Bongolo’s Mega Church
Mega Church. In America, this title brings to mind gigantic suburban churches set on dozens or hundreds of acres of parking lots and additional specialized buildings. Often measured as having a congregation in the thousands, many truly “mega” churches boast numbers in the tens of thousands. Large churches are measured quite differently here in Gabon. The largest Gabonese church I know of outside of Libreville – a full day’s drive north - is right here at Bongolo Hospital, with approximately 1,000 adults and several hundred children. On a typical Sunday, there will be 300-500 adults at its single service and 150 or so children of all ages. The church and its outlying buildings sit on hospital property, yet it is administered by the national Gabonese Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, or the National church as it is known by.
Built in the 1930’s by Pastor Donald Fairley and several hundred workers, it is visually similar to a plain western church structure. It is basically a very large, rectangular one-room building (except for a small room near the pulpit for the pastor to enter from. It has a picturesque, very steeped V-shaped roof, and rows upon rows of narrow, simple benches with backs. About one third of them appear to have been recently padded to cover up the termite-eaten wood. An elevated stage area is at the far end from the entrance spans the front wall of the sanctuary. There is a large, plain wooden cross on the wall, and, for some reason, the designers chose to install a vertical, four foot florescent light directly on the bottom portion of the cross. The platform is complete with a draped pulpit and multiple plastic yard chairs lined against the far wall. This is similar to many urban US churches, and the pastor, speakers and worship leaders sit there during the service. The band – electric guitar, keyboard and drums - as well as the four-person worship team and 15 member choir is set up to the right of the platform at ground level. The modern speaker system works perfectly, yet the music is deafening – far louder than anything I have heard back in the States. This is fairly standard in Central Africa for some reason, and I have confirmed this with much younger friends here, much to my relief. They have saved me from the awful thought that I have become an old man complaining about the volume!
In the rear of the building, there is a second story bell tower with a single, actual bell, as opposed to the digitized “bells” now in most American churches. As it normally does on a Sunday morning, the bell rang this morning at 8:30, announcing that church was starting. An interesting difference here in Gabon is that that announcement means that the worship team is officially ready to begin singing, and that people should start arriving. The singing, punctuated by prayer breaks, and the “arriving” continued for the next ninety minutes.
Everyone enters through a single entrance, a double door in the center of the back of the church, walks down the center aisle and is directed by an usher to where they are to sit. This would drive many of my American friends crazy! They would not be able to sit in their self-appointed “seat” every week under this system. The result of this is a sanctuary filled full from front to back. In addition, there is no chatting with your neighbors after being seated – it is clear that congregants are there to worship, rather than socialize.
By 10:00 am, the sanctuary was full all the way to the back. I find it fascinating that people are seated by quite firm women ushers. Starting in the very front, the seats are filled row by row, adults in the front, and all but the very youngest children in the back of the church. They are dismissed at about 10:30 for Sunday School (more on that in a moment). After a half hour or so of announcements, the pastor begins his sermon at about 11:00 am, and preaches for at least an hour. His message is simultaneously translated into Nzebi, the local tribal language. After some final singing and praying, the congregation is dismissed. Again, this is quite different from the American church. In a very orderly manner, the ushers begin at the very front and dismiss each row to the center aisle and, single file, row-by-row, the congregation exits the church until the last row is vacated.
When I first attended an African church service, I was nervous that I would not be able to last the three-plus hour service, especially seated on a wooden bench in equatorial heat and humidity. I have been pleasantly pleased to find that, once I settle in, I am generally contented to allow the service to wash over me. By the way, the entire service – singing, announcements and sermon – are all in French.