Amazing Church Growth in Nigeria

Five years ago the churches with which we are working in Nigeria had a total communicant membership of 4,928. Today they have a membership of 12,870. This is a growth rate of 161% over a five-year period. Few churches in the world have been blessed with such a rapid rate of growth. Our mission (the Christian Reformed branch of the Sudan United Mission) and the two churches with whom we work (the East Benue Church and the Tiv Church) have repeatedly thanked the Lord for the mighty work of the Holy Spirit in Benue province of Northern Nigeria.

The phenomenal growth of the early Christian church was caused by the irresistible work of the Spirit in the hearts and lives of men. Church historians have pointed out certain factors that favored the growth of the church in the days of the apostles, factors that the Holy Spirit apparent1y used in convicting sinners and turning them to Christianity. Iv; one surveys the evangelism program in modern Nigeria, especially the evangelism that is carried on in the more primitive rural areas of Nigeria, he is also impressed by certain factors that are favorable to the spread of the gospel. I am happy to state some of my observations and experiences regarding our program in Nigeria for it may be that what is helping the church to grow in Nigeria will help the church to grow elsewhere also.


Cultural Identifiution

One valuable asset of our churches in Nigeria is the fact that they are thoroughly indigenous. By this I mean not merely that these churches are self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. They are all three of these, but they arc something more. They are “self-cultural.” For many years the missionaries of the Christian Reformed Church and of the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa have encouraged the development of churches that were closely identified with the culture of the people whom they served. This cultural identification of the churches is felt in many ways by us who are missionaries, but is illustrated perhaps the most clearly in the areas of language and of music.

Although English is the official language of Nigeria, and is the language spoken by all the educated of the nation, and is taught in all the schools that are accredited by the government; the program of the church is not carried on in English but in the tribal languages of the people. TIle Tiv ( rhymes with leave) Church speaks the Tiv language. Her Bible, her song books, her catechism are written in Tiv. Her sermons are preached in Tiv and her business is conducted in Tiv. The East Benue Church uses the Hausa language. The East Benue Church reaches various smaller tribes, all of which have their own language. Years ago the missionaries settled on Hausa as the common language to be used because many in that area already had some knowledge of Hausa. While this arrangement is not as favorable as the situation in the Tiv Church, it is necessary because of the variety of smaller tribes and it is much better than using English, for these people can learn Hausa much easier than they can learn English. The fact that the churches in our mission area speak two languages tends to separate them from each other, but at the same time it makes them better equipped to reach the people in their own areas.

The other area in which cultural identiflcation is especially pronounced is the area of church music. Tiv Christians have written their own hymns. They have written them on a musical scale that their pagan fathers have used for generations. This scale is so different from the scale to which we are accustomed that one cannot play their songs on an organ or piano, and there is not one Tiv church that has an organ or piano in it. However, the Tiv Christians do have instrumental music in their churches. They use drums, chimes, “rattles,” and sometimes a type of fife. During the regular worship service they sing Western style hymns and psalms that have been translated into Tiv. But both before and after the service and during the offertory they sing Tiv hymns. The Tiv often have hymn sings” at which they usually sing nothing but Tiv songs.

Two years ago I began work in a large primitive area where no Protestant missionary had ever worked before, except for brief expeditions. Here Roman Catholics had worked for forty years. However, we experienced no trouble getting a foothold in this area. In fact many people have shown a preference for the Protestant church. This is not, I am convinced, because they have examined all the doctrinal differences and have found the Roman church to be wanting. It would be more candid to say that these people simply felt more at home in our church. They appreciate the fact that our ordained missionaries try to speak and work in Tiv, whereas the great majority of the priests (who are Irish) do not know Tiv. They like our Tiv songs, our Tiv worship service, and our church government that recognizes the priesthood and status of every Tiv believer. The Roman church simply was not able to achieve the flexibility necessary to minister effectively to the heart of the average Tiv individual. This does not mean that we should be complacent, for the Catholic mission is doing solid work in the fieJd of education and may \vin over many of the educated leaders, unless we also are very active in this field. But it does seem to indicate that cultural identification on the part of church and mission is a real factor in the rapid expansion of a church.

Political Unrest

Another factor that, in God’s providence, has worked for the growth of the church in Benue province, is the presence of political unrest and actual fighting between two political groups. In 1960 and again in 1964 this fighting took hundreds of lives and terrorized the countryside. People who were gripped by the uncertainty of the times turned to the church for security. They realized that the church was a non-political organization and over a long period of years they had learned that missionaries could be trusted. Even Nigerian Christians and the missionaries were drawn closer together through the tensions that existed during 1964. I realize that no missionary on another field would wish to order political strife in order to step lip the number of converts entering the church. However, a description of the Nigerian situation would not be complete without a mention of this factor. We thank the Lord that He caused this good to come forth out of the evil.

Worship Centers in Rural Areas

Our Nigerian churches possess still another asset that, it seems to me, is aiding their rapid growth. They have developed a unique organization and program that is suited to the rural areas in which they are located. Most of the people living in Benue province live in villages that are from a half mile to three miles apart. They go out from these villages every day to work their farms and also to hunt and fish. In America, where everyone owns a car, it is no longer necessary to have churches in the middle of the country (although in some cases it may be desirable). People can easily drive to town to attend church even though they may have to drive ten or more miles each way. In Nigeria people cannot drive to a central location for church on Sunday because they don’t have cars and, for the most part, don’t have roads. The church they attend every Sunday must be within walking distance. Therefore many small places of worship have been established over a wide area. Primitive houses of worship have been erected. They generally consist of grass roofs on poles. (No bUilding fund needed!) Services in these many isolated centers are led by the Bible school teacher who also teaches Bible school in these same buildings during the week.

Once a month all the Christians in a given area and others who are interested come together to the central church for a series of meetings on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. In my area they walk as many as twenty miles one way to attend these monthly meetings. These meetings serve to unify a scattered church. A national pastor or a missionary is usually present at these meetings and the monthly consistory meeting is held. The Bible school teachers also report on their work.

Systematic Instrudion in the Faith

The Bible school classes that are held every afternoon in the various centers are an essential part of church growth, for in these classes the people receive systematic instruction in the Christian faith. They are also taught how to read and write, which enables them to read the Bible and become Christian leaders and witnesses. Although the church operates many regular primary schools, these Bible schools (which arc much more numerous) may be called the backbone of our evangelistic thrust. The teachers are paid a nominal wage. They must work on their farms every morning along with the other villagers in order to supplement this wage. They, and not the missionaries, are doing the real evangelistic work in our Nigerian program today. Many of these teachers are making sacrifices in order to do this work. It is the purpose of the Benue Bible Institute to train the Tiv teachers for one or two years in order that they may do the work more effectively. Our missionaries are also teaching Bible school teachers and evangelists from the East Benue Church at Wukari, Lupwe, and Baissa.

Perhaps some of our friends in America have been under the impression that the church in Nigeria is growing rapidly because it has become careless as to the people that it admits as members. While there are always tares among the wheat and while all young Christians still have much to learn, our Nigerian churches are careful about whom they admit as members and also exercise discipline on those who become delinquent. In fact the Tiv Church requires at least two years of catechism training for all adults before they are baptized. This may seem rather stringent to American Christians but in Nigeria it works. Nigerians consider it an honor to attend school and therefore no one objects to catechetical classes provided by the church even though they may run for a two·year period or longer. Such a long period of catechetical instruction might not be successful or even advisable on all mission fronts both at home and abroad. But it does seem to indicate that church growth does not necessarily depend on easy entrance requirements.

Opening Up New Areas

I have been describing the sit u a t ion in our sister churches in Nigeria as it was when I came to this country. When I was assigned a new territory in which to initiate evangelistic work, it was my task to carry forward the work within the framework of the existing structure that had already proved successful in other areas. I began by canvassing my area, which is called Ityoshin, in order to discover those villages that had a genuine interest in the gospel. I have traveled through many bush areas speaking and also playing messages and songs on a portable tape recorder. Occasionally I have stayed away from home for a week at a time. On these occasions I have eaten, slept, and lived with the villagers. I have always kept my eyes open for villages where Bible schools could be established because I knew that my presence only occasionally would not be enough to win converts or build the church. Once T knew this area, it was possible to direct to the right villages other Tiv Christians who came there to witness. Arrangements were made for Bible school teachers to come and begin their work in ltyoshin. They were supplied with literature, encouraged, and advised when problems arose. As a result of this cooperative effort the number of interested people grew, converts were won, and in less than two years the work was established. When monthly meetings were begun in Ttyoshin, my pastoral duties also in· creased. I preached (others also led the services), administered the sacraments, and served as chairman of our steering committee.

At present we have eighty-seven missionaries in Nigeria and only two other ordained missionaries besides myself are doing direct evangelistic work. They are the Revs. George Spee and Gilbert Holkeboer. Mr. Leroy Baas operates a mobile slide and movie unit, complete with its own generator and loudspeakers. He uses this for mass sight-sound evangelism among the Tiv people. In addition, Miss Margaret Van Heukelum is doing evangelistic work with women and Miss Evelyn Vrcdevoogd is working with girls. Eleven of our ordained missionaries are involved in such specialized work as teaching and literature. The rest are involved in education, medical work, and auxiliary functions.

Evangelism by the Indigenous Church

It is apparent from this that our mission is fast handing over the work of direct evangelism to the Nigerian church. This is as it should be. It is a rule of thumb in our mission that missionaries do not do what Nigerian Christians could be doing just as well. This rule is necessary for establishing a healthy indigenous church and also assures the sending churches that their investment in missionary personnel is a sound investment. Mr. Baas may continue to operate his mobile evangelism unit for many years because there is no Nigerian qualified to take over this work. The women’s workers may also continue for a long time because it would be difficult to find replacements among the Nigerian Christian women for the type of work they are doing. But with the ordained missionaries the case is different. There are Nigerian pastors who are qualified at the present time to take over our work. In the near future, therefore, we should try to complete this process of giving the work into their hands.

There are several factors, however, that may prevent for some time the transfer of all evangelistic work to Nigerian pastors. For one thing, there is custom. Until now the missionaries have tended to do the direct evangelistic work while the Nigerian pastors have largely performed pastoral work in established congregations. If a full transfer is to be effective, these pastors must not only recognize that evangelism is a legitimate and honorable sphere of activity for them. but there must also be those among them who have an enthusiasm and love for this work.

Another factor that retards such a complete transfer is the present shortage of pastors. There are a number of organized churches without pastors and new churches are constantly being formed. We hope that when those who are presently in training for the ministry get out of school, this gap between the number of vacancies and of available pastors will be closed. In the meantime missionaries will be called upon to fill in the gap as best they can.

A third factor that tends to slow down the transfer of evangelistic responsibilities to the churches is the financial condition of the churches. When the church takes over a work, it must also support this work financially. This is difficult for a church with meager financial resources. The church is tempted to ask the mission to continue evangelistic work indefinitely for the simple reason that then the mission will continue to pour money into this work. Our board of foreign missions could decide to alleviate this problem by giving subsidies to the churches for use in their evangelistic outreach. However, this would militate against both board policy and the ideal of a self-supporting, indigenous church. It would be better to help our Christian brothers in Nigeria to help themselves. The majority are farmers and they farm by very primitive methods. If the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee would send an agricultural authority to Nigeria in order to help our Christian farmers to develop better farming methods, this would be a step in the right direction. It would also be in the spirit of the example given by the Christians in Macedonia and Achaia who collected money to give to their poorer brethren in Jerusalem (II Cor. 9 and Rom. 15,25–27).

Looking Ahead

We may be very thankful for the present rapid growth of the Church of Jesus Christ in Nigeria. It often happens, however. that when a thing is growing very fast there are growing pains. The Nigerian church is experiencing these happy pains and continues to look to the mission for guidance and assistance in this situation. Even when ordained missionaries are no longer needed in the area of direct evangelism, their services will still be required in Bible institutes, seminaries, secondary schools, literature production, and other specialized work for many years to come.

We look forward to the day when the Tiv, Jukun, and Kutev Christians in Nigeria carry the full load of evangelizing their own tribes. But we should also look beyond this goal to the day when the churches founded in Nigeria are able to reach out beyond their tribal borders to other tribes where the knowledge of Christ is still largely absent. When by God’s grace these African churches arrive at the point where they themselves can send out foreign missionaries, then the cycle of mission activity will have been completed. Then, too, the ordained missionaries will know that the time has come for them to fold their tents and quietly steal away to other fields.