Most Christian faithful in Lagos are understandably happy and relieved that congregational worship, suspended because of the urgent need to curb the spread of COVID-19, has been lifted in the emerging megacity. With the resumption of services, Lagos clerics have reminisced on some of the bitter-sweet lessons they learned from the long period worship centres were shut down in Lagos State.
Many of them agreed that the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent total lockdown was a situation that took everyone one of them unawares. Some clerics while recounting their experiences to Sunday Sun, confessed that the lengthy closure opened a new vista though the suspension of congregational worship traumatized and agonized them, alongside their congregants. Some of them also agreed that the long lockdown has left a huge scar, which could lead the society to begin to question the relevance of religious leaders.
One of them, Pastor Onyeka Uwakwe of the Total Deliverance Ministries, Okokomaiko, Lagos, noted that he had understood the church to be a place of solace until the outbreak of the pandemic. “In times of crisis and agony, faith is like a soothing balm. So the church becomes a source of huge personal comfort and community resilience. But the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic changed all that,” he said. “Governments all over the world took stringent measures to slow the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus. The lockdown on churches is an experience I won’t forget in a hurry. Leading my congregation is part of my everyday life, but I still know the risks we face against the coronavirus. So we had to align with the medical experts’ advice to practice physical distancing and wear masks. One of the biggest lessons that I have learned is that this pandemic has further heightened the tension between religion and science, religious leaders, and political leaders,” he said.
Another cleric, Archbishop-designate, Isaac Idahosa of Illumination Assembly in Lagos, said he was particularly pained at the government’s seeming lack of understanding at the direct and indirect role churches play in the economy of the state. The outspoken bishop said he was appalled at the ignorance propagated by many saying that the church cannot contribute in the battle against the COVID-19 virus. “The church is needed to douse the high tension in our people, and give them hope in these tough times,” he said. “The closure of churches affected us so much. Churches are employers of labour and the government should be wise enough to know that fact. There is a ministry in my church, called Living Faith that has about 5,000 individuals on its payroll. When they are paid, they spend some of the money in the society, but when they are laid off, they are redundant and the government gets no tax. So it is wrong to think that the Church doesn’t contribute to society.”
Bishop Idahosa recalled some of the huge sacrifices they made during the time of total lockdown, saying that he is still bewildered that worship centres were shut down. “During the lockdown, there was palpable fear everywhere. The fear of the coronavirus was worse than the pandemic itself. So we kept hope alive by preaching online and creating an avenue to restore hope. We gave out palliatives to members and pastors. There were pastors who could not feed at that time. We were providing for them because to whom much is given, much is required.
“I still cannot fathom why the church was closed. And that closure increased the level of social vices in the state. The moral decadence in the society increased because collective gathering at churches produces a positive synergy among people. Do you know that people can be very unruly outside God? Church reopening is allowing God to take control. If everywhere else was lockdown it would have been a different thing but keeping the church locked down was like caging Christ,” he declared.
In the same vein, Presiding Minister of Kings in Christ International, Lagos, Bishop Chidi Anthony, said that one thing that angered him was that people failed to recognize the place of the church in the society. Bishop Chidi, who also doubles as the President of Pentecostal Ministers Forum, added that the total lockdown made him he see how so many people gloat when the church is in the news for the wrong reasons, but same people would turn deaf ears when the church is in the news for positive reasons. “I have realised that people are more interested to see pastors go viral because of some misdeeds. The church contributed a lot during the lockdown. We did so much to support the people because the pandemic took people unawares. But I have learned that we are in a generation that hates the church. We are in a season where people don’t believe or don’t want to read about any good thing done a pastor. Rather they want to read and hear about atrocities a church or its pastor committed. We are in a wicked generation because they are waiting to prey on our mistakes and devour our integrity. This is a generation of vampires sucking all the good the church and pastors are doing.”
According to Bishop Anthony, the reopening is a good move by the state government. He vowed to make sure that members of his congregation observe all the COVID-19 safety measures. “The closure of the church was not to our advantage. But finally, the state government has allowed churches to reopen. The government said that we should keep all safety guidelines, which my church has strictly adhered to. Also, we’ll be running about seven services per Sunday. And if any member tries to disobey the government directive, I will personally hand him or her to the authorities.”
Also, the Senior Pastor of Christ Church International Ministry, Pastor Oyeyemi Omoniyi, said the lockdown of worship centres opened his eyes to the gross irresponsibility of many popular religious leaders. “During the lockdown, I felt pained when I noticed that some of our church leaders were not using their influence well enough. When God mandated that I start a church, He inspired me not to start just like every regular church. Rather, God said that I should look out to impact lives and the society at large. I train leaders, who now go out to also train others. But the COVID-19 showed me how our church leaders have sold us out to the government. The fact that they closed down the church is a good one but not a better one. I think the government could have sought the help of the church in the fight against COVID-19. I sponsored some of my members to carry out some research on this virus, and they came with results that helped us. They confirmed to me that the virus is real and is in our country. But most of these popular leaders clamouring for the reopening of the church never cared to investigate this. Rather they only clamoured for their selfish interest,” Pastor Omoniyi said.
Rector of Pentecost School of Deliverance and Prophetic Ministry, Pastor Sam Adekoya, is another cleric that said that the COVID-19 lockdown has unveiled the real men of God, and also exposed the commercial pastors in the society. “During the closure of worship centres, I noticed that most pastors became hustlers. I was stunned at how after preaching for a little time, they quickly put out their bank details to collect offerings and tithes from their vulnerable members. I believe the closure of religious centres should have been a period for pastors to ponder on their mission, but I realised that a lot of us pastors are fake, and dance to the gallery. I believe that God allowed the virus and used it to separate the weed from the wheat. He wants pastors to reflect on their calling. God used COVID-19 to expose those who are using his name to make money. Any pastor who discusses money in this difficult period is not called by God. This is a time for the church to take care of his people, and some are doing so,” Adekoya stated.
Among pastors who strongly believe that safety of members mattered more and therefore supported the closure of religious centres is Pastor Festus Taiwo, the presiding pastor of the Throne of Grace Model Parish of Cherubim and Seraphim Movement Church, Egbeda, Lagos. Although Pastor Taiwo applauded the reopening of churches, he, however, said that he has learned to be wary of the highly infectious coronavirus, and insisted that every right-thinking person should also have cause to worry. “We cannot over-emphasise the human omissions, errors, and negligence that could happen. I, together with my church members have been adequately informed that they should wear a face mask, to protect themselves and people around them.
“As a body of Christ, the lockdown didn’t affect us so much. We had online coordinated services, and I conducted online teachings twice a week. We didn’t lay emphasis on tithing at the time. Rather, I realised that it was the time to give back to the members of our congregation. So, instead of asking them to bring, we made provided for them because we consider survival paramount to us. We organised prayers for them on phone and also held worship sessions in our individual homes. So now we have more leaders in the church than before. Each family is now stronger, closer, and more united than before. The church is now coming out stronger than before,” he said.