I was born, raised and I had my university education in Nigeria. I moved to the United States at the age of 25, did my Master’s Degree and settled in New Jersey. I was privileged to plant an Agape House of Worship (AHOW) in 2006 at the age of 33. I am not sure how my background particularly affected my quest for building a multicultural congregation, but I know that growing up, I hated the tribal divide that defines the Nigerian way of life. After making many good friends outside of my Yoruba tribe I realized that at the root of it we are all the same; with the same aspiration, desires and wants in life.
I moved to the United States in 1998. I wasn’t a member of RCCG in Nigeria, but I remember reading an article in an RCCG magazine written by Pastor Olu Obed about his effort to reach out to Americans in New York. The article impressed me so much that when I arrived New York, I looked for the church and attended it for a few months. I didn’t eventually join the church for other reasons, but I was impressed that they had a decent number of non-Nigerians at the time. I moved to New Jersey in 1999 and became a member of RCCG at Dominion Chapel (now Cathedral). I was eventually sent out to plant AHOW in 2006.
At the beginning of AHOW, my initial goal was to reach out to Nigerians who were currently not attending Nigerian churches in New Jersey and leverage that to a multicultural church. Many of them have tried Nigerian churches but left for “American” churches. In my interview with them and here are some of the reasons they gave for leaving:
• Nigerian churches don’t generally keep to time as advertised
• There is too much “drama” (in-fighting and conflicts) in Nigerian churches
• Nigerian Pastors are fond of talking disrespectfully and condescendingly to their members
• Lack of excellence and professionalism in the physical environment and in the conduct of service
After several meetings with my launch team, we decided to address these issues in the new Church and we did. We kept to time. We worked and prayed very hard to create a “drama” free environment. We instituted servant leadership principles. We also made excellence a cornerstone of the way we do ministry. Gradually as the word got around, we began to attract a lot of young professional Nigerians who had stopped going to Nigerian churches or even church altogether. Leveraging that for a multicultural church is still a work in progress.
The responsibility to build a multicultural church starts with the pastor. The pastor must be someone who fully understands and inclined to embrace other cultures. I decided to build close relationships with non-Nigerians both within and outside the church. Even currently I have three pastor friends who I meet with on a regular basis; an African American, a Caucasian and a Hispanic. Through my interaction with them I am able understand how different things are viewed outside of my own culture and that helps me to be culturally sensitive in the way I communicate. The first staff our church hired is an African American who has worked with me now for over 8 years as the Church Administrator and is also now a Deacon in our church. He has often acted as our sounding board to ensure things are done and presented in a culturally sensitive way. Music is very important; we only do contemporary worship songs for our worship service in AHOW. An exception is during thanksgiving services; even then we don’t do Yoruba songs.
Community involvement has also been very helpful. There was a time we realized that some of the people in our community did not know we were an English speaking church. However, as we get more involved in our community and become very visible, we were able to address this misconception. Just this year one of our members got elected as a councilwoman in the town we are. The visibility continues to help us.
I believe having a multicultural congregation enriches everyone. I believe it helps church growth if you are not limited in the type of people you can reach culturally. Diversity also brings in variety of talents and gifts. On the whole, the church is richer, more effective and stronger when the congregation is multicultural.
One of the things RCCGNA can do is to change the tone at our gatherings (conferences and conventions). We need to be more inclusive of non-Nigerians. I have observed that when we gather, the assumption is that we are all Nigerians (maybe even Yorubas). In AHOW, we operate with the assumption that we are not all Nigerians and that affects the way we do things; the jokes we crack, examples we give, the food we serve etc. When our non-Nigerian members go to zonal/provincial/regional events, they sometime feel put down or marginalized because every speaker assumes they are speaking to a Nigerian only group. It is also not uncommon to hear someone speak negative or condescending of Americans in our gatherings. This must be confronted.
For any pastor starting, building a multicultural congregation is not an easy task. First you must be convinced this is what God wants you to do because it involves a lot of self-denial. You must also have the willingness to take risk. Many Nigerians will not join your church because you’re not Nigerian enough. We’ve had people not join us because we don’t sing certain songs or pray certain kinds of prayer. You have to be courageous enough to let such people go for the sake of your vision. It would be best if you can start your church with a team of multicultural people. That is the easiest way to start a multicultural church. In reality, it is more difficult to become multicultural once you have 50 people from the same culture.
Second, you must demonstrate commitment to being multicultural by being willing to make personal sacrifice. For example, at AHOW I discourage people bowing down, or kneeling down for me because personally I think it makes it harder for the non-Yorubas among us to adjust, it makes them feel they have to do the same to show respect to me. I also discourage the use of daddy and mommy for my wife and I. While these are meaningful gestures in a Yoruba context, they may hurt our effort in building a multicultural church.
In conclusion, building multicultural churches is the only way forward for RCCGNA and other RCCG churches in the diaspora. We cannot afford to continue to be a church that mostly gathers Nigerians abroad. Yes it will involve making painful choices and adjustments but it’s worth the effort. I don’t believe AHOW is yet a success story; it is still an “experiment” in progress that hopefully other new churches can learn from. I am committed to it because I am convinced it is the only way for our children to make RCCG their home church when they grow up. Also, it is the only way we can truly have a member of RCCG in every family of all nations.
Jide Lawore is the Lead Pastor of RCCG Agape House of Worship – www.agapehousenj.org
He can be reached at 908-259-1515 or firstname.lastname@example.org