Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa. With more than 200 million people, one in every five Africans is a Nigerian. The major tribal groupings of Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba and Ibo are well-known, but in total there are more than 500 ethnic groups with their own languages and dialects.
The world’s attention was drawn to Nigeria by the Biafran war from 1967-70, when the Ibo people of the south-east attempted to form a separate nation and suffered extreme destitution and starvation on account of the ensuing military blockade.
The nation is culturally divided between the Muslim north and the Christian south, with a zone across the middle where tribal and religious tensions run high. Gunshots, smoke and 24-hour curfews made us very aware of this during our first visit in 2010. In recent months thousands of believers have been killed and many hundreds of church buildings burned. The north remains largely unreached with the gospel, whilst 60 million Nigerian Christians are crowded into the southern regions, especially the megacity of Lagos.
Many of the major church denominations in Nigeria are Evangelical and we met some very fine Anglican and Baptist believers. The Evangelical Church of West Africa, launched by the Sudan Interior Mission, has 6,000 congregations, and the Reformed Church of Christ in Nigeria has grown similarly from the Sudan United Mission. Many of these Evangelical congregations run primary schools and clinics which provide a welcome and popular focus in each local community.
The fastest growing churches belong to indigenous movements with a more strongly charismatic emphasis, demanding tithes and offerings in return for supposed miracles and promises of health and prosperity. There is massive growth in these churches but also massive potential for disillusionment.
THE EARLIEST MISSION WORKERS
The gospel was first brought to Nigeria by the Wesleyan Methodists in 1842, followed by the Anglicans of the Church Missionary Society in 1845 and the United Free Church of Scotland in 1846. All were inspired by the idea of assisting freed American slaves to settle in Africa and so introduce the gospel to their ancestral homeland. These initiatives succeeded in establishing many churches and educational institutions.
Open Brethren mission workers pioneered an area in the centre of the country around the confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers. Although missionaries from the assemblies have been less prominent in Nigeria than some other parts of Africa, we know of more than 60 working here during the period 1919-78.
The earliest were Alfred and Anne Hewstone from the UK, who settled among the pagan Igala people in 1919. Although the area was in a state of unrest with tribal uprisings and conflicts, this remarkable couple travelled around the villages with a basic medical kit and taught the gospel message. Translating the New Testament into Igala, they continued their outreach until 1937 with the assistance of others who joined them from the UK and America.
As the medical work developed, a hospital was built, where 1,000 patients every week received care and heard the gospel. Radio programmes have been prepared and broadcast in the Igala language, and many primary schools established, along with a secondary school and two Bible colleges. Converts to Christ soon numbered many hundreds, and visitors as early as 1954 were welcomed by a gathering of 800 believers from 30 villages.
…in 1994, when I first went to Nigeria, there were no known open assemblies in Abuja (the capital city), but today there are 18 and they are aiming to plant one or two new ones per year
Among those who joined the Hewstones was Raymond Dibble (USA), a gifted linguist who preached widely and effectively in the Igala language, and whose son Spencer Dibble is still active in the area along with his own son-in-law and daughter, Tom and Lois Wheeler. There are now about 60 assemblies in the Igala region. From here the gospel has been taken by local believers to the neighbouring Agatu, Bassa and Eloyi people, establishing a further hundred assemblies in these areas.
The Bible college at Ika currently has about 50 students who study when they can over a period of several years. Students and teachers attend for a month and then return home for a month. The teaching is generally given by six local men who willingly take time off from their farms or other secular jobs to help in this way.
Scripture translation continues along with the preparation of booklets, study guides and correspondence courses. Current projects include an Eloyi New Testament, an Agatu Old Testament, a revised Bassa Bible and a revised Igala Bible with cross-references. Other activities include children’s camps and also a well-drilling project.
A more recent initiative is the Haven of Hope, a centre for health, literacy, horticulture and fresh water projects located near the city of Jos. Emmaus courses are also distributed from here and training is provided for those who distribute and mark them.
Teams, under the auspices of Ireland Outreach International, go annually to assist with these initiatives and their coordinator Jim Gillett reports: ‘A leading Nigerian brother in the assemblies told me over 18 months ago that he knew of at least 700 ‘open’ Christian Brethren assemblies… The assemblies are growing phenomenally in Nigeria. For example, in 1994, when I first went to Nigeria, there were no known open assemblies in Abuja (the capital city), but today there are 18 and they are aiming to plant one or two new ones per year.’
My wife and I have twice visited Nigeria, invited by two interdenominational theological colleges to teach three-week modules on cross-cultural mission for Masters students.
A growing missionary vision is evident in Nigeria, and a substantial number of Nigerian mission workers have already gone to other countries. The majority are working among Nigerians overseas – in America, Europe and elsewhere in Africa – but there is increasing interest in training Africans for cross-cultural ministry.
Several colleges and seminaries now offer courses on world mission, and church planters are beginning to move from the south to the north of Nigeria, where Islamic Law is in force and Muslims are the great majority. These efforts have met with some encouragement, and we hear, for example, that many Fulani Muslims have turned to Christ during the past ten years.
LAGOS, SOUTH-WESTERN NIGERIA
In Lagos we were guests of the West Africa Theological Seminary (WATS), Nigeria’s largest interdenominational Bible college. WATS has students from 30 of Nigeria’s states, from more than 40 language groups, from 10 other African countries, and from well over 80 different church denominations. The teaching is all in English. At present there are more than 200 students and many of these are already church leaders.
Outside the seminary, in Lagos itself, we were welcomed in churches of various sorts and in general found the leaders to be sincere and humble men with a desire for fellowship with visitors. Our impression was that many people attend church all their lives without hearing the gospel clearly presented and will respond immediately when given the opportunity. There is an open door in Nigeria for English-speakers who will lovingly proclaim Christ and teach the Scriptures in churches whose style of worship may not immediately appeal.
JOS, CENTRAL NIGERIA
The humid, tropical heat of Lagos, which is situated on the coast, was one of our biggest challenges, but the smaller city of Jos is located 400 miles inland on the high central plateau with a much cooler and drier climate. Here we were teaching at the Theological College of Northern Nigeria (TCNN).
During our first visit to Jos in 2010, fighting broke out between Muslim and Christian tribal factions, when as many as 400 were killed and many more wounded. Churches and homes were burned. Most of the populace would clearly prefer peaceful coexistence, recognising that trouble is stirred up only by a small, fanatical minority. We met one church leader whose church has been burnt down three times but who still goes out with Muslim friends to help the poor of their neighbourhood.
This might not seem an auspicious time to be preparing local people for cross-cultural mission. My students were undaunted and several of them asked for my lecture notes so they could pass on what they had learned to their home churches. One of these young men is involved with a music group performing gospel songs in a traditional style. Another writes and publishes stories with a gospel message and arranges workshops encouraging other writers. My wife had a couple of good sessions in the ‘Women’s School’ with classes for pastors’ wives.
Despite the obvious tensions across the centre of the nation, Nigeria offers an open door for English-speaking evangelists and Bible teachers among the many millions of nominal churchgoers in the south. In rural areas, local languages will be more necessary to assist with camps, clinics and other caring ministries. The large cities are home to thousands migrating from elsewhere in Nigeria and from other African nations, who can be reached there effectively with the gospel, making this an ideal training ground for potential Nigerian mission workers.
Our visits have convinced us that Nigeria has immediate potential for the conversion of many thousands who are open to spiritual truth, and also for the preparation of godly, gifted Nigerian mission workers to make an impact for Christ throughout Africa and indeed the world.