You may never have heard of E. A. Adeboye, but the pastor of The Redeemed Christian Church of God is one of the most successful preachers in the world. He boasts that his church has outposts in 110 countries. He has 14,000 branches—claiming 5 million members—in his home country of Nigeria alone. There are 360 RCCG churches in Britain, and about the same number in U.S. cities like Chicago, Dallas, and Tallahassee, Fla. Adeboye says he has sent missionaries to China and such Islamic countries as Pakistan and Malaysia. His aspirations are outsize. He wants to save souls, and he wants to do so by planting churches the way Starbucks used to build coffee shops: everywhere.
"In the developing world we say we want churches to be within five minutes' walk of every person," he tells NEWSWEEK. "In the developed world, we say five minutes of driving." Such a goal may seem outlandish, but Adeboye is a Pentecostal preacher: he believes in miracles. And Pentecostalism is the biggest, fastest-growing Christian movement since the Reformation.
One of the strangest images from the 2008 campaign was the YouTube clip of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in church, head bowed, palms turned up toward heaven, standing silently as Thomas Muthee, a Pentecostal preacher from Kenya, prayed for her freedom from witchcraft. The clip (and a NEWSWEEK article about it) triggered its own little culture skirmish, with secular observers calling Palin a "wack job" and conservative Christians responding "There's nothing wrong with her church!!!" Few commentators on either side noted how normal that scene was to hundreds of millions of Christians around the globe.
The world now has about 600 million Pentecostals, the largest group of Christians after Roman Catholics. In Asia, the number of Pentecostals has grown from about 10 million to 166 million since 1970, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In Latin America, Pentecostals have expanded from 13 million to 151 million; in North America, from 19 million to 77 million; and in Africa, from 18 million to 156 million. By 2050 most of Africa will be Christian, estimates Grant Wacker, professor of Christian history at Duke University—and most of those Christians will be Pentecostals.
Modern Pentecostalism was born in America in the early 20th century, when a former Methodist minister named Charles Parham began teaching that Christians who were filled with the Holy Spirit could, like the disciples of Jesus, speak in tongues. (The sound, for those who have not heard it, is extraordinary: like crooning or keening or jibber jabber.) From the start, the faith appealed across ethnic lines to the poor and the marginalized. Its lack of denominational structure meant "you didn't have to have a highly trained and educated clergy with a long graduate education," says Vinson Synan, dean emeritus of the divinity school at Regent University. "Common people [were] pastoring common people." Televangelist healers like Oral Roberts helped keep the movement growing.
Pentecostals believe that the Holy Spirit is always at work in the world and that certain people possess its gifts: speaking in tongues, the healing touch, the power to cast out demons and witches. An emphasis on prosperity and healing attracts converts without savings accounts or health insurance. The emphasis on Biblical inerrancy and on rigid social rules—no drinking, no smoking, no premarital sex—offers structure for people whose lives have been devastated by addiction or illness. In places like Africa (and indeed, like Palin's Alaska at the turn of the last century), Pentecostalism finds fertile ground among adherents of native religions who already believe the world is alive with spirits.
By Pentecostal standards, Adeboye is mainstream. Formerly a mathematics instructor at the University of Lagos, he began working at RCCG translating the previous pastor's sermons from Yoruba to English. He took over the congregation in 1981. His success, he says, is rooted in his message. "Pentecostals have such an impact because they talk of the here and now, not just the by and by, he says. "We pray for the sick, but we pray for their prosperity, for their overcoming of evil forces and so on. While we have to worry about heaven, there are some things God could do for us in the here and now." At a recent revival meeting in London, Adeboye and his ministers preached 12 hours straight to a crowd of 30,000. At the altar call, hundreds of people rushed toward the stage from every corner of the arena, visibly filled with euphoria. They call their pastor "Daddy."
Behind Adeboye's extraordinary success is his reputation for honesty. While other Pentecostal pastors (including some Nigerians) have been accused of financial misdeeds or faking supernatural powers, Adeboye remains above the fray. Nigerian government leaders seek his input on pressing social issues. He recently made a public-service announcement condemning discrimination against people with HIV. He distributes his message globally through Facebook and MySpace, a self-published magazine called "The Mandate," and a digital-cable channel called Open Heavens TV. His appearance is straitlaced: he always wears a pinstriped suit, a gleaming white shirt and a bow tie.
Adeboye experienced a miracle recently on a long and dangerous stretch of highway near Lagos, he says. His car was out of gas, and the gas stations were empty. Then God spoke to him, clearly, and said to keep driving. Adeboye drove 200 miles on empty. Could his gas gauge have been broken? No, he insists, God intervened "because of the need … in a crisis." Adeboye knows well what some in the West have forgotten: in today's world, everyone needs a Daddy.