Pentecostal church looks to white Britons to boost congregations
Staff Correspondent | Published: 20:20 pm, 06 Jan 2017, Fri
The UK’s biggest and fastest growing Pentecostal church is embarking on an ambitious expansion programme in 2017, in part aimed at attracting white Britons to join its black majority congregations. The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), which already has almost 800 places of worship in the UK, plans to open another 100 next year, according to one of its leading pastors. “We might not hit 100 but if we hit half that it will still be significant,” Agu Irukwu told the Guardian. “We’re a bit more intentional now about planting churches in communities other than the traditional places you would expect to find us.” He added: “Some people call what we’re doing ‘reverse mission’. I don’t use that term, but there’s a bit of truth in it. We’re working to bring the good news back to this country which in some ways has lost it.” The RCCG, founded in Nigeria in 1952, is established in more than 100 countries. It has grown from a handful of church communities in the UK 25 years ago to 779 at the end of 2016, with a presence in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as England. O click, all ye faithful: church expands online in 'paradigm shift' Read more According to Peter Brierley, a former director of Christian Research and publisher of UK Church Statistics 2005-15, in the UK it now dwarfs longer-established Pentecostal churches such as the Assemblies of God and Elim. “The RCCG came to the UK in the context of ‘reverse mission’,” said Brierley. “They were concerned about the spiritual state of Britain. Britain had brought the gospel to them, but had lost its way and needed to be re-evangelised. It’s now in about 70% of UK towns.” Irukwu, who grew up in Lagos, leads the biggest RCCG church, Jesus House in Brent Cross, north London, which regularly attracts more than 2,000 people to its Sunday services. He said: “We believe this nation paid a big price in bringing the gospel to far-flung parts of the world.” Many had given their lives to their cause and to establish missionary schools and hospitals. Advertisement “I see myself as fruit of the missionary effort and missionary sacrifice. People like me feel we owe these missionaries – and by extrapolation, their country – for a lot that has happened to us.” He said he would not describe himself as a missionary, although others did. But, he added: “I feel a church has to be open, has to reach out to all the groups wherever that church is – exactly what the missionaries did. London, especially, is a multicultural melting pot, and if a church is in London it should aim to look like London.” Five years ago, Irukwu was voted Britain’s most inspirational black person in a poll organised by Boris Johnson, then mayor of London, and the Metro newspaper. But the result also led to criticism over the RCCG’s adherence to traditional biblical teaching on sexuality, including same-sex relationships. The stories you need to read, in one handy email Read more Irukwu insisted the church embraced people of different backgrounds and lifestyles. “I might disagree with you about your lifestyle or orientation, but that doesn’t preclude me loving you and welcoming you,” he said. “Any church that condemns is not preaching the full message of the gospel of Christ.” The RCCG had a “fabulous relationship” with the Church of England, said Irukwu. He was a personal friend of Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, and had close ties with Holy Trinity Brompton, the west London C of E church which pioneered the evangelical Alpha course, now used all over the world. The Pentecostal and Anglican traditions had much to learn from each other, he added. “In black majority churches, prayer is a big thing. We have a culture of prayer. And the C of E is light years ahead of black majority churches on theology – we just don’t have the depth that the C of E has.” The RCCG had embarked on a radical programme of change, he said. “Society is changing rapidly. If the church doesn’t change too, it will be irrelevant in five to 10 years’ time. We’re going to chuck a lot of what we do because it just doesn’t work.” Advertisement The key to appealing to the millennial generation was informality, contemporary music, creating “life groups” around thematic issues such as male identity, and harnessing technology, he said. Next month, the RCCG is launching an online prayer group, which is expected to attract up to 500 participants, initially twice a week and eventually daily. The age profile of the congregation at Jesus House is 25-30, according to Irukwu. It employs 50 full-time staff at its huge Brent Cross premises, supported by 600 volunteers. Its income was more than £5.2m in 2015, raised mostly by individual donations. The RCCG organises the Festival of Life, one of the UK’s largest religious gatherings, which attracted about 45,000 people last year and was addressed by the then prime minister, David Cameron.