Investigation

Why we’re not returning to church now –Worshippers

Worship centres have returned in full gear after government lifting of ban placed on them during the lockdown. But some members are still skeptical about their safety and have decided to stay back from attending services to observe the further flattening of the pandemic curve, reports ISIOMA MADIKE

It was joy and relief when the Nigerian government ordered worship centres to reopen after the lockdown occasioned by the Coronavirus (COVID- 19) pandemic that has been ravaging the human race since the beginning of the year. In spite of the order however, most churches across the country are still almost empty with scanty worshipers in their auditoriums.

The preachers before now had changed the face of Christianity in Nigeria with their evangelical sermons, prophecies and promises of miracles sent to homes via televangelisms. The use of the internet also gained ground during the period, which worshipers now seemed to have adapted to as it is presently affecting their physical presence in the church auditoriums. However, worshipers, who spoke to our reporter, gave divergent reasons why many of them are yet to return to church.

For instance, All Saints Anglican Cathedral, Ikosi-Ketu, Lagos, reopened under strict guidelines. Timothy Duru, 65, said he has not been attending because “we were advised by the authorities of my church to still observe the necessary protocols in spite of the government order. The directive was specifically for the elderly and children whom they believe have low immunity to withstand the virus. “There’s really nothing like being present physically in the church on Sundays.

But why I’m not feeling it much is because a few times I attended before my church directive, we didn’t offer each other the ‘sign of peace’. There is no hugging, no holding, and these things are important connections. For me, something was missing. And I said, well, if these new regulations persist, it’s better one stays back and follows the service via the television, which they have made regular for the benefit of those who might not be able to attend physically.

” Another worshipper at Saint Michael Catholic Church, Alapere-Ketu, Lagos, Emmanuel Nwaghodoh, told this reporter that his church is the most populous within his vicinity. According to him, “ever since we returned, the church is open to half of its usual capacity of over 800 worshippers.

However, for the first time since March when lockdown measures to stop the spread of Coronavirus banned religious gatherings was lifted, last Sunday was the first time we had a fairly reasonable number of attendance; we recorded quite a sizable number but that still can’t be compared to what it used to be.

“I think many have adapted to watching from television, which was the norm in the tick of the lockdown. Another reason could be because the church still advised children to stay off until the situation improves better than what it is now. And for those who don’t have nannies, especially the women, they would rather stay back with their children and follow the worship through the television. “Another reason is that after the service, no meetings or groups are allowed as worshippers are guided out through exits, which lead away from the enclosure and directly into the street.

For many, this provokes a kind of loss, which they are finding difficult to adapt to.” At the Mountain of Fire ministry, Ikeja zone, Opeyemi Adeyemi, said the major reason many still keep away from both Sunday service and daily programmes is fear. According to her, people still feel unsafe in large gatherings, especially in church auditoriums.

She said: “Here, the church is yet to assume its usual status despite government lifting of the ban on worship centres due to COVID-19 scare. This worship centre used to overflow with members but the Coronavirus pandemic has changed all that. We take necessary precautions here in line with government directives like checking of temperatures, provision of washing hand basins and soaps and arranging our seats in line with social distance mantra but some are afraid.

Of course we also enforce wearing of face masks. “Some parents have also kept their younger children away from church for the same reason too. Again, when we returned, we had floods of testimonies of those who claimed to know those who contracted the virus and survived, such testimonies reinforced the belief that the pandemic is indeed real.

We discovered that after one particular Sunday where such testimonies were given, the number of worshippers started thinning out. “Well, you don’t blame people much because it’s only the living that can worship God. Wisdom is the watch word here.”

For The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Newton Assembly, Sango Ota, Ogun State, it is a different scenario as the church gained more members after the COVID era. A member of the parish, Adewale Aladeyelu, told our reporter that the period of the lockdown was a kind of blessing to the church. This, he said, could be attributed to its reach out programme to both members and none members during the period.

“The COVID era actually gave the church opportunity to increase in number, reason being that during the lockdown, the church was able to reach out to both members and none members alike and this drew more members, especially children to the church. Before then we have a lot of parents who don’t see the need to attain church services but all that changed because of the magnanimity of the church.

“Now they not only release their children to attain our church, they also have started attending. Again, in this parish, COVID doesn’t really affect members from not coming to church because of the environment where it is situated; it’s a rural environment and it’s like people saying if I don’t go to church I have to buy fuel to follow the service on the television or buy data to be able to follow online.

“After the reopening, we have not been staying too long like before too. These days, it’s just an hour service, maximum of an hour and half, this gives people room to come early and return home to do other things.” Rev. Ejemen Paul of Church of God Mission, (Healing Centre), Egan-Igando,also said that his church attendance since the lifting of the ban on church services ranges between 26 and 33 members both adults and children per Sunday Service.

He said: “Some families and individuals have relocated because of job and business openings elsewhere and some relocated even outside the state. But a good number of those still around comes to church.

We don’t have any who haven’t returned back because of COVID. Instead, we have gained fresh members, although ours is a small parish. It is important to note too that in this period we can’t do things the way we wanted to again, and the reason is obvious.” Among both orthodox and the Pentecostal mega churches that dominate Christian life in Nigeria, the lifting of the ban has had a divided reaction. For some,it meant a greater willingness to adapt to the change the pandemic brought about or to continue with the old way.

“We’ve quickly transitioned to online, and began airing live services on Catholic TV. It is an unusual phenomenon, giving mass to an empty church, but with our virtual services we’ve also become more accessible to others.

“We were also using social media to keep in contact and connect with people. I’m old school but even the old school knows when new school ways can be valuable. This has continued after the lifting of the ban on worship centres and it’s having some negative impact on the physical attendance being recorded presently,” said a Rev. Father at Saint Agatha Catholic Church, Iju-Ishaga area of Lagos State, who declined to give his name.

Apathy and low attendance, according to reports, had heralded churches’ reopening in parts of the country, especially in Lagos. Christian faithful, the Guardian reported, had approached their hallowed sanctuaries with cautious optimism as services reopened after five months of closure. For many, the announcement to reopen places of worship seemed like an implied decline in the community spread of the virus, just as the daily collation of confirmed cases by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) also took a downward plunge.

“There was expected to be a surge of worshippers at religious centres as was experienced at markets, banks, and bus stops immediately after the easing of the five weeks lockdown, but the optimism that followed the announcement began to wane when leading church leaders like Dr. Daniel Olukoya of the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries; Pastor Sam Adeyemi of Daystar Christian Centre; Prophet Temitope Joshua of Synagogue Church of All Nations; Dr. Odukoya of Fountain of Life Church; Pastor Poju Oyemade of The Covenant Church, and pastor Tunde Bakare, of Latter Rain Assembly deferred the commencement of physical services to a later date, the report added. Also on the eve of what would have been a grand welcome back service, COVID-19 claimed another high-profile casualty with the death of Senator Buruji Kashamu, leading to a fresh apprehension about the severity of the virus. But, some worshippers still braved the odds as most churches, which opened its doors for service complied with the COVID-19 protocols. In some of the churches, automated hand wash units and hand sanitiser dispensers, soaps, water and infrared thermometers were provided at the entrance of the churches.

In a few of the churches, the protocols were only observed outside the church premises. Once inside, many were led ‘in the sprit’ in jubilant celebrations of surviving the pandemic so far and throwing the caution of physical distancing to the wind.

The Nigerian government had lifted restrictions placed on religious gatherings during the Coronavirus pandemic in June. The ban was placed on Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial center, Abuja, its capital city, and Ogun state by President Muhammadu Buhari in March. The Chairman of Nigeria’s Presidential Task Force (PTF), on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, had announced that mosques, churches, and hotels were now free to open with certain conditions.

Worshippers, according to Mustapha in that briefing, must wear face masks, maintain social distancing and properly wash or sanitize their hands before joining their congregation. With more than 10,500 confirmed cases of Coronavirus as of June 2, the task force said Nigeria was yet to reach the “peak” of the virus, citing higher cases in Europe and South America. He also said that all decisions made in relation to Coronavirus response were based on the thorough assessment of PTF.

Some of the recommendations made by the PTF to prevent the spread of COVID- 19 as religious institutions include: Mandatory use of face masks and temperature checks, and information campaigns on the dangers of the virus among others. Mustapha said despite easing restrictions, it is still important for Nigerians to observe all guidelines and stay safe to prevent the spread of the virus. He had said: “COVID-19 is still a fight for life.

Our advancement to phase two (of easing restrictions) does not mean that it has ended as Nigeria has not reached the peak of confirmed cases.” According to Mustapha, while making decisions to ease COVID-19 related restrictions, the task force took into consideration the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO) on the need to improve case finding, testing, isolation and quarantining contacts, which the country is doing.

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