Spiritual Toll Gates

Being a Christian does not preclude asking questions and demanding propriety from those in authority.
It is stale news that Pastor Christian “Chris” Oyakhilome’s Christ Embassy took an “innovative” approach to crowd control by charging an entrance fee of N1,000 per head to attend its New Year eve church service.  With a church auditorium said to seat about 25,000 people, this is a crowd control measure with an income earning slant.  Viewed purely as a monetary transaction between the attendees and the church, this incident is hardly newsworthy.  Provided the buyers are willing to part with their money and the seller – in this case, the church – is willing to receive the same and offer some service in return, it is all well and good.   This short essay however tries to examine this incident from another set of perspectives.
Those willing to attend but unable to pay
Whilst many pastors (and their fervent acolytes) will disagree with me, an organised church is a charitable establishment amongst other things, with a religious hue.  Amongst the people who might want to attend a church event are many who have a genuine need – beyond the euphoric – for a tangible spiritual experience, but who cannot afford to give any monetary consideration in return.  A church being a charitable organisation has a moral duty to these people.  The Bible is replete with instances where Jesus forbade the disciples from turning the needy from him.  On more than one occasion, He brought the crowd around Him to a halt to attend to the need of someone on the verge of being discarded by society as a waif.
It is utterly galling to then see an establishment place its pecuniary objectives ahead of its charitable duties and then turn around and try to justify it by terming it “crowd control”.  Someone needs to be told the truth here, without that “crowd”, there will be no church.  The services rendered by charitable organisations can often not be quantified in monetary terms.  A bowl of soup might cost just 90 pence, but when you go feeding the homeless at Leicester square on a winter night, that bowl is worth more than 90p to the homeless man that is fed.  In a similar manner, what price tag can you really attach to the spiritual experience that was denied that widow or area boy turned back at the gates of the “Embassy” for want of N1,000?
The follies of ignoring history
Many of us, first generation African immigrants in Europe, are shocked at the extent of religious apathy exhibited by most Western Europeans.  A history of the church in England might help here, because Mr. Oyakhilome’s crowd control methods are not new.  A few centuries back, virtually all the cathedrals in England had one relic or the other, which many unwitting peasants had to pay to touch or see, with the belief rife that touching or venerating these relics brought solutions to some problem(s).  These churches became spiritual toll-gates of some sorts.
In retrospect, a list of these relics from previous centuries look like a scammer’s toolbox – toe clippings from the nail of Mary Magdalene, a piece of the true cross, Saint Peter’s chains, a feather from the raven (some say dove) that Noah sent out of the Ark; the list is endless.  I will use this quote from Wikipedia – “since Christians during the Middle Ages often took pilgrimages to shrines of holy people, relics became a large business.”  The sad part of the monetised church was the obscene opulence in which the cleric lived, whilst a substantial part of the laity lived in poverty.  In an extreme instance of financial irresponsibility, the church refused to finance Henry V’s war against France in the 15th century, threatening anyone who dared tax the church with excommunication.  The disheartening consequence of this business is that as people became more enlightened and the obvious frauds behind the relics’ toll business came to light, the seed of disenchantment was sown.
These attributes are echoed in the 21st century organised church, where pastors live in abominable splendour in the face of indigent members – and the taxation of churches is something we must not discuss because we have been indoctrinated – “touch not mine anointed and do my prophets no harm”.   So, monetisation of spirituality is nothing new, but the paucity of attendance in churches in Europe today speaks volumes of the long-term effect of a monetised church.  Many an Anglican parish minister in England will long for the crowd that Pastor Oyakhilome turned back on 31 December 2010; sadly the 21st century English flock has gone to the pubs and clubs instead.
The focus of the church over many centuries was on money without a sustainable spiritual base for worshipers, the absence of tangible spiritual benefits being offered by the church has seen a generation has turned its back on organised religion and by extension turn its back on God.  I have had the opportunity of attending majority black churches (MBCs) in England as well as a handful of other churches with predominantly Caucasian congregations and I know which group dwells on “money, money, money and more money”; and I am mildly amused at the seeming incapacity of MBCs to learn from the mistakes of the older “orthodox” churches.
As society becomes more technologically advanced and science and technology provide more succour (even) in under-developed nations like Nigeria, and a prosperous existence is not predicated on the pulpit utterances of some pastor in flashy suits, churches will be built, not on congregations where members can pay N1,000 but on Christians who have a genuine relationship with God.  By then, the N1,000-paying, hero-worshiping and skabashing throng will be long gone to other exciting venues  and one may well ask, “whither shalt thou be crowd-control?”

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