The type of God you serve depends on the type of church you attend. If you go to an all-African black church you might serve a God who enjoys sending down the fire of the Holy Ghost to roast your enemies. Or you might be a regular at a church where God cannot possibly hear you if you pray only in your heart, so only vociferous prayers will do because He wants us to “have dominion and fight our way into his Kingdom”. Or perhaps yours is one that if you didn’t know better you’d think God only understood Swahili, or that eating chin chin after service is one of rituals for celebrating his Holiness. So I ask you, what type of church do you go to (if you go at all)?
Things that have no business in church
The Swahili-speaking church is just an example of a particular type of church I have a problem with: single-nationality churches. If you attend such a church, it won’t be news to you that things like politics, national traditions and cultural stereotypes tend to get thrown into the mix, which, as far as I’m concerned, takes away the essence of what church is and makes it instead a place of business, a place to find and shore up your national identity and a place to begin your political campaign.
Just recently, a Congolese church in London was petitioned and shut down by a group of protesters because the pastor allegedly supported the unpopular Congolese Government. Would this have happened had the congregation been mixed? Perhaps, but chances are it’s less likely to have happened. Other nationalities won’t tolerate the pastor going on and on about the politics of one country, politics they know little about and care less for.
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Culture determining mission
Why do many church-going Africans in the diaspora not mix with church-going Africans from other countries? Wouldn’t this reduce the amount of intercultural ignorance? As far as I can tell, not mixing with other Africans limits our possibility to experience the richness of other cultures and appreciate what they have to offer (even in church), which in turn makes it difficult for us to shift those biased views we have of other Africans.
When nationality informs the church service to a significant degree and the congregation is filled with people stuck between two cultures (your native country and where you are in the diaspora), you would expect that more of us would question the legitimacy of that church’s way of doing things. However, because it’s preached behind the pulpit, no one questions it because we are hearing “the Word of God”. This is the African church as cultural institution, and culture then trumps everything. So, for instance, a lot of “prosperity gospel” churches tend to be more popular with people from particular cultures known for their love of money.
I’ve actually heard people say things like “If it’s a such and such church, I won’t go.” The problem isn’t church itself, but that it’s a particular African church which already carries its own stigma amongst some people because of the type of culture associated with it, for example they only speak a certain language; women are only allowed to be seen but not heard; they don’t start on time. Our national culture so defines the church that it becomes almost part of the gospel.
Living in a bubble
If you’re a member of one of the single-nationality churches and you mirror this constriction in your social life, it can be a problem. Churches are the foundation of many communities and relationships, so it’s not unheard of for some church members to also rely on their church for their social connections. The problem here is that falling foul of what’s accepted by that church’s community can have serious repercussions for your social life. A single girl falls pregnant, say, and the pastor labels her a “bad apple” because she has sinned. Her reputation is in ruins but she’s trapped because the only other people she knows outside of church are strangers and acquaintances. Obviously, this can happen in a mixed church too if you rely on it for the entirety of your social life, but if you attend a mixed church, I would guess that you’re less likely to be the kind who isolates herself culturally.
Of course I understand that Africans in the diaspora want the reassuring sense of familiarity such churches provide, but I keep thinking of the bigger picture. If some of us keep sticking to our own like this, how are we ever going to get a sense of a united Africa, one in which we all support one another, abroad and at home? It’s actually easier for Nigerians, Liberians, Kenyans, Ghanaians, Gambians, etc. to mix and mingle abroad than it is at home – since we tend to reside in particular cities in the UK and America (in particular) – and because it is we ought to be setting an example for groups back home between whom enmity remains, or who are separated by borders and huge geographical distances.
Let’s stop using the Bible to justify our culture or to enforce our own beliefs of “this is the way things must because it is in the Word of God”; that same Bible was used to keep black people oppressed as slaves for many years. We see a bigger picture when we step outside the single-nationality box, otherwise we keep ourselves bound and limit our horizons. Perhaps I’m missing something, but are single-nationality churches crucial for the survival of the different African cultures in the Diaspora?