Editor's note: This guest Untold Story is written by Asonzeh Ukah, professor of African Religion and Philosophy at the University of Cape Town and an adviser to the "Atlas of Pentecostalism" project.
The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) is the wealthiest and most popular Pentecostal church in Nigeria. It is also the single largest owner of private property in the country. However, the three most important objectives of the church and its members are as follows: i) to make it to heaven, ii) to take as many people as possible with us, iii) to have a member of the RCCG in every family of all nations. These goals have informed the church’s vision and mission since 1981, when a new leadership took over from its semi-literate founder and transformed a little known church in less than fifty years. The RCCG is now the fastest-growing church in Nigeria and indeed in Africa. It has 23,880 separate congregations or parishes in Nigeria; it has nearly that figure outside Nigeria. The church has established congregations in 165 countries around the world. Today missionary expansion defines the character and action of the RCCG. Its successes are being actively and relentlessly emulated by other churches in and outside Nigeria.
The largest Pentecostal church in Nigeria is the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG). Its founder was the Rev. Josiah Akindayomi, originally an adherent of Ogun deity and a traditional healer. He converted to the Church Missionary Society but, not satisfied with Anglican spirituality, he migrated to the newly founded Cherubim and Seraphim Church (established in 1925). In 1952, the Cherubim and Seraphim Church excommunicated him for insubordination. He founded his own church in the same year. He was barely educated and could not read much. He died in 1980, a religious leader with a small band of followers, many of whom were poor and illiterate. A young university-educated follower of Akindayomi called Enoch Adeboye became the head of the RCCG in 1981. He soon planned for the expansion of the church and its active engagement in missionary, social and economic activities.
The RCCG is an evangelical church that represents itself as Pentecostal too. Its belief system is consistent with mainstream evangelical denominations. The church believes that humans are living in desperate times that are a prelude to the end times. The end times usher in the end of history as we know it. For the RCCG, God’s program for the present generation of humankind is urgently ending. This sense of eschatological anxiety and urgency is an important source of the missionary energy of the Nigerian evangelical community that also believes that the devil is hard at work undoing what God has done in Christ. As Satan makes strong plans to ensnare many humans in hell, the church is set at work to recruit believers to forestall the activities of the great evil one. Hence, the RCCG established missionary schools where it trains future missionaries in cross-cultural strategies of evangelization. The Redeemed Christian School of Mission (RECSOM) was established in 1993 to train missionaries for the great task of saving human souls from hell and perdition. In September 2012 RECSOM graduated 1,364 missionaries who are now well-equipped to traverse the globe converting mainly non-Africans to the vision and mission of the RCCG. There are some 60 countries with no congregation of the RCCG; these are now the focus of the church's Department of Mission. The Department of Mission, equivalent to the foreign ministries of secular nations, coordinates the missionary activities of a new army of Christians determined to proselytize the world for Christ.
Aside from training and sending missionaries to remote communities of the world, the RCCG also believes strongly in the use of modern media technologies as an extension of its missionary efforts. As a result, the church has three different television networks broadcasting its version and vision of the Christian life to communities in and outside Nigeria. These are the Redemption Television Ministry, the Redeemed Television, and Dove Media, electronic outlets that complement a range of radio broadcasts locally and through the Internet. Media production is a strong arm of the evangelical thrust of the RCCG to reach the media-saturated generation.
The bedrock of the RCCG is the Gospel of Christ. According to its tenets, the RCCG claims not to do anything that is not found in the Christian scriptures. Consequently, although the church ordains women to positions of spiritual authority, it prohibits the consumption of alcoholic beverages, the smoking of cigarettes, divorce, and woman wearing long pants, for example. So the church puts up Jesus Christ as its primary guide. Pastor E.A. Adeboye, the 71-year-old leader of the church, is also constructed as a leading guide: He is recognized as humble and accessible and fondly called Daddy G.O. (General Overseer) by his followers.
In the early 1980s, the RCCG was part of the “emerging church” movement that thrived on incorporating popular culture, higher education and deliberate proselytization of the very rich in a drive to make the gospel attractive and respectable to a larger urban base but also to expand this base. The youth who graduated from the universities in the 1980s and 1990s are now prominent economic and political players in Nigeria who publicly identify with the church and largely fund its evangelical activities. The flagship of the church’s evangelical schedule is the monthly Holy Ghost Service, held the first Friday of the month and attracting nearly half a million attendees. This event started in 1983 and its success led to the introduction of similar events within and outside Nigeria. The Holy Ghost Service may be rightly characterized as the pillar of the RCCG missionary movement abroad, an instrument of “reserve mission” and cultural adaptation of the church in many other parts of the world which has made RCCG a successful Pentecostal and missionary church from Africa to the rest of the world today.