CHURCH growth consultant, Dr. Francis Bola Akin-John in an interview with SAM EYOBOKA, spoke on how to stem the tide of failing local churches in line with a new campaign his organisation, International Church Growth Ministries, an interdenominational ministry founded to equip ministers and local churches, has just launched. Excerpts:
You just launched a campaign tagged Healthy Local Church Africa. Are you extending your tentacles to cover the entire continent?
If God opens the doors, why not? From reliable research, Christianity has experienced geometrical increase in the last 100 years in Africa. At the turn of the decade, they were just about 60 million Christians in Africa. But just 15 years ago, Christianity has shot up to 760 millions. But a lot of them are not in any local church.
So, where are they?
A lot of them have left churches because of disenchantment with how we handle things. We are large in congregational meetings but we are short on discipleship and spiritual health. So, our intention is to have healthy local churches in the continent.
It appears like a tall dream. How do you intend to go about it?
We intend to organise seminars and conduct training for churches and ministers. We are also looking at consultancy and looking at how churches are not running their operations well. For example, a lot of denominations centralise operations in such a way that local churches are not allowed to function healthily. They are just there but not reaching their communities for impact. So, we intend to educate and mobilise people to begin to allow local churches function. That’s the only way we can reach communities. The idea of centralising everything is killing innovations and affecting the health of local churches.
When you say centralising operations, what do you mean?
It means a mega church with branches that are not allowed to function and grow. They are functionally, financially and morally to the headquarters. They remit 90 per cent, sometimes 100 per cent of their revenues to the central body. The control is so much that they cannot function or grow on their own. Everything is subjected to what happens at the headquarters. That is what is killing local churches in Africa. Yes, we can start them and have a measure of control in terms of monitoring their doctrines and pastoral authorities. But they need autonomy to grow on their own and move at their pace for growth. Take for example, the issue of pastoral transfer has killed many local churches. Yes, transfer is good in some situations but when pastors are transferred every two, three years; it is killing. When people know a pastor will soon be transferred, they won’t support him like they should. Research has shown that a local church will grow faster when people know he has come to stay for a long time. If you check churches that are growing worldwide, the pastor has been there for 10, 15 years.
What are the other factors that affect the health of local churches?
Another factor is competence of pastors. Many local pastors do not know the peculiar nature of their environment. Then, you have to also consider the administrative structures of many local churches. Many of them are faulty. Many of our churches only focus on Sunday and mid-week services. There is nothing on growing people and the communities. There is nothing on specific departments and groupings. Most people that worship in local churches only meet once. There are not bonding together and the love of Christ is not there. In most African churches, we have established elders and council members that have money but do not have the qualities of Christ. In some cases too, we have good elders that have to contend with bad pastors.
Shouldn’t pastors be accountable also to church authorities in any way?
Oh, they should be accountable. They must be accountable to God and the boards of the church. The church should not be a one-man show. The pastor must be a servant and the first among equals. The pastor should never see himself as the Alpha and Omega. He has to overcome inferiority complex and not fail to accept suggestions and criticisms from others. If he considers himself above all of these, he will create problems in the local church. He will drive away a lot of good people that want to contribute to the growth of the church genuinely.
So, this campaign is for the next 10 years?
Yes, it is. But I’m afraid it will be for the rest of my life. I don’t see myself doing anything different from this henceforth. With the kind of insights, information and passion that God has given, I will do this for the rest of my life across the globe.
Why concentrate on local, instead of global or mega churches?
It is local churches that make global church. Global churches are created from local churches. It is through local churches that we can make communal impact. If you see denominations that boast of having many branches, ask them how many of them are truly healthy. Mega churches are created from local churches. If the local churches are not healthy, the global church is finished. They are the basic units of Christianity. If local churches are making impact in their communities, we’d soon cover the world for God. The sad thing is that we don’t care for local churches. Most district heads and provincial pastors are only interested in financial reports from local churches.
It is at the local church level that we can mould lives and disciple people. If we fail there, we will fail everywhere else. It is unfortunate that most local churches spend 90 per cent of time, money and resources erecting physical structures. Nothing is wrong with that but if we pay as little as half of that on building people for the Lord, we will have changed the world.
My fear is that if we continue building structures and not people, we will soon have the same scenario happening across Europe. You see many massive structures without people. Many churches have become monuments. There are only worshippers when there are terrorist attacks, funerals or New Year. It is happening here already. We have structures but we are not building people. We are almost repeating the mistakes of Europe in Africa. We should build structures but ensure the people there are discipled and committed to God.
Is the idea of a healthy not just idealistic? Is it really possible to have a healthy church?
The answer is absolutely and categorically yes. It is not idealism. Everyone seeks medical health. When there is any threat, we rest, take drugs or go to the hospitals. We don’t wait till we are sick to seek help. It is the same with the church because it is the body of Christ. If you ask can the church be healthy? I will throw it back; can the human body be healthy? Yes, it can. You are here because your body is healthy. So, if you can be healthy, the body of Christ too can be healthy. There are criteria to know if a church is healthy. One is a healthy pastor who is competent. That church must have started by God’s expressed directive. Also, there must be healthy relationship. Four, there must be healthy members that are changed and transformed.
There must also be loving atmosphere, not an environment where we gossip and back-bite one another. People must be able to use their gifts and endowments. You mustn’t pull down people because they are gifted. It must be a prayerful church for the light to shine in the community. There must be commitment to evangelism through our conducts and words of mouths. The idea of a healthy church is not about perfection because it is full of people with mistakes. So it is not canvassing for a perfect church but a growing, rapturable church.
Church health is not utopian or a figment of imagination. It is possible. It may not happen in a year but we keep working at it. Those who want healthy bodies watch what they eat and how they live. It is the same with the church. We can’t just run church without periodic check-ups. Big things don’t kill churches; it is small things that kill churches.
Small things like what?
Like a pastor falling into moral or financial failure; like not living in peace in the community. Constituting a nuisance through noise or parking indiscriminately. If you are at loggerheads with your neighbours, it will kill the church. Like someone falling into immorality and we refuse to discipline him or her, it will kill the church. If there is grumbling and murmuring yet we ignore them, it will kill the church. Pastors believe once people are coming and the anointing is working, the church is fine. That is erroneous. Physical bigness is not a sign of healthiness. You can be big and be unhealthy. We plant churches everywhere but many of them are not growing and healthy. Ministers must learn to watch over the health of churches the same way they are committed to planting them.