I decided to compile my three posts from yesterday into one long article for those who prefer to have everything in one place. Happy reading!
Pass me that tambourine, let me clap off beat, allow me to jump and sway my tiny body from side to side as the choir offers a beautiful rendition to a favorite hymn…I was just in love with church from my very early years. It has always been one of the few places I’m happiest. It still is. I didn’t need my parents to convince or trick me into loving church. I just did. I loved the name JESUS and getting to shout it in any call and response activity at Sunday School led by Teacher Marjorie; my all time favorite Sunday School teacher.
My first church memories are from the Methodist Church in Ghana though it wasn’t my first church experience, technically speaking. From the time I was born until I was about 5 years old, my parents and I fellowshipped with an ultra conservative church that looked like a Seventh Day Adventist Church in many ways although the service day being a Saturday. No makeup, earrings, or trousers was allowed for the women back then. They weren’t also allowed to cut their hair at all, not even a routine trim to deal with split ends. TV’s and anything considered worldly was forbidden. It was THAT strict. Boy am I glad I have no memories of that period in my life. I’m sure I would be seriously scarred if I did. I must however, note that I haven’t been back there since I was a toddler so I have no idea what that particular church looks like at this time. I’d like to leave room for their potential evolution over the years.
Fast forward to about five years following my birth, my parents separated (they would finalize their divorce two years later) and my mom and I found ourselves in the church of her family; the Methodist Church. We attended Mount Zion Methodist Church (the only church I’m comfortable naming in this write up) in Sakumono from then until I was almost 15 when we left Ghana. I loved everything about Mount Zion from the pastoral family to being a member of the Junior Choir to Sunday School and just the people and the kind of church family we were blessed to have. Till date, it’s the one church where my fondest memories of faith reside.
Leaving Mount Zion when we left Ghana was very hard on me. I’m only now beginning to confront the kind of toll it took on me. My late mom however, wasn’t as crushed because prior to our leaving, she had begun visiting a few charismatic churches at the invitation of friends and found herself liking them. I was slower to warm up to the Charismatic Movement because I loved my church the way it was and didn’t see what others saw as the “better church” experience in the Charismatic circles. This isn’t to say Charismatic churches aren’t great churches when analyzed on their own.
When we got to the US, we sought out a Methodist Church. We found one. Surprisingly, we totally disliked it. Or I should say we hated the experience and not the church or its people themselves. It was nothing like Mount Zion and this was such a shock to me. I somehow had felt all Methodist Churches were one and the same no matter which mission you visited. We hadn’t factored in cultural differences across country lines or the reality that a Ghanaian church leader could be ummmm…BORING! My mom and I kept pinching and prodding each other to ensure we didn’t fall asleep during the service that must have lasted for just 2 hours though it felt like eternity. We were both loud snorers too so we just couldn’t afford the risk; there was no such thing as being discreet in church naps for us.
From that horrible experience, my mom was ready to switch gears and seek out an African Charismatic church to attend. I was ready to join her though a bit hesitant. I thought we could have tried another Methodist Church but we didn’t know of any within our city. It had taken us about 45 mins to get to this first church through the kindness of a member who offered us a ride. So we abandoned this course. In retrospect, I feel my mom sought out the Methodist Church first to fulfill all righteousness and be able to note that we had indeed tried in case any former church members questioned our switch.
We church hopped for a while until we finally settled on one church which my mom loved and I strongly disliked. The youth service experience in our first visit left such a poor taste in my mouth I was so ready to be out of there. I couldn’t handle the cultural shock of how the kids mouthed off and insulted their teachers freely and how unruly they were. My prim and proper self-righteous disposition couldn’t handle it. “Why couldn’t they be as Church perfect as I was?” a juvenile thought that crossed my mind more than once. My mom on the other hand had thoroughly enjoyed the adult service and unilaterally concluded this would be our church home before catching up with me. I was crushed when she told me her decision and she was likewise very perplexed by my experience and reluctance. I wanted nothing to do with them. It was an awful place to be; a mother and daughter who both love God struggling to decide on the church body to call home.
I was very candid in my dislike and foresaw that it wouldn’t go well in the long run. My mom acknowledged my doubts (in retrospect, this was such a crucial affirming act on her part) and rather than impose the church on me, sought to appeal to the leader she saw in me. She convinced me to believe I could help change things and turn the youth around for the better. I was extremely skeptical but as someone who grew up serving in the church in one capacity or another, I couldn’t deny that the possibility enticed me. So I grudgingly accepted to make it my church home too. My mom turned out to be right about the youth. It didn’t happen over night but in time, I became the youth president and saw a positive turn around that made me proud and ashamed to have failed in recognizing this ministry opportunity God had brought my way. For the first time in a long time, this church was finally paying closer attention to its youth and intervening the way they should have been for years. Mission accomplished.
In spite of all this, I was still a bit unsettled by the church. I felt I didn’t belong there because certain things just didn’t sit well with me (though I couldn’t really put my finger on what those things were at the time) and decided I would leave when I went to university. My mom of course wasn’t too happy but she knew I was almost 18 and ready to fly solo in navigating my faith so she didn’t stop me. About a year after I left, she would also finally realize that we were a mismatch for this church and also left on a less than pleasant note unlike she would have preferred (she made her peace before she passed away). The scales finally fell off her eyes and she brought me my stone; she accepted that I, at a very young age with relatively limited spiritual experience, had been the more discerning and accurate judge of the church from day one. She always made it a point to judge my church instincts from then going forward. That was huge for me in various ways but I digress; a conversation for another time.
We still found ourselves in Charismatic and Pentecostal settings following this experience both in the US and upon our return to Ghana. We had been so captured by the energetic vibe and exuberance of Charismatic churches (their name alone gives the cue) that returning to our Methodist roots didn’t quite seem like an option though we had heard of the various ways this old church was starting to mimic the relatively newer one. Once you’ve experienced the passion and zeal of the Charismatic atmosphere, it’s so tough contemplating a return to the more solemn orthodox experience. In spite of this hold the Charismatic Movement had managed to have on us, I was never 100% comfortable in this denomination (I didn’t truly fit in) and it took too long for me to figure out why…
I have been churched all my life. Me without church felt incomplete. Like I shared earlier, I loved church from a very young age even before I was old enough to understand what was going on. I imagine my experience isn’t that different from others raised in the church. As far as I knew, I’d be a church girl for life.
The first time I ever deeply thought about God, I was so young. I couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 years old. 20 years down the line, I remember it like it was yesterday. I was in our home in Sakumono. I lived with my mom only. I had been reading My Book of Bible Stories, if I’m remembering correctly, and started asking some deep philosophical questions: am I real? Is life real? How can I know for sure that I exist? Who made God? Where did He come from and how old is He? You can imagine how badly my head hurt as a kid thinking these thoughts. Of all the questions I had, the only one I bothered to ask my mom about was the last one. She had no answers to give and simply chucked it all under faith and assured me God will answer all such questions when we get to Heaven; we had an eternity to learn all things. I’m wondering if she’s bothered to ask on my behalf now that she’s in the Lord’s bosom. I digress. Again.
My mom’s response was satisfactory for the time being because I didn’t like the headaches I got from thinking so much and I always took her word for it in everything. Also, I’d rather just play with my Legos and art set than bother my head. I’d further hoped that as I went through Sunday School courtesy my favorite Teacher Marjorie, I’d get the answers to my questions though I never posed them to her directly. I filed those questions away and didn’t really think deeply about God until I was 12.
I was hospitalized for bronchitis of my upper left lung. My mom saved me that night. We were both staying at her boss’s place with his family, who were like our own family, because she had just been discharged from the hospital and was too weak to care for herself. I was presumed too young to do it alone. I remember having a terrible cold that day which seemed to get worse as the day wore on. My mom was in the guest room downstairs and I shared a room with the youngest daughter who was also my classmate in school. My mom decided I share her room with her instead so she could properly monitor me. She was supposed to be resting but I was too weak to argue. Before I knew it, she’d woken up her boss and his wife and I was being rushed to the hospital. I was not breathing properly, in fact I was barely breathing. I remember feeling like I was dying. I probably would have if my mom wasn’t watching me.
Even though I was stabilized, I couldn’t help but feel I was inches away from death. I was afraid and didn’t want to die. I was too young to die. So I prayed in my heart calling out desperately to God to hear me and heal me so I know for sure that He’s real. Whether or not He truly heard me and answered and the implications for those He doesn’t answer in similar circumstances is a conversation for another day. All I know is I did get better and in that moment and till this day, connected it to faith. It was following this experience that I can say I gave my life to Christ at the next altar call I heard at Mount Zion and became really serious about my relationship with Jesus.
I had such firm grounding from the Methodist Church from then and was so sure of my salvation and living a life that glorified Jesus. I loved everyone as best as I could and was convicted whenever I did something that grieved the Holy Spirit. I was happy and living life in peace. Then right before we left Ghana, we started visiting a few Charismatic churches which had a completely different vibe than my laid back Methodist Church. It was in these churches that I first heard people speak in tongues. I later discovered people spoke in tongues at the Methodist Church too but just not loudly like in the Charismatic circles so I was thrown off. It was in these Charismatic churches that I first learned about deliverance and demonic possession and all these “spiritchua” things. To say I was spooked is an understatement. I’d never had to confront these things in my faith up until that point and I was in shock.
I must say though that while I was spooked by all the mysterious and so called spiritual manifestations I came to witness in Charismatic churches, I was also equally fascinated. In fact I was truly captivated and curious to see and know more. I craved opportunities to further witness all these signs and wonders. Thinking back, my fascination might have been the reason I could spend 5+ hours in church without annoyance. The ‘gymnastics’ were quite intriguing.
They also had this addicting quality. Each such manifestation had me craving more and more signs and wonders. It took a while to realize that I’d reduced the power of God to these dramatic displays of the presence of the Holy Spirit. In fact, it became my gauge for measuring or determining the presence and approval of God in any church. It was no longer primarily about Jesus and the Gospel at its simplest level. They weren’t enough if their truth wasn’t accompanied by the dramatics. I falsely assumed they were always authentic showings of signs and wonders from God.
Of course, the Charismatic Movement didn’t force me to have these perceptions. I take full responsibility for them. But I can’t deny their significant influence in perpetuating these sentiments among other problematic views by the teachings and positioning of many churches under this denomination. This isn’t to say that the problems and issues I’ll be highlighting are reflective of ALL Charismatic churches. That would be unfair and disingenuous of me.
The observations I’ll be making are largely informed by personal experiences from the Charismatic churches I’ve visited though at this time, I’m not comfortable in naming them all explicitly. Conversely, my observations don’t automatically absolve orthodox and other non-Charismatic churches from being culpable of exhibiting these traits either. It is very possible that these issues can be found in some of their number though I can’t attest to it from personal experience.
So without further ado, I’ll launch into the issues::
1. The Fear Factor:
This is my biggest gripe with several of the Charismatic churches I’ve encountered. There’s this culture of fear on two distinct levels. The first is found in the messaging that seeks to make this movement relevant. There is a devil and evil forces ready to strike and make your life a living hell if you don’t take cover under the guidance of these churches. There is usually a prophet of some sort who will use prophetic insight from other’s realities (seen through the various manifestations during so called deliverance sessions) to entrench fear into all. You must always attend programs and follow instructions geared towards delivering you from these threats and providing you with supernatural protection. I had tensions with this disposition because for me, it always appeared to diminish Christ’s perfect love and power that overcame and cast out fear and leave you in a state of endless worry that one wrong move will find you vanquished by the enemy.
The second level of this fear is found in the personality that heads such churches. You dare not question them, their teachings, or sometimes questionable practices, because they are God’s special anointed who mustn’t be touched nor harmed. The “touch not” scripture has really suffered under this movement. It has created a system where the leaders of these “one man” churches (that have cult like characteristics) aren’t easily held accountable because they are seen as all knowing and having special insights into the things of God that everyday Christians lack, so again, you dare not.
The carnal as opposed to reverential fear attached to these leaders has been a silencing tool for too long against dissenting or opposing views and concerns of congregants who aren’t always in agreement with the positions of the leaders. It has also led to a lot of sycophancy and desire to please these men and women of God by undue praise and buying their favor through various seed sowing practices (gifting them huge sums of money, cars, etc). I’ve never seen a movement so in love with giving serious appellations (sometimes quite blasphemous) to its leaders as though their self esteem and confidence to do what they claim God has called them do, relied on these acts. Many of these leaders have really set themselves up for hard falls should they ever err because there is a false sense of invincibility created by the sycophants and givers of fake fans who sadly tend to be in their inner circles.
What I find ironic, is the fact that many of these leaders in some of the dominant Charismatic churches, would encourage the questioning of other Charismatic-like churches that they deem heretical. How rich. I find any church body where main leaders aren’t easily held accountable or accessible to be absolutely dangerous.
2. The Decline of Intellectualism
My second main issue is the decline of intellectualism I see in this movement. It connects to the first issue where there is a lot of carnal fear of the leaders. It’s almost as if when you accept to be part of these churches, the part of your thinking that makes you doubtful; that makes you question things that don’t make sense; that makes you filter messages to determine what is true and applicable to life and otherwise, must be sacrificed. Your thoughts aren’t your own any more. They are exchanged for whatever your pastor’s are, under the guise of being a spiritual father/mother and covering (another time we can talk about this teaching) who wants and knows what is best for you.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve engaged in debates with many from these backgrounds whose support for their arguments come from what their pastor says. There is too much trust placed in the word of these men of God, that even Jesus (his words and ways) takes a back seat in these discussions. It’s so bad that when it comes to health, people trust their pastors and their instructions more than they trust well trained medical doctors and even rely on prophets for the most basic of health treatments. A light headache or upset stomach? The prophet must be called and consulted to make sure the witches and demons from their villages are kept in check. I kid you not.
I’ve often been scandalized by this phenomenon though initially, I must admit I also fell a bit for this trap and found myself being a Charismatic programmed bot of sorts. Why wouldn’t people whose views you value and respect, leave you so disappointed when a banking crisis hit and found that one of the most celebrated Charismatic leaders had overseen one of the biggest cases of financial malfeasance to be recorded in Ghana, by their responses to the issue.
They chose to follow the rather insensitive instructions of their leader to respond “God is good” three times when asked pertinent questions about the crisis and rushed to stand and pledge unyielding support before learning all that was to be known about the case and its impact on thousands of families and the nation as a whole. These leaders are very smart in recognizing that inspiring blind loyalty in their congregations is the surest way to retain their power and influence. I wish we were as loyal to Christ and His gospel.
People just don’t like to question these leaders and our nation is worse off as a result. Those of us who do dare to speak are branded as disrespectful church haters who want to attack and undermine the body of Christ. Even the leaders themselves don’t seem to want to study widely and readjust their views accordingly as they better understand the faith they profess. It is a very frustrating place to be as a member of the body who also believes in critical thinking and reasoning as is supported in the word of God. It shouldn’t come as a surprise for me though since one of the things I noticed in the Charismatic church is the culture of isolationism.
There was this sense that those under the movement were advanced spiritually and needed to maintain that spirituality by associating mostly with likeminded people. This season of my life found me disconnecting from pop culture, limiting the materials I read and learned from, dissociating from those who didn’t understand the movement and the fears attached to it that saw us attending several church programs throughout the year. Your whole life could easily revolve around the church 365 days every year and leave little room for anything else.
In such an environment, how would people have their views and perspectives challenged to inspire critical thinking? Since the appeal and popularity of these churches is on the rise, it is little wonder to me that intellectualism and rigorous learning around the things we believe, appears to be on the decline. My time in the Methodist Church constituted some of the times I exercised my brain the most because critical thinking was a virtue and the church didn’t center around a personality whose words were final.
3. Social Justice
I am a feminist; a believer in the equality of all people regardless of gender and any other discriminatory factors. I believe all must be treated with dignity and respect and have equal opportunities under the law to live a decent life. It’s no coincidence that I became increasingly disturbed by things I witnessed in Charismatic circles the more I studied about feminism and issues of social justice in general. My eyes became fully opened to the ways the body of Christ (not just the Charismatic Movement) had helped entrench social injustice; a counterintuitive hallmark of the church today due to its sharp contrast with the Savior we serve, Jesus Christ.
In connection with the decline in intellectualism, the church of today in Africa, particularly the Charismatic ones are propagating a Victorian interpretation and practice of the faith which was deliberately set up to enforce a patriarchal power structure globally that placed the white man as the highest standard to aspire to followed by white women, then men of color, and lastly women of color. There are nuances to this structure especially when properly mapped out to account for all ethnicities but that isn’t the focus of today’s conversation.
The church, by being needlessly suspicious of intellectuals who question it especially on these matters, is unwittingly and unknowingly entrenching the status quo and impeding our development as African people because we keep looking to the West as our standard rather than looking within. Due to our lack of understanding of these social justice issues, we’ve long demonized a lot of what it means to be African and created suspicions of one another that keep us in a state of war with ourselves. If you’re always thinking someone in your own family and village is always chasing you to harm and destroy, when are you going to be inspired to come together as a people to push your nation forward?
It’s little wonder that we have such a big issue with encouraging patriotism in our nation. Why would an undying love and even willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the betterment of the country be an option for anyone who is constantly looking over their shoulders in fear of their own people?
I could talk for days about how the church of today with it’s great influence can get ahead of these issues and leverage their power to help turn our nation around for our collective good. I’m always disheartened by what I see in many of these church circles that have key access to the leaders of our land. It’s rarely ever about leveraging this access to spur on our development and progress. Rather, many of these church leaders use their access to win needless pissing contests where they claim to have the most respect and influence and seek to rather leverage their association with power to increase the numbers of their congregations not for the sake of populating heaven but for bragging rights. Don’t tell me you’ve not yet picked up on the incessant competition amongst these new generation churches for the greatest influence and popularity? Billboards and the programs they advertise get bigger and more extravagant by the year and the socioeconomic gaps between these leaders and the least in their congregations ever widens exponentially.
Poverty is indeed violence. It is one of the greatest injustices known to man. It is unconscionable that the church of today delights in the wealth of its leaders at the expense of the numerous in their congregations. People are so quick to carry all their hard earned moneys to men and women of God because they’ve been taught that blessing these leaders who have long reached stages where they don’t really need it, is what will transfer God’s favor unto them along with wealth of their own to also enjoy. Make no mistake, I’m not opposed to giving in the church or to people of God. I’m just incensed by the lack of understanding where giving is concerned and the questionable teachings that tie God’s blessing of His children purely to their giving habits where His so called appointed shepherds are concerned.
The use of the word of God to reinforce vicious capitalist behaviors where greed is paramount has been quite a disheartening revelation for me. Our socioeconomic stances in the church today don’t imitate Christ, the poor carpenter’s son who always sought to meet the basic needs of His people while embracing them all whether or not they loved him back. Jesus was a social justice warrior. How many of those do we have in the church of today? They are indeed rare.
Most people are more interested in chasing their next miracle, breakthrough, or harvest and for their personal success at the expense of the collective. I really could go on and on.
I’m at that place where I understand that life is too short to spend it massaging issues rather than confronting them head on. I try to live each day as my last and have dedicated my life now to fighting all forms of oppression and injustice. It’s why I speak candidly about the ills I see in society especially the church. It isn’t to condemn or castigate the church. No, far from it. My hope is to inspire introspection in our body and help the church re-evaluate itself and make amendments and corrections to our practice of faith to ensure that at the end of the day, not many will be lost. Though I might have come down hard on the Charismatic Movement, I haven’t washed my hands off it. A conversation with a friend helped me realize that I need to give all people and all churches room to transform and evolve. If I personally could evolve and become better, then so can they, which at the end of the day, is my goal for sharing my evolution in the church.
I may have left the denomination for now due to these issues I’ve highlighted but that doesn’t mean I won’t ever give it another chance if I perceive a revolution taking place. Recently, I heard a pastor whose views on gender and women were quite problematic had adjusted his position and even gone further to recall certain messages he’s preached over the years when he realized their problematic nature due to further studying and understanding the word. How I wish this occurrence was the norm rather than an anomaly.
At the end of the day, I have hope that things can get better. I wouldn’t bother to write this article if I thought otherwise. It is my prayer that all will read and process what I’ve shared in good faith and commit to working to ensure things are better in the body of Christ. Solving a lot of these issues in our influential churches first will lead to accelerated development in our nation due to the kind of power and influence we have as a body.
Until I come your way with another post, I wish you nothing but:
Blessings & Love,
– Amazing Grace ❤