“Open your mouth and PRAY!”
If you only knew how those words haunted me as a child in the church. It did not matter if I attended my parents’ buttoned-up mainline congregation, or found my way to one of those young people churches where you’re allowed to wear jeans. Being in church required the courage to withstand an arsenal of pastoral demands I often felt ill equipped to meet.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a bully as “someone who hurts or frightens someone else, often over a period of time, and often forcing them to do something that they do not want to do.” There is a form of bullying so prevalent in the church we have come to accept it as normal. I am speaking of church leaders condemning those who are shy, quiet, introverted, anxious, or just plain tired. It is a sad truth that many pastors in Nigeria, even in the so-called modern churches, don’t know how to lead a congregation without using weapons of hurt and fright to compel people to do things they do not want to do.
Recently, at one of the enlightened and supposedly hip churches in Lagos, I watched the pastor and a praise leader chastise the congregation for several minutes over a variety of actions that, unbeknownst to us, displeased God. We did not respond loudly to pastor’s Good Morning. Some of us were “cold” people, sitting in church and refusing to praise God. We should find a fellow congregant with an unhappy-looking face and tell him/her to give thanks, on and on it went. When the worship team ordered us to shake hands with at least 50 people in the congregation, I began to wonder if I had been transported back to primary school. But more importantly, why was the church so angry? Why take offense at those who would rather write a heartfelt letter to God than jump up and down screaming “that is who you ahhh”?
I can’t help but notice that many of the behaviors Nigerian pastors laud as godly correlate with the personality traits of an extrovert, which in turn match the qualities of most pastors themselves. Is that a coincidence? Think about what is welcomed in the contemporary church: audible, convoluted prayers; speaking in tongues; spreading the good news to wary strangers; shouting for joy; coming to the microphone and giving testimony; dancing up and down the pews; signing up for various “ministries” that involve interacting with hundreds of people. None of these things are bad. But when did they become the true mark of a believer, to the point where our sermons and praise sessions involve multiple reminders to do such things? Just once, I would like to hear a pastor preach on the importance of respecting other people’s boundaries, of listening well to others, of projecting a calm openness that draws people in… you know, the kinds of things introverts are good at.
In one of my favorite books, “The Brothers K,” a young man called Peter gives up a promising baseball career to instead study at Harvard. Then, to the admiration of his younger brother, Peter drops out of Harvard to explore eastern mysticism in India. Years later, his brother comes to admit that before India and before Harvard, Peter already possessed the behavior and personality of a monk. Therefore, his quitting the Ivy League to study Hinduism was not as remarkable as say Donald Trump choosing to attend a one-hour meditation class. As the book wisely concludes, “one man’s renunciation is another man’s piece of cake”.
I would argue that one man’s restrained clapping is another man’s pew-dancing. When the church shames the introverted and the contemplative, it overlooks the courage and faith such people demonstrate in showing up at a service in which they are constantly ordered to do things that oppose their natural inclinations. Introverts are notorious for hating meaningless small talk. Yet every Sunday we put up with the longest five minutes of our lives when we have to greet dozens of people with no time to have an intelligent conversation with even one of them. We accept this and other demands every Sunday because we want to worship God, we like church and even like Pastor. All we want is the courtesy of not being threatened from the pulpit because we were born quiet. Is that too much to ask?
Photo Credit: © Hongqi Zhang (aka Michael Zhang) | Dreamstime