Damian Arnold joins an all-night prayer festival with the UK’s fastest-growing Christian sect, the Redeemed Christian Church of God
It is Friday night at the ExCel Centre in London and some 40,000 people are praying very loudly. Arms aloft, eyes scrunched up, faces uplifted and tears flowing, they are invoking the Holy Spirit to come into their lives. Children are wrapped in sleeping bags at their parents’ feet. Most are staying all night.
Spurred on by a choir of hundreds, creating a soaring hymnal sound that floats in a heavenly direction, many feel the visceral presence of their creator and pour forth their joy. This is the recent Festival of Life organised by the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), the fastest-growing Christian community in Britain with more than 750 churches established in the past 20 years. The Pentecostal congregation was founded in Nigeria in 1952 by Josiah Olufemi Akindayomi after he received a “divine revelation”. More than 60 years later, his church is being called the “acceptable face” of the African church in Britain. Several other “African megachurches” have been mired in scandal.
Last year, with a general election to win, David Cameron attended the festival, while Ed Miliband — perhaps unwisely — turned down his invitation. In Lagos, the church’s monthly “Holy Ghost service” attracts a million people and a mind-boggling 23-square-kilometre auditorium is being built to accommodate them. The church is established in more than 100 countries. Its “General Overseer”, or GO, Dr Enoch Adeboye, was named by Newsweek as one of the 50 most influential people on the planet.
The head of its executive council in the UK is Pastor Agu Irukwu, a former lawyer whose mission is to “reChristianise” Britain, the country that evangelised his ancestors. He wants to infuse his brand of Pentecostalism — perhaps the most experiential of the Christian denominations because of the emphasis it places on being in the presence of God. “British missionaries abandoned everything to come to Africa and many did not return,” says Agu, 51. “So, I feel I owe a great debt to Great Britain for the people who made sacrifices to bring the Gospel to Africa. A lot of us were educated at good missionary schools. I feel that I am here to pay this debt back because the UK has become so secular.”
Well built, over six foot tall, with a kind face, Agu exudes natural authority. A father of three who is teetotal and supports Chelsea FC, he is highly respected in the Anglican Communion and is good friends with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, who knows Nigeria well from his days in the oil industry. Agu has also just signed a contract with Hodder to write a book on prayer and he has a ready-made audience, having overseen the establishment of 300 churches in the UK in the past five years. His flock in Britain is expected to grow to 150,000 over the next five years, having numbered 62,000 in 2008. On Sundays, he preaches to up to 4,000 people at Jesus House for all Nations, a converted warehouse in Brent, northwest London.
Agu was born in Nigeria in 1964. His father was a lawyer and his mother a broadcaster. As a young man, he was more interested in money than God, working for an investment bank in Lagos. A chance introduction to the RCCG changed his life. “I was born into a Christian household, but I went to church only to please my Mum,” he says. “I explored Islam and Buddhism, but I didn’t think they were the answer. In June 1991, a friend invited me to a service of the RCCG in Lagos.
“I came from an orthodox church background and I was gobsmacked. I had never seen so many young people in church and they were so happy. I thought, ‘I’m going to come back’ because I had never seen an expression of faith that was so open. I became a lay preacher and then the pastor asked if I would come to London and oversee this little church with 30-odd people for a month. It has been 20 years now. I figure that God didn’t want me in law or an investment bank.”
As the leader of the most “progressive” African church in the UK, Agu has worked with the government to investigate “rogue churches” at which practitioners of black magic have presented themselves as Christian leaders. “Unfortunately, there are bad apples who take advantage of people, but hopefully we can reduce their influence.”
He wants to reach out to a wider constituency than African émigrés, but, in order to achieve that, he admits “we have a lot of changing to do”. He cites “African timekeeping” as a case in point. “In Africa, you can go to church in the morning and never know when it’s going to end. You could be there all day if the spirit is moving and that’s not going to work in this culture.”
Agu also organises career seminars to equip members of his church with the skills to obtain a better job. This encouragement of people to help themselves is his response to criticism that African megachurches espouse the so-called “Prosperity Gospel”, which manipulates supplicants into believing that, if they pray, they will gain wealth. “A lot of people abuse the Gospel by making it about money. This focus on material things has done a great disservice to the work of the church. Unfortunately, in a lot of the African-Caribbean churches that trait is sadly predominant.”
Agu overcame the death of his first wife from cancer with his “faith strengthened” and married again. His second wife, Shola, runs the church’s mission work.
Aiming to embed the RCCG into British culture, Agu is engaged on joint projects with Lambeth Palace to “see how we can best serve the nation together”, and is working to replicate the successful model of the Anglican Evangelical church, Holy Trinity Brompton by developing courses on subjects such as financial management and overcoming addiction. He wants to bring the Gospel into every British home and welcome more white people to his congregations. He says he is encouraged by “my white friends who say ‘we admire the way you pray; it is so passionate’”.
The pastor has his work cut out though. According a YouGov poll in 2011, only nine per cent of the UK population is practising Christianity, 40 per cent are not convinced that Jesus really existed and 61 per cent of non-Christians have never had a conversation about Jesus Christ. “As long as we share the good news, British people will get to know Jesus,” he says. “There are more than 60 million people in this country and we have a lot of work to do.”