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Redeeming Dallas

Redeeming Dallas

Though North Texas is hardly unchurched territory, metro Dallas has become a beachhead in the global missionary movement of Nigeria’s Redeemed Christian Church of God. About half a mile from Fellowship Church, a “seeker-sensitive” megachurch that boasts an attendance of 20,000 at its Sunday services, a plucky 100-member RCCG congregation has begun to put down roots.

“We are a missionary church,” said Pastor Nosayaba Evbuomwan, 50, who leads the RCCG’s Eagle Believers Chapel. “We don’t want to be a cocoon church. Our calling is to go out and show people the love of God.”

Evbuomwan’s parish is one of several hundred RCCG congregations in North America. While a few churches–like Living Faith Sanctuary in Colorado Springs—have begun to attract members beyond the Nigerian expat community, most still have the look and feel of immigrant outposts. That was the case at Eagle Believers Chapel on a recent Sunday, when the crowd and the worship style brought to mind the raw, power-focused evocations of the Holy Spirit that I experienced in central Nigeria rather than the slick, overproduced culture that typifies places like Fellowship and other mainstream American megachurches.

But while that difference in religious expression may make RCCG seem like an exotic transplant in the near term, a pair of factors points toward the potential for eventual growth beyond the relatively small Nigerian community in the U.S. First, a trip across Highway 121 to the mammoth Grapevine Mills outlet mall revealed a working-class cosmopolitanism that complicated the image of metro Dallas as a redoubt of homogenous white evangelicalism. Latino teenagers in skinny jeans sidled past hijab-wearing moms and Hindi-speaking bargain hunters—just the kind of urbanized global gumbo that nourishes next-generation Pentecostal movements in other parts of the world.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, RCCG has managed to strike a fine balance between organizational vision and control on the one hand and charismatic ministry on the other. In other words, at least at this point in its history, the movement is highly organized without being tied to orthodox ideas about liturgy or theological training. Thus it has been able to attract highly capable, mission-minded pastors like Evbuomwan, who holds a Ph.D. in engineering from Imperial College, London, but considers his profound experience of calling to ministry as his primary qualification for holding the pulpit at Eagle Believers Chapel.

About 50 miles east of Grapevine, at a bend in an unpaved county road, the embodiment of RCCG’s ambitions in the U.S. rises like an octagonal spaceship above 800 acres of Texas scrub. Modeled on the denomination’s Redemption Camp outside of Lagos—where several million Pentecostals gather for the Holy Ghost Congress each December—the headquarters for the North American church will host its first (comparatively modest) conference in its own camp structure in January 2013.

As Simon Romero and Andrew Rice have reported for the New York Times, the Nigerian reverse-mission phenomenon in the U.S. mixes religion and race in fascinatingly complex ways. Whether RCCG’s reach will eventually extend beyond its current expat cohort arguably depends not on the charisma of pastors like Nosayaba Evbuomwan but on the subsequent generation of leaders that he and his coreligionists inspire. Will that fresh iteration of the movement obscure the distinctive Nigerian-ness of its origins to attract a wider audience, just as Fellowship Church has played down its relationship to the Southern Baptist Convention? Or, conversely, will the fieriness of West African Pentecostalism fill RCCG’s North American Redemption Camp with believers disaffected by the increasingly anodyne spirituality of a megachurch movement shaped by the prosperity gospel and self-help culture?

The answer to those questions isn’t merely academic. Because it is often unfettered by conventions of race, gender and political power, Pentecostalism tends to magnify the afflictions and aspirations of the people—both marginalized and upwardly mobile—who are attracted to Christian renewal movements in the developing world. The evolution of reverse-mission movements like RCCG thus bears watching not just by scholars of religion but also by anyone who is curious about the ongoing interplay between religion and politics, pluralism and economic empowerment in the U.S.

Who will fill the pews at Eagle Believers Chapel in the coming years? Stay tuned.

Nick Street was a senior writer with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.