African Christians a Growing Dynamic Force

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 that smells of sweating bodies, jasmine and the tropical musk of the Nigerian bushland.

"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 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. Then think even bigger.

This is the face of 21st century Christianity: colossal, restless — and African. There is no better symbol of it 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 from a continent that's 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 is treating these new groups like 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 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 already under way.

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

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 a more than 600-acre parcel outside Dallas. This month, close to 1 million worshippers turned out during three days of sermons and healing services to coincide with the birthday of Adeboye (A-day-BOY-ye), who turned 64 but maintains an athlete's physique and sports just a few touches of gray.

In a rare interview, Adeboye 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.

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 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 such churches 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.

Africans, meanwhile, also are exerting their influence inside established churches.

The worldwide Anglican Communion is being torn at the seams by conservatives, led by a Nigerian archbishop, outraged over the tolerance in the West of gay clergy and same-sex unions. At the Vatican, there are nine Africans among the 120 cardinals under 80 years old — 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."

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. Even graffiti taggers know their Bible.

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 among Nigeria's 61 million Christians. (Islam has nearly as many followers). In 1981, Adeboye inherited a church that had grown only modestly from its roots in the parlor of its founder, an illiterate preacher with a gift for dramatic oratory in the native Yoruba language.

Adeboye — tall and stately — took the title of "general overseer," or G.O., and immediately pushed for expansion. He told followers to plant churches anywhere they could. Adeboye quickly became known as Daddy G.O., sending envoys around Africa and into Nigerian communities in Britain, the United States, Canada and elsewhere.

The top pastors seem to take their style cues from Daddy G.O., who favors well-tailored Western suits but slips into African prints when he needs 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 simply outran its rivals as it pursued a shoot-for-the-moon agenda: A church someday within a five-minute walk of every home in poor nations and a five-minute drive in wealthier countries. It also 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 churn-them-out 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."

The Redeemed Church claims 5 million followers in Nigeria and 250,000 abroad. 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.

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 about a half-million faithful. There's also a bank ("divinely inspired financial products"), villas, the church's own brand of mineral water, a dry cleaner, guest lodgings and a para-police wing called the Redeemed Army. There's talk of building a Dove Mall in Lagos.

• Redeemer's University, which opened in October with about 475 students studying humanities, science and management at Redemption Camp. A wealthy patron has pledged nearly $800,000 for a computer system. Plans also call for adding a law school and more undergraduate programs when the college expands to a new campus over 10 years.

• The current crown jewel, World Dove Media Plc., which is tucked away in one of Lagos' most prestigious neighborhoods. "Daddy wants it to be something that all Christians can embrace," said the chief executive, Ope Banwo. No format is overlooked: 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 formerly used by the Voice of America. But the biggest surprise has been Dove Movies — self-produced films with Christian themes that have beaten Nollywood rivals at the box office. Dove recently signed a deal to sell Dove films in post offices around Nigeria.

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," said Adeboye. "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."

These new missionaries come from places like Province No. 3 in Lagos — one of the Redeemed Church's most active regions in international "church planting."

In less than six years, they have helped start nearly 30 churches. A world map marks them with pushpins: Hawaii, Bulgaria, Pakistan and so on across six continents. The province's top 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," Oyitso said.

Then he sketched a map of the continent and turned it 90 degrees. "It's like a revolver," he said. "Nigeria occupies the position of the trigger."

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."

Adeboye radiates confidence — even when making eyebrow-raising predictions.

"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."

Most followers wouldn't dare question him. Adeboye says he has a pipeline to God. He makes headlines in Nigeria each year with prophecies, which are usually vague and open to many interpretations. This year's include that a "major evil organization" will suffer a blow.

His detractors come from the outside.

Most accuse the church of leveraging the "Prosperity Gospel" to full effect by urging followers — many desperately poor — to give tithes and dig deep for donations.

"They say things like, 'I'm throwing you the keys to the limousine. Claim it by having faith in Jesus,'" said Yomi Akinyeye, a Lagos University professor who studies religious trends. "There is no time frame, however. God's time is not man's time, they say. So people keep hoping and hoping and hoping."

Others claim the leadership is so obsessed with worldwide expansion that they impose few checks on who starts churches or how they are run.

"What I'm talking about here is not spiritual authority, but economic authority. 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.

The service in early February — with its "modest" crowd of 300,000 — raised "a couple of tens of thousands of dollars," said Adeboye. There's one at least that big every month — in addition to thousands of smaller weekly services in Nigeria and around the world. Adeboye tells the faithful: Give so you can get.

"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 event. "There's only one way of getting out of poverty. It's by sowing."

The old religious mainstays in Nigeria — the Roman Catholics and Anglicans — now are overshadowed nearly 2-to-1. And Pentecostals and others keep widening the gap year after year.

Just a few minutes at an Adeboye service help explain why. It's faith at full throttle.

All afternoon, packed buses pour into the Redemption Camp. Eve Akindabe, a 35-year-old seamstress who was raised 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."

At 7 p.m., the service begins. The band rips through a set of rock-gospel jams. Everyone is on their feet.

8:40 p.m.: A 400-member choir joins in. Some worshippers blow whistles; others speak in tongues.

9 p.m.: Adeboye gets a 15-minute ovation. The pulpit is flanked by billboards showing a diamond and the word "Excellence."

10:30 p.m.: His sermon is hitting its stride. He tells the crowd to tell the Lord: "Everything I need to save me: The money, the ability, the house — give it to me now!"

12:15 a.m.: More than 300 come forward to be "reborn." Adeboye: "Jesus is dancing because of you now."

12:30 a.m.: The collection buckets go around. "What you cast will determine what you will catch," Adeboye says.

2:30 a.m.: Testimonials of miraculous healings, including a woman who said she became

HIV negative through prayer.

4 a.m.: Adeboye has said goodnight. The band packs up.

It's all about size and style, Adeboye said.

"I mean, for example, if you feel that you belong to a very small group, there's always a tendency to feel that maybe this thing might be a cult," he said. "But, all of a sudden, for example, if someone comes here from Europe tonight and sees a crowd of ... several hundreds of thousands ... it's not likely that all these people could be wrong."

That mass popularity is just what unnerves the established pillars of Christianity. No one is clear 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 admitted 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 now located near Timbuktu in northwest Africa and is drifting south each year.