The news of the passage of Dr. Francis Bola John, the legendary Church growth enthusiast and founder of the International Church Growth Institute, sent shock waves to many on Saturday, October 7.
He had passed on on the night of October 6 at the age of 58.
Many didn’t meet him physically but they had encounters with his books and his messages on Church growth. Those who had cause to relate with him had a bite of different angles of him.
Our paths crossed while I was still in the Punch Newspapers. I had attended his lectures on Church growth as far back as the year 2000. But he started the ministry in 1994.
We related quite well in those years because I had cause to write stories on his seminars and also did extensive interviews with him.
We however got closer when in 2007 I decided to quit Punch. He was the first person I told I was leaving Punch outside my immediate family. I knew he had a network of pastors and that the network would be useful to me in church reporting.
Though I gave out virtually all the copies of the first edition of Church Times free to people just to test the waters, Dr Akin-John insisted he was going to pay for the 100 copies I supplied him. And he did pay.
He did not stop at that, several months later he increased his subscription to 200 copies and then to 400 copies. Every month for several years before Covid-19 when we stopped regular printing he was always collecting 400 copies and paying for them.
Because I had to supply Church Times regularly to his office, I became more or less a part of his ministry. At a time, we were using his office as our contact base.
Not a fussy person
Despite paying heavily for copies, he was not fussy about getting his story used. There was no time he insisted I must use his story. Rather, there were occasions he still paid for placing adverts in the paper.
He was not only passionate about Church Times, he took me as a brother and we discussed frankly and intimately. Indeed, he helped many people grow their ministries. Many of the people who worked with him enjoyed some form of leverage with his ministry.
His last fight
Watching him from the sideline, I saw a man who bestrode the church world like a colossus, engaging church leaders and championing a silent revolution in the church community.
His last fight was the fight to allow the local church to breathe. He was against the feudal system that held many churches bound.
He questioned the idea of small churches feeding the headquarters churches with their income. Rather, he had advocated that only a fraction of their income should be sent to headquarters churches so that the small churches could grow.
He had this down-to-earth marketplace approach to church issues that endeared him to many church leaders. He was practical and scientific in his various interventions. His passion was to find solutions to knotty problems in the church.
Just like a medical doctor, he had an uncanny ability to detect sickness and diseases in the Church. And he was quick to proffer solutions.
Beyond the ministry, Akin-John was down-to-earth and relatable. He had this aura that made people feel comfortable in his presence. I saw him more like a big brother and fellow laborer in God’s vineyard.
In his early years as a young man, he toyed with many things. He was a bus conductor, a photographer, and a clerk in quick succession.
But as a young Christian, he was exposed to the books of David Yongi Cho who was then pastor of the largest church in the world. It was those books that first ignited the fire of church growth in him. From then, he began to buy more books in that area.
His academic prowess
He did not have the luxury of a formal secondary school education. But his quest for education saw him traverse the academic field with an unparalleled zeal.
He studied on his own through informal classes and wrote the General Certificate of Education which he used to secure admission to Bible colleges including the Redeemed Christian Bible College. He read to the point of earning a PhD in theology.
His work as a pastor for 8 years in the Christ Apostolic Church gave him the needed foundation for the ministry. But he developed himself through books. Dr Akin John’s library is worth millions of naira. The wealth of resources at his disposal is stunning. He sourced information everywhere. He had a tradition of buying at least three newspapers every day.
Despite facing criticisms from pastors in the early years of the ministry he kept a focused gaze and pursued his dream with a measured zeal. For those who cared to find out more about this new perspective on ministry, he took time to educate them.
Many pastors came to him, hoping he would deliver to them a magic wand that would make their churches multiply in a short time.
But they soon discovered they could not escape the hard work. It turned out to many that the principles of Church growth are the same principles that Jesus taught his disciples. It’s about the hard work of prayer and personal growth of bearing the fruit of the spirit.
He kept drumming into the ears of those who cared to listen that his idea of church growth was not primarily about numerical growth. He would often say, a church can’t grow beyond its leader.
In the last 25 years of his ministry, God opened for him international doors. He runs regular training for pastors in Europe, the US, South Africa, and several other countries in Africa.
A family man to the core, Akin-John had imbued in his wife, Kemi the can-do spirit. She has been holding the forte in women’s ministry, leading women to intercede for their husbands
But heaven has called this great teacher and passionate servant of God home. His son, Francis Ibukunoluwa situates his transition well stating that he has passed on “from death to life”.
The sickness that took him only held his body for a few days. It was a passage door to a glorious eternity. He will certainly always be in our hearts. His books will no doubt bless many generations yet unborn.
It’s goodnight to a gallant soldier for Christ!
By Gbenga Osinaike