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Evangelising in the City of God | Jamie Klair [ANVIL vol 33 issue 2]

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Jamie Klair
Jamie Klair is a final-year PhD student at Cambridge. He is researching 'Reverse Mission' among two, contrasting Nigerian-origin Pentecostal churches in the UK.

Imagine a City of God. A place bigger than Zwingli’s Zürich, and more fervent than Dowie’s Illinois. Not only is it a place of sanctuary, it is a city on a hill. People come from the North, the East, the South, the West. High-profile Christians from all denominations attend services there. Political candidates visit, heads of state come too. The city produces its own renewable electricity; it manages its own water supply. This city is not only a triumph of energy, but a vision of recreation: it has a theme park. Even more amazingly, this Christian city is a centre of education. The Bible College trains up pastors from a gamut of denominations, and is on the cusp of receiving accreditation from the highest ranked university in the country. Imagine too, that this super city hosts around 100,000 people. Spread out over a vast area, tracts of land are given to Christians to buy at cheaper prices than the national average, and once settled can start businesses, become self-sufficient.

Now, imagine evangelising in that city.


Evangelising in the City of God
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I was with a man in his mid-twenties who was training to become a pastor. He said that every month he would use some of the money he receives from his family at home to purchase tracts. We went to one of the bookstores in the city, and there were an array of different tracts: some cheaper ones on paper, other glossier ones on card. I looked at a few of them. They were titled ‘Book of Life,’ ‘Big Loss,’ ‘Are You Sure?’ and ‘The Market Place.’ These were not particularly remarkable in themselves, but they represented the market for evangelism. Every month, this man would walk in to the shop and buy a whole stack of various tracts. Then, he would walk around the camp handing them out to passers-by, hoping to engage people in conversation. A few weeks earlier, when I had first heard about a ‘crusade’ within the city, I asked: “But who would you evangelise?”

Before I provide his answer, I ought to give a little context. This City of God is built in reclaimed jungle off a busy motorway connecting two large cities in Nigeria. Other swathes of land have been apportioned off along this road, following from this first relocation. Now, a drive up this motorway reveals the shining gates and signs of ‘Deliverance Camps’ and private universities, of Christian and Muslim groups in the south of the country. Nigeria – of all the recently evangelised countries – has most vigorously brought Christianity into its public sphere in the last century. The faith-healing wave of Precious Stone in 1918, the work of Joseph Babalola in the 1930s, and the contemporaneous Aladura movement, all mark important moments in twentieth century Christianity in the country. The moment that marked the beginning of the current state of Nigerian Pentecostalism was 1979. During this time, the churches which have come to dominate the mainstream – Deeper Life, Winners Chapel, Redeemed Christian Church of God – were either: not-yet conceived, or numerically small, or existing primarily as prayer groups (i.e. they were not functioning as churches holding independent Sunday services). In 1979, a leader of one of these small churches took a trip with his translator to Tulsa, Oklahoma for a Kenneth Hagin conference. While there, the leader of this church was approached by a pastor who prophesied that “God has started a church through you, and the church is going to be known worldwide.” [1] At the time, this church had only 20 pastors, spread over a couple of thousand members – all consisting of one ethnic group in South West Nigeria.

That same year, within the same church, another novelty arose. The church leader’s translator – who had recently become a pastor in the church – ran a series of evangelism rallies. A student in the bible college within this City of God, writing a dissertation on the church, described this as “set up to reach out to the upper echelon of the society.” [2] Through these two events, 1979 marked the year that young leaders in this burgeoning new move of Pentecostalism in the country began to strategise as well as evangelise. The result of this new approach was Christianity with an energetic, technically-literate, middle-class, urban edge. Thirty years later, these churches now wield great influence over their members, a broader Christian audience, and some main channels in the country too. The extent of the transformation this has caused is described by Noo Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian who returned after having lived abroad, to write a travel book about her country of birth. After a few decades away, she notes, “After three weeks, I had resigned myself to Nigerian levels of religious fervour … twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week we call upon his services, connecting with him, singing his praises, establishing dialogue with him (and extremely loud dialogue at that.)” [3] So, amidst the incredibly pervasive culture of public religiosity, within a Christian city, I asked that disbelieving question: “But who would you evangelise?”

His answer, “there are people who come from outside to work in the city, and they may not be Christians.” Indeed, I had noticed some people standing on the quiet corners of the gigantic city, with a microphone and amplifier, in the shade of the midday sun. What are they doing? “Afternoon cry,” he said. For evangelism to be continuous, men would, of their own volition, stand to declare the gospel, denounce sinfulness, urge repentance. Depending on the time, this could be ‘morning cry,’ ‘afternoon cry,’ ‘evening cry,’ and even ‘night cry.’ People like this pastor-in-training would hand out tracts. One evening I attended a film-screening of irora agbelebu (‘the agony of the cross’). This Yoruba-language film was played outdoors in the cool of the evening, with a hundred and fifty sitting on plastic chairs put out in front of the large screen. A pastor, with a microphone, would occasionally interject Amen! at suitable moments. Whether anyone present was a Christian or not was unclear. Nonetheless, the black, Yoruba speaking Jesus, whipped by cultists, calling to his mother in her Nigerian outfit, shone out in to the sodium, orange haze of the night.

As a brief aside, I should point out that compared to the influence and impact that these churches enjoy in Nigeria, evangelising in the United Kingdom seems a fraught exercise. To do ‘night cry’ is to cause a public disturbance; a church-run carol service and dinner for a homeless shelter receives not a single response to its invite; public evangelism efforts attract the rebuke of police officers and accusations of operating without the appropriate licence. ‘Secularism’ presents itself as a fatiguing combination of local council bureaucracy and public apathy. A church is comprised of more than its evangelism activities, however. Indeed, within the fieldwork I have carried out in the United Kingdom, evangelism comes under the same category as corporate Bible Study. These are extra evenings and weekends in the diary, they are necessary but cumbersome commitments. Those who are at Bible Studies comment that the numbers are fewer than at main services, being more eager to chase their deliverance or miracle, than the mandated task of evangelising or studying the Bible. The Saturday and Sunday work of evangelism in the United Kingdom is constantly urged from the front, but with lukewarm enthusiasm from all but a core few. Sunday services, and special guest services, draw throngs fervent with prayers and loud with praise. This is to say, a thriving Nigerian Pentecostal church in the UK does not necessarily excel at church-organised, cold-contact evangelism.

So, what does evangelising in the city of God tell us about this church? I had heard a few times that they saw a connection between evangelism and the end times. Matthew 24:14 was quoted: “And the gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Indeed, the relatively solemn, individual character of evangelism seemed at odds with the euphoric, high-drama corporate gatherings of praise, prayer and thanksgiving. Is it possible that evangelism is a performed piety as much as a church-growth strategy? While Nigerian Pentecostal churches have often become associated with their materiality – bright garments, desire for this-worldly achievement, and financial prosperity – does evangelism point to their expectation of a future-world more than as it does about this-worldly success? I think there is credence in this. The way evangelism is spoken of, as something neglected in favour of chasing miracles or comfort, it is a firm reminder of the coming judgement and conclusion of all things.

Evangelism in the City of God tells us that a self-sufficient city – designed as a kind of heaven on earth – is looking beyond itself, to the long-awaited return of Christ.

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Notes

[1] Anthony Ojoibukun, The Redeemed Christian Church of God in Prophecy (2nd ed., Nigeria: 2010), p.17

[2] Lawrence Kolawole, The Pen, The Pulpit and The Palm, *RCBC 2010: unpublished), p.30

[3] Noo Saro-Wiwa, Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, (Granta, London: 2012), p.62