Monday, May 29, 2006

LAGOS, Nigeria — It’s eight hours into the service, and the congregation is still dancing. Shout, they’re told. Yell out to the Lord. Their cries melt into a muggy night with the odor of sweating bodies, jasmine and the tropical musk of the Nigerian bush land.

“Hallelujah,” rumbles the head pastor as the church band kicks into a new number. “Hal-le-luuuuuuu-jah.”

Even from the heights of the pulpit, he can’t see the far edges of the crowd. More than 300,000 people have come for the once-a-month, all-night, Pentecostal-style revival, led by a preacher most simply call “Daddy.”

Given the standards of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, it’s just an average turnout.

Think big. Think very big. Then think bigger.

This is the face of 21st-century Christianity: big, restless — and African. There is no better symbol of it than the Redeemed Church and the insatiable ambitions of its guiding hand and pastor, the Rev. Enoch Adejare Adeboye. The savvy one-time mathematician leads the fastest-growing Christian movement from a continent that is rapidly putting its stamp on the faith around the world.

The Redeemed Church is a prime lesson in the shifting currents of Christianity. Centuries after the Gospel was brought to sub-Saharan Africa by colonizers and missionaries, the faith is coming back to the West. The forms are passionate and powerful. So potent, in fact, that clergy from Westminster Abbey to the Vatican are fretting about how to keep pace, and the Protestant-dominated World Council of Churches, always wary of Pentecostal and evangelical sects and denominations, is treating these new groups as if they were an invading army.

They are called by various names — Pentecostal, afro-evangelical, charismatic, Christian renewal — and are attached to a wider trend, as similar movements pressure so-called mainline denominations in Latin America, Asia, North America and parts of Europe.

But Africa — by population, energy, youth and other measures — is widely considered the key. Many theologians say the “African century” of Christianity is under way.

If so, then populous and English-speaking Nigeria is its spiritual homeland, and churches like Mr. Adeboye’s are its vanguard. Its driven leadership, loose global oversight and staggering cash flow make up precisely the formula that so alarms many traditional denominations.

Improbable dream

What began as a living-room Bible study in 1952 is now a juggernaut — a university, movie studio, satellite television and a wi-fi Internet provider. Now add to that millions of followers in more than 90 nations, including footholds in China and even Dallas.

Recently, close to 1 million worshippers turned out during three days of sermons and healing services to coincide with the birthday of Mr. Adeboye (A-day-BOY-ye), who turned 64 but maintains an athlete’s physique and a few touches of gray in his hair.

In a rare interview, Mr. Adeboye explained where he hopes to go from here — “At least one member of the church in every household in the whole world.”

The dream, however improbable-sounding, has some genuine underpinnings. There’s no bigger draw in Christianity at the moment than the century-old Pentecostal movement and its offspring, which can differ in styles of worship but share beliefs in the active presence of the Holy Spirit to heal and bestow other life-altering gifts.

The broad Pentecostal/charismatic/evangelical family accounts for about a quarter of the world’s nearly 2.2 billion Christians, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity in South Hamilton, Mass.

Critics say such churches are often based on shaky or even cynical theology. Scripture, they claim, is used to enrich pastors through the so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” which teaches that God favors material wealth and smiles most on the generous givers to the faith.

Africans are further exerting their influence inside established churches. The worldwide Anglican Communion is being torn by advocacy of homosexual bishops and clergy and blessing of same-sex “marriages,” and conservatives, led by Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, are resisting these dramatic changes in faith and practice. At the Vatican, there are nine Africans among the 120 cardinals younger than 80 — the age limit for taking part in a papal election. The African figure has reached as high as 13 papal electors in the past decade.

“You want to see where Christianity is heading?” said Campbell Shittu Momoh, an author on Nigerian religious affairs. “Come look at Nigeria. It’s already here.”

Religious hothouse

It’s impossible to miss.

Banners for revivals, sermons and blessings dot nearly every street in Lagos, a teeming flatland of tin-roof shanties and rain-streaked concrete high-rises. The churches carry names such as the Cherubim & Seraphim, the Mountain of Fire and Miracles, and the Full Gospel Business Men’s Assembly of God.

This religious hothouse has nurtured hundreds — perhaps thousands — of new churches among Nigeria’s 61 million Christians. In 1981, Mr. Adeboye inherited a church that had grown only modestly from its roots in the parlor of its founder, Pa Josiah Akindayomi, an illiterate preacher with a gift for dramatic oratory in the native Yoruba language.

Mr. Adeboye took the title of “general overseer,” or G.O., and immediately pushed for expansion. He told followers to plant churches anywhere they could and quickly became known as Daddy G.O. as he sent envoys across Africa and into Nigerian communities in Britain, the United States, Canada and elsewhere.

The top pastors take their style cues from Daddy G.O., who favors well-tailored Western suits but slips into African prints when he projects an ethnic touch. His smooth baritone can shift from precise, professorial English to the rapid-fire patois of the slums.

That craft and charisma helped the Redeemed Church break away from the pack in Nigeria’s crowded spiritual marketplace. The church outran its rivals as it pursued a goal of putting a church within a five-minute walk of every home in poor nations and a five-minute drive in wealthier countries. It gained important access to capital and clout in Nigeria through prominent followers, who include governors and bank executives. Later, the church tapped into the power of broadcasting, the Internet and Nigeria’s video-movie industry known as Nollywood.

“The church in Nigeria is very, very disciplined and focused,” said Dickson Adeyanju, the chief religion correspondent for the Guardian, the largest newspaper in Lagos. “That sets them apart.”

Missionary work

The Redeemed Church claims 5 million followers in Nigeria and 250,000 abroad. Mr. Adeboye has set a goal of 50 million — roughly the size of the entire Assemblies of God fellowship (another, older Pentecostal group) around the world. In the United States, 7,000 people attended the Redeemed Church’s annual conference last year in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

In less than six years, Redeemed Church missionaries have helped start nearly 30 churches. A world map marks them with pushpins in Hawaii, Bulgaria, Pakistan and so on across six continents. Pastor Brown Oyitso traveled to China last year to establish a second church in the southern Guangzhou region.

“The fire of African evangelism is spreading,” Mr. Oyitso said.

But how effective a weapon will Nigerian missionaries be in spreading the faith over the long term? There are obstacles. The Redeemed Church and other African groups, for instance, still struggle to move past their base of immigrants and attract significant non-African followings off the continent. If the problem cannot be overcome, the Redeemed Church and its smaller brethren will likely remain a powerful — but fragmented — voice in global evangelism.

“This church has a tremendous strength and credibility with Nigerians at home and abroad,” said Allan Anderson, professor of Pentecostal studies at the University of Birmingham in Britain. “Can it translate to non-Nigerians? This is the big test.”

The old religious mainstays in Nigeria — the Roman Catholics and Anglicans — are overshadowed nearly 2 to 1, and Pentecostals and other evangelicals widen the gap year after year.

Aggressive strategies

Just a few minutes at an Adeboye service at his Redemption Camp campus in Lagos demonstrates why. Packed buses pour in all afternoon.

Eve Akindabe, a 35-year-old seamstress who was raised as an Anglican, does some hemming work as she waits to worship. She’s been giving a monthly tithe — worth about $10 — for five years.

“Why did I join Daddy’s church? Take a look around,” she says, waving her hands at the crowds. “Daddy inspires. Daddy tell us Jesus is right here to help improve our lives. The Anglican church was all about, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ Daddy is all about possibilities and making breakthroughs. It deals with heaven, but also the here and now.”

That mass popularity is just what unnerves the established pillars of Christianity. No one knows how deeply the Pentecostal-inspired churches will change the faith. They only are sure that it’s happening, and Africa is the engine.

The Vatican’s main envoy for Christian unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper, summed up the concerns at a major conference on the faith’s future in February. How, he asked, can churches deal with movements that have no unified theology and “very aggressive” strategies?

He had no clear answers. Instead, the nearly 4,000 delegates went home to their congregations with an image provided by the host World Council of Churches: The demographic center of Christianity is located now near Timbuktu, Mali, in northwestern Africa, and drifting south each year.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide