African Christians Bring Fire, Faith Back to the West

Centuries after the Gospel was brought to sub-Saharan Africa by colonizers and missionaries, the faith is coming back to the West.

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March 27, 2006|1:57 pm

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) – Dawn is near. But the congregation shows no sign of tiring. For more than eight hours – all through a torrid tropical night – they have danced, shouted and prayed with a preacher most simply call Daddy.

More than 300,000 have come. But for the Redeemed Christian Church of God, it's just an average turnout.

Think big. Then think even bigger.

This is the face of 21st century Christianity: colossal, restless – and African. There's no better lesson than the Redeemed Church, and the insatiable ambitions of its guiding hand, Pastor Enoch Adejare Adeboye. The savvy former mathematician leads the fastest-growing Christian movement on a continent that's rapidly putting its stamp on the faith around the world.

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, powerful and come with various names: Pentecostal, afro-evangelical, charismatic, Christian renewal.

For millions of worshippers in Africa and around the world, the movements represent a sharp break with tradition and have redefined how they practice their faith – with great emphasis on fever-pitch gatherings, spiritual "rebirth" and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives.

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Many in mainstream denominations, from the Vatican to Westminster Abbey, view the new churches like an invading army that is reshaping Christianity faster than they can adjust.

The Protestant-dominated World Council of Churches now places Christianity's demographic center of gravity in northwest Africa and has it drifting farther south each year. Some theologians say the "African century" of Christianity is already under way.

If so, then populous and English-speaking Nigeria is its spiritual homeland, and churches like Adeboye's are its new missionaries.

What began as a living room Bible study in 1952 is now a juggernaut: a university, movie studio and satellite television outfit. Now add to that millions of followers in more than 90 nations. Just this month, close to 1 million worshippers turned out during a three-day prayer gathering near Lagos.

In a rare interview, Adeboye (A-day-BOY-ye) told The Associated Press 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.

The broad Pentecostal-charismatic-evangelical family currently accounts for about a quarter of the nearly 2.2 billion Christians, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity in South Hamilton, Mass. It could grow to more than a third by 2025.

That's despite critics who say the movements are often based on shaky or cynical theology. Scripture, they claim, is used to enrich pastors through the so-called "Prosperity Gospel," which says that God has no trouble with material wealth and smiles most on the generous givers to the faith.

"You want to see where Christianity is heading?" said Campbell Shittu Momoh, an author on Nigerian religious affairs. "Come look at Nigeria."

It's impossible to miss.

Banners for revivals, sermons and blessings dot nearly every street in teeming Lagos. Graffiti on a roadway barrier: "Nigeria is the nation which will achieve the kingdom of God that Israel lost in Matthew 21:41-44."

This religious hothouse has nurtured hundreds – perhaps thousands – of new churches that now overshadow Roman Catholics, Anglicans and other religious mainstays by nearly 2-to-1 among Nigeria's 61 million Christians. (There are nearly as many Muslims).

In 1981, Adeboye inherited a church that had grown only modestly from its roots in the parlor of its founder, an illiterate preacher.

Adeboye – tall, eloquent and holding a doctorate in applied mathematics – took the title of "general overseer," or G.O., and immediately pushed for global expansion. Daddy G.O., as he became known, constantly worked to open new doors.

He gained crucial access to 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 massive movie industry known as Nollywood.

The Redeemed Church claims 5 million followers in Nigeria and 250,000 abroad. Adeboye has set a goal of 50 million. In the United States, 7,000 people attended the Redeemed Church's annual conference last year in New York's Madison Square Garden.

Its other holdings would make even most marquee American evangelists envious:

– A city-in-progress known as Redemption Camp, 27 miles northeast of Lagos, which includes a covered worship ground for a half-million faithful.

– Redeemer's University, which opened in October with about 475 students. Plans call for expanding to a larger campus in phases over 10 years.

– World Dove Media Plc., the centerpiece of the church's expanding media outreach: Dove Television, a satellite channel run from Dallas; Dove Link, a wireless Internet provider; Dove Billboards, a celebrity-driven magazine with a Christian flavor; Dove Music, a "Christian MTV;" and two shortwave channels. Dove Movies – self-produced films with Christian themes – quickly vaulted past most Nollywood rivals.

Daddy is pleased.

"Our goals – as we have already stated – would require quite a lot of media preaching because there are quite a few nations of the world today where you just can't walk in and say, 'I'm a pastor.' They won't even let you in at the airport," Adeboye said. "But they can't stop the message coming through the air. And many times you've seen what we call military tactics: After you have done some bombing from the air, then you can send in the ground troops."

But how effective will Nigerian missionaries be in spreading the faith? 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. If they can't break out of their base, the Redeemed Church and its smaller brethren will likely remain a powerful – but fragmented – voice in global evangelism.

"Can it translate to non-Nigerians?," said Allan Anderson, professor of Pentecostal Studies at the University of Birmingham in Britain. "This is the big test."

But Adeboye radiates confidence – even when making eyebrow-raising predictions and answering critics.

"I believe ... that in the next 10 years, the Redeemed Christian Church of God will be in every nation of the world," he told the AP. "And then in every town of the nations, and then in every village of the nations, and then in every home of the nations."

Ultimately, however, all the grand designs of the church depend upon followers – many desperately poor – continuing to offer tithes and to dig deep for donations. Adeboye tells them: Give so you can receive.

"It is clear in the word of God that you don't get out of poverty by praying. You don't get out of poverty by fasting," he said after the nearly nine-hour service. "There's only one way of getting out of poverty. It's by sowing."

That doesn't sit well with critical outsiders. They say the church raises false hopes and claim the leaders are so obsessed with worldwide expansion that they impose few checks on who starts churches or how they are run.

"The pastors can basically do whatever they want with the money," said Samuel Bayo Arowolaju, a Nigerian-born expert in African churches now living in suburban Chicago. "The pastors of this church become superheroes or kind of mini-gods."

Adeboye refused to discuss the church's financial picture. But there are clues pointing sky-high. The new university campus is estimated to cost at least $123 million. A church-backed investment program netted nearly $4 million to expand Dove Media, whose prospectus predicts up to $500 million in revenue by 2009.

Outside the office of one of Adeboye's top proteges, Pastor Brown Oyitso, a map marks the sites of Redeemed Churches across six continents – from Boston to China's Guangzhou province. At his desk, Oyitso sketches a map of Africa. Then he turns the paper 90 degrees.

"It's like a revolver," Oyitso said. "Nigeria occupies the position of the trigger.

"The fire of African evangelism is spreading."

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.

 

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