From Tobi’s Journal
I didn’t like going to Church.
OK, I know that must sound like a backslider’s swansong as he sinks slowly back into the dark and sinful world. But here, in my journal where no one can judge me, I can be honest. To me, Church was just … boring. This comes from growing up in a church family. But don’t worry, this story gets better along the way. Just stay with me.
My most dreaded day of the week was Sunday, ‘cause that’s when we’d all have to wake up by 6 am so we can leave the house and be in church by 7 am (I mean, who wakes up that early … on a weekend?). It didn’t matter that we hurried to church because we’d still be a few minutes late for the Workers’ Meeting so we’d all remain standing ‘till morning service began at 8 am. In all this time, we hadn’t eaten. It all felt rushed to me, and quite unsettling. Why couldn’t I just sleep in or play games or watch movies all morning, like other folks did? I wasn’t even a ‘worker’ in church, my parents were!
Anyway, we’d then start the Morning Service (and that’s another thing, I wondered why they called it ‘service’. It’s a ‘programme’, not a delivery service or anything) with Praise and Worship. I can recite the entire church programme by heart; any church kid can. Praise and Worship a system of slow songs, then fast jumpy songs, and then more slow songs, with or without the raising of hands. One of the deacons would then come up to take the Opening Prayer (the older the deacon, the longer the prayer, just saying), followed by the Testimonies (people telling us what God’s done for them) and/or a Hymn (really old songs in old books written by old people long gone before our grandpas were born). The choir would then take what they called the ‘Choir Ministration’, a special song they figured we’d either not heard before or that they thought we’d like. Pastor Dan would then come on stage and give a long teaching from the Bible called a Sermon. And don’t you dare take a nap or the ushers would tap you, exposing you and ruining your chances with anyone you secretly admire. Too bad if you haven’t got a wristwatch either, because they deliberately keep the big clock on the wall at the back facing the front, so that only the pastor can know how long he’s spending, and can choose to keep you seated for as long as he wants. After the Sermon, you know it is almost time to get home, so you listen through the Announcements and wait for the Closing Prayer and Benediction (‘May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ…’). Another Church Service is over. That is, unless there’s another meeting after.
Maybe I was a little too hard back there. It wasn’t so bad, you know. Perhaps it was just my perspective that needed changing. Either way, here’s what happened one Sunday.
The first warning signs I should have noticed was my father’s constant snicker anytime he talked about the coming Sunday’s service. “Don’t forget to invite your friends,” he said. Yeah right, like I’d bring my friends over to my church. As in my church?
“They’re already going to theirs,” I said.
“It’s just one Sunday. They can tell their parents that I’ll pick them up. It’s going to be special, trust me.” My father and mother teach in Bible Study classes.
I smiled sheepishly. My Mom suddenly put in. “What about the family across the road? The Oluwoles?”
Uh-oh. “Haven’t they got a boy your age?” Dad added. “I think his name’s Tosin?”
I nodded slowly, thinking of why this would not work. Tosin was not what you’d call ‘church’-material. He was one of the ‘big boys’ in school, who always seemed to have a lot of stuff, and hung out with other guys who did. His father worked in an oil company in the South-South. Girls like those kinds of guys; you learn that pretty quickly. Other guys like me just knew we were out of his league. Why would he come to my church? “Yyyyeeeeesss, but I don’t think he’ll wanna come.”
“It’s worth a try,” Mom said. “I’ve seen his mother in our church once. Besides it’s not far from this neighbourhood.”
“I think I’ll talk to his father,” Dad said. “He’s back from Port Harcourt.”
“Just try, Tobi,” Mom said. “Hmm?”
I didn’t. But this is not about how I did or did not tell him, because in the end he turned up in church with his mother, father, and his little baby sister. I did not go up to meet them, no way. How could I let him see me in my church clothes: tucked in t-shirt and trousers? He looked cool in his Lakers jersey and jeans. Man, I felt jealous that morning. Gotta work on myself. But, moving on.
The choir came on stage to lead us in Praise and Worship, all dressed in their ceremonial gowns. Another Sunday service about to begin. The handsome choir leader who many of the girls had a crush on (if my sister’s comments are anything to go by) came up in front and took the microphone. “Let’s lift our hands as we sing,” he said. Hands went up all around the sanctuary. I wondered what someone like Tosin was thinking about all this.
And he blew us away.
With just the right instruments, the guitars and drums blared in an awesome blend as the tenors sang,
We are the Champions, my friends!
And we’ll keep on fighting ‘til the end
We are the Champions
We are the Champions
No time for losers
For we are the Champions
Of the World!
My jaw fell open. What in the world was going on? That was not a gospel song … was it? I could not hear the rest because it was drowned out by the screams of the young people in the auditorium. For the sake of the older ones, the lyrics were displayed on the projector screens. I knew the choir surely had something up their sleeves. But that was not the end of it.
And as the refrain ended, the fast beats came. As one the choir jumped with the rhythm. And they just kept it going. It was not over.
I will never say never (I will fight)
I will fight till forever
Whenever you knock me down
I will not stay on the ground…
I was surprised these songs were being sung in church. In my church. I was more surprised to hear the screams and to see many of the ‘church kids’ singing along enthusiastically. So girls in my church also listened to Bieber, hmm. It was clear that they felt nervous at first, but then they just shrugged it off. Hey, if they were singing it in church it must be alright, right?
Some of the songs, I did not really recognize. They were mainly mainstream songs that many people knew. I even saw my Mom singing along to ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, a Diana Ross hit from the ‘70s. The congregation was ecstatic that morning. It was all weird, but fun. And then the final blast came, and we all cheered. The instrumentals were amazing; I had to give it to them. I wondered how long they had been preparing for this.
“Now, time for the slow songs,” the leader said. I blinked. No, he didn’t just say that…
Heal the world
Make it a better place
For you and for me…
Oh no, what was going on here? This was funny, but it just felt weird around here.
Iwe kiko (Yoruba translation: Education)
L’aisi oko (without the hoe)
Ati ada (and cutlass … just a Yoruba expression for ‘farming’)
Ko ipe o (is not enough)
Ko ipe o (is definitely not enough)
Soon he was done, and everyone cheered as they took their seats, wondering what would happen next. Clearly, this was all staged. Deacon Olasope came up on stage. “Welcome to another beautiful Sunday, everyone. I’m sure we’ve all had quite an interesting past week. We’ve had some good times, some not-so-good times, and some of the…” he winced. “So-sos.” That elicited giggles.
“So if anybody wants to tell us some of the good things that happened to them in the last week, please come up on stage.” In our church, people with testimonies to share registered with the pastor before the service. Today there were six up on stage. The first person announced that he did not get arrested for speeding beyond the speed limit. We laughed. The second was grateful that we’d had no earthquakes. The third announced that he’d got a new videogame. The other ‘testimonies’ were equally weird.
OK, by this point I was feeling totally weirded out. None of this made sense in any way. Thankfully, Pastor Dan came up to set things right again. As he stopped up on stage in his polo shirt and jeans, the moments that followed would be one of the most solemn moments I would ever remember in our church.
“We’ve had quite an interesting programme today, haven’t we?”There were murmurs of affirmation, but then it was clear that others felt the same way. If this all was an attempt to get people to enjoy church, it was lame. “I know everyone is wondering what’s been going on. Some unconventional things have happened here today. In the next few minutes, let’s talk about it together, shall we?”
There was an awkward moment of silence as the pastor stared at us all. I pitied him for the moment, because this was church. No one wants to talk in church, as far as I’m concerned. We were simply OK with him ending each sentence with ‘Praise the Lord’ or ‘Amen’, and us responding with ‘Halleluiah’. No one was going to—
But then someone in front raised a hand. “Yes,” Pastor’s face lit up as he pointed at her. “Tell us, Joana.”
Joana was one of the kids in our youth forum, who was never afraid to speak her mind. Thankfully she’s the one that got everyone talking that day. “We sang secular songs in church today.”
“Secular?” one of the elderly woman exclaimed. “Those were worldly songs! They don’t minister life!”
That got many people talking over each other, as each side wanted to prove that the songs were either totally bad or not that bad. Music was just one of those topics that many people even in my church did not fully agree on.
When Pastor Dan finally got us all to calm down, he said, “OK, now we all want to talk. But we’ve gotten that point down. ‘Un-Christian songs in church … that don’t minister life’, is that good with everyone? We deliberately selected songs with morally-acceptable content for this exercise. That’ll be the last time we’ll sing those songs from here, don’t worry. Wonderful. Any other thing we noticed?”
Some people still muttered about the music. I could not put my finger on it, but there was something more to this Sunday service that made me feel uneasy. He was expecting us to talk about the order of programmes, but no one wanted to state the obvious.
Suddenly a stranger raised his hand. He was Tosin’s dad, the one that worked in Port Harcourt. He was a huge man, and this was his first time in our church. Uh-oh, I thought, Pastor’s in big trouble today.
“Good morning everyone,” he said. “I’ll make it brief. Uh… this is my first time in this church. I don’t go to church normally, except for special occasions like Christmas or Easter, or December 31st or funerals and memorial services. It’s just how I live. I would not have come today, had uh…my neighbour not invited me.” He was talking about my Dad. I just wished he remembered his name.
“I understand that what we’ve had here today was simply an act, for a discussion, and I’m glad. I really am, because … I don’t have anything against the songs. It’s just that, this is church. The few times I come to church, I get the opportunity to think about someone else for a change. To experience God in a different way, apart from the busyness of the rest of my week. I don’t know if anyone here understands me—“ there were nods all around “—but I come to church to be with God. I did not have any of that here today, Pastor. It felt no different than a hang out with friends, and nothing more. I came for the ‘more’. And I hope I’ll still get some of that today. Thank you.”
As he sat, we all applauded his statement. What he said gave me the courage to stand. “Yes, Tobi,” Pastor Dan encouraged me to speak.
“It was not only the songs,” I said. “But everything else was missing something. I did not feel … safe. I can’t put my finger on it, but I just did not feel safe.”
“Thank you, Tobi.”
More people spoke along the same lines. Some did not feel safe, some did not feel encouraged, and some were annoyed at some of the bogus testimonies praising their human ingenuity and all. Some blatantly said that they did not feel God. It did not feel like Church to any of us.
Pastor Dan got all of this down. “Thank you everyone. Without God, all that we do here every Sunday is empty. Beyond the order of programmes and activities, there is Someone calling to us through it all. We dedicate our songs to him in here, we praise him for his wonderful work and we thank Him for what He’s done for us. He is our God, and also our Father who has saved us and called us to Himself. We pray to Him. This is who we are, and it’s what we do here, folks. Without Him, our Sunday mornings here are nothing more than a waste of time.
“In giving the first morning of the week to the Lord, we are setting a template for the week ahead. I’m not saying you must start your day at your workplace with fifteen minutes of praise and worship … or fast songs and slow songs.” That made us laugh again. “And while we’re on the subject, you do understand that ‘praise’ does not necessarily mean a fast song, and ‘worship’ does not necessarily mean a slow song either, right?” We agreed. “Uh … Media Team, please put up Romans 12:1, from The Message, please? Thank you. Songs of praise are songs of adoration and sometimes thanksgiving to God for what He’s done for us, for who He is. Songs of Worship are, uh … they are an expression of the heart in love and worship to God. You know what, I don’t have the best definitions here, but that leads me to my next point. Media are we … ready?” He sighed as he stared at the screen, waiting for the projection to adjust.
Our Media Team was pretty awesome, but sometimes they got quite clumsy. I was going to join them someday. But today they first put up Romans 11:1 before the projection changed to 12:1.
I think Pastor Dan likes reading from The Message Bible sometimes because of its conversational tone. “Very good. Romans 12:1 says, and here, Brother Paul is speaking by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, ‘So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—‘ now everyone listen closely to this, ‘—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for Him.’” He paused and stared back at us. “That’s Worship, friends. That’s what God expects from us every single day. Our offerings to Him are not a couple of notes and coins we place in the basket every Sunday, no. It’s our everyday lives, in the little things we do. Honouring Him, thanking Him for His faithfulness and goodness, and glorifying Him in all our ways. Living lives of integrity, of love. This is the most reasonable way to serve God.
“That’s what Worship means, people of God,” Pastor Dan said, slowly so that we all got it. “That’s what ‘Service’ means, to God. We’re serving Him by offering our lives to Him for His purpose. To be what He wants us to be, and to do what He wants us to do.” He stepped down from the podium and stood among the congregation. “Sunday is a platform; I could almost call it a ‘special excuse’, or an opportunity to pour out ourselves and our time as an offering to our Father. Surely, He will bless us as He has promised. But this is our part, to Worship. A book I read years ago defined ‘Worship’ as ‘Worth-ship’, giving the most worth to the One that deserves it the most. Not just in our songs, but specifically in our lives. What we do here is a product of that, unto God. That’s what makes us His house.”
In the moments that followed, we all let this sink in. He was right. It was not just the literal mentioning of ‘God’ in our programmes, but an outpouring of our hearts. That’s what made the programmes worthwhile, even if they were changed or re-ordered, or even if they remained monotonous. It’s the Lord we worship beyond all of this that makes it worthwhile.
“So now,” Pastor Dan said. “We’ve had quite a morning. Now let’s do some Service.” And Sister Sarah took her place at the grand piano. She is one of those elderly women who have been a blessing to our congregation for generations. I was told she started our choir when my Dad was still a boy, and that her children were successful pastors abroad. No one would have known that she was a doctor, for her musical skill was always a marvel and a blessing to us. Perhaps it was this new perspective I had just gotten that allowed me to see her and her gift as a gift from God that morning. For as we followed her in singing her song, we meant it with all we had.
All to Jesus I surrender
All to Him I freely give.
I will ever love and trust Him
In His presence daily live.
I surrender all.
I surrender all.
All to Thee, my Blessed Savior
I surrender all.
We spent the rest of the morning worshipping God in prayer and song. What a service that was. While we’ve not had that kind of service again, I kinda enjoyed it. I wonder what comments Pastor Dan got after.
So, what do I think about Church now? I still don’t enjoy rushing every Sunday morning, and the monotonous order sometimes just gives me a good laugh. But I understand that God deserves my best, and Sunday services in Church are an opportunity to do that. From the songs, to the prayers, to the testimonies, the Sermon, and even the rare projections on screen, I get to see God at work in these people. He’s much bigger than the box I make for Him in my mind, and He’s just … amazing. I’m encouraged in my walk with God. I don’t have all the answers. But I know there’s a good reason children of God gather together to meet and worship Him this way. Iron sharpens iron…
The other day I showed this piece to my friend, Emmanuel. He’s a weird guy, that one. He suggested that he’d like to post this article on his blog. I think he was just teasing. I just hope he didn’t do it. If this goes on his blog, the things I’ll do to that guy … I’ll … I’ll … oh well, I’ll just have to forgive him. Eventually.
Until next time, journal.
P.S.: Emmanuel here. I gotta apologise to Tobi for posting this up, though I warned him. Hey, to you readers out there, do NOT read other people’s journals without their permission … even if they are fictitious characters!
For those of you that waited behind for more, here’s a little teaser for a Feature Presentation coming soon …