Updated: Jul 21
PLANTING CHURCHES LIKE STARBUCKS: On the Redeemed Christian Church of God and How Corporate Capitalism Developed the African Diaspora
Introduction: Planting Churches Like Starbucks
In 2014, The BBC video series Altered States published a video feature entitled “African church spreading gospel in US”. The video begins by showcasing a peach-colored building that resembles a bungalow with a white fluorescent sign marking the “The Redeemed Church of God: Cornerstone Worship Center for All Nations”. The scene then shifts to inside the church where are met by a congregation engaged in upbeat praise and worship. Abruptly, the video shifts from the peach-colored bungalow to a newly constructed 10,000 seat auditorium on a 700-acre lot located on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas. From there, the audience meets Pastor James Fadele of the Redeemed Christian Church of God Dallas (RCCG), who explains that his goal is to “plant churches like Starbucks” across the United States. He also outlines how he hopes to grow the capacity of the auditorium from 10,000 seats to 100,000 seats and hopes to use the land to also build a university, sports complex, and golf course (Margolis, 2015). Fadele emphasizes that his mission is that for any given family of four (from any ethnicity), at least one person from that family is a member of the Redeemed Christian Church of God. The clip wraps up with the reporter and a Professor Ruth Marshall from the University of Toronto making comments on how they are highly skeptical of Pastor Fadele’s goals and doubt that its growth will go beyond families from the Nigerian diaspora.
What is currently happening in the suburbs of Boston, in the outskirts of Dallas, and now in over 800 parishes all across the United States is something that Americans can recognize — a growing religious movement. What we see in Pastor Fadele, is what was once saw in men like R. G. LeTourneau of LeTourneau Technologies, or Herbert G. Taylor of the Christian Workers Foundation, or even the Christian Businessmen’s Committee (CBMC) in general. These are all men who worked to proliferate their Christian movements through the ways and means of corporate capitalism. These are men that strove to “go big” and were deeply concerned with alliance-building and how to change society into what they viewed as better. In this essay I will first argue that the growth of the Redeemed Christian Church of God is due, in part, to its use of corporate capitalism in the way that greatly mirrors how corporate capitalism supported the evangelical movement in the 20th century. With this, I will heavily rely on the historical analysis in Daniel Vaca’s Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America (2019) and Timothy Gloege’s Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (2015), as well as reference other religious historians like Darren Grem, Bethany Moreton, and Asonzeh F.-K. Ukah. After focusing on the churches media strategy and their use of advertising, I will then conclude this analysis by briefly touching on how the continual growth of the RCCG functions as a “reverse mission” or more specifically, that by the church using that same mores and modalities of religious growth and corporate capitalism that was once used against West Africa, it creates a new player in the religious market who has created economic power though the same tools that was once used against it.
A Franchisee and A Math Professor: A History of the Redeemed Christian Church of God
Before he was called to be the Assistant General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God North America (RCCGNA), Dr. James O. Fadel (formerly known as James Fadele) was a mechanical engineer. After working at Ford Motor Company, he received his master’s degree in Operations Research followed by a MBA from Lawrence Technical University. He then operated a car detailing company and owned two Wendy’s franchises. By and large, Dr. Fadel entered Bakke University in 2012 as a businessman and left as a pastor of a megachurch with his Doctorate in Ministry. Through all of this, Dr. Fadel has been a member of RCCG since 1975 when he was still living in Nigeria. There he quickly became a mentee of Pastor Enoch Adejare Adeboye who had just joined the church two years earlier. Pastor Adeboye now serves as the General Overseer of RCCG, and though he is known for not owning a pair of shoes until he was eighteen, Forbes magazine estimates that he is now worth between $30- $65 million dollars and oversees 10 million RCCG members. His transportation of choice is a private jet.
The success of RCCG practitioners like Pastor Fadel and Pastor Adeboye is by design. As such, it is no coincidence that a former franchisee and a math professor are the top leadership of this organization. The Redeemed Christian Church of God is an international Pentecostal megachurch system that was founded in Lagos, Nigeria in 1952 by Pa Josiah Akindayomi. Before the creation of RCCG Pastor Akindayomi was known as a priest of the Cherubim and Seraphim (C&S) church which helped him gain a small following. After being frustrated with the C&S church and getting into a dispute with the church leadership, he reported that he received a vision from God with the words “Redeemed Christian Church of God” written on a blackboard. Though Pa Akindayomi was not able to read or write in English, he was able to transcribe and understand the words on the board. He later says that in this moment, God made a covenant with him that his church would grow to the ends of the Earth and when at Jesus’s return he will go and meet his new church. According to Azonseh Ukah, a University of Cape Town professor and a scholar of African Pentecostalism, in his paper “Globalization of Pentecostalism in Africa: evidence from the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Nigeria”, by the time of Pastor Akindayomi’s death in 1980, RCCG grew and became a coalition of 39 parishes all located around Lagos. However before his passing, Pa Akindayomi appointed a 39-year-old math professor (who had been a member of RCCG for just 7 years) to be his successor — Enoch Adejare Adeboye.
Ukah writes that under Pastor Adeboye, “ RCCG has moved from a ‘tribal church’ of 39 parishes of about 1,000 people in 1981 to 10,000 parishes (as of August 2005) in 90 countries” (Ukah, 2005). As of today, the RCCG website states that the church now manages 51,580 parishes across 197 countries. This means that in the past 15 years one under Pastor Adeboye’s leadership, the church grown by 515.8% (in terms of number of parishes). To put this into perspective, Starbucks, the world’s largest coffeehouse chain, only operates in 70 counties over 30,000 locations. Perhaps Starbucks is planting coffeeshops like the Redeemed Christian Church of God.
This growth strategy is clear in the structure of RCCG. At the time of the transition from Pa Akindayomi to Pastor Adeboye, the church was headed towards its decline. Through strict terms of membership (especially for women) and its refusal to collect offerings, Pastor Adeboye inherited a church that was poor and was rebuked by well-educated young professionals in Nigeria. However, Pastor Adeboye set out to change this. By 1988 he set up “model parishes” that ran alongside the traditional ones, yet these permitted almost everything that was once outlawed by the church. Yet, the distinguishing characteristic of these model parishes were its openness to modernity. Clad in new technology and reduced barriers to entry, Ukah writes how the new parishes “symbolize what is best in the material world, [the model parishes] bring home to people icons of high modernity as new media and global consumption appetites modern forms of packaging and marketing of (religious) services and products” (Ukah, 2005). Model parishes are now the standard for RCCG, and its “discounts” on membership bolstered demand. For Ukah, the increase and expansion of the model parishes was the driving force for the local and international multiplication of RCCG parishes. He concludes by emphasizing that “The new parishes are pragmatic and cosmopolitan in outcome, emphasizing product packaging, ‘powerful delivery of the message’, astute salesmanship and creative media use” (Ukah 2005). Pastor Adeboye championed a new, modern apparatus that attracted huge swathes of young professionals. Then, as this trend solidified, Pastor Adeboye in the same year established the Redeemed Christian Fellowship (RCF) for the youth in order to concurrently mold the next generation of attendees.
On top of it all, Adeboye set out to implement a very rigorous media strategy that solidified the churches spread. They turned sermons into cassette tapes then into DVDs, set up multiple radio shows, and by 2005 established their own cable and satellite television station called, The Dove. They even dipped their toes in book publishing. What supported the RCCG in North America the most was the advent of the internet. Using their Houston, Texas branch as their pilot, the RCCG now utilizes a robust network of emails, chat features, e-materials and streaming that are spearheaded by three media-specific RCCG facilities in Texas, London, and Lagos. From this entire structure, it is then no surprise that “RCCG is in the forefront of Pentecostal advertising in Nigeria” (Ukah, 2005). All in all, Adeboye’s RCCG was one to grow and one to last.
No Tithe, No Heaven: The RCCG Prosperity Gospel and Pentecostal Capitalism
On top of the RCCG model parish framework, there is also another entity that undergirds the entire operation for which the diaspora is a key player — its doctrine. In a video posted to Instagram on April 11, 2018, Pastor Adeboye is shown at the pulpit saying that “Anyone who is not paying his tithes is not going to heaven”. This clip went viral on Twitter and was followed by another clip, where Pastor Adeboye is a bit more aggressive stating, “Make it clear to them. Anyone who is not paying his tithe is not going to heaven. Full stop.” Much of RCCG growth is a consequence of its ministry and its programming that extends way beyond regular church services. The church is known for its utilization of what has been termed as “the prosperity gospel”.
The prosperity gospel is a religious belief that financial blessing and physical well-being are tied to the will of God, and specifically that monetary donations to religious causes will increase one's material wealth. Additionally, this belief system has been credited by many scholars to have been founded in the United States. Historian Bethany Moreton describes this phenomenon as central to Pentecostalism and the New Christian Right in her book To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (2009). For Moreton, “Pentecostals often embraced “health- and- wealth” optimism, certain that God rewarded his faithful with ever- increasing abundance. This prosperity gospel was an international movement, linking Christians from Colorado Springs to Kinshasa to Seoul”. (Moreton, 2009). RCCG pastors, and Pastor Adeboye in particular, are unapologetic about their use of this religious belief in their preaching. This became an area of concern for Professor Goka Mpigi in his paper “The Prosperity Theology's Impact on the contemporary Nigerian Church and Society”. There is writes how the prosperity theology has had profound effects on the nature of Pentecostalism in Nigeria and advances how its outcomes have become poignantly palatable to Nigerian sensibilities. Mpigi accredits Texas evangelist Kenneth E. Hagin as the pioneer of the prosperity theology but cites Bishop Benson Idahosa, a contemporary of Adeboye, as the one who brought it to West Africa (Mpigi, 2017). Idahosa was a counter majoritarian in a fancy foreign car who is said to have worked against the theological trends of the time and drafted a message that was highly appealing to a country that was still feeling the shockwaves of Civil War. Bishop Idahosa preached that “Christian’s ought to have access to material wealth and live life to the full [and] insisted that members of his church should not tithe nor give offerings with coins, but currency notes of high worth” (Mpigi, 2017). The methods of the prosperity gospel were immediately and exceedingly profitable, especially for its practitioners. By compelling masses of people to pay large sums and rooting their claims in disjointed Biblical scriptures, the impact had many transformative effects on Pentecostal leaders but also for many of the Nigerian communities that they served.
Bolstered by years of political instability following independence in 1960, Mpigi describes how, “The uncertainty in the Nigerian economic and political environment has made the message of prosperity become more appealing ever than before. A new sense of urgency has been transmitted into the worldview of the lower class, spiritually oppressed, as well as the unemployed in Nigeria. The Pentecostal prosperity theologians’ promise of spiritual and material empowerment has given people in the society a new understanding and application to the happenings around them in their day-to-day life” (Mpigi, 2017). When the government became unreliable, communities looked to Pentecostal churches for education and job opportunities and these churches delivered on their promises. As more and more churches were established under this theology, so were more educational facilities and economic development. As we saw from RCCG, the Pentecostal churches used their parishioners and their “notes of high worth” that created a micro-economy when GDP and GNI looked to be G.O.N.E.
Mpigi references Adeboye and the RCCG as a leader in shaping its congregation to adhere to the prosperity gospel. He writes in reference to Adeboye how he indoctrinates members through a collective understanding of individual sin/uncleanliness and posits economic participation and spiritual asceticism as facts. He, among many, adheres to an “emphasis and insistence on faithfulness in stewardship, correct tithe payment; sacrificial and unlimited offering in the church” (Mpigi, 2017). Tithing is the main source of income for the RCCG, and members are compelled to give 10% of their income directly to the church. In addition to this, all parishes around the world give a portion of their budget to Adeboye in Nigeria. Especially in America, concurrent to tithes, members are also compelled to offer their tax returns and write RCCG in their wills. The business structure of the RCCG that is strengthened by prosperity theology is what underpins its commercial success. It is the steady income stream, the demand, the revenue, that is then reinvested back into RCCG and overall champions the fact that Pentecostalism “is the fastest growing industry in Nigeria and the second most popular export after crude oil” (Ukah, 2005). RCCG being a leader in this industry.
Overall, what we find in RCCG is a system “entrenched with the help of local and global companies and industries” with a doctrine that makes it impenetrable. In this way, RCCG the church cannot be decoupled from RCCG the business. It a business that packages theology, outsources it to the rest of the world, and has carved out a niche in the religious market that fuels its strength. It is publicly recognizable and yet privately experienced. It sells prosperity and competes for souls. It is “Pentecostal capitalism” (Ukah, 2005).
Something American Evangelicals Can Recognize
Just as the prosperity gospel is known to be rooted in the American evangelical movement, there are many of the other factors present in the case on the RCCG that evangelicals can recognize. Specifically, in this section, the focus would be on three occurrences in the story of the RCCG that mirror that of the American Evangelical movement as a whole in the 20th century. These three factors are first, its molding of a market, second, its aggressive media presence, and third the synergies between religiosity and capitalism.
First, American Evangelicals can recognize the ways in which businessmen (turned church leaders) mold the market that they strive to cater to. Starting my analysis with the Moody Bible Institute (MBI), founded in 1886, businessmen D. L. Moody and Henry Crowell were acutely aware of the power of limiting barriers to entry in order to increase religious demand, but, also how religion provides the opportunity to empower the perfect market that creates this demand. In Guaranteed Pure, Timothy Gloege argues that MBI and other newly developed evangelical institutions adopted cross-denominationalism that helped to craft a more appealing form of evangelicalism for middle class consumer. Then from Darren Grem we see how MBI then took these consumers into their ranks and turned them into “gap men” or rather “a new kind of worker, a missionary “professional” who came to the city’s stockyards and packinghouses and served as intermediaries between working class communities, social workers, and ministers” (Grem, 2016). Outsourcing is the name of the game here. People in need walk into institutions like the MBI or in RCCG’s case the Redemption Camp in Texas, and walk out as “gap men” equipped to extend the institutions reach nationally or internationally. American evangelicalism has been made strong through its education and a doctrine that emphasizes conversion interpersonally and extra personally. Moreton touches on this specifically in her chapter “Making Christian Businessmen” where she describes how by the midcentury, Christian businessmen created the work force they needed to sustain their reach through education and indoctrination (Moreton, 2009).
Second, the American Evangelical movement can recognize the RCCG’s use of a rigorous media strategy to increase their religious reach and appeal. The blood of mass media runs through the veins o