God’s Country

Using militias and marketing strategies, Christianity and Islam are competing for believers by promising Nigerians prosperity in this world as well as salvation in the next. A report from the front lines
Nigeria
ONE OF THE MANY churches burned by Muslims in Yelwa.

Democracy, Nigerians told me repeatedly, is a numbers game. That’s why whoever has more believers is on top. In that competition, Christianity has a recruiting tool beyond the frontline gospel preached by those such as Archbishop Akinola: Pentecostalism, one of the world’s most diverse and fastest-growing religious movements. In Nigeria, the oil boom of the 1970s brought a massive movement of people into cities looking for work. That boom’s collapse spurred the growth of the Pentecostal Gospel of Prosperity, with its emphasis on good health and getting rich; and of the African Initiated Churches, or AICs, which began about 100 years ago, when several charismatic African prophets successfully converted millions to Christianity. Today, AIC members account for one-quarter of Africa’s 417 million Christians.

One bustling Pentecostal hub, Canaanland, the 565-acre headquarters of the Living Faith Church, has three banks, a bakery, and its own university, Covenant, which is the sister school of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Canaanland is about an hour and a half north of Lagos, which has an estimated population of 12 million and is projected to become the world’s 12th-largest city by 2020. With 300,000 people worshipping at a single service at the Canaanland headquarters alone and 300 branches across the country, Living Faith is one of Nigeria’s megachurches, and the dapper Bishop David Oyedepo is its prophet. The bishop, whose bald pate glistens above deep-set eyes and dazzling teeth, never wanted to be pastor: he had no interest in being poor, he told me. “When God made me a pastor, I wept. I hated poverty in the Church—how can the children of God live as rats?”

Bishop Oyedepo built Canaanland to preach the Gospel of Prosperity. As he said, “If God is truly a father, there is no father that wants his children to be beggars. He wants them to prosper.” In the parking lot at Canaanland, beyond the massive complex of unusually clean toilets, flapping banners promise: Whatsoever you ask in my name, he shall give you, and By his stripes he gives us blessings.

The Pentecostal movement is so vast and varied, it’s a mistake to generalize about its unifying principles. But Pentecostals do tend to share an experience of the Holy Spirit, or the numinous, that offers the gift of salvation and success in everyday life—particularly in the realms of personal health and finance. Archbishop Akinola, whose own Anglican Church is more threatened in some ways by the rise of Pentecostalism than by the rise of Islam, finds these teachings suspect: “When you preach prosperity and not suffering, any Christianity devoid of the cross is a pseudo-religion.”

But Bishop Oyedepo’s followers say that those who criticize don’t understand what’s happening in Africa. “There’s a kind of revolution going on in Africa,” one of the bishop’s employees, Professor Prince Famous Izedonmi, said. “America tolerates God. Africa celebrates God. We’re called ‘the continent of darkness,’ but that’s when you appreciate the light. Jesus is the light.” The professor, a Muslim prince who converted to Christianity as a child to cure himself of migraine headaches, was the head of Covenant University’s accounting department and director of its Centre for Entrepreneurial Development Studies.

“God isn’t against wealth,” Professor Famous said. “Revelations talks about streets paved with gold.” He added, “Look at how Jesus dressed.” When I appeared baffled, he patiently explained that since the soldiers cast lots for Christ’s clothes, they were clearly expensive. In Canaanland, clothes matter: the pastors wear flashy ones and they drive fast cars as a sign of God’s favor. They draw their salaries from sizable weekly contributions. On Sundays at some Nigerian Pentecostal churches, armored bank trucks reportedly idle in church parking lots, while during the service, believers hand over cash, cell phones, cars—all with the belief that if they give to God, God will make them rich. It’s said that if the Christian Prosperity churches disappeared, the banks of Nigeria would collapse.

Nigeria
PASTOR REV. DR. FRED ADDO stands in front of his congregation (and some of their offerings) at the International Praise Cathedral in Kaduna.

But to see the Prosperity movement as simply a get-rich-quick scheme is to miss its importance. In many ways, Pentecostalism has updated Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic for the 21st century. Pentecostals do not drink, gamble, or engage in extramarital sex; so all of that formerly illicit energy can go into either business or education. Covenant has been voted the best private university in Nigeria by Nigeria’s National Universities Commission. Education is an essential element of the Prosperity message; so is hard work. “Abraham was a workaholic,” Professor Famous said. “He worked 16 or 17 hours a day.”

During my first visit to Covenant, school wasn’t in session, so I poked around the empty labs until I ran into a lone student, Mchenson Ugwu, 22, studying mechanical engineering in hopes of getting a job in the oil industry. Ugwu was born again in 2004. “Once in a while I backslide and have to rededicate my life to Christ,” he said. “That’s how it works: backslide, rededicate.” For Ugwu, salvation had very little to do with the next world; it was all about this one. “Because he owns everything here on Earth, if you make God your father, beginning and end, he’ll keep you up. Our bishop is the perfect example. He tells us he hasn’t been poor in 25 years, and God takes him from one level to the next.”

Later, the bishop led me across his red shag carpet to a white fountain tinkling in the corner of his office. “The problem with the African man is that he sees himself as poor, and others see him as poor,” the bishop said. He walked over to his desk and handed me a stack of his books—he’s written 60—including one of the best sellers, Understanding Financial Prosperity. The cover design features Nigerian banknotes. The back cover reads: “I am not a preacher of prosperity, I am a prophet. God spoke specifically to me while I was away in America for a meeting, ‘Get down home and make My people rich!’”

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