The guide to church in Nigeria

It’s hard to get away from religion in Nigeria, something that I had given little thought while living in London. It’s absolutely everywhere – prayer before business meetings and public events; loudspeakers blasting from churches in every neighbourhood; services on TV and radio; billboards, posters and bumper stickers promoting an endless number of ‘miracle’ crusades. Currently, it is believed that Nigeria has more churches per capita than anywhere in the world – once I counted more than sixty (yes, 60) along a single street.

Perhaps I was weary; after a childhood of Sunday School, weekly chapel in high school and Pentecostal church in Jamaica during my teenage years, I no longer attended services regularly. Instead, I became a seeker of spiritual truth, recognising that no one religion or denomination has all the answers and that there are a number of what my Reverend Aunt Maxine calls ‘universal truths’ – principles that no single religion can claim for itself. Examples include ‘sowing and reaping’ and the capacity for intense belief (faith) to move mountains. 

Then, I arrived in Nigeria. I still remember the first time I told someone in Calabar that I didn’t attend church on a regular basis. I had to survive a 15-minute inquisition into whether I was an atheist, devil worshipper or pagan. The suggestion that my Christian faith and spiritual beliefs could survive without a weekly diet of singing and shouting was treated with outright suspicion, until I accepted an invitation to the inquisitor’s church the following weekend. I’ve had the same conversation many times since then with similar results. Eventually, I found a church that was consistent with my simple belief system and my reasonably regular attendance was enough to ward off further curiosity and suspicion.

Anyway, regardless of your religious views and my misgivings, attending church in Nigeria is a must. Even if you’re Catholic or Anglican, the flavour will be different to your church at home. However, even for one week, choose something that’s 100% Nigerian. There’s no shortage of choices and the nearest one to you is closer than you think – just wait until your first Sunday morning and you’ll hear it. Follow the sound and voila! – the church of your dreams (or nightmares) awaits. 

If this is your first time in a Nigerian church, this guide will come in handy:

  • Size matters. Choose a large church – those are the most entertaining – with a big choir, orchestra-sized band and an army of ushers. The pastor will be charismatic and dramatic, with a voice like honey-coated sandpaper. 
  • If you’re finding it hard to choose between two large churches, pick the one with the more impressive name. Ideally, it should include the words ‘international’, ‘global’, ‘worldwide’ or all three. This shows that big things are ahead. 
  • Wear your Sunday best. Suits and fancy dresses can work but nothing beats a custom-made, ‘native’ outfit made with multi-coloured, patterned fabric. For a real ‘wow’ effect, wear ‘Aso-Ebi’ – with matching outfits for a couple or family.
  • Take plenty of money – just don’t give it all at once. Choose between ‘tithes’ (10% of last week’s pay) and ‘offering’ (whatever you think is a reasonable donation). Keep some back for any surprise appeals for the roof fund, building fund or ‘moving to the permanent site’ (a newer and more impressive building that God has told the pastor he must build). 
  • Make sure you can dance. Try to brush up on your signature move from back in the day, to save you from being embarrassed when everyone gets ‘happy’. If you happen to attend on a first Sunday or some other special occasion, when it’s required that you dance your way to the altar, you’ll be glad you had that rehearsal the night before. 
  • Eat before you go. Services can last for three hours or more, and by the time you add journey times and parking, your Sunday brunch could become a late lunch or even dinner. Pray that pastor doesn’t get inspired to conduct an impromptu healing service or that building appeal I mentioned earlier. 
  • Attend the first service. If you like your weekly dose of church short and sweet, this is your best option. The choir and band are fresh, and service will be over before pastor can spring any surprises. If you miss the first service, see above. 
  • Say amen. When? Whenever. There’s never a wrong time to say amen, however, try to say it along with everyone else. After a few minutes, you’ll get the hang of it. ‘Hallelujah’ is much easier – you get prompted for that one (“Somebody shout hallelujah!”). If they start to ‘speak in tongues’, try to resist joining in unless you’ve done it before. If you’re feeling left out, close your eyes and move your lips silently – that’s the best I can offer. 
  • Pray loudly. The idea that God knows your every thought, even before you think it, does not apply here. Instead, shout your demands to get His attention, just in case He doubts your sincerity. In any event, you will convince everyone else.
  • Read the whole chapter. Be wary of preachers who skip through the Bible, saying, “Turn to this… now turn to this…”, merely to prove a point. Make a note of the passages and read the full chapters later. Often, you will find that context changes the meaning of those verses or the intention behind them. 
  • Avoid anyone selling ‘holy’ oil, water, handkerchiefs or anything similar. Run as fast as you can. Don’t look back. 
  • If it’s a really BIG church or headquarters of a large denomination, try not to approach the pastor too suddenly, just in case his security detail is a bit jumpy. In rare cases, even reaching for ‘the hem of his garment’ might put you in trouble. Start with an assistant pastor and figure it out from there. 
  • And finally, don’t ask about flight arrangements on the private jet. It’s the sole preserve of the pastor and not available to members at any price. You can get your own jet – just keep ‘sowing seeds’ in the church. 

Wherever you end up this Sunday, keep smiling. Amen.

    “Religion that is contained only in a church building is a weekend hobby, not a personal faith.” 

    James Lankford

    24 thoughts on “The guide to church in Nigeria

    1. Michael, here I am held waiting on a train going to meet my cousins for dinner in Stratford and your article has presented some welcome relief from the tedium. Your observations about church in Nigeria was highly entertaining. I would like to add a few thoughts borne out of some experience attending a few Nigerian churches. Firstly we must understand that a large proportion are not constructed as we would understand churches to be…no they are businesses designed to make huge profits . Secondly they are a source of huge entertainment for a population, many of whom have little else to lift their spirits. Then there is the love of ritual and Superstition that runs deep in the culture. Christianity has simply supplanted this for many. Of course there are those (pastors and congregation) and I won’t hazard a guess as to proportion, who genuinely are seeking connection with the supreme being. Just a few thoughts. Charles

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    2. Nice piece Michael. Am in Nigeria and you got it spot on here. I recall that I started arguing with my mum over aspects of church doctrine from when I was in primary school. Sometimes she adds a few slaps to her argument to help strengthen my faith and drive out the devil in me. Surprisingly those questions that I asked from childhood i still seek answers today beyond “that’s the mystery.” But one point of note is that church in Nigeria, nay Africa, is conducted with the soothing sound of the African drum. Worshipping with the piano is the London way. You, luckily, has had a taste of the piano and the drums.

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      1. Thanks Attah, glad you enjoyed it. You’re right, I should have mentioned the drum as a key difference. We’re similar in questioning some things from an early age, I’m just lucky I had a grandma who loved to discuss difficult subjects and be open to the possibility that the Bible was fallible after all. But, nothing like a few slaps to drive out the devil – mom’s version of ‘koboko night’!

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    3. You this Michael. You dey reveal our secrets abi? LOL. Prepare to get drowned for 5 seconds and be re christianed Thomas. LOL. Your write ups are always very entertaining and truthful. Keep it up.

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    4. Very descriptive of what happens. However, there is a proportion of genuine people and like Charles I won’t hazard a guess. The Bible is indeed “fallible” since the devil, men and even an ass spoke words in it. God however is infallible, we need to know which is what: all scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness. . .

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      1. Hi Charles, I thought it would be fun to capture the sights and sounds for my readers overseas, as they have no idea what they are missing. And for those more familiar, I figured it would raise a fond smile. Do stay in touch. Blessings.

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    5. The wife and I really love this blog and appreciate the creativity and imagery you provide. If you ever decide to take this blog to the next level by offering a Mobile App version I would love to be of service for an extremely low price, we appreciate the hard work you have put into this blog and wish you all future success in business and in life.
      Thank you for your time, it is the most precious thing we all possess.
      -Jacque’

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        1. Everyone in the blogging wold is so friendly and it warms my heart. It is because of this that I have designed a page for all the blogging apps that I create. The idea behind this being that if a blogger’s subscribers go to this page to download the app, they will also have the luxury of browsing the other apps as well. I think this could be a good easy way to receive advertising and new subscribers. However I need more applications to make in order to test this theory. That being said if you could provide me with some feedback about how easy the app is to navigate and any bugs, I would love to create your application free of charge. Please email me anytime at zenlighttechnology@gmail.com

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      1. Thanks Abu. I find church in Nigeria fascinating because of the power it has over many people for good and bad reasons. I just wish more people used it as a force for good in Nigeria – it’s the single biggest untapped institutional resource.

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