As worship centres open across the country, several worshipers have found their way back to the churches and mosques. In this report, FEMI OGUNTAYO studies the situation in churches as stakeholders across the country relate their positions about church service during and after the COVID-19 lockdown.
In December 2019, when the coronavirus pandemic broke out in Wuhan, China and later spread across nations of the world, everyone was scared to the marrow, judging by the number of casualties it recorded in some advanced countries of the world like the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and some major Asian countries like China, India and many more. When the pandemic eventually hit Nigeria on the 27th of February, over 6 months ago, the Federal Government was forced to announce a lockdown measure and outlawed gathering in public places, which included mosques and churches, particularly in Lagos and Abuja where there was increase in the number of people that contracted the virus. These directives didn’t go down well in some quarters, particularly in the Christian circle. Many pastors, especially, believe the Church needed to pray against the ‘scourge’ called COVID-19.
The lockdown was not limited to Nigeria. It saw several offices, businesses, cinema houses, viewing centers, stadia, worship centres all around the world shut down and it has tremendously influenced a lot of things, especially the way people congregate for events and meetings. People are now used to the ‘new normal’ one of which is the online meetings. This has however had a great influence on peoples’ viewpoint about church services and has also reduced the attendance of physical services since churches reopened in Nigeria, two months after they were shut down in a bid to halt the spread of COVID-19 in the country.
The co-Senior Pastor of The City on The Hill Churches and Vice-President, Ever Growing Impact Ministries, Mrs. Ayobami Abimbola, who spoke with Saturday Tribune on the effect of the lockdown on Christians, said church attendance had remained the same during and after the lockdown in many churches and also confirmed that in some churches, attendance reduced somewhat. “Some believers in Christ literally fell into a backslidden state due to the elongated period of absence from the spiritual oversight provided for them by their Pastors who are God’s chosen spiritual shepherds over their lives at church,” she said.
Worshippers in Nigeria and across the world have however settled for the use of several online platforms like YouTube, Zoom, Facebook and many more, to join church services online. Prayer meetings, worships sessions, music concerts, counseling, sermons were all held online and several churches were able to initiate the use of Paypal, Quickteller, Online Bank Transfer and many other e-payment platforms to receive tithes and offerings from their members.
These processes and routines went on for several months and were beginning to become the new normal as church members were able to join church services, pray with other members, and make payments for their tithe and offering online and in the comfort of their home. Mr. Deolu Oyebode, a law enforcement officer and a member of Living Faith Church aka Winner’s Chapel, who spoke with Saturday Tribune on how this new normal has changed people’s perspective about church services, gave an analysis of how the COVID-19 lockdown gave room for an increase in church attendance online.
“Church service went offline to online. The pandemic gave the church another opportunity to reach out to millions of people using the social media presence. For instance, the Living Faith Church aka Winner’s Chapel, has an average presence of 500,000 worshippers per service online whereas the Canaanland auditorium capacity is 50,000. This is 1000% percentage increase,” Oyebode said.
Speaking further on how the lockdown is also changing the narrative in churches, especially on the length of time churches spend during services, Oyebode said: “Another very important lesson to draw from the lockdown is that there was possibility for churches to run their services within two hours. Before now, some churches run their services for as long as possible under the ‘as the spirit directs’ excuse. But now the whole services are managed within two hours without losing any important aspect of the service.”
However, relating their experiences while observing church service online to Saturday Tribune, several Nigerians disclosed that the lockdown period was an eye opener for them as they realised they could actually worship God without necessarily converging on a place with other people physically. Adedeji Aderibigbe, an entrepreneur in Abeokuta, Ogun State and member of a Pentecostal church, explained that he had never considered strict attendance of church service a basis to the level of his faith. Rather, his personal communion with God, which according to him, was what matters.
“The lockdown has helped demystify doctrines that had enslaved many. Not until lockdown, some people never knew Sunday was equal to any other day. Interestingly, the lockdown has exposed people to new ways of achieving the same results via online services. For me, my faith keeps growing regardless of my attendance in the physical building church. The church is actually the people and whatever we do outside the physical building is the reflection of the church,” he said.
For Tosin Adeyemo, a member of Deeper Life Bible Church in Ibadan, the lockdown has made him to realise that he does not actually need any prophet before he could experience breakthrough or face any of his trials. “I realised that as followers of Christ, we Christians are the church. I got a better understanding of this during the lockdown. It also changed the mentality I had that if I’m not in a big congregation then I’m dispensing the assembly of believers and I can’t worship God until I find myself in a congregation.
“I must confess, it has changed my faith and made me understand that as Christians we should be able to consult God any time and any day, even when one is faced with any trial. God answered and heard my prayers, I didn’t have to wait for the prayer of men of God, because it has increased my faith and I realised every Christian or child of God is a prophet or prophetess of himself or herself.”
‘Our pastors are interested in tithes and offerings rather than our welfare’
Mrs. Funmilayo Eleyinmi, a civil servant who resides in Ado-Ekiti and a member of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) also shared with Saturday Tribune how the lockdown gave her a clue that God can answer her prayers wherever she is. She, however, lamented how pastors never cared about the welfare of their members during the period. “Our pastors are interested in tithes and offerings rather than the welfare of their church members, may God help us,” she said.
Moreover some other Christians, who also spoke with Saturday Tribune, they revealed they were able to save some money for themselves and had enough time for self spiritual development. A media practitioner who is based in Lagos who claimed anonymous explained how she realised she was spending too much on church activities and how the lockdown has taught her to cut down her expenses in church, which in turns, helped her save some money for her personal projects.
“To me Coronavirus lockdown is an eye opener, churches are after money and I have decided to cut down my expenses in church now. I saved a lot during the lockdown, which made me realise how much money I sent to the church purse without being able to do my personal projects. I am a new person now ‘My personal project first’ I must confess I feel more satisfied now when I give the money to the needy and I think it’s even better that way because Jesus actually emphasised giving to the poor.
“Before, I used to believe I can’t live without going to church, but now I know I can. What I need is to talk to my God and He will surely answer. I don’t need a prophet or a soothsayer to tell me what to do now because I prayed without consulting them during the lockdown and I am still telling a better story. It has not changed my belief that Jesus is Lord, but as a matter of fact, it has changed my way of life. I use my Sundays for another thing now. It’s not mandatory I go to church every Sunday. I pick at random,” she said.
Some of the worshipers also confessed they never felt fulfilled going to church as most time they were compelled or cajoled to go to church. Ajayi Emmanuel’s church hasn’t resumed physical services and while narrating his lockdown experience to Saturday Tribune, Emmanuel who, before the pandemic, was a perpetual churchgoer, said he didn’t pray they resumed physical services because it took too much of his time and he never had time for his businesses.
Emmanuel is an entrepreneur and according to him, the lockdown of churches had helped him rediscover himself and now he has more time for his business than when churches were open for physical services. “Before the lockdown, if you don’t go to church, or you miss any of the services, one would be seen as a sinner and they would have even called to ask why you didn’t come. Too many services, one did not even have time for some personal stuff. Now, with these virtual services, I can attend services at my convenience without having to necessarily leave wherever I am. In fact, for now, I don’t wish that we resume physical gathering because this online service pays me,” Emmanuel confessed.
‘COVID-19 is a reality check – a wakeup call’
Mrs. Oludayo Olorunfemi, a legal practitioner and immediate past chairperson, Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Ikere-Ekiti, is not a fan of church-going. According to her, she finds the whole gathering and the “rituals” distracting. “The lockdown of churches highlights how our salivation, walk with God is an individual race. If you were just putting up appearances, if you didn’t pray before, if you had no relationship with God, if your Christian living was tired to the apron string of a religious leader etc, coronavirus is a reality check; a wakeup call. Is your Christianity about man or about God?” she asked.
Another legal practitioner, who is a member of Christ Apostolic Church (WOSEM), Moferere Street in Ado-Ekiti, Mr. Adelusi Ilesanmi, was of the opinion that it was no more the hours one spends in church that mattered, but one’s level of faith, as he has also realised he could be home and still attend church services.
“With the lockdown, many now see, including me, that they can stay in their various houses to pray as against the usual Sunday-Sunday jamboree. The reality has now dawned on the people that it is not the number of hours you spend in the church that matters but the level of your faith in God. At any rate, the lockdown enabled me to pray personally within my house without necessarily having to go to church on Sundays or any other day. Recall, that certain categories of people cannot attend church service in Ekiti State yet. I now see going to church differently as you can be in your room and pray or attend service online, very unlike before,” he explained.
Attendance have reduced in our churches – Pastors
Strictly adhering to the laid down COVID-19 preventive measures of physical distancing, a visit to some major churches in the city of Ibadan by Saturday Tribune revealed that church attendance has actually reduced, compared to services before the Coronavirus pandemic. Speaking to Saturday Tribune on this, the Dean, Harvest House Academy of Harvest House Christian Centre in Akobo, Ibadan, ‘Ron Yemi Omotunde, explained that members and new worshippers were actively engaged through different online platforms during the lockdown and even now.
“Looking at pre and post lockdown attendance comparisons, the physical attendance now is lower, though those not physically present usually join on other platforms. The physical distancing has automatically reduced the sitting capacity of all church facilities. So I think attendance is no longer the word, service participation is, whether online or on-site,” he said. He however appealed that, while the members could enjoy ministry to some degree virtually, and he believes this should be explored thoroughly, it is not a substitute for physical gathering.
The total lockdown of churches during the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic, according to many, would in a way reduce the payment of tithes and offering to churches. Many members who spoke with Saturday Tribune revealed how they still paid to the churches via online transfer, while some saw the lockdown as an opportunity to save their money for themselves.
Speaking on this, Co-Senior Pastor, City on The Hill Churches, Mrs. Ayobami Abimbola, said: “I personally believe that the issue of tithing and of the giving of offerings depends on the individual. An obedient and generous giver to God will remain true, circumstances notwithstanding. God’s word clearly teaches that we must not rob God in tithes and offerings. So those who were faithful before the lockdown found a way even during the lockdown to communicate their giving to God faithfully.”
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