The Crisis of Ghanaian Christianity: Lessons from Anabaptism and Beyond

prosperity-dummiesThere is a narrative that has somehow gained traction amongst Western Christians regarding Christianity in Africa. This narrative is that though the church may be declining in the West, it is actually doing well and growing rapidly in Africa and Asia. Well, I can only speak to the African side of the story. And from my vantage point, this narrative needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt when it comes to Africa, especially to West African countries like Ghana and Nigeria. I tend to find myself often amongst Christians who are concerned about the trajectory of Ghanaian Christianity in particular, but also something that is happening in parallel across other African countries with Christian populations. During such conversations, I inevitably hear the refrain – “the churches are not preaching salvation anymore”. This is because of the rise and rapid spread of the innocuous “prosperity gospel” in Ghanaian churches. It’s now on the TV via televangelists, in our so-called “gospel” music and in our pulpits. These friends then, pine for the days when the sermons from the pulpits were focused on “preaching the bible”, condemning sin and teaching us how to be better Christians (on an individual level); basically what Dallas Willard referred to as “sin-management”. I chose then to write this to help my good friends make sense of what the real problems are, and to help my readers not in Africa to better discern when they find themselves interacting with Christianity of an African origin.

I used to think that was the solution as well, but my Christian journey has led me to question not just the “prosperity gospelers”, but the “salvation preachers”. And this is not because I don’t believe in salvation anymore – far from that. My challenge to the salvation gospelers has been that their definition of salvation is too narrow, and has actually actively contributed to the rise of the prosperity gospelers. Let me explain.

Some 30 years ago, the landscape of churches in Ghana was dominated by Roman Catholic as well as churches of a Reformed theological leaning – Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Adventist, Anglican et al – which in Ghana are referred to quite confusingly as “orthodox churches” (whereas globally, Orthodox is used to refer to Eastern Orthodox churches like the Greek and Russian church etc, which have no footprint here in Ghana). At this time also, there was a budding number of Pentecostal churches, and a few charismatic ones. Let’s not forget the African Instituted Churches like the Mosama Disco Christo Church and the like. Most Christians desired to be associated with one of these well structured denominations.

The dominant theology of the Protestant ones among the above was the well known revivalist one of getting souls saved from sin. The regular mantra at crusades I attended was “Jesus is coming soon. You don’t know your destiny after your death. Come to Jesus and be saved, so you will also be with him in heaven when he returns or when you die” or something of the sort. The usual alter calls were made, people were saved and became church members, warming the pews and being taxed every Sunday for a church project or the other that had almost nothing to do with their daily lives and needs. A few of the poorer members of the churches did get some help once in a while, but this was not because there was a concerted effort of these churches to intentionally mitigate poverty, but because of the generosity of a few members who were approached. There was very little effort by the leadership to intentionally integrate the different classes of people that made it to these churches, so the usual social structures from which converts came continued to perpetuate themselves in these churches. But then these weren’t big issues, after all the church’s responsibility was to ensure the convert’s eternal destiny was secured. Being structurally heirarchical, leadership was dominantly more worried about how to get on the next rung of the ladder than what the real needs of the local church was. Embedded in this theology and practice was the subtle but deeply ingrained notion within Protestant Christianity that the gospel was about each individual’s salvation. And this individualism is what has and continues to be it’s weakness to this day.

This state of affairs is what most people with whom I speak on this matter refer to when they talk about churches “not preaching salvation anymore”. And this is what NT scholar Scot McKnight has to say on that yearning.

The revivalists sold us short at times in focusing so much on the past tense of salvation … as well as the future tense, eternal life – but not enough on the present: kingdom life in the church.”( Scot McKnight, A Fellowship of Differents).

Fast forward to 2015. Western individualism has seeped into Ghanaian culture, especially in the urban areas. The landscape is now littered with all sorts, shapes and sizes of churches. A lot of them have no denominational linkages, mostly founded by former leaders who have left the “orthodox” churches described above and who have unfortunately swallowed hook, line and sinker the “prosperity gospel”. Most of these claim a charismatic leaning. Instead of having a few denominational empires that one could at least identify and deal with, we now have a plethora of them, everybody wanting their piece of the pie of the overly religious and superstitious Ghanaian. Christianity has multiplied rapidly, but alongside it has been abuse, scriptural ignorance and bare-faced heresy, syncretism, and greed in the name of “the pastor must be rich to show that you can also be rich”. The segregation in our churches have also grown, with the poor going more to the charlatans running supposed “solution centers”, whiles the rich gather in their nice urban uber-church complexes. It’s now an open marketplace for membership to advance one’s empire. Whatever it is that these new churches claim to have been escaping from their “orthodox” ones, there really is no clear difference to see – maybe except that the leaders of these churches become richer overnight.

In the meantime, the “orthodox” churches are feeling the pinch of this “competition”, and are compromising on their more Reformedish theology to become more “relevant”, more “charismatic”. The words “success”, “breakthrough”, “miracles”, “prophetic”, “destiny” which used to be in the purview of the prosperity preachers, can now be heard on the lips (and seen on billboards) of an increasing number of “orthodox” churches. And this is causing some who would rather see these churches hold their ground – since they have been “hammering on sin and repentance” which is what we all need if we are going to make it to heaven – to have sleepless nights and pine for the days when the churches were “preaching salvation”. But alas, if concerned Ghanaian Christians are not willing to ask themselves the hard, long and uncomfortable questions (both theological and practical) and to take the decisions that need to follow it, then we are only doomed to the trajectory of “relevance” without faithfulness. As the musician Bono of U2 sang

You think it’s easier to put your finger on the trouble, when the trouble is you” ( U2, Troubles from the album Songs of Innocence).

So, being an Anabaptist in a sea of Christendom, I have a few lessons to share with my friends and readers who actually yearn for a better Christianity in Africa. Some of these lessons come from Anabaptist history and some from more recent, academic and critically acclaimed Christian thinkers on this crisis.

1The Problem Starts From Flawed Theology

I’m sorry to say this, but the first and foremost reason why we are in this situation is because of the long dormant flaws in Protestant theology, especially as practiced in Ghana. The prosperity gospelers have simply built on these flaws.

  1. A flawed understanding of the kingdom of God – For centuries, Protestant Christianity has associated anything Jesus said about the kingdom of God with the future of going to heaven. This has affected our understanding of the gospel, and hence our understanding of salvation. The fullness of biblical salvation involves past salvation (salvation from sins and spiritual slavery), ongoing salvation (salvation from personal, social, economic and political structures) and future salvation (life in the new heaven and the new earth).

  2. Sola Scriptura – The teaching that every Tom, Dick and Harry with a Bible in their language can properly interpret scripture with the help of the Holy Spirit has lead to abuse of scripture driven by ignorance and anti-intellectualism. I wince everyday as TV evangelists massacre the bible to support their “prosperity gospelling”, but Protestant friends are loathe to address this dogma which actually gives these people their lease of life.

  3. A fixation on heaven and hell – Due to the influence of Greek paganism on Christianity after the early apostles, Christians moved from the original Jewish and early Christian hope of New Heaven and New Earth and the need to care about what is happening on this earth, to caring only about saving souls from hell to heaven. This was further aggravated by the Protestant Reformation because it was rebelling against the Catholics for insisting that one needed to make indulgences to be guaranteed forgiveness of sins and a move from purgatory to heaven. This has left Protestant churches unable to take practical steps to make their local churches actually care for needs of members in the here and now, because after all “its all about going to heaven”.

  4. “Me” instead of “We” – As a result of these 3 defects above, the bible is read with an eye to personal benefit only. Embedded within centuries of Protestant teaching has been a focus on the individual. That, together with the obvious lack of care of our “orthodox” churches to the bread and butter issues of life on this earth, is what the prosperity gospelers have exploited to this day. They preach that God actually cares about your here and now, but the means to get it is via your individualist effort of “faith” (according to their own definition of it), abundance of prayer and church activities, and of course abundance of giving to them. Brilliant combination, don’t you think? According to Forbes, the richest clergy is actually in Nigeria, despite it’s monumental poverty rates. Which reminds me of a time in history when a Catholic bishop in France had more money than the state. And yet we claim to be children of a Reformation.

Sadly, the leading Christian thinkers who are pointing out these flaws embedded within Protestant Christianity itself are being attacked for pointing them out, especially by the gatekeepers of Reformed theology in America (Anabaptists have been saying that the Protestant Reformation wasn’t far reaching enough for the last 500 years, so we call dibs on this one and watch the Protestants duke it out). One of them, NT Wright, repeats some of the accusations against him below.

Any mud will do: you can suggest that some of us do not believe in Jesus’ atoning death; you can insinuate that we have no gospel to preach, nothing to say to a dying ‘enquirer’; you can declare that we are false shepherds leading the flock astray; you can accuse us of crypto-Catholicism or quasi-Platonic moral Idealism; anything rather than pay attention to the actual arguments, the refraining of debates, and above all to the texts themselves” (NT Wright – Paul and His Recent Interpreters)

2Leading to Flawed Community

Having sorted the theological problems out, here is one lesson that Anabaptism will like our fellow Protestant Christians to freely learn from them. After all, Anabaptists died the most for insisting that church should be separate from state, and should be a community of commitment and sharing with one another long before the modern separation between state and church became established norm. Until we learn to recognize local churches as the place to show in every locality, God’s ideal for the world of different people coming together despite class, social, cultural and economic differences and actively working to undermine those differences by caring and sharing with one another, individualism will reign, and prosperity gospelling, thriving on individualism, will continue to infect good Christianity.

This means some serious structural changes, from the way money goes to the bottomless pit at the top and never descends to the bottom, to what we do when we are gathered as a church. One of the ways in which Anabaptism was able to resist the death (both as threats and actual martyrdom) of their fellow Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century was the practice of caring for one another, which was sorely missing in the camp of their oppressors and was pointed out by Menno Simmons even when he was being tried by his opponents. Same as the early Christians. If our Ghanaian Protestant churches had been up and doing in this direction, people would have clearly seen through the deception of the prosperity gospellers from a mile away.

3Ending in Flawed Discipleship

The other lesson that Anabaptism will like to freely teach our Protestant brothers in Ghana is that the Christian life is one of following in the way of the master. A life spent in “worship” but not in following is a life that leads to exile, an exile that looks suspiciously like Judah’s captivity in Babylon. I see plenty declarations of “I want more of you, Jesus”, plenty “gospel” concerts and shows, plenty “all-night services”, plenty taxing of poor church members to build universities, majority of whose children stand no chance of even getting into Senior High School. Sadly, I see very little of serving one another, being good news to the poor in our midst (not some romantic far away location), treating the widows/widowers and unmarried amongst us like the fully human beings they are, making our homes open to people who are lower on the social ladder, eating with the “wrong” crowd on a regular basis, placing other’s needs above ours daily, being friends with the illiterate so the literate can teach them the bible instead of letting the charlatans twist it and abuse them and then wonder why they go to those churches.

Conclusion

As Anabaptists, we are also learning some ways in which we need to improve, after all till Jesus comes, the job will never be finished and no church is perfect. But it’s very hard to throw some accusations against Anabaptistim for good reason – Anabaptist strove to keep discipleship and community at the forefront, sometimes to the extreme. Things haven’t always been rosy, and we’ve also made our own mistakes. But what we also need is to be strengthened by this renewal in understanding Jesus not as defined by the 16th century European Christianity, but as a 1st century Jewish Messiah, yet a Messiah who is actually God himself.

So if Ghanaian “orthodox” Christianity and other church traditions (be they Pentecostal or Charismatic) have any chance of repelling the onslaught of prosperity gospelling that has so distorted the Christian witness here, then they really need to dig deep and radically reform. Because until then, the prosperity gospellers will continue to have their way, and to survive, they will end up having to join them.

I was glad I met for the first time some members of the Mennonite church in Ghana at the Good News Theological Seminary here in Accra 3 weeks ago. It was indeed a meeting of kindred spirits and I look forward to our further engagement with them as we seek to work towards a different kind of Ghanaian Christianity – a more Jesus looking one. And it reminds me of Stuart Murray.

Anabaptist writers, and others, have rejected the domestication of Jesus’ teaching. They have demonstrated how it applies to political, social and economic issues and that it is much more radical than Christendom’s commentators allowed.” (Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

It is for these “others” that I thank God for these days. The likes of NT Wright, Scot McKnight, Richard Hayes, Howard Snyder, Stanley Hauerwas, Walter Wink, Donald Kraybill, Christopher J. H. Wright, Greg Boyd and other evangelical theologians who are pushing the envelope in challenging Protestant Christianity to be more faithful to its own New Testament.

I don’t need to talk about Anabaptism much nowadays. These guys, simply focusing on better exegesis of both the Old and New Testament itself, do the job quite well, though they are not Anabaptists themselves. And that can only be a good thing. That can only mean there is indeed hope for the church worldwide, Ghana included. For the Anabaptist hope is that the church worldwide will become more faithful to Jesus, whatever kind of church they are.

Podcast On The Mount Launched!!

Podcast On The Mount
Podcast On The Mount

So if you haven’t heard already, this is to announce the first episode of a podcast I launched with my friend Jonathan Amos called the Podcast On The Mount. Don’t you love the name? Jonathan came up with it, so if you need to blame someone, you know who to direct your questions to 🙂 . The podcast is hosted here

Appropriately, this first episode talks about the Sermon On The Mount, where we look at what is unique about this section of the Gospel according to Matthew, and how Christians should appropriate this important part of Jesus’ ministry.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter to keep up to date with exciting episodes, as we delve deeply into Jesus, discipleship and community from a totally different perspective. Do not hesitate to send your comments and questions via these social media outlets. We’re looking forward to hearing from you.

A Journey To More Open Table Fellowship

Jouvenet_Last_SupperI will like to tell you a short story about a change that happened recently at my house church as a result of a shift to a more community centered theology, coupled with a deeper understanding and application of the history and background of Jesus and his disciples. What is even more interesting to me is how we came to be questioning our former practice of Communion, though the new decisions are themselves exciting as well.

Over the past year, we’ve been paying better attention to what discipleship entails, and how critical Christian community is to the nurturing and growth of discipleship. This focus is not only changing our understanding of the gospel, of Jesus’s mission and the life of the church, but surprisingly it has now lead us to ask questions about a central, vital part of Christian community in following Jesus – Communion.

Our practice of Communion is already a bit unusual when measured against what is common in most Ghanaian churches. We have Communion every Sunday, and on the first Sunday we actually have a proper meal alongside it. Everyone was welcome to be part of the normal meal, but the bread and wine was only open to those who were baptized by water immersion. This meant of course that children and non-Christians guests or visitors to our meetings whose baptism status we weren’t sure about were excluded. This seemed to be fine to us, until a few weeks ago when a member began to apply the New Testament image of the church as a new family of people to Communion. Comparing that to the Ghanaian external family, he began to ask questions about why we should exclude the children amongst us from participating in it.

What made this whole thing even more striking was the fact that I’d read Ben Witherington’s “Making A Meal of It” a few years ago and was quite enamored about his portrayal of what a 1st century Christian meeting would have been like in terms of it’s practice of open table fellowship. It’s actually listed amongst my “10 Christian Books That Have Shaped My Thinking So Far”. In addition, I’d just finished James D.G. Dunn’s “Jesus’s Call To Discipleship” a week before this, which laid quite some emphasis on the same issue of Jesus’s open table fellowship. I’d even been listening to a podcast discussion as well on how Communion actually transformed the dynamics of gatherings of Christians on Thursday or so before the Sunday of our meeting, and already questions had been brewing in my mind about our current practice. So surprised was I when our brother raised the issue at our meeting, I just kept nodding my head and smiling as I listened to the serious questions he had about our current practice of Communion on Sunday. I knew something was afoot.

In the end, after much discussion of the issue amongst us, consulting with some people in Anabaptist circles whose opinion we respect and researching a bit more about the Jewish antecedents of the Seder (the Passover meal) which Jesus celebrated with his disciples and co-opted into The Communion, we came to the conclusion over a number of meetings that it was time to let go of the restrictions placed on the Communion. Part of the reason was that we came to the realization that the dominant interpretation of Paul’s admonitions regarding communion in 1 Cor 11:17-33 are based on an individualistic reading of the obviously communal problem that Paul was trying to solve. But paying even more attention to the radical nature of Jesus’ own practice of table fellowship, and including the Jewish background of the Seder from which Communion is derived meant that it was time to lay that restriction down. We simply decided that whether one was a child or a non-Christian/non-baptized Christian, baptism will still be emphasized as the means of showing that one accepted to be a part of this community, but Communion will be open to all.

Of course that presented a slight problem of how to enable the children participate in this, since our wine is proper alcoholic red wine. The solution was to water it down for them, a practice that has existed even before Christianity came along.

But this story reminds me of something I’m learning from the majority of theologians and teachers that I listen to. There’s a difference between knowing theology, and living theology. And when one hasn’t learnt to live it, reflect on it and critique one’s theology in the process of living it, it will stay at the level of knowledge, and will not challenge any of one’s paradigms or traditions. The result is simply arm-chair theologians, who dispenses plenty words with little power to cause actual change.

Reorienting our minds on the communal nature of not just the gospel, but even salvation and church has had drastic effects on our thinking and behavior in our small community. This story I described above above makes me hope that others will wake up to the damage that individualistic readings of scripture has done and continues to do to our churches.  I’m reminded of the individualistic nature not only of the small piece of flat “bread” that one receives and along with it’s small cup, but of the songs that we used to sing back in those days at my former church whiles taking communion with others – “Me Ne Jesus Beto Nsa Edidi” i.e. “Jesus and I will eat supper together”. The fact that this was being done in a church with others partaking of the same activity was not only lost on the song writer, but even on the congregation, because according to the words of this song, everyone was having their own private supper with Jesus. I’m further reminded of a very devout Christian man I respected a lot in this church, who was excluded from Communion because he had more than one wife (and who obviously couldn’t shirk his responsibility by divorcing any of them as polygamy has been a normal practice in Ghana for a very long time, and so he will never experience communion with fellow Christians in that church and many others like it). It is these kinds of misunderstanding of God’s total mission of dealing with all the spheres of humanity’s problem – social, economic, political and spiritual – that break my heart.

May the erection of these kinds of barriers that Jesus actively worked to break down, break your heart too. May we learn to see the table for what it is – a foretaste of what the prophet Isaiah spoke of in Is 25 – God’s invitation to all peoples to come and dine with him.

Why Small Group Gatherings ≠ Bible Studies

Bible Study

One of the issues that one is confronted with when speaking of small church communities like house churches is the tendency for people to immediately relate it to their experience of “Bible Study” groups. This can indeed be a frustrating experience for the one doing the communication, since naturally human beings easier understand a concept by relating it to something that they may already be familiar with. I got the sense of this problem again during our most recent public seminar event “A Different Kind of Christianity”, and I think an attempt to explain what the goal of discipleship via small communities is.

The Assumptions

Many Christians have simply assumed that the purpose of a meeting of Christians is to primarily listen to “the word of God”, which is typically a sermon based on some biblical passages. As a result, even when Christians meet in small group settings, it must be defined by the necessity to “look into the word” – aka read the bible. Hence whenever one speaks of home meetings – the mental picture is people gathering to follow a Bible Study manual.

There are many reasons why this has become the standard expectation

  1. The Protestant Reformation came along with it the abundant availability of the bible, and based on the theology of Sola Scriptura, the expectation that every Tom, Dick and Harry must be able, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to read and interpret it of their own accord. So, a personal ability to read and interpret the bible oneself became the goal. This was of course an overreaction to the Roman Catholic church’s attempt to make the Pope the only person qualified to interpret scripture.

  2. Again, the Reformation now put the bible and in particular the sermon at the center of church life. The great Reformer Martin Luther called the church a “Mundhouse” – a mouth house or speech house due to the prominence of hearing the word preached in church. John Calvin placed much emphasis on “orthodoxy” – correct teaching – and was prepared to go to the extent of having “heresy” – false teaching – punished via death, despite Jesus’ own teaching and example to the contrary on enemy love. In the psyche of the Protestant Christian then, Christians meeting without reading scripture is a misnomer.

As a result then, even when we try to create smaller gatherings, the goal has been typically to see this as an opportunity to make Christians more bible-savvy. Any attempt at discipleship then gets filtered through this lens as well. Any other thing else is seen as a secondary benefit.

What’s Wrong With These Assumptions

There are many things problematic about these assumptions and here I mention a few without going into too much detail.

  1. Early Christianity thrived without everybody having a copy of the bible to read. There were no printing presses to churn out copies of bibles for each one. Social historians state that in the 1st and 2nd centuries, only 20% of the population could read, and only 15% of could write. And that’s not even talking about Christians. So I’m not quite sure that they would have been singing songs like “read your bible, pray everyday”. And yet we have so many historians speaking glowingly of how these communities of Christians defied their the world with their way of life as a community and towards their society.

  2. Most modern Christians do not even envisage suffering as being part of their calling, much less have a proper theology that prepares them for it. But early Christianity suffered untold hardship and persecution, but this rather increased and not decreased their numbers. This is because by their theology and way of life, it became expected that persecution would follow.

  3. Western Christianity (as well as Christianity influenced by the West) has elevated the individual to quite unbiblical heights, making the individual and their personal relationship with God the center of Christian life. This then has led to an explosion of material and teaching for individual personal Christianity (even to the point of reading the New Testament, originally written to communities, with individualistic eyes), and very little resources on how to be a community of the Lamb. This is in contrast to early Christianity, which placed the church community at the center of Christian life, and enjoined the individual to work and make sacrifices for unity and love to be manifest in each community. When Paul is asked a simple matter of whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols, he takes 3 chapters to explain the paramount importance of Christian community over individual rights (1 Cor 8-10).

  4. For a long time, the bible has been read as a flat book, where every part has equal importance. As a result, the distinctive nature of the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus and how that should change how Christians view everything has been lost in many Christian traditions. Despite the fact that the word “disciple” appears 22 more times than the word “Christian”, most Christians simply assume that discipleship is for the “uber” Christians, not for them. So even when reading the bible, modern Christians don’t tend to see Jesus as a person in whose footsteps they must follow, but only as the savior of their sins whose only purpose was to die on the cross.

What Should It Be About Then?

If the purpose of small group gatherings is not to create “bible scholars” out of us all, then what exactly is it for, and what should be happening in such gatherings?

Let me first state here (before I’m accused of anything untoward) that I do believe in the importance of the bible and its authoritativeness for Christian life. I read the bible regularly and have a growing library of books from theologians and scholars whom I read often (besides a very long wish-list on Amazon). But I believe that small group gatherings have the enormous potential to form us into disciples of Jesus in ways that large gatherings cannot, and running them with the same mentality as large ones is an exercise in missing the point.

  1. Small gatherings should be used to focus on the activity of applying the lessons learnt from teachings about following Jesus, both in community and as individuals. For example it should be a time to share the challenges of work and living in our neighborhoods, so we may think through them and learn together what is the Jesus way of dealing with such challenges.

  2. Small gatherings should be a place for creating bonds of fellowship through actually eating together regularly. I even recommend having communion at such gatherings instead of/alongside the larger ones. There’s a good reason why the NT, especially the Gospels are littered with stories of eating in people’s homes, whether its Jesus or the early disciples.

  3. In developing countries like ours with high levels of illiteracy, as well as multiple ethnic and language groups, small gatherings should become places where these voices can be heard and teaching further disseminated. In larger settings, there’s the tendency only to focus on the subject matter at hand i.e. worship and sermon. In smaller ones, we learn to focus on people. Some try to overcome these kind of language barriers by having translations of the sermon, but in my experience that tends to be a distraction, is fraught with mis-communication and ultimately buys into the Protestant prioritization of the sermon/bible as the only means by which people encounter Jesus.

  4. Expanding on the point above, if a church truly sees itself as fulfilling the biblical mission of bringing the Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave or free, rich or poor, social elite or social outcast together, then small gatherings serve as an excellent, biblically-inspired tool to practicalise this integration. It enables making room to listen to life from the perspective of the other, be they the richer or poorer person, be they from the other ethnic group or nationality. Let us remember that the church is, as Scott McKnight puts it “a fellowship of differents” – a kingdom community of many shades of people, gathered under the headship of Jesus Christ and showing the world that despite it’s attempts at division and strife, Jesus offers a new hope of a community of unity and love in diversity.

  5. Small gatherings should be seen as a means of moving us beyond our comfort zones and to teach us the value of hospitality that was expected and common amongst early disciples. This should involve sometimes causing small groups to meet in homes of less fortunate members once in a while, learning to cope with situations of unpreparedness to receive guests, encouraging us to actually know where each member lives and seeing what ways we could meet needs when they arise in each other’s lives. Modernity teaches us to put up a nice facade before others, but discipleship is meant to force us to open up, sometimes in uncomfortable ways. That way, we learn to really consider those who are part of our small groups as Jesus regarded his disciples – family.

  6. The bible will definitely be a resource to us in doing things the ways I’ve described above as we seek to discover Jesus in this process of discipleship. But in this way we actually learn to pursue Jesus, not the bible.

Conclusion

For those who have such gatherings alongside large church meetings, it might be time evaluate why exactly we have these kinds of gatherings. Most places which have had such gatherings have ended up abandoning them, or stifling them of all life, making them repetitions of what larger church gatherings do. If we intend them to be places of fulfilling God’s mission of discipleship and community, then we must totally re-orient our mind and attitude towards such groups, and empower them to function properly. If not, then don’t make a pretense at having such small group gatherings, because they become more of a source of confusion and dissatisfaction than they should be.

God Worshipers, or Jesus Followers?

follow-jesus-meme

In my last post “Following Jesus – Anabaptist Perspectives”, I made the following statement about how historical Anabaptists viewed the Reformers that surrounded them, which I quote here:

Most Anabaptists felt that the reformers were more interested in worshiping Jesus, not in following him.”

Interestingly, the more we thought of this statement at my church, the more we realized that we in Ghana are facing the same problem

Most Ghanaians Christians are more interested in worshiping God than in following Jesus.”

Why Do I Say So?

Well, you only need to ask a few questions and take a look at both the liturgy and the music of most Ghanaian churches to realize what is going on.

Ask A Ghanaian Christian

Ghanaians are a very religious people, probably one of the most religious nations in the world. 98% of the population claim a religion, and 70% or so of them claim to be Christian according to census information. If you ask a typical Christian in Ghana why they go to church, they answer that they go to worship God. Some say that as a human being one must acknowledge that there is God in this world, so one must worship him so everything goes right for you. Some will even quote Heb 10:25, saying that even the bible says we should not stop going to church. The fact that not only that verse but the one before it speaks of encouraging one another to love and good deeds (aka following Jesus) is lost on them.

Interrogate Ghanaian Christian Music

When you listen to most Ghanaian “gospel” music, there is very little mention of Jesus. Most of the songs, (even the very old ones we used to sing when we were kids) talk about God and most people when asked will refer to the trinity, claiming talking about God is talking about Jesus anyways. However, much of the “God” songs are simply focused on praising God for putting food on the table or for saving them from their “enemies”. There are very few references to the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. Songs about following Jesus are almost non-existent. Songs speaking of Christian community, about resurrection, about the new heavens and the new earth, about suffering for Jesus’s sake, about carrying each other’s burdens etc suffer the same fate. Our music is centered on a falses sense of humility and praise to “God” for not having rocked the boat, and in more recent times with the sweep of penteco-charismatism, songs about the Holy Spirit, prosperity and bare-faced individualism. The least said about songs connecting contemporary Christianity to it’s Israel heritage, the better. Whenever there is mention of Jesus, its only probably to refer to his death on the cross and the forgiveness of sins we receive. In fact I’ve seen many Ghanaian Muslims actually sing many Ghanaian gospel songs, simply because there’s very little in our “God music” that cannot fit in Islamic theology about Allah, whereas early Christian teaching about Jesus actually contradicts Islam or any other religion and so theologically sound songs about cannot be co-opted by any other religion without questioning itself.

Observe a Service doing “Worship”

As with most Christians elsewhere, the word “worship” is now associated with singing slow songs in a somber mood, mostly in an attitude of submission towards – guess who – God. The songs that accompany this activity again hardly mention Jesus, and focus on “glorifying God”. In Akan, one of the terms for this is “making God big”. The fact that “worship” as Paul mentions it in Rom 12:1-2 is about the community offering itself as a sacrifice is totally co-opted by the individualistic sense of being prostrate before God in awe of his might. It is now high fashion to have huge “Worship Concerts” with big name singers, who promise to lead us into a certain atmosphere of “worship”, making Ghanaian Christians think that worshiping God in the right way (aka via the right musical environment) is the pinnacle of Christian experience.

Observe the Life After the Service

After all this work of making sure we’ve done the right things vis-a-vis God, most Christians then go back to their week to do the same old things which is sinking the nation into the pits of corruption, poverty and injustice, and only come back on a Sunday to “give God the praise and worship”. There’s very little sense and very little intentional organization to make visible the fact that our neighbourhood and our country needs to see Jesus being displayed day in and day out in the ordinary lives of Ghanaian Christians. The cycle only repeats itself. Of course once in a while the cycle is interjected with a “mega” event with many invited guests to vim us up, but all in the same direction.

Indeed much Ghanaian Christianity is not interested in the things that make for love, justice, mercy and peace. Worshiping the right God is all that matters. Even our local languages use the same terms when speaking of being a Christian. Akans say “Nyame Som”, Ewes say “Mawu Subosubo” all meaning “worshiping God”. And when one actually does an in-depth analysis of what most Ghanaians mean by “God”, you will find that it’s more a cultural “God” than the creational monotheist Yahweh of the people of Israel.

How Did We Get Here?

In a sense I don’t blame Ghanaian Christians alone. Some of the blame lies with the missionary efforts laid down by the European missionaries who came to Ghana. These missions were supported by European churches which were themselves quite Christendom oriented in their outlook, whose secondary goal was to “civilize” the African and push them to abandon their old Akonedi, Antoa, Yewe etc gods. The focus was on changing the God they served, not necessarily leading them to question the social, economic and political structures that existed in the light of the knowledge and following of Jesus. If that wasn’t the case, we should have seen the early churches founded by these missionaries bent on following Jesus would have been quite diametrically opposed to colonialism and exploitation of the African nations. But as history shows, it was about getting Ghanaians to worship God and not challenging their fellow European, largely Christian, colonialists in their perpetuating of injustice and oppression.

As a result, Ghanaian Christianity is now much more of a syncretism of “God worship” and a host of cultural baggage, mixed with European culture. Imagine the difficulty that Ghanaian Christian young couples have to go through to get married. Most have to go through 2 wedding ceremonies with all its attendant bank breaking costs because the cultural marriage ceremony has been deemed not enough, and whether overtly or covertly, a European white wedding needs to be appended. Ghanaian Christians have to endure high costs of conducting funerals of their loved ones because we have been more worried about “worshiping God” than we are about the tragedy of spending so much money on the dead, when the living cannot afford to pay their school fees. Ghanaian Christians are caught up in building bigger churches “to the glory of God”, when the poor in their midst suffer in squalor. Who cares about questioning Ghanaian culture regarding marriage and funerals, who cares about questioning how we use our money, if “worshiping God” is all it is about?

What Was the Call of Jesus?

And yet Jesus didn’t seek people who will worship him. He sought people who will follow him. That’s why his followers are called disciples – a word which connotes apprentice, not worshiper . When he called his first disciples, he told them to follow him, so he will make them fishers of men (Mt 4:19). He told them to take up their crosses and follow him (Mk 8:34-35). When stating his manifesto in the Sermon on the Mount, he challenged his listeners to not just be people who call him “Lord, Lord”, but actually do the will of his father (Mt 7:21). When he was leaving his disciples, he gave them a task – to make more disciples who will be obedient to him, not just worship him (Mt 28:18-20). It is no surprise that his disciples, before being called Christians, were called FOLLOWERS of the way (Act 9:2;19:9;24:14).

The Time for Change Is Now!!

And so my church, The Jesus Community Agbogba, knowing that it is madness to do the same things and expect a different result, has decided that we are going to place the emphasis where it should be – on following Jesus, and doing so together. And this we intend to do not by talking, but by action with the help of the Holy Spirit. Although our small community is dominantly poor and we already do place high value on supporting each other, we’ve recommitted ourselves to “not get tired of doing good” (Gal 6:9), but rather continue to practically show love for one another. We’ve decided that music is an integral part of shaping our thinking, and therefore we will write and sing songs that reflect our desire to place Jesus, Christian community and the pursuit of his kingdom as the center of our lives. There are many other things that the Christian culture around us does as part of church practice which we believe do not innure the benefit of discipleship and community, and these practices we’ve already rejected and will continue to hold our ground on. We haven’t got it all figured out, but we know that it is only when we are intent on following Jesus he reveals himself to us and that we see where we need to improve, and we are committed to doing so with the help of the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

The question I’ll like to ask many Ghanaian Christians is: Are we God worshipers, or Jesus followers?

Vicit Agnus Noster, EUM SEQUAMUR – The Lamb has Conquered, LET US FOLLOW HIM

Following Jesus – Anabaptist Perspectives

Following Jesus – Anabaptist Perspectives

On Saturday my friends and I at SimplyChrist spent time with a group of young Christian leaders on a Ghanaian university campus talking about discipleship. It was indeed a refreshing moment helping to reorient the minds of these such young students on how integral discipleship was to being a Christian, and discussing the challenges they faced in trying to be disciples in their own setting as students on campus. Sadly though, I couldn’t shake off from my mind how much additional effort and time would be required to actually see true discipleship emerge in this Christian community. I felt like our efforts were a drop in the ocean, not because they were not relevant, but because a lot more teaching, re-orientation, practice and commitment was needed to see discipleship truly flourish amongst them. The fact that I was making an effort to convince professing Christian students that being a Christian and being a disciple were one and the same thing was just a jolt of reality for me. This feeling was further aggravated by my recent completion of Bruxy Cavey’s Frosh sermon series focusing on discipleship, completion of Scott McKnight’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, and current engagement with Richard B. Hays’s “The Moral Vision of the New Testament”.

In consolation to myself, I tried to leave my discussion group with 2 points. The first was that discipleship meant following Jesus and doing so with others, no matter the cost. It wasn’t about knowing all the right things about Jesus, or the bible or the Holy Spirit etc. If all these didn’t lead us to doing as our master did, and doing it with others who were walking on that same path, we have failed to be disciples. The second was the true discipleship always showed up in love for others, including even our enemies. Jesus gave only one thing that the world may use to know his disciples – love (Jn 13:34-35).

Driving home Sunday afternoon after our home church meeting, where we spent considerable amounts of time thinking of a business we could engage in to alleviate the poverty amongst us if we had the money to do so, yesterday’s discipleship event came back to my mind, and with it, Stuart Murray’s “The Naked Anabaptist”. In this book Murray tries to distill the essentials of the history of Anabaptist Christianity and practice.

One of the distinctive characteristics of Anabaptists Christians throughout history (drawing inspiration from early Christianity and other “heretics” like the Waldensians et. al. who came before them) was their insistence on following Jesus no matter the cost. It is this stubbornness that lead them to disagree with the Protestant Reformers even though they had started off supporting and actively taking part in the Reformation. Most Anabaptists felt that the reformers were more interested in worshiping Jesus, not in following him.

Hans Denck, one of the leaders of the early Anabaptists, had this to say about following Jesus

No one can know Christ unless he follows after him in life”.(Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

According to Murray, to Anabaptists

All claims to spiritual experience or doctrinal orthodoxy were to be tested against practical discipleship. Anabaptists were charged with reverting to ‘salvation by works’, but they replied that their critics were well aware of the abysmally low standards of discipline in their own churches and should ask why their personally correct doctrine was producing so little fruit.(Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

Anabaptists placed such high value on the Sermon on the Mount in particular and the portrait of Jesus and the church as painted in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) and book of Acts in general. They left the theologizing, slicing and dicing of the rest of the bible to their friends the Reformers to enjoy frothing in. Hear Murray:

It was in the area of ethics that the teachings of Jesus seemed to have been marginalized [by the reformers] in favor of Old Testament practices. Making war, executing criminals, swearing oaths, ascribing a divinely granted status to kings, and extracting tithes could all be justified from the Old Testament, but were these practices really congruent with what Jesus said and did? The reformers appeared to Anabaptists to have a flat Bible, picking out principles from anywhere without reference to the unfolding purposes of God. The Anabaptists rejected this approach and insisted that the Bible needed to be interpreted in light of the teachings and example of Jesus” (Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

The Anabaptists’ mistrust (and even ignorance) of the Old Testament was fostered by how the Protestant reformers were able to use the tool of allegory, a specific example of which I wrote about a few weeks ago here, to make the Bible support everything that these Reformers at the time wanted to find biblical basis for. As expounded by Howard Yoder in his seminal book “The Politics of Jesus”, most Protestants since the Reformation have looked everywhere else apart from the life of Jesus to find grounds for teaching and practice on political, social and economic issues, something that Anabaptists derided.

Deciding to only follow the example of Jesus as seen in the Gospels, Anabaptists paid a lot more attention to being faithful to Jesus. Being humans like everybody else, some of these attempts went too far. For example the Hutterites, even to this day, force everyone to relinquish control of their possessions, citing the example of the disciples of the book of Acts. Others like the Amish, wanting to separate themselves from the world around them in order to avoid worldly attractions, still dress and behave like 16-18th century people to this day. Thankfully though, other Anabaptists took less drastic measures, simply finding ways to make following Jesus front and center of their individual and church lives. Overall the remarkable commitment of this little known tradition of Christianity in producing committed disciples of Jesus is well documented, albeit little studied.

Nowadays though, there is a great resurgence in seeing everything about the Christian life in terms of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Modern scholarship on both Old Testament and New Testament history and ethics is breathing a new life into and placing the spotlight on Jesus as the key to understanding and living faithful lives as his followers in every sphere of life. We have better tools for interpreting the Old and New Testament, and modern Anabaptists need not mistrust its usage again. Murray writes again:

The impact of Howard Yoder’s ‘The Politics of Jesus’ was profound, introducing Christians from many traditions to a new way of reading the Gospels. ‘The Upside-Down Kingdom’ by Donald Kraybill gently but devastatingly dismantled centuries of misinterpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Marcus Borg, Brian McLaren, Walter Wink, Shane Clairborne, Tom Wright, Steve Chalke, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch are just of few of those – some more influenced by Anabaptism than others – who have directed our attention to the life of Jesus and encouraged us to take a fresh look at what he taught”(Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

Today many people, looking for a different kind of Christianity, are finding that they can learn a lot from the life and sacrifice engendered by Anabaptism. There is a huge resurgence of neo-Anabaptism in both Europe and North America, with the emergent and missional church movements leading the way. People who are not originally from Anabaptist churches are finding ways to infuse the Anabaptist insistence on discipleship as the purpose of calling people into Christianity into their way of life, and are finding that it was the natural way to be Christian all along. Places like The Anabaptist Network and the MissioAlliance are becoming places for others to think of different ways to be Christians, with Anabaptism playing a very important role in sharing its lessons. If an NT scholar who recently got ordained as an Anglican deacon (Scott McKnight) can openly confess to being Anabaptist at heart, then the world is paying more attention indeed.

Watch this space for much more on Neo-Anabaptism, and it’s possible appearance in Ghana as well. Suffice it to say that if the resurgence in interest in practical discipleship is anything to go by, radical Christians like the Waldensians, Anabaptists et. al. may yet sleep well in their graves, knowing that despite all their mistakes, there is something to be learnt from their self-sacrifice, martyrdom and unbending will to follow Jesus to the end.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequmur – The Lamb has Conquered, Him Let Us Follow.