How reverse missionaries built the UK's fastest-growing church

Members of the congregation at the Jesus House for all the Nations. (Photo: Telegraph, Clare Kendall)

Britain's fastest growing church has been revealed as The Redeemed Christian Church of God, a denomination that has based its success on turning the traditional missionary story on its head, by sending out evangelists to convert the West.

According to the latest statistics from Peter Brierley, published on this site on Wednesday, this Pentecostal denomination with its roots in Africa has planted 296 new churches in the UK in the last five years, the largest number for any single denomination.

Its distinctive theology and history means however that this success will not be easy for any other denomination to emulate, should they wish to.

The RCCG, founded in Nigeria in 1952, is part of the fast-growing worldwide Protestant Pentecostal movement and belongs to a sub-category of that movement known as "Holiness" churches.

The leadership of Agu Irukwu has been key to the growth of RCCG

Founder Josiah Akindayomi, who died in 1980, chose former maths professor Enoch Adeboye as his successor in the 1970s and he has led the church to astonishing growth. It is now established in more than 100 countries and with 14,000-plus in Nigeria alone. Newsweek recently named him as one of the 50 most powerful people in the world.

Adeboye is unrepentant in his evangelistic zeal and has massive global ambitions, aiming to have at least one member of the church in every family throughout the entire world, and churches within minutes of each other, in every town and city.

The mission statement states that the aim is to get to heaven, by adopting "holiness" as a lifestyle. Its Christian beliefs are orthodox evangelical – members believe the devil exists and in the doctrine of the Trinity. Dancing outside church and other revelry are forbidden, although neighbours in areas where congregations are thriving will testify to the loud singing and dancing that takes place throughout lengthy Sunday morning services.

Since its foundation, this church has overturned the traditional 19th century image of a western missionary travelling to the Global South to win converts. Members believe Europeans and Americans are ripe for conversion back to a faith that is being or has been lost. There is an energetic church planting programme throughout the UK and in the Republic of Ireland, as well as the rest of Europe and the US, as RCCG missionaries consciously target the West. In North America, there are already nearly 800 congregations and 100 a year are currently being planted. A Holy Ghost service is planned for Yankee Stadium next summer.

Peter Brierley, whose study this week revealed the RCCG's phenomenal growth, said: "The RCCG came to this country in 1988 from Nigeria, where it is quite strong. [Their] purpose – to evangelise the Brits who brought us the gospel two centuries ago but have now lost it. They are a key example of what is sometimes called 'reverse mission'.

"Since 1988 they have started a total of 670 churches in the UK. Their basic premise (or mantra) is 'to plant a church within 10 minutes walking distance of every Nigerian in the UK', though of course they welcome non-Nigerians also, and in fact a good few whites also attend their churches. The mantra of course is pure Nigerian where folk cannot catch buses or taxis or drive to church, but just walk. Ten minutes is roughly half a mile."

He said the Population Census identifies where Africans live in some geographic detail but not where Nigerians live, so RCCG have a research department of about 16 people in Borehamwood trying to work this out, using the latest in computing data technology.

Agu Irukwu leads the largest RCCG church, Jesus House for All Nations, in Brent, a huge converted warehouse, where 3-4,000 people go every Sunday. Agu, according to Brierley a "superb preacher", speaks at New Wine and similar events. He is a "strategic genius", says Brierley, helping the Executive Council make clear forward plans for the future. Initially working in England, they soon began to plant churches in Wales, Scotland and N Ireland, then they included the Irish Republic and now have several on the Continent.

"Why are they successful? A clear vision of what they want to do, and how they intend to do it. They set goals for the future, two or three years or more ahead, and usually find they are more successful than expected. In the forthcoming second edition of UK Church Statistics I have them down as having 62,000 members in 2008 in the UK, and an expected 120,000 by 2015," Brierley continues. "I have estimated they will grow to 156,000 by 2020. They are now the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country and account for about a quarter of all Pentecostals. By comparison in 2013, two years earlier, Elim were 64,000 and Assemblies of God 57,000, hitherto the largest Pentecostal groups. The only other large Pentecostal denomination is the New Testament Church of God with about 30,000. There are individual Black Majority Churches which have larger congregations than at Brent House, but what Agu has done is to inspire others in (and to) leadership and shown them how to do it."

Yinka Oduwole, Public Affairs Manager at RCCG UK, said: "The RCCG has been active in the UK for just over 25 years and from our small beginnings, we have recorded significant growth right across the country.

"Our approach is to establish churches in communities where we feel led by God to do so. These RCCG parishes focus on the improvement of the spiritual and social welfare of people, working in partnership with other Christian denominations and like-minded organisations such as Hope Together UK. Our mission is to communicate the love of Jesus Christ through word and deed.

"In addition to mainstream Christian ministry, RCCG churches commit to relevant social action projects aimed at impacting people in our communities, whether or not they are people of faith. These include foodbanks, promotion of social cohesion, mentoring young persons, care of the elderly and other such acts of compassion.

"We attribute the sustained progress of the RCCG to one, underlying reason: the belief that God is growing the RCCG in fulfilment of a covenant He made with our founding leader. At inception, the Lord had told him that as long as members remained faithful to the Holy Scriptures, the church will spread supernaturally to the nations of the world. This divine promise continues to unfold."