“Let the children come to me”: Pentecostalism and proselytization of children through gospel outreaches in Ibadan, Nigeria

“Children are friends of God.” This statement, which finds expression through the teachings of Jesus Christ is premised on some of the attributes of a child. A child is humble, easily forgiving and does not bear malice. More so, the little ones are less likely to have cultivated strong perceptions. Even when they do, these perceptions are usually not fully formed like that of an adult. As such, they are more likely to be open to new ideas, principles and doctrines which they can easily accommodate and nurture. In the biblical book of Mark 10 vs 15, Jesus said “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (New International Version). Field missionaries and Pentecostal preachers alike therefore derive inspiration from this verse to launch an all-embracing proselytizing drive which do not leave out the young ones even during school periods since they believe that spreading the gospel is a core Christianity duty.

Today, Nigeria is home to many megachurches and a large congregation of Christians. This may be conveniently assumed to be the fruits of the seeds sown by international missionary organisations and gospel outreaches. One of such is the activities of Christ for all Nations (CfaN) which is the focus of this post. CfaN is an evangelistic organization which was established by a German missionary Reinhard Bonnke in 1974. Even after the demise of its founder and first general evangelist and the passing of the baton to the new one, Daniel Kolenda, the enterprising activities of this outreach do not seem to have fallen. Year in, year out, it organises crusades in different cities across Africa and beyond, preaching the good news of the gospel of Christ. Preceding these crusades is usually an all-out mobilization of people with the help and collaboration of local church organizations. Through the use of the traditional and digital media as well as visits to public buildings, marketplaces and schools, people are invited and encouraged to be part of these crusades experience with the promises of healings, breakthroughs and deliverances from the power of the devil.

A large banner displayed at the gate of the University of Ibadan Chapel
A smaller banner placed on a tree at a residence

Interestingly, children in post-primary/secondary schools are also deliberately targeted in this proselytization effort. For example, at the Ibadan Great Gospel Crusade which was held between 11 and 14 of November 2021, well over 20 secondary schools (many of which included the public schools) were visited in the city. One of such is Valencia Schools, Ibadan, presumably due to its status as a leading private primary and post-primary educational institution and the large size of its population. Before meeting the students, a prior visit was made by the crusade support team to intimate the school management of their intention to reach out. On the day of the visit to one of its campuses, with an impressive student population, the team addressed the students during the morning assembly, talking to them about the love of Christ and the need to surrender their lives to Him. Thereafter, they were encouraged to persuade their parents to bring them to the crusade ground or come alone if this option was possible. The team’s address which culminated in a singing presentation marked a peculiar start of a school day, as the students were encouraged to sing along. With this spectacle, some of these students became eager to be part of the crusade experience which would be led by the Evangelist Daniel Kolenda.

Two books were available for distribution at the event, one titled Now that you are saved, and the other, a follow-up booklet titled What’s next?, which has been specifically designed to help children understand their new life in Christ and grow their faith in God.

Why the children?

Targeting the children for proselytization is a deliberate strategy by CfaN. Apart from the nature of these young ones which is more receptive to new beliefs and trainings, the organization acknowledges Africa’s demographic distribution which reveals the continent to comprise a league of nations of young people majority of whom still fall within the range of primary and post-primary school age. To CfaN, the intentionality of the drive for the salvation of Africa is largely dependent on the conversion of its young population who are the future of the continent. Therefore, for Africa to be fully Christianized, there must be a calculated effort to reach its children and win their heart for Christ.

The effectiveness of this strategy can be gleaned from the reception of the CfaN support team, especially in a school such as Valencia College where tracts were also distributed to its staff members. Although not a Christian missionary school, the school is strongly affiliated to Christian values in its modes of operation. For example, while there are students of the Islamic faith registered in the school, Islamic Studies is not part of the subjects included in its curriculum, and morning assemblies are conducted with Christian prayers and songs. Also, a Christian service is organised for students and members of the teaching staff every Thursday and Friday of school week respectively. However, this is usually not the case with most of the government (public) owned educational institutions where religious expressions are handled with greater caution in order to ensure balance and distance where necessary.

Allegation of indoctrination

While the management of some of these schools and their students may have received the message of the CfaN team with enthusiasm, there are those who believe that going to school to preach a Christian gospel amounts to indoctrination of students, some or many (as the case may be) of whom may be of the Islamic faith. More distressing for them is the fact that virtually all these children are minors who are not legally accountable for their actions, and as such would need parental approval for such intervention. To these group of people, the dynamics of this proselytization strategy implicate child rights abuse and contravene the provision of the country’s constitution, and some internationally agreed child rights acts such as the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) of 1989. Therefore, they insisted that the government addressed the issue by giving it the critical attention that it deserves in order not to fuel religious intolerance in the state.

Some of the religious interest groups and non-governmental organisations which expressed their displeasure through press conferences and letters include Muslim Community of Oyo State (MUCOYOS) and Rights and Freedom Advocates (RIFA), describing this proselytization strategy as an invasion of the state’s public schools. In a statement signed by the Chairman and Secretary-general of MUCOYOS, they alleged that in one of the schools visited, “Muslim students were deliberately disallowed from observing Jum’at prayers” so that they could attend a special Christian evangelization assembly.

Eventually, while not denouncing this approach, a letter dated 10th November 2021 was written by the organisers of the crusades, apologising for visiting a public school which they claimed was in error. Apart from this letter, nothing else was heard either from the organisers or the government.

Nigeria and the illusion of secularism

While Nigeria claims to be a secular state, its religious sentiment has continued to flourish and has created a bipolar Muslim-Christian identity that transcends the country’s socio-political climate. Nigerians continue to amplify their religiousness through everyday lived experiences and there are also government institutions dedicated to promoting religious activities such as the Pilgrims Welfare Board. Additionally, it would be difficult to find a Nigerian who does not identify with either of the two organized religions (Christianity or Islam).

Although these expressions are in no way presumed to be problematic, because people find support, solace and welfare in the religious groups they belong to, especially in the face of government’s continued failure in meeting their very basic needs, they tend to overstretch these affiliations which sometimes lead to having a sense of ‘us’ and ‘they’ even in a situation where religious pluralism is assured, at least constitutionally. Moreover, religion has fully established itself as an extremely important factor to consider in furthering people’s political agenda and benefits. As a readily available tool of instrumentalization, it often expresses itself in a centrifugal manner as in the case of Kolenda’s Ibadan CfaN’s crusade children’s proselytization and the reactions it generated from some people.

Jesus gave very specific important value to the children by asking them to come to Him “unhindered.” Also, in many contexts, parents are required to provide religious guidance to their children at least until they attain the age of majority. In the middle of these positions is the school and the role it must play in the religious life of school children. However, if children are to fully benefit from education, the school must be run in an orderly manner. While not necessarily attacking specific school policies, the CRC places a high value on education that respects the right of a child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Apart from being seen as a ground for the recruitment of followers, religious organisations see in educational institutions an opportunity to imbibe in the children the right type of attitude which could help them avoid the negative consequences of sin, counter balance worldly influences and also possibly bring their parents in contact with the gospel of Christ.

Adebayo Adedeji is a PhD candidate in the Department of Peace, Security and Humanitarian Studies, Faculty of Multidisciplinary Studies, University of Ibadan. He is a Postgraduate Teaching and Research Assistant at the University of Ibadan Research Foundation (UI-RF). Adedeji is also a Research Fellow with the French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA-Nigeria).