It’s that time of the year again, when Ghanaian Christendom displays its true character. The billboards started popping up way back in November, some as far back as October, reminding the ignorant (and not so ignorant) of the most important even on Christendom’s calendar. You might be tempted to think I’m talking about 25th December – Christmas day. After all, Christianity throughout history chose that day to commemorate the birth of the founder of our religion – the person who we deem is the saviour of the world – Jesus Christ. But you would be wrong. Neither Christmas nor Easter is the most important day on the Ghanaian Christendom calendar. No, the most important day is 31st December, and I will explain to you why.
Ghanaian Culture in Times Past
Ghanaians by nature are a very grateful people, and being able to go through a calendar year without succumbing to death (or even misfortune) is one of the things that Ghanaians are most grateful for. Ghanaian cultures are mostly deterministic by nature – they generally believe that whatever good or bad happens to them is as a result of God’s (or the gods’) direct intervention in their lives, a concept I’ve written about previously here. This determinism has unfortunately become associated with the biblical concept of “grace”, and scripture is very easily twisted in support of this understanding of grace with tacit approval by many Ghanaians. In many ways, most Ghanaians will fit right into a Calvinistic view of the world. But I digress.
This gratitude for surviving a calendar year is so strong, that many of the Christmas songs of non-European origin (ie. local language songs) are actually more about celebrating the end of a year’s cycle than they are about Jesus or Christmas itself. A typical example that you will hear on Christmas day in Ghanaian churches of all shapes and colors.
“Bronya oh, Bronya oh, Bronya oh, afe ato yen biom” – meaning “Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, a year has gone and come again”
In fact the most famous non-European song you will hear in church on Christmas day is again, about the New Year, not about Christmas.
“Ye ma mo afe nhyia pa oh, ye ma mo afe nhyia pa … Papa embra, bone enko” meaning “We wish you a happy new year, we wish you a happy new year … may good come to us, may evil be far from us”.
I want to emphasize here that this was the pattern long before I became an adult, before billboards became a thing, whiles we were attending boring old churches Roman Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal churches. It seems that our attempts to contextualize into Ghanaian culture the celebration of Christmas via music always exhibited this character of gratitude for the yearly cycle more than an actual focus on celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. In fact, nothing prevents most of our local “Christmas” songs from being sung at Easter. I even reminded someone in my office the other day that those songs can as well be sung even when it comes to their personal birthdays. After-all, those songs aren’t about the birth of Jesus, but about a celebration of any 365 day cycle, and birthdays qualify perfectly.
General Christendom Attitudes to Church
Even looking beyond the Christmas period, if one were to ask many ordinary Christians why they go to church on Sunday, a large percentage will give you these standard answers.
We go to church to thank God for the many things he has done for us (the “many things” are never actually defined, but assumed).
“Many are in hospital suffering from different ailments, and ‘by the grace of God’ I am healthy, so I must go to church to thank him for that.” (which presupposes that the person in hospital received no “grace” from God).
“Many are the plans of the ‘enemy’ against my life, and God has protected me from them, so I go to church to worship him for that” (which presupposes that those who may have died recently have been overcome by the “enemy”).
The favourite phrase by most Ghanaians to capture this notion of gratitude is “Ebenezer, thus far the Lord has brought us”, regurgitating words from the 1 Sam 7:12 of Israel’s defeating it’s Philistine enemies at Mizpah. By the way, if you haven’t noticed, Ebenezer is quite a popular name in Ghana.
All these should tell us to a very important truth about Christendom in Ghana.
At the heart of a large swathe of Ghanaian Christendom is not the kingdom of God breaking into this world and transforming it, but the kingdom of God being used as a tool of self-preservation.
This is easily couched in a sense of false humility – that whatever good things one has is from God, therefore one must always be in a posture of gratitude to God. This false humility leads to the elevation of a particular practice as the most important thing of all – the practice of singing songs of praise and worship to God, mostly centered around him keeping us “safe”, keeping us “alive” and keeping us “prosperous”. Just do a count of the number of Christian “worship” events held in the capital this year, and you’ll realize how important “worship” is to Ghanaian Christendom.
Whereas the Christianity that Jesus models for us is a Christianity that calls us as disciples to self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other, Ghanaian Christendom is about safety. Whereas Jesus calls his disciples to lose their lives in order to gain it, Ghanaian Christendom is about preserving it at all costs to their neighbour, couched nicely under the notion of “gratitude”. It covers these failures up with abundance of religion expressed in the form of gratuitous “worship” and “praises”, but very little action for the poor, the needy, the oppressed and the stranger.
The Aggravation: Charismatism
Despite the fact that this was the state of affairs of Christendom long before I was born, it managed to stay under the radar of Christian piousness for a long time. Many churches still managed to make the Christmas period a bit about celebrating Jesus’s birth, though the society barely felt the impact of such good news as the early church did. I remember my Pentecostal church used to have a potluck of sorts back when I was a child, but it quickly fell out of fashion in pursuit of even more church services in Christmas, couched as “conventions”. Many churches have always had a 31st night church event to commemorate the end of the year, but they were mostly low key events focused on church members simply gathering to express gratitude for the year.
However, the rise of Charismatism in Ghana, with televangelists jostling with each other to attract the largest crowds and establish their credentials as the biggest “men of God”, marked a significant turn of events. Many of these televangelists have resorted to tapping into the already flawed notions of gratitude as the foremost form of discipleship to organize larger and ever more grandiose 31st night “crossover”, “change over” etc services, making even small churches feel the need to pimp up their own events. TV and radio adverts simply use the right phrases of false gratitude, and Ghanaian Christians come running to pay their homage.
“If you are seeing this advert, then it means you have survived 2017. Not everybody had this privilege. Therefore come to Tamale Sports Stadium on 31st December and let’s thank the Lord for how far he has brought us and pray to secure our blessings for 2018”.
The impression is created as if a person who doesn’t attend such services will be cursed in the coming year (or might even die before the midnight of 1st January) for being ungrateful. When one complains about these events and what they are turning into, the great excuse of “savings souls” that justifies every activity, expense and abuse is “31st night services are also a means to save souls”. As if God isn’t capable of saving souls on any other day.
Whiles talking about this issue of how Ghanaian Christians treat Christmas and New Year celebrations with some friends just last week, I mentioned the Magnificat, the song recorded in Luke 1:46-56, that Mary sang when she was told she was pregnant with the saviour. These friends were surprised that the Gospels actually record a song in the mouth of Mary in response to the news about she carrying the saviour in her womb. That tells me the depth of failure of the church in telling the story of Jesus’s birth, even to its own members born and bred in Christendom.
And so, here is my recommended treatment for this disease of self-centered false humility masquerading as 31st night “worship” events, whiles totally snuffing the life out of celebrating the birth of the world’s saviour because we are more worried about reaching the end of the year and crossing into the next.
Scrap or rewrite the local language songs sung during Christmas. They have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.
Write new songs focusing on the actual stories as recorded in the gospels regarding Jesus’s birth. There’s a reason why Jews came up with the Psalms. Because it’s a convenient way for them to tell and retell the history of Israel and God’s relationship in song form. If your church members do not know the song that Mary sang about Jesus’s birth (and yet you tell us you are a “bible-based” church), its because we are not learning about how God’s people taught their children to know him well. Make it hip or danceable if you need to, but write it from the Gospels.
When we have birthday parties, we have shared meals. We bring friends together and eat and dance together. Christmas should be less about attending more church services to hear more boring sermons and more about eating together as church communities. It’s a birthday celebration, for the love of peace. How many of us want sermons on our birthdays? There will be challenges in putting it together, but it’s a learning ground for us to do it better, not to abandon it. Our current practices of celebrating Christmas are rather promoting individualism, not unity, and that is what the devil likes – division and selfishness.
Re-evaluate our understanding of the Gospel. The Gospel is a declaration that Jesus is the world’s king, not Nana Akuffo-Addo, nor Donald Trump. Ponder why in Mary’s Magnificat she talks about this announcement meaning that Jesus will lift up the humble, feed the hungry being and bring the rulers down from their thrones. In what way is our Christmas celebration uplifting the downtrodden, whiles also confronting the powerful?
Consider joining the rest of the church worldwide in the practice of Advent, which enables Christians to go through weeks of preparing for the birth of Jesus as a way to focus our minds on the kingdom of God.
31st December nights have become idols to Ghanaian Christendom. Relinquish it. If one still wants to use it, then turn it into a night of stock taking for the church community together, and not a praying station for individual prosperity and thanksgiving. Every blessed day is a 365 day cycle, and so is 31st December. Its a human tradition that has taken a life of it’s own. It needs to die, or be transformed into a tool for reflecting on the kingdom of God.
A certain wise man once said “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and everything else shall be added unto you”. Is your 31st December a night for seeking the kingdom of God – a kingdom of other-centered love and fellowship with one another for the benefit of the world – or is it a night to pursue religious self-centeredness in the name of “gratitude” and “worship”?