The revelation is said to have occurred on Willoughby Street in Ebute-Metta, a slum on the Lagos mainland. In 1952, Josiah Akindayomi, then an illiterate peasant, fell into a trance while praying with friends. When he emerged, he saw he had scrawled something on a blackboard, short lines of text he was incapable of reading. He was soon informed he had written the words “Redeemed Christian Church of God.” An entire theology emanated from this event: God had spoken in Nigeria, entrusting its Christians with a special mission and purpose. The RCCG is a “covenant church, working on a platform and precepts designed by God as given by the founding father,” Emmanuel Akoteyon, the manager of the RCCG’s House of Favor church, explained. “It’s one of the end-time churches that Jesus Christ is coming back to meet,” said another follower whom I met near Lagos.
In a nation of religious entrepreneurs, none has been more successful than the RCCG, which claimed more than five million members in 2009 and is said to be Nigeria’s largest owner of private property. Yemi Osinbajo, the nation’s vice-president and acting president for more than four months in 2017, was once a high-ranking pastor in the church. Religious competition is fierce in Nigeria, where megachurches have become a national industry. Spiritual searchers can choose between the Eternal Sacred Order of the Cherubim and Seraphim, or the Arena of Liberty International Gospel Ministry also known as City Of The Living God. I spotted the House of Honor downstairs from the Zenith Chapel, and the Charismatic Renewal Ministries next door to the New Apostolic Church. Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries runs the only bookstore in one of the Lagos airport’s terminals; freeway billboards trumpet a Night of Evidence and an Encounter With the God of Wonders. For sheer grandiosity, little beats Greater Liberation City Presents Two Nights With The King With Dr Chris Okafor, the Generational Prophet of God. For humble theological concision, nothing in my travels topped a bumper sticker I spotted on a Lagos highway that simply read, “God Has Done It Again.”
Nigerian Pentecostals are often stereotyped as preaching a prosperity gospel in which material success is taken as the principal measure of spiritual worth. It’s true enough that one of the country’s most popular churches is literally called the Winners’ Chapel, and the critics aren’t wrong when they allege a troubling proximity to Nigeria’s corrupt and incompetent elites. Few observers would deny a generally unhealthy relationship with wealth and power. “The churches say that if you get rich by any means necessary, God will continue to bless you. You’ve turned your pastors into babalawos,” a writer and public health activist in Abuja fretted to me, using a Yoruba word for a traditional diviner.
But those who dismiss Nigerian churches as craven or unserious—who believe they’re little better than fraudsters gorging on the credulity of poor and desperate people, or who see nothing but a crudely transactional theology at work—often do so with the benefit of distance. The skeptics usually aren’t the sort of people who have ever needed what these churches are offering. Nigeria’s Pentecostalists assert a provable, even irrefutable link to a higher power, and for tens of millions of Nigerians, that’s exactly what they deliver. They promise an externalized experience of the divine, something you can feel and see and even visit. In the RCCG’s case, that something is the size of an entire city.
The sky-blue wings of the Redemption Camp entry plaza lie just beyond an unsigned turnoff at Kilometer 46 of the Lagos-Ibadan road. Cattle still graze in the highway median, amid the fumy archipelago of truck stops and market shacks that welcome travelers into Lagos’s clutches. There are other church compounds in the area, where space is still plentiful—the Mountain of Fire and Miracles’ Prayer City is just a few miles down the road.
I arrived on a Saturday evening, armed with only an email from an RCCG office in Dallas acknowledging that the church knew of my existence and dates of travel. The international guest house was full, but accommodation options ranged from the upscale Redemption Resort, to the mid-market Christ Ambassador hotel, to a humble hostel with dorm blocks named after Bible stories. I ditched my backpack in one of the Rose of Sharon rooms and started down a quiet street lined with palm trees and low-slung private villas, following the rasping of a distant megaphone. It led me into an unfinished auditorium at the House of Favor church where congregants held clutches of small bills over their heads. “Go ahead, ask God for something big, because the Lord is very big,” the preacher rumbled. “Before you get home tonight, there will be confirmation.” A seven-piece band, which had been murmuring through the sermon, exploded into a rhythmic whirl of organ and bass. Hundreds of the faithful dropped to their knees and buried their heads in their arms. On the way back from the contribution boxes at the front of the sanctuary, the women bent to the ground and then rose as if scooping some newly given bounty into their arms.
Founded in the early 1980s, Redemption Camp extends for miles into the soft green hills. It has blocks of spartan dormitories for indigents and volunteers, along with nine upscale housing estates with names like Grace Court and Glory Court. Church members can even finance the purchase of new homes on the compound with help from the Jubilee Life Mortgage Bank. There’s a high school, several hospitals, a small amusement park, an internal system of buses and auto-rickshaws, the Redeemer’s Business School, and the Redeemed College of Technology and Management. There’s a hairdresser called Divine Styles, and a children’s music school called Bible Tunes. The Shalom Restaurant on the road to the Old Auditorium makes excellent okra stew.
Civil servants, business consultants, drivers and cooks call the compound home. “You don’t need to go outside to get anything,” a resident marveled to me. One exception is alcohol, which is banned—the church is decidedly traditional in matters of sexuality and impulse control.
Redemption Camp is higher-functioning than the country surrounding it. Several residents proudly mentioned the compound’s safety and its almost unheard-of daily twenty-four hours of electricity, thanks to a system of generators that is never shut off. The contrast with Lagos, where crime is rampant and much of the city is cloaked in darkness at night, is jarring. For all its creative energy, Lagos is a conspicuously unfair place. Offenses against human dignity—barefoot children selling coconut chips in the middle of crowded highways, a traffic policeman whacking the conductor of a crowded minibus through the driver-side window, the spectre of a lucrative kidnap-for-profit business, the psychic grind of the chaos and noise—are so ubiquitous that they almost stop registering as cruelties. Redemption Camp is a short drive from the Lagos state line, but it seems to occupy a different and better world.
Nigerian Pentecostalism has no use for postmodern theological doubt, and the RCCG is not a place for grappling with core questions of belief. But life in Nigeria is hard—the RCCG’s members struggle against abject realities. They grasp for comfort and consistency in an existence where little improves and nothing is guaranteed. At church, survival alone is celebrated as a kind of miracle. “You have shelter over your head, money in your pocket, food on your table, clothes on your body,” one pastor exclaimed during Sunday morning services at the House of Favor church.
Nigeria’s religious institutions are not quietistic. They have built an alternative to the abuses of the world they inhabit. In Nigeria, the churches and mosques alone manifest a different and better reality for tens of millions of people at a time, regardless of their education level or social status. Redemption Camp guarantees compassion and moral coherency in an environment where both are in short supply. “JESUS CHRIST, THE SAME YESTERDAY, AND TODAY, AND FOREVER (HEB 13:8)” is painted in capital letters over the House of Favor’s altar. “Since I was born I have never seen the Lord changeth, changeth, changeth,” congregants bellowed during that Sunday morning service. Whether it’s electrical current or the succor of a higher power, Redemption Camp can always provide.
The RCCG is not a colonial enterprise or the creation of outsiders. The church rejects certain imported religious symbols, even some very important ones. I saw no crosses or physical representations of Jesus anywhere in Redemption Camp, including inside the churches. “Christ is no more on the cross,” Virtuous Akitunde, a religious author and owner of Redemption Camp’s Shammas interior design store, explained to me. “The power is in us.”
Missionary energies are moving in the other direction: Today, the RCCG exists in 192 countries. It has several large congregations throughout the U.S., including a $15.5 million complex near Dallas. In exchange for knowledge of its redemption, the church assumes a responsibility to bring as many people to heaven as it possibly can. A “mission/vision statement,” posted in church sanctuaries, announces the objective to “plant churches within five minutes walking distance in every city and town of developing countries, and within five minutes driving distance of every city and town in developed countries.” As Emmanuel Akoteyon explained, “Any job in which God is involved should not be stagnant.”
Expansionism is central to RCCG theology. When I met him after Sunday services at the House of Favor, senior pastor Ikuerowo Samuel pulled up Chapter 1 of Acts on his iPad and had me read verse eight: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria.” The sentence encapsulates the church’s view of its place in the world: “Nigeria is our Jerusalem. America can be Samaria,” Samuel said.
Redemption Camp serves the RCCG’s missionary objectives. On the first Friday of every month, Enoch Adeboye, the church’s general overseer since Akindayomi’s death in 1980 and by any measure one of the most powerful men in Nigeria, presides over the Holy Ghost service, said to attract upwards of 500,000 worshippers to the compound. Whenever I told Lagosians I was going to Redemption Camp, they invariably complained about the monthly traffic jams, which sometimes snarl all the way to the city’s boundaries nearly twenty miles south.
According to Pastor Samuel, the purpose of the camp is simple: “To build an auditorium where the whole world can come and worship.”
That auditorium is a real place, and it has been under construction for the past five years. The new auditorium is about a twenty-minute drive from the House of Favor by auto-rickshaw and can be located by following green highway signs adorned with the RCCG logo—a dove, signifying the Holy Spirit, flying down toward earth. Pointed emerald rows of corrugated roofs eventually rise from a hilltop looming at the camp’s outer perimeter. From afar, they resemble a ridgeline of evergreens, or giant green jaws.
The church sometimes refers to this still-unfinished structure as the “3 KM auditorium,” since it claims that the complex is three kilometers long. It feels even bigger than that, bigger than any building could possibly ever be. More than a dozen rows of hangar-like archways stretch for thousands of feet. The concrete floor covers only half the open-air structure; in its outlying regions, brambles of weeds grow under the towering metal vaulting. The place is bracingly vast, its scope inspiring and depersonalizing. From the back of the house, the half-circle altar from which Adeboye addresses the faithful seems as distant, but perhaps as reachable, as the heavens themselves.
“The Bible says: I help those that call into Him,” my driver, a young compound resident named Immanuel, said as we hiked the long empty galleries, gazing out over the city of the redeemed. God had sent “a message to everybody” through the RCCG. “God has moved us to the holy land,” he said. “This is the holy land now.”
Armin Rosen has reported from Congo, Somalia, and elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East for The Atlantic and other magazines.