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Africa in Transition

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Guest Post: West African Religion in the United States

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
May 8, 2012

Photo of Victory Temple courtesy Jim Sanders, Alexandria, Virginia, May 8, 2012. Photo of Victory Temple courtesy Jim Sanders, Alexandria, Virginia, May 8, 2012.

This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers. In Jim’s post, he illustrates another example of not only the close relationship between the United States and Nigeria but also how Nigerian religion influences the United States.

Far from the tony neighborhoods of Old Town, Alexandria, in a part of northern Virginia populated by auto body shops, receiving docks, iron works, wholesalers, rail lines, and waste recycling facilities, is a cluster of Pentecostal churches, bounded by the Beltway to the west, and Industrial Road to the east. Among these houses of worship on Electronic Drive is Victory Temple, a parish of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG).

The RCCG traces its origin to Pa (Josiah) Akindayomi, whose vision led to the emergence of the church in 1952 in Lagos. Explosive growth has established about two thousand parishes in Nigeria, numerous churches in other African countries and Europe, and about six hundred in North America.

Victory Temple, housed in commercial office space, is relatively small, at least in comparison to some mainline suburban denominations numbering in the 1,500-2,500 range, but its members, many of whom are African, provide strong support. Audio and video systems are impressive.

Worship commences with praise singing. Pounding chords from a base guitar and keyboard reverberate across the floor, up your legs, and into your chest, obliterating any doubt about the presence of the Holy Spirit. Attending the service is like being in the center of a big warm throbbing heart.

Strains of several faith traditions are discernible: the opening of the service is strongly Pentecostal, (as are the testimonies); the exchange of greetings among worshippers seemed very Anglican; while the sermon evidenced traces of Joel Osteen’s positive pragmatism. “Church should be a place to come to enjoy each other,” says Pastor Shina Enitan. And, “If you cannot laugh in church, God cannot solve your problems.”

Sunday’s sermon focused in part on the “ABCs” of marital success. ‘A’ is for acceptance. Differences have to be accepted. The pastor, who came from Nigeria, explained, “I had seen cell phones, but not used them. My wife, coming from Ghana, had been using them for some time. And so, after marriage, when we discover who our spouse really is, I had to accept her talking–and the bills.” But he hinted at the saving grace of “unlimited minutes” plans. ‘B’ is for burden-sharing. When you meet each other’s needs, emotional ties deepen. ‘C’ is for communication. To improve that, make requests, not demands; give issues your full attention; and maintain a sense of humor, a sense of “lightness.”

Some might think that Victory Temple is a fringe church, since it is located in a remote niche of a large urban area, and its congregation is far from a cross-section of society. But that would be a mistake. Instead, this dynamic RCCG parish is at the heart of our disruptive and change-filled times. In Fire from Heaven, Harvey Cox writes that in “imagery, mood, and tempo of religious service,” such churches “provide ways of wrestling” with the full range of human feeling resulting from the experiences of its members. Pa Akindayomi’s legacy was never more timely.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Maduka

    I don’t think what the blog writer observed is “West African Religion”, but a Nigerian expression of a very American Religious experience – Pentecostalism.

    Mr. Sanders may not be aware that the American influence on Nigerian Christianity is deep and has a very long history. They were the uncompromising missionaries of the Sudan Interior Mission and the Assemblies of God in the beginning.

    Billy Graham had a significant impact on Nigeria, going back as far as the fifties. However, American influence really accelerated with Benson Idahosa, T.L. Osborne, Morris Cerullo and Kenneth Hagin and other “Word of Faith” preachers.

    There isn’t a single successful Pentecostal preacher in Nigeria who doesn’t owe something to America.

    Today, it isn’t a question of a “West African/Nigerian” Christianity vs. an “American” Christianity but a symbiotic relationship between both expressions of faith. Paul Adefarasin sounds a lot like T.D. Jakes and vice versa. Rod Parsley will be very much at home with any Nigerian congregation. Tunde Bakare owes a lot to Lester Summerall, Chris Oyakhilome’s theology is very similar to Kenneth Hagin’s and the works of Myles Munroe, Robert Maxwell and Francine Rivers are widely read on the streets of Lagos.

    (These names may mean nothing to foreign policy analysts, but they are household names in Lagos and Tulsa, Okhlahoma).

    This relationship is also mirrored in the United Kingdom. Over there, the RCCG has one of the largest black Pentecostal congregations in London, the “Jesus House”. If I recall, British politicians ranging from Boris Johnson to David Cameron to Gordon Brown have all visited the “Jesus House” in the build up to elections. There is also a long symbiotic relationship between Nigerian evangelicals and British evangelicals – names like Pa S.G. Elton, the “Student Christian Movement,” the “Scripture Union” and the “Christian Union” ring bells.

    All said, we look forward to a more substantial analysis of this phenomena. The blog writer does not go beyond describing his experience at a single Church service and quoting a few scholars on Pentecostalism. This account is very peripheral.

  • Posted by John Ojeah

    The spread and influence of Christianity in Nigeria is independent from the policy of the host countries. Even before the British declared Lagos as a protectorate and Nigeria as a colony there was Christianity already in Nigeria.

    Christian missionaries established schools (irrespective of their deficiencies) in Nigeria whereas the colonial administration had very little interest in educating Nigerians (both North and South). Schools (primary and secondary) were already established in Nigeria (some as far back as 1840s) and a few were already studying in England before official colonization. In fact, all Nigerian founding fathers of the Christian faith were educated in schools established by Churches (not by the Colonial Govt). The military government in 1970 forcefully took all the schools from the missionaries, though Obasanjo government returned them back.

    Nigerian Pentecostal (or born-again Christians) Churches are offshoots of the American evangelical movements. The relationships has been on for decades and even some of these Churches are directly financed from the US. It is a very powerful and the most fervent form of Christianity in Nigeria. I remember as a kid when Billy Graham and Reindhard Bonke visit Nigeria in the 1980s … the events were as if the Pope is visiting.

    Anyway, its just some of those people-to-people relationship between countries that are sometimes ignored by the policy-makers of either countries.

  • Posted by John Ojeah

    My point is that, what Jim Sanders saw is an American religion influence on Nigeria. Our grandparents and parents were Orthodox Christians (Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterian, Lutherans, etc).

    What Mr Sanders observed in Virginia is the result of the over 50 years influence of the American Evangelical movement on Nigerians.

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