Bishop Abraham Olaleye may not strike a chord among many. But he is one of the leading evangelicals in Nigeria whose passion for souls, burns from both ends were his life a candle stick. His burden for souls have seen him traverse many parts of Nigeria and about four continents of the world preaching the saving grace of Jesus. Olaleye is husband to Gbemi Olaleye, the celebrated songbird in the gospel music genre. He celebrated his 60th birthday in October. He shared his passion for evangelism and his exploits across the globe with Gbenga Osinaike in this interview. Below are excerpts
How did you come about the passion for evangelism?
God had promised my father he would give him a son that would carry a prophetic and apostolic mantle. I happened to be the last born of the family and the son the Lord had promised him. So it was drummed into my ears that I would do evangelical work right from my growing up even before I came to have a personal revelation and understanding of Jesus. But as a young man I wanted to live my life. But then I was not so much wayward though I had my own idiosyncrasies. As God would have it, between 1977 and 1978 I came across the books of TL Osborn: Soul winning where the sinners are and Join this Chariot. When I read these books it dawned on me that God was calling me to be an evangelist; to go into the world and preach the gospel. But that did not come to reality until 1983 when I came into full time ministry and began to travel to places within Nigeria to preach the gospel and then to the ends of the world.
What were you doing before you ventured into full time ministry?
I was working with the then National Bank of Nigeria. I had intention of furthering my education and do public financial management. But then I was always reminded of my calling. But then, I thought I needed to be educated to establish myself socially and financially before venturing into ministry. I did not want to be seen as someone who dropped out from school.
God however did not allow me to further though I secured admission to a school in the US. So I was in ministry as an evangelist and was doing that until 1986 when God laid in my heart to start a church as a launch pad for the evangelical effort. But God warned me not to go into church planting because that may derail my evangelistic calling. The church was supposed to be a base for us. But then God began to open doors to many African countries. I was able to preach in open air crusades in many countries in Africa starting from Nigeria.
In Nigeria it’s only the North West that I have not been to preach the gospel. God has also opened doors in Asia. At a time we were going to Asia every year for seven years. There was a year we went there twice. First for a crusade and then to conduct apostolic conference alongside Apostle Alfred Williams. We had about 1000 ministers in attendance at that meeting. My team and I have also been to many parts of Europe, America and a few other countries of the world.
You talked about the books of TL Osborn. And I can see your picture with him in your sitting room. How did you meet him and what were the fallout of that meeting?
I met him first through his books. But I met him physically in 1999 in his home in the US. It was Pastor Sunday Adelaja who facilitated the meeting. Adelaja had told him how his books inspired me into ministry. So he arranged for me to see him. I was with him for 4 hours. And he said he had not spent four hours alone with any human being in his life apart from his family. I saw his simplicity and his humility. It was infectious. That meeting meant a lot to me. After the meeting I knelt down that he should pray for me. He too knelt down. And I said no sir, I am to kneel down and you are to stand up to pray for me. I insisted before he agreed to my proposal. I will never forget, he said Abraham, “When I see what you have done, (I took recordings of our activities and meetings to him) yet your humility before me, I know you will go far. When you look back you will be so amazed what the Lord had done through you. After the prayers and all the talks, he drove me personally in his Jaguar car to a Chinese restaurant for launch. When we got there he said to the people, this is my brother from Nigeria. I took note of that and it registered something in me. From that day I imbibed the culture of calling people who are in ministry with me brothers and sisters rather than calling them sons and daughters. There may be nothing wrong in saying my son but I think I like the simplicity of saying my brother because we are all equal before God. I felt so humble and decided I will rather follow this pattern of calling people in ministry brothers and sisters.
TL Osborn until his death was known for his passion for souls and open air crusade. You have also been into the open air crusade for a while. But it seems that culture is dying because of the changing times and the social media impact. Do you see a future in open air crusade?
We have to acknowledge the fact that social media is changing many things. But that does not take the place of open air crusade. Open air crusade was the method of Jesus. He preached to multitudes. Open air crusade is a more aggressive pattern of preaching the word of God. And it resonates with people in the rural areas especially and where technology is low. So it has its place. But the challenge is that people are no longer looking at that area.
When we talk of social media we are talking of an advanced society. But the truth is that many people still don’t have access to the internet. The open air crusade is still very relevant. And there is nothing wrong with it. Like TL Osborn said, there is nothing wrong with the harvest but the labourers are those who have problem. They are the ones not obeying the master to go to the field.
There are some evangelists who still do morning cry and sometimes you wonder if this method is effective for soul winning. How will you react to this?
I don’t really have problem with that because at least when they preach somebody will hear the message and possibly surrender to Jesus. But the problem is that many of those who do morning cry are not preaching the gospel. Many preach their denomination. Some preach religion. Some preach dos and don’ts. The question is do we really know what it means to communicate the love of God demonstrated through the death of his son Jesus Christ? Just about a week ago, the Guiding Light Assembly organised a crusade at the Obalende area of Lagos and I was the one called to minister at the crusade. The anointing was the same. The power of God was the same. People were blessed. There were lots and lots of people there. The harvest is truly plenteous. If we allow the Lord of the harvest to direct us we will be able to reach so many people. As TL Osborn would say human needs are the same all over the world. No matter the state of any human being in the world there is a lack that must be addressed and only the gospel can address it. The gospel of Jesus is the answer to every question.
But we are in an era where the message of the cross is being customized. What is preached in the UK is different from what is preached in Africa. It is said that you preach to people according to their needs. How do we reconcile the oneness of the message with the various needs around?
The gospel is the same. God’s riches at Christ expense. The gospel has no regard for ethnicity, race, comfort, education or whatever status. Some preach to those who are comfortable and think they have to preach to them in a particular way. That is a deception. The poor man needs the gospel. The rich man needs the gospel. Those who are sad need the gospel. Those who feign happiness need the gospel. The gospel has no coloration and it has nothing to do with a man’s condition.
When we preach the gospel and relate it to a perceived need we will end up in error. The developing countries in the world need financial freedom. So we think we need to appeal to their financial and economic needs for them to embrace Jesus. That is wrong. That is a bait. In the West they have the social insurance and are comfortable so we think they don’t need the gospel. So we preach to them humanism and New Age message.
The truth is that some of those in the West are some of the most frustrated people on earth. They are like the Church in Laodecia who boast of having everything but Jesus says they were empty. The people in the third world countries think what God can do for them is to give them financial prosperity. But that in itself is deception. Whatever every man needs is not financial prosperity or some other humanistic needs. What the whole world needs is the gift of eternal life. And that is the promise of God to all who believe. Human need is the same everywhere. The gospel is the answer to every need. If they get the gospel and they have a relationship with God, He will know how to fix their lives. But the challenges people talk about are not challenges if you look at them critically. Job said in Job 41 v1 that the life of man is full of trouble. Unfortunately there is this notion that when you are a Christian you are immune to the troubles of the world. But that is not true. Jesus said we will have tribulation. He also encouraged us to be cheerful because he has overcome the world. If I go to a place to preach the gospel and use prosperity as a bait I have messed up the message because when they get the miracle they will go back. It is better for me to let them know that by the gospel they have received the gift of eternal life. It is better to let them know that God supplies all needs according to his riches in glory. Everything is embedded in the gospel. If I have tribulation Jesus says I should be of good cheer. It is wrong to preach the gospel and tell the people it is the way out of their poverty. That is error.
A particular pastor said Jesus died so he could become rich. That if he does not get rich he would throw away his Bible. How would you react to this?
That is taking Bible out of context. I also experienced such. A pastor had once said to us that God had promised us a landed property I think that was in 1988 and that if we don’t get it, he would throw away his Bible and not preach again. Of course we did not get land till 2004. And that was years after his predicted time. I tell evangelists when they go to preach the gospel they should not give people false promise. They should invite them to know the Lord. The purpose of the cross is to redeem man from sin. It is not that we may build houses because the life of man does not consist in the abundance of the things that he has. This materialistic gospel is a false gospel. Does God bless with material blessings, yes. Does he bless everybody with material blessings? Maybe no. He may decide to bless a brother in the church for a purpose. God deals with us individually because he has a master plan for everyone.
You have been to four continents of the world. What were your experiences?
I have had diverse experiences. The scripture that always encourage me is when Paul says I became all things to all men so that I can reach them for the gospel. When I go to India for instance I tell them about my love for the Indians and tell them about their films. I mention some of the famous characters in their films and they really feel excited about this. When I went to Obalende, Lagos, I was sharing how the place was next door to Dodan Barracks, which was the seat of government. They were all excited. When you relay familiar experience to your listeners it helps to enhance your message. In India if you ask if they understand what you are saying, they shake their head. For them it meant they understand. But here it means no. It took me time to understand that.
When I am making altar call in India, I have to make it plain to them. If you ask them to come and receive Jesus, all of them would come forward and receive him along with all other gods they have been serving. So before making altar call I have to make them understand that they have to forsake all other gods if they want Jesus. I have to join them eating with hands. They eat rice in India with hands. We have to be able to relate with your host community very well otherwise we will not be able reach them. I remember we went to Gambia and the people who took me there drove through the crowd and blew dust on the people who came for the crusades. The following day I insisted on trekking about 100 metres to the crusade ground to avoid what happened a day before. The people got the message and saw that this preacher must be a gentle man. There were things I would not do naturally but I had to do it for the sake of the gospel. There was a time we were in Ukraine and we were to minister in a town far away from Kiev. We had money to go by air. But Pastor Sunday Adelaja told us to go by train that the people we are going to minister to are poor people and that it would not look nice if we travel by air. He said if they see me come by air it would send a wrong message. I thanked him for that observation. We had to travel about 18 hours by rail. When you see missionaries risk their lives I feel for them because I have been there before.
Have you had near death experiences?
The near death experience we had was in Nigeria. We were in Igala land, Kogi State and we were going to Dekina and we had accident. One of the cars in our team summersaulted but nobody was hurt. It was a miracle deliverance. We were in Gabon and we were to travel from Libreville to another town called Onye. It was about 16 hours journey. We had a flat tyre and the vehicle had to stop so the tyre could be changed. So we decided to take a stroll around the place. The people warned us not to move around because there were elephants around that area. The whole of that area is rain forest. That was scary. So when we were returning from the place we had to travel by air. But then it was a cargo plane we took. We were standing in the plane like people standing in molue. Later we were told that because the plane was overloaded that the plane did not take off at the right point, that we were very close to hitting the tree. So the brethren had to intercede for us for the 45 minutes of the journey from Onye the North of Gabon to Libreville.
Kinshasha DRC capital is close to Brazzaville. It’s the closest capital in the world. When we got to the Brazzaville end we were denied visa. We had to go back and intensify our effort again. We got visa to the country eventually but by the time we entered there was nowhere to stay we had to sleep in the Army barrack. In India the nearest place you could stay from the crusade ground is about four hours drive away from the crusade ground. We normally finish crusade around 10 pm and had to travel another three hours. The irony is that my wife and I were usually on these trips. There was a day I began to consider letting my wife stay back at home in case of any mishap so she could continue with the children. But God has been faithful. I began to appreciate what Paul faced and Peter in their apostolic journeys.
But how do you raise money for your trips and evangelical efforts?
When God gives a vision he makes provision. One of the things T.L Osborn told me is that the Churches are to pay for my crusades. But that understanding is not here in Nigeria. The evangelist has been made not to see it that way. He feels he is short-changed. So he too wants to have branches of his church. In our case I can say the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship has been very helpful and committed to the vision. God use the ministry a lot for us. They have a broad mind for the work of God. They know the gospel should be preached. And they have been quite supportive. God has been faithful to raise partners for us till now. What obtains in other climes is more coordinated. There was a time Shambach was touring Southern America and about 300 churches sponsored him to carry out that task. If we have mission as our primary responsibility churches will be eager to support missionary evangelists.
How do you maintain the home front with all your travels?
God has been able to raise men through us who help keep our home when we are away. I can leave this country and go for one year without any fear because there are trusted men and women who come around to help. Presently, we are on recess from our evangelical trips. We are putting up a structure to serve as a training centre for evangelists across the world. They don’t have to be our members. Our vision is to create a centre where people fall back on for resources for the work God has given them.
We are in the most trying period in the church today. There is a confusion on what to obey and what not to obey in the Bible. We find a situation where people cherry pick scriptures and do what appeals to them. What is your position on this?
The Old Testament was an interim arrangement pending the time the messiah would come. Jesus came to fulfil the law. He came to fulfil the demands of the law. Paul understood that and said the law was a school master till the seed should come. Jesus is the seed that came. When he came his heart was set to fulfilling what he came for. Jesus was in Samaria and his heart was set to go to Jerusalem. At a point when he was to be arrested, John was threatening to call fire down. But Jesus said the son of man has not come to destroy men’s lives but to save it. We don’t destroy lives anymore. We wrestle not against flesh and blood. That is the dimension of the New Testament. Our fighting weapon is more spiritual because our enemy the devil has already been defeated on the cross.
In the Old Testament the battle was more physical and since the people were not equipped to deal with the devil he was not well revealed. It would interest you to note that Satan appears just about five places in the Old Testament. He was mentioned twice in the book of Job and then Zechariah. In Genesis we see him as the serpent. God did not allow the Old Testament people to have an understanding of Satan because there was no wherewithal to do deal with him. But he was revealed more in the New Testament because we now have the name of Jesus. The battle in the Old Testament was physical but in the New Testament it is spiritual. We wrestle not against flesh and blood. The Church in Nigeria is still operating as if our warfare is physical. So when we say “Holy Ghost fire kill them” we are practicing Judaism and God has grounded Judaism.
Syncretism is another problem with the Nigerian Church. We were used to consulting Ifa oracle before we were exposed to the gospel. Unfortunately we have transported the mannerism of our consultation with Ifa to the gospel of Jesus. That is why some pastors ask you to call the name of Jesus three times. It is a carry-over from traditional religion of Ifa worship. If I go to a herbalist in those days he must of necessity give me something to take home. That is what has informed some pastors giving some people objects to hold unto to after prayers. When I say open your Bible and put it under the pillow I am practicing syncretism. Or I ask people bring comb to comb their hair in the place of prayers.
My wife and I were watching a documentary on herbalists and their work. And they said in that documentary that if things are not right for a man an animal could be killed the blood would be used to appease the gods so that things would get better. The alternative is to ask the person to bring a comb. The person is asked to comb his hair and it is believed that as he combs the hair his troubles and woes are being addressed. So when such things are introduced into the church there is trouble. As far as I am concerned that is syncretism.
It is attempted fusion of all kinds of religions. People believe in Jesus but tie handkerchiefs around their waist or put it in a particular location in their car or house. They call it point of contact. But such object of faith undermines and undervalues the cross. By so doing we are going back to legalism.
But the big Pentecostal churches are guilty of this practice?
You are right. What is lacking in Nigeria is the Jerusalem council where we can address issues in the Body of Christ. I think we need that. Nigeria is a place everybody believes he has heard from God. Unfortunately when they do such things and somebody comes back with a testimony it tends to authentic what they do. Some of my friends say you can’t argue with result. But they forgot that Moses did not obey God and yet he got result when he struck the rock against the instruction of God. If God says something is wrong and you now did it and it works, I am constrained to believe there could be some power behind it that makes it work.
A friend of mine is writing a book where he talked about the myth of infallibility, miracle, divine revelation etc. It’s myth to say a man of God is infallible. It’s a myth to say because miracles happen in a place then God is there. It is a myth to believe that everything that is divinely revealed is from God. The Bible is supposed to be the final arbiter. That is what Martin Luther fought against. The Catholic Church had to impose fees to pay for forgiveness of sins so they could raise money. Luther fought against this and many other practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Unfortunately the Pentecostal movement is doing worse than the catholic now in terms of their drive for mammon. But we need to thank God for the persecution that the church is passing through perhaps that will make us sober.
Were there things you had to stop doing in ministry due to some new understanding?
I used to pray against my enemy. But I had to repent when I had understanding. Today if anybody prays that kind of prayer of fall down and die in our church nobody will answer. I also used to long after breakthrough. But I soon understood Jesus in me is enough to meet all my needs and stopped worrying about some elusive breakthrough. Paul and John did not have breakthrough or perhaps did not seek for one elusive breakthrough. They saw the persecution they were going through as a privilege to identify with the suffering of Christ. Were they unfortunate that they did not have the cars of their days? Some of them did not have personal houses. Some of them distributed what they had to less fortunate members. Can you imagine a situation that I have five cars and the pastors working with me don’t have one?
My wife once asked, when will we have enough money that we can just take from instead of having to wait and trust all the time for provisions; and I told her there will never be a time like that. God has so designed it that we will keep coming to him and depending on him for our daily provision.
What we must understand is that it is not about us but about God. T.L Osborn once needed $50 million for the work God gave him and the Lord made available the money to him. Another preacher was grumbling. He was annoyed with God and said he had only asked for $5 dollars and the Lord had not answered him. And the Lord told him he had not been given the assignment that he would need that amount. So God makes provisions depending on our needs.
Money is mammon. It is in competition with God. That is why Jesus remarked that we can’t serve God and mammon. The evangelist must never get to a point that he would not depend on God for every of his need. Somebody once paid a tithe of N5 million to the ministry of my friend Yomi Kasali. When he saw the money he had to invite the man because he knew the person was a salary earner and that amount was far more than his monthly salary. The young man busted into laughter and said pastor I know you will call me. He then explained that the money is a proceed from a family house that had just been sold. That should be the attitude of every man of God to money. We should not be too quick to collect money from people because of our perceived needs.