Dr. Francis Bola Akin-John is the founder of Church Growth International Ministries. He is a well-travelled church consultant whose passion is to see to the health of the Church. In this interview with Church Times Nigeria, he shares his experience on how churches are being run in the UK and US with attendant lessons for the Church in Nigeria
You have travelled across Africa, Europe and the US consulting for churches. How will you react to pastors of branches of the denominational church in Europe and US who take over those branches? There is a recent case of Pastor Odutola who took over the branch of the RCCG he is pastoring?
When I read of the case of Pastor Tola Odutola who took over the US Parish of the RCCG I was not taken aback because it has become a normal thing for pastors of branches of Nigerian Churches in the UK and the US to take over the branches. There are too many cases of such, so the news did not come to me as a surprise. But then, when I now read of his reason for leaving the RCCG and later found out that he was holding to the property of the church, I became interested. I read the follow-up development on his exit and found out that he may well be right in his response to the situation in the US. You cannot entirely blame Odutola for the action he took. Having travelled to the US and Europe consulting for churches, I discovered that there is always a conflict of interest between the Nigerian church and the way the church is being run in those countries. I have dealt with situations like that and have come to conclude that it is a recurring problem.
Why did you say such development is normal in the US and Europe?
It’s normal because the laws for setting up churches in those countries allow local churches to thrive. The pastors in charge of every local church for instance reports to the Internal Revenue Services of those countries and they submit their statements of account to the government all the time for scrutiny. Church members in the US for instance don’t give money the way we do here. When they give offering they indicate their names and all their details on the envelope they use to give the money. It is mandatory for them to do that so that the church can keep a record of their income for accounting sake and for them to file for tax-exempt.
Basically, they keep such record so that the government can exempt them from paying tax. It is believed that if you give money to the church you are indirectly supporting the government to help the poor because the Church is seen as a charity. The interesting thing about the church in those countries is that churches are mandated to keep a record of their income for five years at least. Once it can be proved that members of a church pay tithe and offering regularly they will exempt such members from being taxed. The government also uses the record to track the occupation of the giver. They want to be sure that the person who gave money to the church is not a fraudulent person. That is why they ask for all the details of the person.
Also, there is a limit to which money can be given to a guest pastor in the US. A church is not allowed to give more than $750 at most for any guest pastor from the church purse. If a church gives more than that, it would mean that church members contributed the money not from the church purse because the church has to account for every kobo that is spent in the church.
I think the problem of the Nigerian churches in those countries is that their headquarters in Nigeria still want to exercise control over them which is practically impossible. So in the event of trying to control them, they run into a problem. Any attempt to control churches in those countries, the headquarter churches will be running foul of their laws. And that is why the local churches in Nigeria are not thriving. Many local churches in Nigeria are being controlled by the headquarter churches. They control their income. They are mandated to remit 80 per cent of their income to the headquarters in some churches. The headquarter church controls the programmes of the local church. They practically don’t allow local churches to breathe. The local churches can’t hold programmes without getting approvals from the headquarters and their programmes are subject to the programmes of the headquarter church.
Are you saying all Nigerian churches are like this?
I can say many Pentecostal churches and evangelical churches in Nigeria place undue demands on their branches. That is why we have cases of breakaways and pastors going to start their own church. A man is the pastor of a branch of a church and he is not allowed to operate freely. He feels choaked. Before long, he feels like setting up his own church too. But if a local church is allowed to operate freely, there won’t be the problem of breakaways. In the US the people are the owners of the church. If a pastor does not have the support of the people in his parish he can’t go far. Members of the church can decide to sack their pastors if they feel he is not meeting their expectations.
Can we then say the Financial Reporting Council was right when it made a move to regulate the activities of religious organisations a few years ago?
The Financial Reporting Council was about doing the right thing. Unfortunately, they also went to the extreme. Their move was politicized by fathers in the faith. The problem of the church in Nigeria is that it is heavily being influenced by political leaders. By the way, there is nowhere in the Nigerian law that sets up churches that the headquarter church is given the kind of power that it has. The law gives the local church autonomy. But the indigenous Nigerian churches find a way around the law. They use the laws of the church to set aside the government law because the government law gives a window for that. But in actual fact, the law for setting up a church in Nigeria is similar to that of the US and UK but they are not being followed to the letter. If the Nigerian government wakes up today, most church founders will go to jail. Many of them have ulterior motives in setting up the church. They set up branches of their churches and before long they are asking those branches to send as much as 80 per cent of their income to the centre. That is ungodly and a smart way of stifling the local church. The root of the problem in the Nigerian church today is their disdain for the local church.
So, what would be your recommendation?
Well, I think the first thing is for the church founders to go back to the Bible and practice church the way it should be practised. They should have the fear of God and should eschew ulterior motive in setting up branches. If I may recommend, branches of a particular church should not send more than 10 per cent of their income to the headquarter church. It is sad that we do everything to plant churches but end up killing them.
The argument in some circles is that some of the local churches may abuse the privileges of controlling their funds and their programmes?
I don’t think so. That is why they should put in place checks and balances. The headquarter church and their branches are like the relationship between the parent and the child. When a mother gives birth to a baby, will she be controlling the baby when the baby grows up and is married? It is only in the Nigerian church that the headquarter church still wants to have undue influence on their branches
Some people will argue that the present method of control is working?
It is not working. Statistics have shown that many local churches have died over the years because of the overbearing influence of the headquarters of these churches. Pastors of these churches are not given the freedom to do what they are being led to do. If the founder sees a local pastor that is dynamic and productive, he will tolerate him and use him to set up many branches and nurture them. They keep moving such person from one church to the other. The moment the person gets to a particular age and no longer useful they do away with him. That is the trend in many Nigerian churches. There is a lot of injustices in church management.
Still talking about the Church in the UK and the US, what would you have done if you were running a church under a denomination in the US and you feel like moving on?
If I were in the shoes of Odutola for instance, I would have just walked out and leave the church. If people in the church love you, they will come and meet you where you are. But then, it would not have made any difference because the laws setting up the church will still see me as the one responsible for the church and I will be answerable to the authorities. What can be done is to write to the authority and do a foreclosure that you are no longer interested in running the church. There is the case of a Nigerian Church in Canada. The General Overseer of the Church in Nigeria sent a message to him that he must remit 50 per cent of the income of the church to the headquarters. The pastor wrote to him and said it was not possible, that if he tried it, he would be in jail. The G.O then said, if he could not remit then he should leave the church. The law of the country says you can only use 20 per cent of your funds for foreign missions. So this pastor resigned and moved to another city to seek the face of God. He was still praying when the members of the church he left sent a message to him that they wanted him. They moved away from the church building and called for a foreclosure of the building. They now got a new property and began another ministry. The point is, if your members love you, there is little the headquarter church can do because the members determine who their pastor is.
Going forward sir, what in practical terms could be done by the Church in Nigeria to save it from further regress?
Well, I think the bottom line is for us to go back to the Bible. If we have the love of Jesus, we will go back to what the Bible says about the Church of God and have the courage to do what is right. The way the church is being run today is the reason why the Church is powerless. Many of the pastors of the branch churches have been so immersed in the ungodly system that they too are waiting to get to the top so they could continue with the system. But if you look at the Bible, you will discover that the first Church Council in Acts 15 gives us a clear example that the Church in Jerusalem did not have undue control over the branches of the church outside Jerusalem.
When there was a problem of circumcision or no circumcision by the gentile churches the brethren in those branches were only advised to stay away from things offered to idols, from fornication and from idolatry. The apostles did not talk about money at all. As a matter of fact, the churches were not sending money to the headquarter Church apart from when there was famine and they had to support the brethren in Jerusalem. But Paul made us realize that the apostles had nothing to do with money from those branches. He said only the Church in Philippian that responded to his needs.
It has been proven that the best way to run the church is to allow the local Church to thrive. When we kill the local Church, we end up killing the spread of the gospel. It is sad the way local churches are being strangulated. There are instances where the headquarter church of some denomination, looks out for wealthy members in the branches and direct their attention away from those branches. There are some churches that send secret intelligence to the branches to find out what they do and monitor their activities with an ulterior motive. This is not right.
Talking about the way pastors are being transferred, the argument is that it is not proper for a pastor to stay too long in a place. That such pastor will soon become a law to himself. How will you react to this?
It’s part of our carnality to think a pastor will become a law to himself for staying long in a place. A pastor as far as I am concerned can stay in a parish for 50 years as long as he is doing well and making the desired impact. When we move pastors around, we kill their morale and destroy them economically. It does not even help the home of the pastor. What I see is that many churches are being run the way Nigeria is run. Everything about Nigeria is centralized. The Nigeria government has not allowed the component units to develop at their own pace. Rather, every state goes to the centre to collect funds. That is why we are not making progress. When a church is overly being controlled by the centre, such a church will not grow the way it should.
But then which church is getting it right as it is?
I can tell you that the Baptist Church has a good model maybe because it is a foreign mission in Nigeria. A few other orthodox churches have good management styles which encourage branches to thrive. But a majority of the churches especially Pentecostal and evangelical churches don’t allow their branches to thrive. This is unfortunate.