In dysfunctional societies, some renewal movements are beginning to engage civic institutions and religious “others” to effect positive social change.
A fleet of rented minivans from God Bless Nigeria Church pulled up to the edge of Isolo landfill, an especially blighted section of a city not known for its beauty.
Tony Rapu, senior pastor of This Present House, a prosperous next-generation church in Lagos, led a team of volunteers up a steep path of packed dirt to the top of the landfill, which is home to hundreds destitute people who have scavenged plastic sheeting, cardboard and corrugated metal to make shelters for themselves.
“The failure of the system, of the society, has become a leverage for us,” said Pastor Orhonor, the coordinator for God Bless Nigeria, one of several social-outreach ministries of This Present House. “In this darkness we have decided to be light. We’re providing education, we’re providing healthcare, we’re providing empowerment—all of that.”
Rapu, Orhonor and a handful of volunteers fanned out through the shanties and led anyone who would follow them to a small clearing. As a sweaty, glassy-eyed man argued with his demons and a one-legged boy hopped nimbly around small piles of scrap metal, Rapu stood on a recumbent refrigerator and told a crowd of roughly 50 onlookers that they were welcome to come to God Bless Nigeria, where they could get a shower, a meal, a haircut and fresh clothes as well as help with medical needs, education and job training.
“We go to about 200 neighborhoods in total,” Orhonor said. “And all these areas we go to, we never leave. We become a part of the area. This is the only way I know Christianity right now. ”
Signs and Wonders
In the Lagos region—far from the sectarian strife that plagues Nigeria’s central and northeastern regions—the problem that impairs social development is primarily poverty deepened by economic and political corruption. Homegrown Pentecostal denominations like This Present House, Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries, Living Faith Church and the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) have flourished in the relative stability of Yorubaland, where Christianity is the majority religion and ethnic Yoruba families often have both Muslim and Christian members.
Many of these renewal movements emphasize personal prosperity and supernatural healing, which are powerful enticements for the poor residents who constitute the overwhelming majority in a metropolis that has swollen from about 1 million to over 20 million in four decades. But this narrow focus on the welfare of the individual believer has also tended to create congregations that are disengaged from the structural problems of Nigerian society. In fact, the contrast between churchgoers whose average yearly income is often less than $500 and millionaire pastors like Ayo Oritsejafor —the current president of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria—is a fairly accurate reflection of the disparities between Nigeria’s tiny elite and its enormous underclass.
All of these elements were on display at the RCCG’s annual Holy Ghost Congress, a weeklong event in December that drew several million believers to the denomination’s mammoth Redemption Camp about 30 miles north of Lagos. The theme of this year’s congress—“Signs and Wonders”—threaded through sermons, healing services, ecstatic prayer sessions and an altar call that stretched to half an hour to allow time for would-be converts to cover the kilometer from the back of the Redemption Camp structure to the stage. The tune to the hymn “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand” was repurposed for the congress, including a chorus that began “God will give us signs and wonders” and lines like “Rejoice the sick you’ll soon be healed” and “Rejoice the poor you’ll soon be rich.”
As he did in 2010, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan delivered a homily on the last night of the congress and, afterward, knelt for a blessing from Enoch Adeboye, general overseer of RCCG.
A casual observer at the Holy Ghost Congress might reasonably conclude that by encouraging multitudes to pray for riches and anointing a politician who embodies Nigeria’s status quo, RCCG’s administration tacitly accepts Nigeria’s dysfunctions. But behind the scenes, the situation proved more complex and pointed toward a growing commitment to social engagement among some Pentecostal leaders in the Lagos region.
“Our most important task is winning the lost for Christ,” said Yemi Osinbajo, a pastor with RCCG and supervisor for the denomination’s social responsibility projects. Osinbajo, who teaches law at the University of Lagos, is also a former special advisor to the attorney general of Nigeria and served as attorney general and commissioner for justice of Lagos State from 1999 to 2007. As he described it, the RCCG’s idea of “winning the lost” takes shape as something other than conventional evangelism.
“This means reaching out to the poorest members of our communities,” he said, “even if they are not Christians. The point is trying to touch those in need in real and positive ways.”
Projects sponsored by Osinbajo’s organization include insurance schemes to provide healthcare for poor children and the “Excel” reading program, which has instituted and underwritten new teaching strategies for promoting literacy in 40 public schools in the Lagos area.
This shift in the notion of what constitutes the core imperative of the gospel—from simply amassing converts to promoting primary social goods like healthcare and education regardless of the religious affiliation of beneficiaries—marks a subtle but important evolution in Nigeria’s Pentecostal culture.
The primary vector for transmitting this new thinking is a Lagos-based network called Apostles in the Market Place (AIMP), on whose board of advisors Osinbajo serves.
John Enelemah, the president of AIMP, said that the deep structural problems in Nigerian society, coupled with some earnest soul-searching, prompted the founding of his organization in 2003.
“How can Nigeria be so religious,” he asked, “and at the same time so violent and corrupt? The answer is that sometimes people use faith as a substitute for industry. We have to accept responsibility and stop saying our problems are all the fault of bad government.”
Perhaps more importantly in the Nigerian context, the projects of the AIMP network—including workshops in business ethics and leadership skills, poverty alleviation and education reform—are oriented toward both Christians and non-Christians.
Enelemah said, “We focus on values like honesty, integrity, transparency and fairness that are equally important to our Muslim brethren.”
This broad-minded perspective on the promotion of national transformation characterizes the points of view of several prominent Pentecostal pastors in Lagos—including Tony Rapu of This Present House, Sam Adeyemi of the Daystar Christian Centre, Paul Adefarasin of House on the Rock and Wale Adefarasin of Guiding Light Assembly. In addition to NGO-style poverty abatement projects like Rapu’s God Bless Nigeria Church, all of them have developed marketplace-oriented training programs to foster ethical business practices as well as organizations to revitalize public education within their spheres of influence. And each has expressed a commitment to social values and forms of civic engagement that invite the participation of all Nigerians.
“In their emphasis on creating material wealth, many pastors are not mature in their thinking,” said Daystar’s Sam Adeyemi. “They should model sacrifice, service and tolerance. You can’t lead the whole country with prejudice. Every citizen should want to live in a developed country—Christian, Muslim, animist, atheist. This message will appeal if we’re not antagonistic.”
In a surprising departure from the otherworldly ethos of traditional Pentecostalism, which usually fosters a disdain for politics among adherents, many next-generation leaders in Lagos have begun to discuss political activism as a logical next step in the project of national transformation. As with their imperatives for economic reform, they acknowledge the importance of tolerance and inclusivity in a country evenly divided between Christianity and Islam.
“There should be no exclusive Christian [political] parties,” said AIMP’s John Enelemah. “The point is to promote values that include Muslims.”
Vanguard of a New Movement?
The progressive turn among Pentecostals in the Lagos region is rooted in Nigeria’s second wave of renewalist fervor, which swept the country’s university campuses during the first few decades of Nigerian independence. Like many other next-generation leaders, most of the key figures in this movement pursued professional degrees before heeding a call to ministry, and significant portions of their congregations are drawn from equally well-educated members of an emerging middle class.
According to the latest data from Pew, next-generation or “post-denominational” Pentecostals currently account for 53 percent of the world’s half-billion Christian rewewalists—a figure that dwarfs the number of traditional Pentecostals or Catholic Charismatics. This means the leading edge of a movement that has historically shunned engagement with either civil society or adherents of other religions is beginning to pursue both the transformation of dysfunctional societies and cooperation with religious “others.”
“Our work is to disciple people away from traditionalism toward a church that is more responsive to the needs of society today,” said Adonaldo Arias, a twenty-something on-air host and youth programing producer for CCT-TV, the media-production ministry of Misión Cristiana Elim in El Salvador. “This is what it means to help people know the full gospel.”
The Elim headquarters church—with 80,000 members—is one of the largest next-generation Pentecostal communities in the world. And in a country where Christian renewal movements claim over half of the population, CCT-TV exerts a powerful influence on both religious and mainstream culture.
Like the progressive Pentecostals in the Lagos region, Arias and other thought-leaders at Elim are leveraging their cultural sway in a country with relatively weak civic institutions in order to effect transformation that benefits not just themselves but all stakeholders in their society.
“We made a decision to unlearn what we had learned from Pentecostalism regarding the Scriptures,” Arias said. “Our emphasis is now more on reformation and openness. We are planting the seeds of enlightenment.”
This theological shift is intimately related to the particulars of the Salvadoran context—barely 20 years after the end of a bloody civil war, poverty and instability persist as both causes and consequences of rampant gang violence—as well as to the broader effects of globalization.
Luis Mixco, coordinator of the Culture and Religion program for El Salvador’s Secretary of Culture, said that as recently as the 1980s, “Pentecostalism was for the ignorant. Now there are a growing number of professionals attracted to next-generation churches. Pentecostalism is now associated with social ascendance.”
But as in other parts of the world, the expanding demographic base of newer Pentecostal movements isn’t simply an indication that the spread of economic liberalism has enriched people who were once poor. Rather, this phenomenon suggests that Pentecostalism offers a balm for those whose prosperous lives have lost meaning, just as it offers healing for those whose economic marginalization causes suffering.
In El Salvador, “Pentecostalism has become a refuge for people searching for identity in a time of anomie,” Mixco said.
None of which is to say that all Salvadoran renewalists are following Elim’s lead. Many next-generation churches in San Salvador’s wealthier enclaves are shaped by the self-interested ethos of the prosperity gospel. And traditional Pentecostal communities, which dominate the countryside, are still deeply conservative on matters related to biblical interpretation and interreligious relations.
Tolerance and Collaboration
Perhaps no other issue has exposed the sectarian fault-lines in El Salvador as starkly as the issue of gang violence. Since the end of the civil war in 1992, successive center-right administrations have attempted to suppress the gangs that dominate poorer urban neighborhoods through “Mano Dura” (“strong hand”) strategies that involved the deployment of heavily armed paramilitary units and the imprisonment of thousands of youth convicted of gang-related activity. This approach continued under the current administration of Mauricio Funes, the first president to represent the party that emerged from El Salvador’s leftist guerilla movement, until early 2012, when a gang truce orchestrated by the Catholic Church and a former leftist legislator produced a dramatic decline in the number of homicides.
Behind the scenes, numerous actors—the Church and divisions of Funes’ socialist government as well as Protestant denominations and NGOs—have engaged in concerted, grass-roots efforts to ensure that this relative peace endures. It might seem obvious to an outsider that disciples of the Prince of Peace would want to be a part of such a coalition. Yet the underlying assumptions about the nature of morality and the role of Christians in a pluralistic society have polarized El Salvador’s Pentecostals.
“They’re dealing with the devil,” said the leader of a next-generation church based in a neighborhood dotted with leafy embassy compounds and upscale shopping malls. “Gang violence isn’t a social problem—it’s a spiritual problem.”
Mario Vega, senior pastor of Elim, offered a different perspective.
“The origin of gangs is the struggle of youth to overcome the shame of marginalization,” he said. “They’re not looking to become drug dealers, they’re looking for respect.”
Through its vast network of churches and cell groups—Elim has thousands of cells in El Salvador alone—Vega and other leaders in his movement pursue a strategy that they describe as “integral mission.” This means that, on the one hand, they preserve Pentecostalism’s core belief in the importance of the individual’s direct experience of the Holy Spirit.
“The element of Pentecostalism that we keep is the living aspect of a profound spirituality that touches the emotions of people,” Vega said, adding, “Programs with gang members wouldn’t work unless we addressed their emotional commotion.”
And on the other hand, they assert that the healing power of that experience should extend into the broader society beyond the individual.
“Jesus was a model of integral mission,” said Vega. “He demonstrated deep spirituality, healed and fed those who were sick and hungry. And he integrated people who were socially excluded into his mission.”
Pedro Landaverde—pastor of Elim district 8, zone 5—is also, arguably, a model of integral mission. To get to Iberia, the poor neighborhood on the edge of San Salvador where he started his current ministry, one must pass through a military checkpoint and trust in the good graces of the local gang leaders. But the goodwill of all of the residents is palpable; since 2009, Landaverde has established three community centers, a preschool and small businesses to provide employment to young men and women.
“I requested to be transferred to the worst zone to start working on this kind of strategy,” he said.
Like the progressive Pentecostals in Lagos, Landaverde’s work in Iberia depends on the promotion of what he calls “kingdom values”—honesty, tolerance, discipline and transparency, for example—in a way that invites the participation of people who frame the importance of those values in different ways. This openness to engagement with those who share his values but not necessarily his beliefs has enabled Landaverde to network with Protestant, Catholic and municipal organizations as well as secular and religious NGOs in order to transform Iberia’s social landscape and quell the violence that hinders development.
Mario Vega connected this expansive ecumenism to what he described as one of the foundational theological innovations of the Protestant Reformation.
“God works not just through the church but through the whole universe,” he said. “This means that God can make his kingdom through the church and beyond the church.”
The essential node in Pedro Landaverde’s network is an NGO called Semillas de Nueva Creación (Seeds of a New Creation), which was created in 2001 to serve as a conduit linking a wide array of social stakeholders for the purpose of realizing the goal of integral mission.
Semillas, like Nigeria’s Apostles in the Marketplace, is the present-day expression of Pentecostal activism on university campuses from the late 1960s through the 1980s. In the context of El Salvador, this religious ferment included an admixture of liberation theology, which has all but disappeared as a strand of living Catholicism.
“Liberation theology opted for the poor,” said Eliberto Juarez, the program coordinator for Semillas. “But the poor opted for Pentecostalism.”
Still, the Pentecostal encounter with liberation theology’s emphasis on social transformation produced scholar-preachers like Rene Padilla and Samuel Escobar who have inspired a number of next-generation leaders to alter Pentecostalism’s relationship to the world.
“Many Pentecostals are developing a deeper commitment to society,” Juarez said. In a practical sense—and, again, mirroring the strategies of Nigeria’s progressive next-generation leaders—this commitment entails potential forms of political engagement that could dramatically extend the social capital generated through networks like Seeds of a New Creation.
“There’s early talk of new political parties,” Juarez said. “This would leverage the emergence of new voting blocs like the middle class and intelligentsia that aren’t committed to either the right or the left.”
As a passionately spiritual but traditionally insular religious movement comes of age, progressive next-generation Pentecostals in El Salvador, Nigeria and elsewhere may herald a broader turn toward tolerance and positive social transformation in parts of the world where both are often in short supply.
“Semillas has became a point of encounter for a variety of people—a sort of ecumenical brotherhood,” said Juarez. “For us, the kingdom of God on earth means peace, justice, love and living in harmony.”
Nick Street was a senior writer with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.