March 26, 2006


Christianity's second wave? (Brian Murphy, 3/26/06, The Associated Press)

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, powerful and come with various names: Pentecostal, afro-evangelical, charismatic, Christian renewal.

For millions of worshippers in Africa and around the world, the movements represent a sharp break with tradition and have redefined how they practice their faith — with great emphasis on fever-pitch gatherings, spiritual "rebirth" and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives.

Many in mainstream denominations, from the Vatican to Westminster Abbey, view the new churches as an invading army that is reshaping Christianity faster than they can adjust.

Some theologians say the "African century" of Christianity is already under way.

If so, then populous and English-speaking Nigeria is its spiritual homeland, and churches like Adeboye's are its new missionaries.

What began as a living room Bible study in 1952 is now a juggernaut: a university, movie studio and satellite television outfit. Now add to that millions of followers in more than 90 nations. Just this month, close to 1 million worshippers turned out during a three-day prayer gathering near Lagos.

In a rare interview, Adeboye revealed 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.

The broad Pentecostal-charismatic-evangelical family currently accounts for about a quarter of the nearly 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.

Nigeria itself has become a religious hothouse that has nurtured hundreds — perhaps thousands — of new churches that now overshadow Roman Catholics, Anglicans and other religious mainstays by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio among Nigeria's 61 million Christians. (There are nearly as many Muslims.)

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 holding a doctorate in applied mathematics — took the title of "general overseer," or G.O., and immediately pushed for global expansion. Daddy G.O., as he became known, constantly worked to open new doors.

The top pastors seem to take their style cues from Daddy G.O., who favors well-tailored Western suits but slips into African prints when he needs an ethnic touch. His smooth baritone can shift from precise, professorial English to the rapid-fire patois of the slums.

That craft and charisma helped the Redeemed Church break away from the pack in Nigeria's crowded spiritual marketplace.

The church simply outran its rivals as it pursued a shoot-for-the-moon agenda: A church someday within a five-minute walk of every home in poor nations and a five-minute drive in wealthier countries. It also gained important 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. In the United States, 7,000 people attended the Redeemed Church's annual conference last year in New York's Madison Square Garden.

As Richard Fletcher said of the similar process in Europe:
Christendom--late antique, early medieval, high medieval--knew that it was attractive to outsiders by reason of its wealth and power. These widespread perceptions furnished the activists in the diffusion of Christianity with their trump cards. They also possessed an unshakeable self-confidence founded upon those heady and tremendous assurances about God's purposes which they had read in the Bible. Riches and order confirmed and strengthened their confidence. They could play these cards again and again, and almost always with success because manifestly the Christians were almost always the winners and the pagans the losers.

Memo to China: Careful what you wish for (Spengler, Asia Times)

Christianity requires tradition less than it does conversion. To become a Christian, the Gentile forsakes the gentium of his origin to join a new people in flesh and blood, through the ancient rite of rebirth by passage through water, that is, baptism. Because the new people of God into which the Christian is reborn is not quite of this world, conversion must be perpetually renewed. That is something no tradition can do.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 26, 2006 7:41 AM
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