mammoth worshippers. Through their opinions, they unveiled the functional derivable of preaching in the physical space rather than the virtual sermonising that COVID-19 has imposed on them.
Was the policy of lockdown designed to diminish the influence and growth of the church as posited by Bishop Oyedepo? Church to Oyedepo is the physical and massive structures where worshippers gather to watch the performances of their pastors, smile, dance, pay tithes, make donations and offerings. But with empty cathedrals, the shepherds are missing their sheep who are avoiding risky spaces until the pandemic is over. However, since Bishop Oyedepo would not agree that only the living will serve and praise the Lord, the followers have reconstructed the spaces of worship to their homes and neighbourhoods. This is in line with Matthew 18:20 where God says where “two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them”. This verse nullifies Bishop Oyedepo’s construction of his build edifice as Church. In so far as the gathering is in the name of God, He is there.
While the Mega Churches have their own broadcast channels and have been reaching followers online while holding large conventions before now, their complaints over COVID-19 ban show the importance of face-to-face communication and how this is seemingly irreplaceable by virtual preaching. It was Chris Oyakhilome who let this out while complaining on why some Christian leaders agreed with government that the Church should be closed. He felt they had done a disservice to the House of God. Is Church not a place of healing? He asked. Later, he would betray his selfish pursuit by lamenting that “….they said there would be compensation for the period of the lockdown. What compensation can be enough to replace the praise and worship of the congregation? I hope you have enjoyed the time so far, only you in the cathedral did online transmission. Hope you enjoyed it so far? But thank you very much for what you did to the House of God.” Certainly, religious leaders are finding this time very strange but they have to adjust to it. Being alone in the cathedral is like a footballer playing alone in the Stadium without fans. It is boring...no viewers, no clapping for the right moves. But as good shepherds, the pastorate must ensure that the sheep follows the Biblical counsel in Isaiah 26:20 to be safe.
We should also understand the political economy of our positions on the ban. Like other institutions, the partial or total lockdown is having impact on churches (and mosques) diminishing human presence, tithes, donations and offerings. Many ongoing projects within the church (and mosques)have also stopped because the ‘feeders’ are also struggling to survive and saving the little left to feed. During this time, very few Churches and Mosques have risen to support their members, while other ‘ministers’ still plead with their members enduring salary cuts, disengagement, rightsizing and downsizing to send money to ‘nurture the work of God’.
There is no need for the Bishop to compare food market opening with banned Church gathering. Market people are not suffering Spiritual famine — they start their day with individual and group prayers while market evangelists take the world of God to them to indicate that the church is not the physical structures. How orderly and safe will it be to be inside church singing and dancing with face masks on? If shepherds feel the congregation are denied spiritual foods, he can end spiritual famine by leveraging on social media and online broadcast channels to feed the sheep.
Methinks the physical structures of the Oyedepo and Oyakhilome’s massive cathedrals can be likened to the isolation centres where those who have tested positive for COVID-19 are being treated. The Statistics of the fatalities and recoveries from the isolation centres tell the story. Just like people attend churches for different purposes, not all people get their problems solved spiritually. For those in isolation centres too, their families pray for their recoveries but prayers of people with better immunity get answered while those with underlying morbidity illnesses and low immunity gave up the ghost. What this tells us is that prayer is an ongoing activity and it is not on lockdown. The leaders of the Church (and Mosques) should become functional and innovative during this period to retain their relevance in a post-COVID-19 Nigeria.
It is logical to say that no one is standing against the Church because the church of God is not emplaced in the territories of individual pastors like Bishop Oyedepo and Pastor Oyakhilome. What has happened is a rational reaction on the part of the followers to choose between staying safe at home or risking being arrested or infected in the ‘House of God’. Who orchestrated the plan that the Christians will end their 40 days fasting with the coming of corona virus and that the Muslims will observe Ramadan fasting without the normal rituals? I thinkGod is using the pandemic to tell all of us that not a pastor or Imam can save whom he has not saved. This perhaps explains why people are looking up to God, not man as the author and finisher of their faiths.
The Church is a risky space for COVID-19 spread. For instance, COVID-19 transmission in South Korea was fuelled by the Shincheonji Church whose 5,080 members tested positive for COVID-19 as at March 25 when the country’s confirmed cases was 9,137! If it is to pray, let the heads of Churches and Mosques pray for normalcy to return in order to have huge thanksgiving services. Until then, the ban on religious activities is meaningful and functionally oriented towards preventing religious centres from becoming centres of COVID-19 dispersal.
Dr Tade, a sociologist sent this piece via email@example.com