Africans Fill Churches That Celebrate Wealth

OTTA, Nigeria - It was just another Sunday morning in the new home of one of Africa's fastest-growing churches, the Winners' Church, which is only a dozen years old but already has branches in 32 countries on the continent.

Nearly 50,000 faithful had entered the gates of its three-year-old headquarters, perhaps Africa's showiest symbol of the growing influence of America's religious culture of giant churches and lucre-minded television preachers. Called Canaan Land, it is a 565-acre walled campus with a hotel, gas station, bank, restaurants, shops, the foundation of a university and the continent's largest church auditorium.

Inside, half a dozen members gave testimonies that warmed up the crowd before the pastor's sermon. Soon after joining Winners, a man said, he had won a $12,000 contract. A computer salesman named Peter cannot sell his products fast enough now. James, his prayers answered at long last, testified that a new job had flushed the anxiety from his heart.

"I had a rest, the kind of rest you have if you have a big account somewhere," James said as the crowd in Canaan Land laughed appreciatively.

Christianity is growing faster in sub-Saharan Africa than in any other place on earth. Roman Catholicism and the major Protestant denominations are gaining more followers every day, but new churches like Winners are leading the boom.

They are Pentecostal churches, often led by men influenced by American evangelists in the South and Midwest who preach a similar message that success comes to those who pray. On Sundays in nearly every African city these are the churches drawing the biggest crowds, especially among the youth.

But many traditional religious leaders and ordinary Nigerians say the new churches are less concerned with saving souls than with making money.

"The quickest and easiest way to make money in Nigeria is to carry a Bible on Sunday and start preaching," said the 66-year-old Roman Catholic archbishop of Lagos, Anthony O. Okogie.

The boom in Pentecostal churches began in the last decade, a particularly troubled period in Africa, which had lost its economic and ideological moorings after the end of the cold war. Nigeria, adrift more than most, populated by one in six Africans, has had the biggest religious explosion. According to the Pentecostal Fellowship Movement of Nigeria, 50 Pentecostal ministries had registered with it in 1990; today, the number is 250.

These days, every other billboard on the highways of Lagos and every other hand-painted sign in its neighborhoods seem to point to a new church. If South Africa is the leading exporter of business to the rest of the continent, Nigeria may be its leading exporter of religion. Its churches are gaining footholds across the continent and even in Europe and the United States.

"It will be our main exports to the world, our assets of highest value," said the Rev. David Oyedepo, 47, who in 1989 founded the Winners' Church in Lagos, a two-hour drive south of here. He moved to Otta three years ago and recently bought 2,000 additional acres of land nearby, the phenomenal growth fueled by the simplicity of his message. "Prosperity is acknowledged worldwide as the identity of our ministry," Mr. Oyedepo writes in a pamphlet for new members. "God prospers people here. He will prosper you too!"

In a country where nearly a third of the 120 million people live on under a $1 a day and 40 percent are illiterate, according to the World Bank, the message resonates. Nigeria's two million barrels of oil a day have produced only deepening poverty for the ordinary Nigerian. But in the Pentecostal churches, members buy what is called Prosperity Theology. Wealth is celebrated.

Consider the Rev. Chris Okotie, 43, a pop singer who turned preacher after studying at a Bible college in Tulsa, Okla. He founded the Household of God church in his house in 1987. With a ballooning congregation, he moved it into a warehouse in 1993. He then bought all the other warehouses on the block, a total of 20 acres with, among other things, a 1,500-car parking lot and a six-story school under construction.

After leading a visitor around his street and walking by his new black Mercedes-Benz, Mr. Okotie said, without any prodding, "Maybe we should take a picture by this car." Dressed all in black, in a tight T- shirt, jeans and sneakers, he posed by crossing his arms and leaning against the hood of the car, which came equipped with two small television screens. Several bodyguards, also in black and wearing combat boots, followed him around, barking commands into walkie-talkies.

In his office, a mirror covered a wall, a closed-circuit security television sat on his desk, a guitar and a photograph of Muhammad Ali lay on the floor. Mr. Okotie said the drums, electric guitars and dancing at Pentecostal churches allowed for a closer connection with God by focusing on the outpouring of emotions. "It's like being at a party," he said.

Mr. Okotie's empire extends on a block formerly named after the National Bank. After independence in 1960, the bank provided loans to most Nigerian businessmen in this region to develop an industrial base, but it later collapsed. Today this is called the Household of God Street.

But Mr. Okotie is hardly alone. Many new churches seeking space in Lagos large enough for their booming congregations have converted warehouses into church auditoriums.

"The warehouses were all empty because of the decline in manufacturing," said Rasheed Adegbenro, director of corporate affairs for the Manufacturers' Association of Nigeria. "Then the churches came along. Now you won't find any machines in those warehouses, only worshipers."

Some, too big even for the warehouses, have bought land on the highway from Lagos to Ibadan, now known as church highway. Still others have found undeveloped land in places like Otta.

On a recent Sunday, the highway to Otta was crowded with dozens of white school buses the Winners' Church had sent to pick up members in Lagos. At a tollgate near here, hawkers sold 15-cent white handkerchiefs that members wave during services and one-cent white envelopes for making donations.