By Matthew Bassah Shinkut, SMA
Like in many parishes in Nigeria as far as Small Christian Communities are concerned is my home parish St John’s Catholic Church Kachia in Kaduna Archdiocese. These parishes are made up of devotional groups like the Charismatic Renewal, Block Rosary, Legion of Mary, Bible Study, Sacred Heart, Divine Mercy, Catholic Women Organization (CWO), Catholic Men Organization (CMO), Choir, Youth, Knights of St John, Knights of St. Mulumba, etc.
In fact, the first time that I heard about Small Christian Communities was from my brothers coming from other countries in Africa when I joined the SMA in 2002. Consequently I was lucky to do my pastoral year in San Pedro Diocese in the Ivory Coast where I learned more about the Communaute Ecclesiale (Chretienne) de Base (CEB). In Nigeria it is very rare to find a group of people gathered together as Small Christian Communities. However I do not know what goes on now since I have been away for about six years. But from what I hear, the case is still the same.
I have learned a lot about the benefits of promoting Small Christian Communities among Christians in the parish such as: more active participation of lay people; deeper understanding of the Bible and the knowledge of Jesus Christ; healthy community living, promotion of good leadership qualities; bringing about social change for the good in the society, etc. SCC is a new way of being church which emphasizes the cyclical model of being Church rather than the hierarchical/pyramid way of being Church. This way is also deeply in the spirit of, and in line with, the Second Vatican Council. However these benefits, I am not saying that the Nigerian system of being Church is wrong. In fact, this is the system that I grew up in and that developed my Christian life and this is what formed me today. I do know that many Christians in Nigeria have also deeply grown in their Christian faith through their membership in these various devotional groups.
How do these devotional groups operate in St. John’s Parish Kachia? There is no doubt that Nigerians are very religious people who are very expressive on different fronts of their life and also are very thirsty for God. In St. John’s Kachia groups meets on Sundays or on any day of the week that is convenient for them. These groups do not normally meet in the homes of members or in any place outside of the Church premises. This is one significant difference with the SCCs. There are usually special reasons for any meeting held outside of the Church premises. One of the reasons could be a group visit (ziyara) to the sick or a bereaved family mourning the death of their love ones. Aside from reasons of this kind all other normal meetings are held in the Church compound.
One common element that devotional groups share with the Small Christian Community is that the Scriptures are sometimes read and shared among members. However, it is not often that sharing of scriptural passages is a basic and the most important aspect of the group meeting with the exception of the Bible Study Groups and the Charismatic Group. The groups are usually not made up of people of all ages or all genders., There are often made up of only youth, only children, only men, only women or only adults. However, members of these groups are normally very active, passionate about the group and develop their Christian life through these groups. Do they gain a holistic experience of the essential aspects of the Christian life, namely the deepening of faith in Jesus Christ in the context of their life situation? Not really guaranteed.
Devotional groups cannot be said to be micro units of the entire Church. Why? These groups often concentrate on only a particular aspect or part of the church’s life that might not necessarily capture the entire and the core element of the Christian faith. For example, a group that only concentrates on the Sacred Heart of Jesus may not necessarily be in touch with the core of the faith and the entire mystery of salvation. Regular and deliberate engagement with the Scriptures is not necessarily part and parcel of the spirituality of these groups like it is the case of the SCCs. It is true that not all Christians are members of the Small Christian Communities but in principle, all Christians in the church should be members. In the case of devotional groups, however, Christians are not obliged to be members of a particular devotional group. Christians are advised to at least join a devotional group. But the result is that we find many Sunday Christians who come to church only on Sundays and then disappear until the next Sunday because they do not connect well with any of these devotional groups and have no deeper knowledge of the Scriptures and the teachings and traditions of the church. They do not dedicate time to a group and are not helped to do so because the group does not have a program that suits this purpose.
Devotional groups are not church in the grass root per se. However, they reach out to people and they do feed and satisfy in their own way the spiritual thirst of their members who may need more than just the Sunday Mass. Is this way the right way? Not certainly. Devotional groups in my parish and in many parts of Nigeria have gone a long way now. As a result, it is difficult to change the mentality of the people by bringing the idea of Small Christian Communities as a new way of being Church. I used to think that SCCs are of the nature of these devotional groups. Little wonder that many Catholics, unfortunately priests included, still view SCC the same way that is, if they have heard or read about SCC at all. Indeed people are not well enlightened on the matter.
Some essential elements needed to journey with Christ may not be necessarily found in devotional groups, but are basic characteristics of the Small Christian Communities. These are as follows: First, is the community aspect. A Small Christian Community is a group of families or of persons who live in the same area (geographically-based SCC). They share their problems, their joys and their hopes together. Second, it is ecclesial. It is made up of active Christians who are passionate to follow Christ more closely (not following the Virgin Mary or the Heart of Christ or specific saints who are patrons) in order to deepen their faith in him in their struggles and difficulties of life. SCCs are in the mind and heart of the universal Church and in the local church and also in the model of the early Christian communities as we read in the Act of the Apostles 4:32-35, 6:1-6. Third, it is grassroots based: all Christians are called to be members — civil servants, peasants, labourers, etc who strive to create a peaceful world, a community that is more just and more fraternal. In this case, men, women, youth, children, adults and the elderly all are called to live the Gospel in their homes in a deeper way. Is the above aspects true of devotional group? My answer is a capital NO!
It is pertinent to note that, efforts are made in some parishes to create Small Christian Communities in Nigeria, but this constitutes a smaller percentage of the entire Nigerian Catholic Church. I know that in St. Charles Borromeo Parish (No Man’s Land) in Kano Diocese run by the SMAs SCCs are already actively functioning parallel with the devotional groups. If it is possible in Kano, it can be possible in the whole of Nigeria that Small Christian Communities can function parallel with the devotional groups, but only if the clergy are ready to concentrate on SCCs and take it as a priority.
To conclude I would say that Devotional Groups are essential aspects of the Christian life in St John’s Parish Kachia Kaduna Diocese. In fact they have helped in a great way to foster the development of the Catholic Church in Nigeria and in the future they will still continue to help. However, they are not a replacement for the Small Christian Communities because they lack the essential ingredients of this new way of being church. Small Christian Communities are a new model of being Church and have got a lot to offer for the development of the Christian life in Nigeria. They foster the deepening of the faith and a closer knowledge and relationship with Jesus Christ through the week-in, week-out community study and sharing of the Scriptures especially the Gospels in the context of the daily life experiences of the local people.
Matthew Bassah Shinkut, SMA is a Deacon in the Society of African Missions Religious Congregation. He is from Nigeria and finished his Theological Studies at Tangaza College in Nairobi, Kenya in May, 2012. This paper was written in March, 2012 in the course on "Small Christian Communities as a New Model of Church in Africa Today."