Monday, May 14, 2018

Churches With No Memory

I live in a city heaving with religion, bustling with religious people.  On my way to my favourite coffeeshop, I walk between an enormous Catholic Church on one side and an even bigger Anglican Cathedral on the other.  On the Ring Road, where I run the last couple of miles of my dawn run, I pass by maybe 10, maybe 15 tin shacks built in a long row on land provided by the county government across a ditch from the road.  Each one of these tin shacks is its own church, complete with it’s own impossibly loud sound system, and its own self-appointed shepherd.  May of the congregants of the various churches have their own colourful uniforms and their own church flags.  I often see one or another on a Sunday procession, complete with drums, with colourful dresses and scarves for the women, a rainbow of coloured cassocks for the men.

I recently took a walk through an unfamiliar neighbourhood and passed by more than 8 small churches (and one ginormous church, a sister to the Nairobi Pentecostal Church in Nairobi, AKA CITAM or Christ is the Answer Ministries).  A drive several days ago through the other side of town took me past church after church, each one with a name that indicated it was not connected to another.

CITAM Kisumu

Some of these churches are started by men (or women!) who have observed that being the ‘bishop’ or the ‘prophet’ or the ‘apostle’ of a church, even a tin shack church, is a good way to make money.  And there certainly are a plethora of examples of such religious leaders who have nice cars, nice houses, nice investments, and nice bank accounts, all off the offerings of the poor, often extorted from them by claiming without their ‘seed money’ God will not bless them because their seed money indicates the measure of their faith in God.

Others of these churches were started as a result of church conflicts.  In churches like this, there is no way to civilly much less Christianly resolve differences.  Too often, one party simply absconds and takes part of the congregation with him or her.  A church that I know in Nairobi suffered one such conflict.  The associate was disciplined by the church board for some malfeasance.  But he didn’t stay around long enough to hear their decision.  Instead he went a few miles down the road, rented a tent and started services.  He began as the ‘pastor’, but the inevitable title inflation took hold and I think he is now Bishop Prophet Dr. So and So (and soon to be an 'apostle', I'm sure), and his ‘church’ is a roaring success.  At least he seems to be doing well by it.

Much fewer are those churches established as a result of evangelism.  Most seem content to attract the disgruntled members of other congregations.

But what nearly all of these churches have in common is that they are churches without a memory.  If there is an awareness of Church history, or of what God has done in the past in and through his people, it is a well-kept secret.  Most of these Bishops/Prophets/Revivalists/Pastors/Preachers are busy looking around at what their neighbours and competition are doing, or going on line to download the latest from the really successful American or Nigerian or even Kenyan health and prosperity heretics.  And it’s not just the Pentecostals.  An Anglican preacher was caught mid-sermon preaching word for word the same sermon from an American prosperity preacher’s website by a friend armed with a smart phone when he became suspicious of some rather non-Kenyan turns of phrase. 

There is a rush, even a desperation for adherents at all these churches, and the preachers employ all the latest gimmicks and strategies to get people in their doors. This is because, crassly put, more people mean more money.  So there is this constant we must figure out and channel what is popular in order to get more people to come. This of course is the old Church Growth movement gone to seed, with all sorts of unintended consequences (or perhaps more appropriately, all sorts of chickens coming home to roost), the result of which is neither ‘church’ nor ‘growth’, at least here. This has the unintended but equally soul-killing consequences of equating Christianity in the eyes of the consumer public with entertainment, with feeling good. with bouncy music and dancing, and with God will give you everything you need (of course if you have enough faith).  Having received this kind of inoculation, it is almost impossible to preach to any of these people a sermon on genuine discipleship and following Jesus and be taken seriously by anybody.

The 'Mightiest Prophet of the Lord' Dr. David Owour

Contemporary Christianity here in Kisumu seems to be all about ME.  There is no interest in reading Church history or theology.  It’s about God doing for me what I need him to do for me.  In this regards, popular Christianity is reverting to a kind of African Traditional Religion, where the religion exists to ensure that God or the spirits or the witch doctor or the holy man protects us from these bad things (curses, sickness, death, accident, infertility, crop failure, drought, etc) and gives us these good things (blessings, children, rain, fecundity, prosperity, etc).  There is no sense of a relationship with God that we destroyed to our great harm that needs to be reconciled, no sense that any of the brokenness around us and in us was in any way caused by me, thus needing repentance by me.  Salvation is reduced to ‘pie in the sky by and by’ with no implications whatsoever for how we might live our lives today.  In other words, ‘Christians’ are coming close to forgetting what it means to be Christians.

Having lost our memory, we Christians spend our time making things up.  We make up what a church is supposed to be.  We make up what ‘worship’ is supposed to be.  We make up what clergy in the church are supposed to be.  We make up what the ‘sacraments’ (or ‘ordinances’) are supposed to be and we make up how we are supposed to do them.  We make up what morality we want to enforce and then pick and choose which issue to be outraged over and which issue to ignore.  We make up what theology we want to endorse.  We make all these things up because we don’t remember.  We don’t remember (or choose to ignore) what Jesus said, nor do we remember what the early Christians practiced.  We have lost our memory.  And as a result, what we think is Christianity is, less and less, not.  We are increasingly busy making up religions in our own likeness.

Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia have their own set of disturbing and heartbreaking symptoms, and their own progressions as the various diseases carry a person down the path of no return.  But one symptom is common to almost all of them.  One begins to lose one’s memory.  I have seen this happen in people that I know and love.  He may start repeating himself, no longer sure that this thought or that concern was something he said already.  But he just said it three minutes ago.  And he will go through the same thing in another three minutes.  She can read the newspaper and comment on an interesting story, not realising that she has already read the same story five times this morning and made the same comments.  When I lose my memory, I forget to eat.  I forget to get dressed. Most distressingly for me and everybody else, I forget who you are.  I don’t recognise you.  I become increasingly walled off from the rest of the world, because I can’t remember anything.  We cannot live without our memory.  We were created to be connected with our past.  It’s how we learn.  It’s what defines us.  It’s who we are.  Without our memory we become less and less human.

Without no history, we Christians have no memory.  And our religion descends into an exercise of selfishness, because there is no loanger any other point of reference than ourselves.  A lot of very intelligent, even well-meaning people can pull off this kind of religion for their whole lives.  But what they are experiencing or describing is no longer Christianity.

This is one of the main reasons I converted to Orthodoxy after a very long season of spiritual discontent.  I have not found the perfect Church.  No, these people manage to be just as maddening as everybody else, just as maddening as I am sure I am to many.  But this is a Church that has not lost its memory.  We are still connected to the ministry, the theology, the priorities, the agenda, the worship of the Apostles on whose faith Christ built His Church.  I don’t think we have lived up to our calling and identity, nor are we doing so now.  But Christ used fishermen, tax collectors and other assorted men and women to establish the beachhead of His Kingdom on this planet.  He simply requires us to be willing to be used similarly for the same thing to happen today.  Besides, being his witness from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, and being the Body of Christ right here in our local place, is a whole lot easier when we remember who we are and why we’re here.

Because we want to remember, we have named our parish after the
4th century African saint and church father,
St. Moses the Black.  It's good to be reminded that Christianity isn't Western nor is it Greek and that
Africans and Christianity didn't just happen yesterday.

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