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.”