A message popped up on my iPad one Sunday afternoon: “Happy Sunday. How was church?” This typical Nigerian greeting on ‘the Lord’s Day’ was met by an atypical reply from me. “Happy Sunday to you. I didn’t go to church today.”
The response was predictably swift and unequivocal. “I will pardon you for today but next Sunday, please don’t fail to go to church.” What followed was an interesting exchange of views – one side rooted in the idea that weekly church attendance equalled ‘serving God’ and guaranteed lifelong blessings and a rewarding afterlife. The opposing view (mine) was that I didn’t feel the need to find God in a special place and that serving my fellow man is the best way to please the creator. The exchange ended on an agreeable note, when my friend realised that our views were not that far apart, in spite of my lack of commitment to a weekly ritual.
So, what’s behind this age-old habit of weekly worship? Believe it or not, its origins lie in the pagan practice of worshiping idols made of wood, clay, stone and precious metals. In order to pay homage and offer sacrifices, believers had to be in the physical presence of the deity at a temple or shrine. Abraham was the first person to challenge these beliefs successfully, proclaiming the idea of a single, all-powerful god who didn’t need a physical form. In doing so, Abraham advanced our relatively modern idea of monotheism and became the first Jew. Ironically, Abraham’s father, Terah, had a business that sold idols.
Change, no matter how radical, is slow. Often, throughout the biblical years, the Jews required physical representations of God, including the Ark of the Covenant, a golden calf and various other manifestations. One offshoot of Judaism, Islam, has held firmly to the idea of one omnipresent god, Allah, the same god of Abraham. The early Christian church, as fashioned by the Romans, was less clear-cut, with a trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and numerous statues of saints and crucifixes, to help persuade millions of idol worshippers across the vast Roman Empire. Today’s Christianity, despite the widely held belief that ‘God is everywhere’, still pushes the idea of going to church regularly, to worship ‘in His presence’.
Recently, while giving a friend a lift, I heard a radio advertisement for a crusade or conference at one of those huge Lagos mega-churches – with the usual list of speakers and the promise of ‘miracles, signs and wonders’. Right at the end, the voice loudly declared that if one were to attend, “God is waiting to meet you.”
I thought it was just me, but my friend reacted in exactly the same way – with a mixture of mirth and incredulity – to the idea that you had to go to a special place, at an appointed time, to ‘meet God’. How do such ideas still thrive in 2018, after more than 3,000 years of monotheism, grounded in the idea of an omnipresent, omnipotent God? Quite easily, I think, because church leaders have a vested interest in driving attendance numbers, membership and, ultimately, tithing and collections. Without the numbers, those huge auditoriums would not exist, neither would the palatial homes, luxury cars and private jets.
Before you dismiss my opinion as mere cynicism, consider this. How has Judaism survived and thrived, despite persecution over centuries, without evangelism, and ended up with Jews being the most prosperous individuals on earth? Much of the practice of their religion takes place at home and is weaved into their daily lives. Their wealth is derived from the practical application of principles learned from birth and honed by isolation, not from any inducement to tithe. Interestingly, Jews are extremely generous givers and have the most amazing system of charitable institutions, ensuring that no member of their community gets left behind.
Islam continues to grow without evangelism also; and although adherents of both religions worship weekly in their millions, I can’t think of a single celebrity Rabbi or Imam with a flashy lifestyle. Instead, they are engaged by their congregations to focus on teaching and prayers, and are answerable to them. Conversely, Christian pastors are often seen as ‘owners’ of churches, with the right to huge incomes and benefits.
If we really believe in an omnipotent, omnipresent God, shouldn’t church be a place where those in need can receive help and support from those of us who are ‘followers of Christ’? Wasn’t He more concerned about people’s sickness, hunger and nakedness, than whether they were going to the temple? Come to think of it, I can’t remember a single reference in the gospels of Jesus holding regular meetings with his followers. Perhaps He was too busy travelling to all the places He was needed.
In fact, He was the kind of guy most modern-day pastors would warn you to stay away from – a homeless, itinerant man with radical views, who was resistant to authority and spent time hanging out with prostitutes, moneylenders and tax collectors – the agents of the Roman oppressor. He challenged the leadership of the church and questioned their affluence, relative to the poverty of their congregation. Ultimately, he was executed because he had no friends in high places who could vouch for him – just a ragged bunch of fishermen and other poor followers.
He moved around from place to place, knowing that God is everywhere and would provide for His every need. He didn’t need the permanence of a building because his trust was in something far more solid and everlasting. He didn’t want to be surrounded by the righteous, when there were so many sufferers who needed him more. And, if he needed a place to pray, one location was as good as another – a quiet room, a mountaintop, a garden or even out in the bush.
Let me be clear – I’m not saying people shouldn’t go to church, but I do think that we place far too much importance on the institution and on regular attendance. Many have been manipulated into tithing, believing it’s a Christian obligation (it is not*). Our real focus should be to try and make a difference in the real world, where so many people need our help, support and encouragement.
When things get really tough and all hope is lost, many desperate people wonder aloud, “Where is God?” The answer should be obvious – ‘everywhere’ – because He should be present wherever we are. Let’s dedicate ourselves to showing up for other people when they are most in need. And, hopefully, the next time someone asks, ‘Where is God?’ you’ll be right there to show them.
(* For my views on tithing, see my earlier post ‘Above the clouds‘ 04/05/2015)
“God’s whole being is present in every part of space, or at every point in space; it is also necessary to say that God cannot be contained by any space, no matter how large.” ~ Wayne Grudem and Jeff Purswell
“A heathen philosopher once asked, “Where is God?” The Christian answered: “Let me first ask you, where is He not?” ~ John Arrowsmith
“But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people, and do our best to help them find their own grace. That’s what I strive to do, that’s what I pray to do every day.” ~ Barack Obama