One of Orlando, Florida's, largest churches isn't meeting yet. But when The Well gathers in suburban Lake Mary on Feb. 19, senior pastor Joseph Thompson hopes to see 1,000 at the launch service.
The Well will be the United States' newest Nigerian-led church-plant, a phenomenon that turns on its head the typical notion of Western missionaries starting churches in African countries. Although there are only an estimated 500 such congregations in the United States, their numbers will multiply.
“Nigerians are ubiquitous,” says Thompson, most recently teaching pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and a nine-year veteran on its staff. “This is happening all over the world. The largest churches in Italy, Jamaica, Ghana and England are pastored by Nigerians. Places like Latin America will be a little bit slower because of language barriers.”
“In the next 10 years the whole of the United States is going to be talking about Nigerians or Nigerian-planted churches,” says Sunday Adelaja, the 38-year-old visionary who pastors Europe's largest church, a congregation of some 25,000 in Kiev, Ukraine, that is 98 percent white.
Since it started 12 years ago, Adelaja's Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for all Nations has planted 450 churches. That includes 13 in the United States, with five more home groups being groomed to become churches when they surpass 50 members.
The Embassy of God is a powerhouse of social reform, too, affecting the nation's controversial 2004 presidential election with prayer, fasting and assistance to protestors. It feeds up to 2,000 people daily in its soup kitchen, has treated 3,000 drug and alcohol addicts in its rehabilitation center, and operates 200 ministries and outreaches.
Functioning in an often-hostile environment where some racists deride him as “a monkey,” Adelaja expects God to use this movement to transform the United States and beyond: “I think it is going to change the face of faith and Christianity in Europe.”
Ted Haggard, senior pastor of New Life Church, also predicts an explosion of Nigerian-led congregations. He cites African pastors' ability to overcome racial stereotypes and build bridges cross-culturally.
“They want to move on, be successful and be well-educated,” Haggard says. “They want better leadership. I think that's going to open the door for an awful lot of church-plants.”
The engine driving U.S. expansion is the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) of Lagos, Nigeria, that accounts for roughly half of these new churches-part of its worldwide network of more than 40,000 congregations.
The RCCG has acquired almost 500 acres near Dallas, where it plans to erect its North American headquarters in the coming decade. A recent report in The Dallas Morning News said those plans include a 10,000-seat sanctuary, dormitory, lecture centers, several cottages, a lake and a Christian-themed water park.
The church's general overseer, Enoch Adeboye, is a former math professor who is now in worldwide demand as a speaker. In 2003, before Haggard assumed the presidency of the National Association of Evangelicals, he asked Adeboye to pray for him. During the ceremony, Adeboye placed his jacket on Haggard as a symbol of imparting the African church's anointing on their American counterparts.
“Prayer is a funny thing; it's like taking a vitamin,” Haggard reflects on the impact of Adeboye's intercession. “You don't know what you avoided. I know things are going very well for the association. We're experiencing a great deal of favor and grace.”
So, what is it that gives Nigerians such success-particularly at a time when other church-planting methods are failing miserably? For church-growth experts such as C. Peter Wagner, the answer is easy: spiritual power. Two years ago, the cessationist-turned-apostolic leader released Out of Africa, a book he co-edited with Joseph Thompson.
The book featured testimonies of 11 church leaders and an introduction in which Wagner outlined explosive church growth, and miraculous signs and wonders in Africa's largest nation. For instance, Wagner claims leaders there have lost count of how often God has used them to raise people from the dead.
“It will be surprising to some that more of our Nigerian authors do not tell stories of miracles, healing and deliverances,” Wagner wrote. “The reason for this is that such occurrences are commonplace in their country.”
“I think they're reporting what has happened very accurately,” Wagner says. “Healings are common, casting out demons and raising the dead like Jesus commanded His disciples to do. I haven't seen it much in America. That's because Americans don't have the power of the Holy Spirit flowing through them to the degree that Nigerians do.”
That spiritual power is having an impact in subtle ways. For example, New Life's new sanctuary is patterned after Faith Tabernacle, the world's largest church in Canaan Land, Ota, Nigeria, that seats more than 50,000 people.
Ted Haggard got the idea after traveling to an apostolic summit there in 2002. Its simplicity struck him: a center platform and three wings, each seating 15,000. Though shrinking the plans to a sixth of that size, New Life's pastor appreciated the final cost-$15 million, compared to an American architect's $35 million proposal.
Haggard calls the design a spiritual metaphor for Nigerians' belief in the simplicity of the Word, signaling that it may be time for Americans to become students of our foreign brethren.
“Nigerians are the only ones I know of that are growing megachurches with Muslim converts,” Haggard says. “American ministries spend an awful lot of money trying to minister to Muslims. There is a lot we could learn from the Nigerian church. We are No. 1 in a lot of ways, but we are quickly losing our edge.”
Identifying the origins of this powerful move is tricky, since Wagner says it can't be attributed to a particular leader or a particular point in time. However, he noticed it bubbling up in the early 1990s. He now traces it back to 1900 and the African Independent Church Movement, a Pentecostal offshoot of missions started by Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists and others.
Spontaneously rising up in various parts of the continent, Wagner says the movement is the reason Africa south of the Sahara is more than 50 percent Christian. Even though some segments combined with African traditional religions and took heretical directions, orthodox believers have developed into a powerful force.
Not only are the pastors strong leaders, Wagner says far more believers in Africa practice tithing than America. That is borne out through interviews with several Nigerian pastors here who estimate their people tithe at a rate 10 to 20 times higher than the meager 3 percent pollster George Barna registered among American evangelicals in a 2003 study.
This generous giving, coupled with demonstrations of power, strong faith and the belief in apostles and prophets have been like a bolt of lightning for Wagner's faith. “It has increased my faith in apostolic government,” Wagner says. “Churches and church networks in Nigeria are much more apostolically governed than they are in America. To see how these very, very strong leaders are able to lead and move the church ahead has strengthened my faith in the biblical government of the church.”
Joseph Thompson says the numbers of Nigerians living in the United States fluctuates, with some here on temporary visas, others becoming citizens and some-like him-holding dual citizenship. He places their numbers at least 4 million, although saying that the number could be as high as 10 million.
Regardless of specifics, their numbers are just a fraction of the total population, which makes their growing influence impressive. While this move has been going on for a number of years, Thompson says it has taken on a life of its own since 2000.
The wave has included establishing churches in the range of 500 members, or five times the size of a majority of American congregations. However, Thompson emphasizes his countrymen are more concerned with God's kingdom than personal ones.
“We see ourselves as more than willing to step into whatever call God has for us in this nation,” Thompson says. “We're not asked to build a big church, but to build the church.”
Nigerian-led churches possess a number of distinctives, such as the blend of casual, African and contemporary dress expected at The Well; vibrant worship that features African rhythms and modern praise songs; females in leadership and as pastors; strong cell-group structures; and outreach to the poor and displaced.
In addition, many pastors can relate stirring stories of God's divine call to this nation. Among them are Sam Adeyemi, a one-time urban planner and businessman who came to America after a friend entered his name in a federal immigration lottery.
After landing in Newark, New Jersey, Adeyemi sensed God saying that He would send him and his family to a certain city. After fasting and praying, his family drove to Ohio on vacation and visited three major cities, settling in Columbus. At first, that meant sleeping on the floor in their new apartment.
“When you go to a nation as a missionary you don't care,” Adeyemi says. “We had to start from scratch, because we weren't relying on support from anyone. It was fun.”
His church's first meeting in August of 1999 at a friend's apartment drew four adults and two children. Six years later Overcomers Christian Ministries moved into a new auditorium on the city's north side, where it will host the Ohio Prayer Summit 2006 in August.
In addition to planting four churches (with two others planned), the 400-member church maintains a life-transformation program, a residential facility that has housed as many as 22 people. Today, half of those residents are sober and holding jobs, including one man who oversees the church's bus ministry.
That effort symbolizes Adeyemi's desire to reach the city, which is one reason he participates in an interdenominational organization encompassing 200 churches and ministries.
“We believe in strengthening and transforming men of God,” says Adeyemi, an urban planner and businessman prior to becoming a pastor 10 years ago. “We want to see the transformation of people, neighborhoods and our city.”
A half-hour from Washington, D.C., Joshua Nathan leads Glory Center Church in Lanham, Maryland. The church is part of Oracles of God Mission Inc., which has planted half-a-dozen churches since it started in 1991.
Three years earlier Nathan came to America after visiting several times on vacation or for conferences. He agonized over seeing able-bodied people idling away time in worthless pursuits. The former psychologist and businessman also saw Nigerians who had emigrated here growing spiritually lukewarm while they pursued money.
“I had a visitation of the Lord,” Nathan says of the aches in his heart to help steer people in better directions. “He brought the opportunity to me, [telling] me He would like to put me in a place where I could reach the world.”
That has come to pass. In addition to pastoring his church and planting new ones, Nathan travels extensively, a year ago taking a 20-member team to Nigeria and Eastern Europe.
Although Nathan defines his church as part of the apostolic movement, two years ago Glory Center shed its independent status to affiliate with the Assemblies of God. The church also hopes to forge closer relationships with whites (although members hail from several nations, none are white).
Achieving racial reconciliation is only one of many impressive feats the pastor expects to see God perform.
“I want to see God bring revival,” Nathan says. “I want to see God change my city [and] this nation. I don't want us just to be a church that existed in our generation. I want us to leave an eternal impact.”
That God would choose Nigeria to evangelize the world when the nation suffers from poverty, corruption, tribal violence and charges that it squandered billions in aid is something of a contradiction. Among many disgraces is $20 billion stolen from government coffers by a former general, according to testimony in the U.S. Senate.
So, why are Nigerians going abroad when they have so many problems at home? It's a question that Sunday Adelaja often hears in the Ukraine, followed by the comment, “When you make Nigeria a heaven you can come here.”
Adelaja replies that ministry is not a matter of choice, but of calling. If he had a choice of where to go in the world it would not be the Ukraine, yet that is where God sent him. In addition, he says many Nigerians are making positive contributions in other nations, some so positive those governments are begging them to remain.
Ultimately, though, Adelaja says the answer can only come from God. Chuckling as he ponders the question of why God chose Nigerians for this task, he notes that many in the world would say his people have more vices than anyone else.
Still, Adelaja believes Nigerians possess an aggressive, outgoing nature that can be a great tool in God's hands. And, the Nigerian pastor says those who have completed their education have overcome numerous obstacles.
“Nigerians understand survival of the fittest-through surviving they became very strong,” Adelaja says. “So if those people become saved and believers, they take that passion with them.”
Joseph Thompson notes that everyone in Jerusalem hadn't become a Christian when Christ told His disciples to go to the distant parts of the earth. And he points out the American church's own tendencies toward both missionary passion and scandal.
“The American church is well-known for its evangelism all over the world,” Thompson notes. “But what about the Jimmy Swaggarts of the world? What about Jim Bakker before his repentance and turning? Weren't they just as corrupt-consuming millions of dollars and deceiving people?”
Aside from the question of Nigeria's worthiness, C. Peter Wagner says the local church in America is weak when it comes to evangelism. He foresees a turning around of that through a saintly movement where Christians will win others to Christ in the workplace as they perform signs and wonders.
“The ones who will demonstrate it are the Nigerians because they actually do it,” Wagner says. “That's actually happening in Nigeria. People are winning others to Christ through healing the sick, casting out demons and other things that we need to learn. I think that's going to be the greatest contribution of the Africans to our American church life.”Unconventional Wisdom
When it comes to church-growth principles, African church planters tend to break the rules ... and succeed in the process.
1. Start on the outside. C. Peter Wagner points out that numerous African church leaders come out of the business world instead of seminaries. When Americans realize the church exists all week in the workplace instead of just on Sunday, he says it will change our expectations.
2. Deprogram worship services. At Overcomers Christian Ministries International in Columbus, Ohio, people freely dance, symbolizing openness to the Spirit, says pastor Sam Adeyemi. He thinks many American churches have so tightly programmed their services there is no room left for creativity.
“That liberty should be allowed to pervade the entire place,” Adeyemi says. “We can't put God in a cubicle. When we come to church and we aren't shouting, we aren't celebrating.”
3. Ignore the clock. Although those with multiple Sunday services face time limitations, services often run two to three hours or more in Nigerian churches. Regardless of conventional church-growth techniques that suggest shorter services, Joshua Nathan says God needs time to move.
“One and a half hours is patty cake; it doesn't make an impact,” says the pastor of Glory Center Church in Lanham, Maryland. “We have to invest the time to be nurtured and affected by God's presence.”
4. Put power before proclamation. Wagner says the secret behind African ministry is that power precedes truth-the exact opposite of the Western outlook that preaching the truth will convince people to repent.
“The African style is to go for healing and miracles and see the power of God manifested,” Wagner says. “Then, bring people to Christ.”
5. Embrace balanced prosperity. Ted Haggard never preached on prosperity until he heard Bishop David Oyedepo at Faith Tabernacle teach his congregation that God wants to bless His people. But instead of emphasizing money appearing miraculously as people give, Oyedepo said God would give His children ideas of how to better manage their business or be more effective with personal finances.
“It's consistent hard work, faithfulness that God blesses,” Haggard says. “I was able to come home and teach with confidence about financial issues, without the mysticism that so often accompanies financial teaching in the charismatic world.”
A regular contributor to Ministries Today, Ken Walker co-authored the book God@Work: Developing Ministers in the Marketplace. He also wrote material for the new release, Align: The Complete New Testament for Men.