The Embodied Joy of the Global Church | Sojourners

The Embodied Joy of the Global Church

Gathering in Mount Tabieorar. Image from Wes Granberg-Michaelson  

One year ago this week, I walked into the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, completing my pilgrimage there. This week I witnessed a different pilgrimage as about 100,000 people made their way to Mount Tabieorar, in Ogere Remo, Nigeria. They clothed themselves with white robes, took off their shoes, danced, sang, and prayed through the night and into the early morning with uninhibited joy. This was the 83rd time the Tabieorar celebration has gathered in this holy space.

In 1937, Prophet Josiah O. Ositelu received a revelation that he should proceed to this place, which then became named Mount Tabieorar, for 13 days of prayer and fasting, and then invite the public in order to share the fruits and message from this time. 12 years earlier, as a young Catechist in the Anglican Mission, he experienced an encounter with the Holy Spirit that sent him into a ministry of healing and preaching but resulted in his excommunication from the Anglican Church. In 1930, he formally established the Church of the Lord Aladura, which means “praying fellowship.” One of its tenets is that God can be worshipped within the culture of local people and not only in the culture of Western missionaries. The church also asserted that men and women could be called into the priesthood.

This is an example of an “African Instituted Church,” meaning a church begun in Africa by Africans, rather than begun by outside missionaries. Many had roots and association with anti-colonial movements. Today, hundreds of such denominations, and hundreds of thousands of their congregations, are found throughout Africa comprising an important component of Christianity in the continent. But because of their independence from the Western missionary movement, they have been largely off the radar of most within Western Christianity.

The Church of the Lord Aladura has grown steadily since its inception, spreading throughout Nigeria and then into other countries in Africa. From there it has taken root in Europe, propelled by the impact of migration, and in the United States. The church has a provincial office in New Jersey. They think of their presence in Europe and the United States as reverse mission. This is only one of several African Instituted Churches with congregations in major cities of the U.S.

Like the millions of pilgrims through the centuries that have traveled the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, pilgrims to Mount Tabieorar this past week came expecting a religious experience at a holy place. Their white robes, worn also at all their church services, formed a vast multitude, reflecting the biblical picture of those dressed in white before the Lamb. Singing here is impossible without moving one’s body, which continued for hours. By 1 a.m., Primate Rufus Ositelu began his sermon, focused on this year’s Tabieorar theme, the “God of Possibilities.” Following the sermon, he gave a speech addressing the social and political challenges in Nigeria, including economic infrastructure in rural areas, sustainable development that reduces dependence on oil, combatting violence against women and children, and fighting corruption. Prayers by candlelight for 13 specific blessings continued for the next two hours until closing at 4 a.m.

Driving through Lagos, my hosts tell me that about one building in ten is a church. Most are small congregations with Pentecostal names — Holy Ghost chapel, Apostolic Mission, Faith Tabernacle, Ministry of Miracles. I search mostly in vain for names from historic Protestant denominations, particularly in the poorer areas of this city of 17 million. It tells the story of what drives the astonishing growth of Christianity here and throughout sub-Saharan Africa. One out of four Christians in the world is now an African.

But growth delivers weaknesses as well, like the alarming lack of theological training among those preaching and leading these emerging congregations. My African friends continually underscore this challenge. Further, young, independent churches can be rigidly sectarian, cut off theologically and practically from the wider church. The Church of the Lord Aladura’s membership in the World Council of Churches is, by far, the exception among the many African Instituted Churches.

Leaving holy Mount Tabieorar in Ogere Remo, Nigeria, I wonder what all this means for the future of world Christianity, now being driven by churches throughout the global South, and finding roots in non-Western cultures. The spiritual vitality that seems contagious here is embodied, with bare feet, white robes, dancing, and healing. There seems little future for forms of faith that remain comfortably imprisoned in the head.

And I’m struck by the joy. Unforgettable, irrepressible joy, which flows like the fuel of worship, unlocking spiritual power. Worship shrouded with rationalistic seriousness and emotional repression would wither immediately in this soil. Embodied joy may be one gift that flows from places like Tabieorar far and wide, even as was once prophesied.