A couple of months ago, my wife and I were invited to attend the 4th annual ‘Holy Ghost Service’, organised by the Redeemed Christian Church of God (Ireland). Gotta say we had a blast – an unforgettable experience.
And safe to say that I’ve never been at an event remotely like it. And I’ve sort of been processing that night in my head ever since, and this post is a bit of that processing out loud ….
This meeting must easily be one of the largest religious gatherings in the country. Somewhere between 15-20,000 people in one location (a giant marquee in City West Hotel). It started at 8pm and went on (I’m told, we’d gone home) til about 3am.
First some context. The RCCG is a Nigerian Pentecostal denomination, and apart from the Roman Catholic Church, now one of the largest Christian denominations in the Republic of Ireland – maybe bigger that the ‘established’ Presbyterians and the Methodists. Their stated aim is to have one RCCG church within 5 minutes drive of every person in Ireland …. can’t say they lack vision and ambition.
The RCCG is huge in Nigeria and the Dublin event had ‘daddy’ G.O. and’ mummy’ G.O. (Mr & Mrs E A Adeboye, G.O. = General Overseer) there as guest speakers which was obviously a very very very big deal indeed for everyone there…. (reminded me of our audience with the Pope but that’s another story 😉
I’ve been re-reading a favourite book (which if you haven’t read it you should, it’s fascinating), Philip Jenkins’ The New Faces of Christianity: believing the Bible in the Global South. What he does so well is compare and contrast different ways Southern and Northern hemisphere Christians read the Bible, and especially how the ancient world of the Bible ‘speaks’ so directly into the contemporary world of much of the Global South.
And reading Jenkins provides a framework for interpreting what was going on that night in Citywest.
This was ‘global South’ Christianity in Dublin. More specifically, this was African Christianity in Dublin. And more specifically still, this was full-on Nigerian Pentecostal Christianity in Dublin.
There were numbers of Irish people there and the RCCG is making serious efforts at bridge-building both with other Christians and public bodies. On the (distant) stage were leaders of various organisations including the major of South Dublin Country Council.
My reactions were a mixture between being inspired and uplifted during amazing praise & singing, being hugely impressed at the sheer organisational effort behind such a massive one-off event, enjoying the wonderfully prepared children’s orchestra and singers, – along with various levels of theological and cultural ‘discomfort’.
I’m not going to go into the theological ones here on what was just a once-off experience (and we did not stay til the early hours when the main preaching happened). I’d rather turn things around – and ask what questions does such an event – and the nature of African Pentecostalism – pose to Irish Christians?
Here are some ….. and maybe you can add your own.
Expectancy that God makes a difference in life
There was a tremendous sense of expectancy that God would show up. In the huge choir and led worship (what singing); in the profuse and active prayer with everyone standing praying together out loud, calling out to God in a cacophony of sound; in how prayer was led from the front with a deep sense of approaching a holy and magnificent God. And tied up in these attitudes is the deep down belief that God is real, he will make a difference in your life. God will be seen by what he does. In the expectation of conversion, repentance, healing – God is alive and active and visibly so.
Good and Evil
At one point there was a long, and frankly to my western mind, rather bizarre sketch of guys dressed up as demons laughing at their success in keeping a succession of people under bondage – to illness, to fear and so on. Until Jesus turned up on stage, vanquished them and liberated the victims to a life of joy and victory.
Jenkins puts it this way:
‘For post-Enlightenment Christians in the West, the demonic elements in the New Testament mean so little that they are scarcely even an embarrassment any more …’ Jenkins, p98
Global South Christianity, and especially African Pentecostal theology, takes evil seriously. In a culture surrounded by occult, paganism and acts of great evil, as well as natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and famines – the reality of deep spiritual warfare in woven into the fabric of faith.
Linked to this was an incredibly strong sense of authority. I mean this in a couple of ways. First the ultimate authority of God – there was huge respect for his word and a tangible expectation of God speaking powerfully through it. God was present and to be listened to.
Jenkins makes the telling point that in much of the Global South, the Bible is a ‘new’ book , a sacred text from God that has power and authority.
‘But for Christians in contemporary Africa and Asia, it is this newly discovered Bible that fascinates, and that burns from within. Reading this book opens the door to real inner power’. Jenkins, p.25
Second, and closely linked, was a huge sense of the authority of God’s ‘Spirit anointed’ leaders – both men and women. There was tremendous respect and honour given to the ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mummy’ G.O. of the RCCG worldwide, Pastor E A Adeboye and his wife. Leaving aside the fact that she was leading thousands in prayer, never have I been at a church meeting where a woman has led with such authority.
And this night was a reminder of another thing Jenkins says – and which Western Christians need reminding of. So often in the Christian blogging and publishing world, esp in the USA, there is still a deeply inbuilt assumption that the USA and the West is the ‘default form’ of evangelical Christianity. Again and again whole internal conversations go on with no hint that there is a much bigger world out there.
When will we westerners ‘get’ that the West is no longer the ‘norm’ – ‘the’ Christian perspective against which all others are measured?.
Whereas in the past you might read about curious forms of marginal Christian experience such as ‘African theologies’ or ‘Asian theologies’ – soon the boot will be on the other foot and we will know when the shift has happened when we start reading about the curious characteristics of ‘North American theologies’ or ‘Western European theologies’.
Comments, as ever, welcome.