In the first quarter of 2023 I experienced a variety of church services that left me pondering the state of the church in West Africa…is it growing or is it dying? I attended charismatic services (online and in person) and traditional services and simply ended up confused.
Driving past Winners Chapel, Lighthouse, Action Chapel, or Flaming Church on a Sunday morning is a traffic challenge. Their streets are strewn with cars parked and people passing and the churches average over thousands people on any given Sunday. The charismatic churches make a valiant attempt at reducing the disturbance to the public by having traffic wardens and policemen available to direct traffic before, during and after their church services. Even on weekdays, the quantity of billboards advertising banks or telcos in Accra and Lagos are dwarfed by the billboards advertising charismatic churches and their programs and symposiums.
Due to deaths in my wife’s family, I attended Sunday services at an Anglican church and a Methodist church (different Sundays, both were Memorial services) during the first quarter of 2023. These services were the regular Sunday services, simply peppered by a 10 – 15 minute acknowledgement of the memorial of the deceased member of my wife’s family. I was surprised to note that attendance at the church was less than 100 people. If I removed the people who attended the church that Sunday because of my wife’s family, attendance would have averaged 70.
If I removed the clergy and the choir (who, one could argue, are duty bound to attend the church service), attendance would have averaged 50. I know the Bishops of the Anglican and Methodist church in Sierra Leone, as well as the Bishops of a few charismatic churches (Flaming, Church of Pentecost, etc) All of them are men who fear and love God and want to serve Him. How come their fruits appear to be so different?
Eight years ago I was invited to serve on he Development Board of the Anglican Church. Given my father’s position as a Canon of the Anglican church, I was both surprised and pleased to be invited. As I served on the Board, I learned that the Anglican Diocese is blessed with significant real estate assets, many of which are underutilized. I also learned that the Anglican church struggles to meet its financial / cash flow obligations.
Salaries to Reverends are appallingly low and sometimes late to be paid. Similarly, other obligations remain unpaid or slow-paid. Recognizing the value of the assets that the church has (many of which were bequeathed to the Church by now-deceased parishioners in their wills), the Bishop convened the Development Board to find ways to enhance the cash flow generated from the assets…a laudable idea, indeed. I served on the Board for two years until my work travel obligations precluded me from continuing to serve.
Last year I was invited to serve on a similar Board for the Methodist Church, and I accepted. Again, I have discovered that the Methodist Church faces similar challenges and opportunities as the Anglican church…from real estate assets to cash flow challenges. The Anglican church struggled to monetize its assets, however in 2021 it did celebrate a significant milestone when the Diocesan office in the Feetown Central Business District was opened after having been built, albeit with funds from the Episcopal Church in Europe.
In the past ten years, Flaming Evangelical Church built a majestic 4000-seater church in Sierra Leone without foreign donor funds. Lighthouse Chapel in Ghana and Winners Chapel in Nigeria have similarly massive church campuses, all with funds raised from their parishioners, whose fortunes appear to be improving as they buy new cars and create the need for more traffic wardens to help with traffic management on Sundays.
The Church of Pentecost in Ghana has even built an Inmates Skills Acquisition and Reformation Centre (aka “prison”) in Ghana because “as Christians, we believe we must not only lead and usher people to Heaven but also show interest in their livelihoods here on earth by making them useful to society” (Apostle Eric Nyamekye). In the meantime, the traditional churches’ attendance is dwindling.
What is going on? Is the Church growing or is it dying?
Why are the charismatic churches seemingly growing (in attendance, cash flow and assets) while the traditional churches appear to be dwindling? And does the fact that charismatic churches appear to outperform traditional churches mean that they will always do so, or that all is well with them? Absolutely not! There are challenges that exist in charismatic churches that threaten their long term sustainability.
After three decades of attending and serving in both charismatic and traditional churches, I would like to offer four observations…two for the leaders of traditional churches and two for the leaders of charismatic churches. Each group has best practices that the other can emulate in order to more effectively achieve what Jesus Christ commissioned them to do: teach the whole world for Christ.
BEST PRACTICES FROM CHARISMATIC CHURCHES THAT TRADITIONAL CHURCH LEADERS SHOULD APPLY.
- Invest in continuous professional development for preachers and ministers
Whether out of necessity or passion, charismatic church leaders invest in their own capacity growth and the capacity of their preachers, music ministers and staff far more than traditional church leaders. I have observed the Bishops and other Pastors of the charismatic churches over decades and I can say without a doubt that Bishops Oyedepo, Dag, and Frederick Abu are better preachers today than they were a decade ago.
Sadly, I cannot say the same of some traditional church Reverends. This is not because the traditional church Reverends lack practice; they, like the charismatic church pastors, preach three to ten times a month, so practice is not the issue. The difference is subtle; it involves reading, soliciting and utilizing feedback, research, coaching, peer learning and other forms of professional development that the charismatics generally avail themselves of more often than the traditional church leaders. This is not limited to the preaching; it extends to the choir and music ministers. Many of the traditional church choirs are delivering the same quality of musical worship that they were delivering a decade ago.
On the contrary, the music ministry of charismatic churches is growing in its quality, delivery and impact. This happens because of investments in the professional development of the people there.
When people grow, their impact grows. Growth should not be optional; it should be mandatory. And it does not have to cost a lot of money. Make sure that you have a growth plan for each member of your staff and ensure that they implement it. They are under your leadership and like the stewards in the Bible, you are responsible for multiplying them and their effectiveness.
- Invest in continuous spiritual development of your congregation
During one of my visits to New Harvest Global Ministries (a charismatic church led by Rev Shodankeh Johnson) in Sierra Leone, I was amazed to observe a bible study session on a Sunday when the entire church broke into about 15 small groups and what semed like everyday people lead bible study. Their Bible study facilitation methods were superb and it was obvious that they had been well trained to lead adult bible study. It is no surprise to me to see that this church is growing rapidly not just in numbers of congregants, but in the impact of the congregants.
When we invest in the spiritual growth of our parishioners, this investment will make them better spiritual leaders and this will result in them being blessed in the world as well. When people come to church and learn and acquire attributes like self-discipline, integrity, vision-focus, servant-hood, courage, responsibility, proactiveness, diligence, humility, persistent patience, reliability and financial stewardship, how will they not thrive in the world? These are the same qualities that investors and CEOs are looking for in partners and employees. All of these qualities are biblical and promoted by Jesus Christ.
So, when the church invests in training and equipping its congregants with these qualities, how will they not prosper? Prosperity will indeed run after them and as they prosper spiritually and physically the quantity and quality of their tithes (money, talents and time) will grow and the church will become more financially liquid as more money and talent pours into the church. Finally as others see them prospering it will make them want to attend the church. There are many reasons why Jesus taught discipleship. Discipleship involves investing in the capacity of your flock. One of its many benefits is that it helps an organization to grow exponentially.
BEST PRACTICES FROM CHARISMATIC CHURCHES THAT TRADITIONAL CHURCH LEADERS SHOULD APPLY.
- Implement governance processes to de-risk the church from the risk of the tyranny of one
Recent history of charismatic churches outside Africa are replete with the rise and fall of charismatic mega pastors. Ironically, their fall has usually been caused by one or more of the three sins that they were warned about in the Bible: lust of the flesh (women), lust of the eyes (money) and the pride of life (arrogance). From Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart to Brian Houston and Carl Lentz (Hillsong) , we have seen them come and go.
In Africa, these stories are not as common, partly because culturally we do not revel in exposing the sins of our “big men” in public. But rest assured that when any organization has a leader who is not accountable to anyone and has the broad authority to do whatever he likes without having to answer to any earthly being, the results are eventually not good. Satan is cunning and he knows how to tempt men and women of God with exactly what they secretly list after.
Similarly, God is patient and kind, but He is also just and will not be mocked…even by those doing His work. Without broad accountability anyone will fall…it is only a matter of time. I have served in churches where the leader was an anointed man of God but eventually became guilty of using the Church funds in a manner that he knew would not be approved by a majority of his congregants if they knew what was happening behind the scenes.
This is dangerous to the leader and the Church. Establish proper governance. Create a functioning Board, and recruit people to the Board who are not afraid of standing up to you. If your board only contains people who are members of the Church, then your Board is insular and you will likely not hear hard truths. Get people who are not part of “your flock” to serve on your Board and ensure that they have, collectively, authority over you.
The Board should have the ability to determine your compensation and also to relieve you of your duty. Otherwise, as benevolent as you are, you are a dictator and power will eventually corrupt you. The Board will also force you to implement succession planning, another area of major risk for charismatic churches. The church you built is not your personal property for you to hand over to your children or relatives; protect the long-term sustainability of the church from your desire to hold on too long.
- Establish and leverage connection with global bodies
Whether we recognize it or not, like it or not, our ability to fulfill the Great Commission requires of us to work together with others across the globe. There are other church leaders across the globe that are engaged in fulfilling the Great Commission and to be truly effective, we must engage with these leaders and the most effective way to engage is through global bodies. Many charismatic church leaders have two or three other church leaders in other countries that they will immediately claim represents their international cooperation and collaboration. This is not sufficient.
Engaging as a church with global bodies increases the scope of networks that your church can benefit from and also positively impact. There is much that the African church can teach churches in other continents. It will not happen if we operate in silos. Whether it is the World Council of Churches or the World Evangelical Alliance or any other global group, engage with them to ensure that you are truly impacting the world through more than just your church branches which may well be in many countries.
In this area, the traditional church lead the charismatic churches. As an example, if the African charismatic churches were more engaged with global religious bodies, I wonder if the spread of homosexuality might have occurred the way it has today within the church?
Both the charismatic and traditional churches are ordained by God to fulfill the Great Commission. I learned from people like my father (Canon Dr. Modupe Taylor-Pearce) and his friend, the late Rev. Dr. Isaac Ababio, who were willing to engage with church leaders from traditional churches and charismatic churches long before the latter became fashionable.
Both of them successfully blended both approaches to the Great Commission to be respected in all churches. I believe that when church leaders (Bishops, Pastors, Reverends, Ministers) adopt the best practices from churches that are not like theirs, we will collectively expand the Gospel in West Africa, and in the World and someday here these glorious words from our Savior: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”