The New Missionaries 2006

Dawn is near, but the congregation shows no sign of tiring. For more than eight hours — all through a muggy 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 is no better symbol of it than the Redeemed Church and the insatiable ambitions of its guiding hand, Pastor Enoch Adejare Adeboye. The 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. With more than 390 million Christians in sub-Saharan Africa today, up from 117 million in 1970, many theologians say the "African century" of Christianity is already under way.

If so, then populous and English-speaking Nigeria is its spiritual homeland, where Pentecostal churches now overshadow the old religious mainstays — the Roman Catholics and Anglicans — nearly 2-to-1. And churches such as Adeboye's, with its driven leadership, loose global oversight and staggering cash flow, keep widening the gap year after year.

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. Add to that millions of followers in more than 90 nations, including footholds in China and a more than 600-acre parcel outside Dallas. Last month, close to 1 million worshippers turned out during three days of sermons and healing services to coincide with the 64th birthday of Adeboye (A-day-BOY-ye).

In a rare interview, Adeboye outlined 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 accounts for about a quarter of the world's 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 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. 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 Nigeria; Christian-Muslim feuds sometimes turn violent.) 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 stately — took the title of "general overseer," or G.O., and 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.

He gained crucial 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 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.

The church's 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, with plans to expand to a larger campus in phases over 10 years; and World Dove Media Plc., the centerpiece of the church's expanding media outreach that includes a satellite channel run from Dallas, a wireless Internet provider, a celebrity-driven magazine with a Christian flavor and a "Christian MTV."

"Our goals 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."

There are obstacles. The Redeemed Church and other African groups still struggle to attract significant non-African followings. If they can't break out of their base, the Redeemed Church and its smaller brethren will probably 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 England. "Can it translate to non-Nigerians? This is the big test."

But Adeboye radiates confidence. "I believe . . . that in the next 10 years, the Redeemed Christian Church of God will be in every nation of the world," he said. "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.

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. Adeboye tells them: Give so you can receive.

"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."

"The pastors can basically do whatever they want with the money" they raise, 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 refuses 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 protégés, 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."

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