Boom in African Christianity spills over to America
IRVING, Texas – On the 25th floor of a luxury office tower, a church most people have never heard of is planning to save America.Its leaders believe Jesus has sent them to spread a difficult truth in the United States: Demonic forces are corrupting society and only spiritual warfare can stop them.Call it the message.The messenger comes from Nigeria.The Redeemed Christian Church of God was founded in Lagos by men and women who were once the target of missionary work themselves. Now their church has become one of the most aggressive evangelizers to emerge from the advance of Christianity across Africa.The Redeemed Church is part of a boom in African churches establishing American outposts. Jacob Olupona, a professor at the University of California, Davis, has found hundreds of examples in cities large and small.”Anyone who writes about Christianity in America in the 21st century,” Olupona said, “will have to write about African churches.”At the core of the shift are pastors from Nigeria. Over the last century, Christians there have swelled from a tiny minority to nearly half the population, and its pastors have shown an exceptional talent for winning believers abroad.In the United States, the Redeemed Church is ahead of them all.It has opened more than 200 parishes in just over a decade, from California to New York, and is training pastors of all ethnicities to reach beyond the church’s base in the African immigrant community. One of its largest congregations, Victory Temple in Bowie, Md., claims 2,000 members.Fifty miles north of Dallas, the church is building a multimillion-dollar national headquarters and conference complex on more than 600 acres of farm land in rural Floyd, Texas. The site is expected to draw thousands of followers for marathon prayer meetings.Yet the center of the North American push is a for-profit, satellite TV network, launched in December under the name Dove Media, which broadcasts sermons from the church’s world leader – Pastor Enoch Adeboye – between reruns of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Bonanza.” Dove hopes to attract viewers throughout the continent who would not normally watch Christian TV.”We didn’t bring this church to the United States to be another Nigerian church,” said Dove chief executive Ajibike Akinkoye in an interview at the organization’s headquarters in the high-tech corridor of greater Dallas. “We are afraid with the way things are going in the world and in America – allowing people to do what they like, creating their own religion and philosophy – those people are going to pay for it. We don’t want that to happen.”The United States, with its deep religiosity, seems an unlikely mission ground. But the Redeemed Church believes Christianity here has become a lifestyle, not a transforming way of life, and they feel obliged to act. “There is a vibrancy in Africa,” Akinkoye said. “We are offering that gift back to America.”Other Nigerian pastors are close behind.Sunday Adelaja, who founded the now 30,000-member Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations in Kiev, Ukraine in 1994, has 15 offshoots in this country. He plans to open 250 more within a decade.Jonathan Owhe started Christ the Rock World Restoration Church in 1995 in New York’s Brooklyn borough, then branched out to Tennessee and Georgia – then overseas to Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and other countries.”It’s globalization happening to the church,” said the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals, who visits Africa regularly. “What happened to Ford and Chevy and GE 20 years ago is now in full swing in the church.”The Redeemed Church began in 1952 in Lagos, and opened its first U.S. congregation in 1992, when Adeboye prayed in a Detroit living room with a Nigerian engineer working for Ford. Ministers have since built their congregations by making every worshipper a worker, teaching classes for children, holding events for singles – even cleaning.Still, however effective they are at administration, the pastors know their future here depends heavily on public image. They fear they’ll be dismissed as a “foreign” church.John Garner, who sold the church his land in Floyd, said local residents have been asking him “about that cult coming in.” Garner, who is white, is now a church member, and his wife, Marti, is an assistant pastor.”People don’t understand what’s going on,” said John Garner, standing in the first new building on the property – a sleek conference center for 1,000 people rising incongruously amid grain silos and barren fields. “People don’t realize they’re Christians just like them.”Yet, even as newcomers, Redeemed Church pastors are already carrying an American burden.The Nigerian church fears being drawn into racial divisions that keep most U.S. congregations segregated. Many Redeemed Church Web sites and fliers feature photos of whites and Hispanics, along with blacks, even though the church right now is overwhelmingly African.”They are going out and bringing people in, and the way they treat people will keep bringing people in,” said Katie Bendorf, 26, one of the few whites at a recent service at Jesus House, a Redeemed Church parish in Chicago. “Everyone knew my name by the second time I came.”In fact, American Christians looking beyond ethnic differences will find something familiar. The Redeemed Church is Pentecostal – a movement that began 100 years ago at a Los Angeles revival and, through evangelism, has become the fastest-growing wing of Christianity worldwide.Pentecostals/charismatics are biblical conservatives known for spirit-filled worship, speaking in tongues and a belief in miracles and supernatural battles with evil.Along with mission work, U.S. and African churches have carried on a steady cultural exchange, as Americans became fascinated with the spectacular growth of African congregations and African pastors looked to U.S. evangelists for support.”There is an immense move of American pastors going over there and forming church relationships,” said Tony Carnes, head of the Research Institute for New Americans, who studies African churches in the New York area. “These pastors in Africa have already read American writing. They have a common vocabulary.”The Redeemed Church is counting on it. When their Dallas TV studio is completed, they’ll invite American pastors to preach on the air. If the TV venture succeeds, they plan a Spanish-language network. Their Internet radio station is already broadcasting from Irving. And Dove Media hopes to produce movies in America, just like it does in Nigeria.”A society that will not embrace the Holy Spirit of God is encouraging satanic influences,” Akinkoye said. “We are not introducing Jesus Christ to America, but this society has become a post-Christian society and that is a dangerous thing.”—On the Net:Redeemed Christian Church of God, North America: http://www.rccgna.org/Dove Media Group, North America: http://www.dovemediagroup.com/home.html
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