Losing Relevance

The Church and Its Mission

Photo by Serrah Galos

TWENTY-EIGHTEEN is coming to an end. It is one of the years that saw quite a few advancements technologically, societally and even psychologically. It seems many Rwandan young people are expressing themselves in the most controversial ways; rejecting norms and even going as far as building new ones. And beyond that, platforms of expressions are increasing by the week and thoughts are freely shared in unprecedented ways. Is that a good thing? Is that a threat? Personally, I think it is my biggest celebration.

I’ve been lurking and watching Rwandans nonchalantly voice things that would have disowned them not too long ago. The tension between the younger generation and the older is rising as young Rwandans are demanding more respect regardless of their age or gender. And this is quite revolutionary.

In the background, though, there is a player in feeling the biggest part of this tension. And it is good news that they are. In the safety of their brick walls, this player held the monopoly on transcendent knowledge and wisdom for the last two millennia. And they demanded a price for it to be shared. This player held the monopoly on societal morality as its sole source and custodian. With free thoughts, open dialogue, and the decentralisation of information, many are questioning its claims. The influx of diaspora and expat communities who adopted different philosophies has shaken the unbothered foundation this player had stood upon. The rising pressure should definitely be addressed and worked on before oblivion takes over. Why is the church of Rwanda losing its relevance?

Allow me to take you to a story I was told about the aftermath of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. When widows, orphans, and despair had become the norm in Rwanda, a new religion was seen to rise. This was the Jehovah Witnesses. No one understood why many were turning to them until, after some thought, a few hypotheses were drawn. Jehovah Witnesses in Rwanda became known for their compassion, going to people’s homes and spending time with them. At a time when many Rwandans were left in despair, these kind humans were a source of hope. This is one way that religion is said to have grown. The “Born Again” communities did the same and drew flocks by the thousands. Now it is 2018 – a new generation with busy thumbs has risen. The old sacred text is not as revered as it was long ago. People are using technology to rally behind movements, injustices, and many other causes. Rwanda is a place where the church had the loudest voice. Now, as you look around, the younger generation is whispering and questioning the relevance of the Rwandan church in today’s world. How can we salvage this?

I write as one of those who have failed to continue to see this importance. But I believe your best critic might just be your biggest source of inspiration. So, I’ve given myself the liberty to challenge and elaborate on the loopholes that church leaders in Rwanda can address to lay its firm roots in the grounds of time and eternal changes.

The social ground

A few friends of mine discussed over coffee how the church increasingly misuses its resources and seems more worried about impressing the people rather than helping them. Now, what change would come about if churches went back to become safe spaces? And this I mean in the most physical sense. Beyond what they preach, what would happen if they changed the lives of their people in tangible ways? For instance, is the church the first place a woman thinks of after having been chased out of her home for the night? Would she find a warm blanket and a pillow if she was afraid of being hit by her husband? Okay, I can hear the pastors and their logistics and long meetings. How about a hotline? Would the church of Rwanda be willing to take the lead in hearing people in distress? Would the church be willing to use their bathrooms to assist humans in the morning before they go look for a job? Because a shower and clean teeth increase your chances of employment tremendously! Again, yes some churches are setting up some schools in the same capitalist way that a private institution works so, for the sake of my argument, that’s cancelled. It would be different if Rwanda stamped the church as the sole provider of homeless shelters or some other incredibly radical cause.

The fact of the matter is less and less people are being driven by securing their hot seat in the afterlife (that’s another topic for another time). They want to be of relevance now. And a lot less people sit around worried that demons are haunting them. But even more importantly, the nation is healing of many wounds and the need to the solace that the church used to provide isn’t quite the same. The challenge now is, will the church step up and contribute to issues affecting the daily lives of the people? More than defending deities and saints, can the church be looked to for matters of gender-based violence (GBV), early pregnancies, suicide, hunger, infanticide, etc.?

Hosting a well-lit conference, with guests from Nigeria or America, is not what we mean by addressing the issue neither is equipping people to go start their own. It is nice but it deflects the responsibility from the institution.

Most Rwandan churches are currently more worried about the state of their sound system than the rates of infanticide in Rwanda. What are the churches doing to address homelessness and teenage pregnancies? How radical are they in ensuring institutionalisation of solutions. This sounds harsh but the money shows where the heart is, and the heart shows where the urgency is. One must reach a point and ask: ‘If the church was the only institution in the country, where would our citizens be?’

I know that is far-fetched, so let’s rephrase: If there was no church in the country, would the people be affected?’

I will not, in any way, belittle the work that the church is doing. Somehow, songs do lift the spirits of listeners and motivational speeches are always needed. But is it a long stretch to hope that they will indeed play a role in the issues that affect communities daily?

A friend of mine recently went to Tanzania and visited an orphanage with a drop-box for children. Young women know that they can anonymously drop their babies and be certain they’d be taken care of. I know people will say that having such a structure will “encourage” women to abandon their children. But what not having this structure does is to kill the children.

As I close this long cry, my hope is that we read this with an open mind, not a defensive one. In the end, (who knows?) the church might find its identity again. And my wish is that, in 2019, a long and hard look will be given to the church by (at least) its followers to challenge this institution to step up and step forward.

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