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Building Nigeria’s future


OBONG NTAK, Nigeria — “Hey, snap me one time, please.”

It doesn’t take long to figure out what the teenagers are asking. “Take my picture, please.”

Anything but shy, the colorfully clad youths nudge their way through a sea of smiling faces, striking poses for the cameras. The clustered chatter instantly turns to vocal harmony as the youths sing parting hymns, some in English, some in Annang, a tribal language. Soon they’ll pack into overloaded cars and vans for the long journey home.

More than 2,000 students from across the western African nation of Nigeria – and some from Cameroon – made the late-December pilgrimage to the campus of Obong Christian High School, northeast of the coastal city of Port Harcourt in the village of Obong Ntak.
The 18th annual Youth Forum included Bible bowls, vocal performances and nights of preaching and praise. No less than 33 youths were baptized.

REACHING YOUNG HEARTS

Though many grew up in churches of Christ, “We are members not because of our parents,” insists Dennis Oji, a headstrong college student and veteran of the youth forums. “From our own research, we find that churches of Christ have great advantages.”

Oji is one of about 50 students currently enrolled at the African College of Management, a church-sponsored school in Obong. Sitting outside his dormitory, Oji and classmate Ekemini Akpan talk about their dreams for the future. Oji hopes to be a CEO of a large company. Akpan would like to be manager of Nigeria’s Central Bank.

Akpan, who came to the school from the bustling metropolis of Lagos, said that churches throughout southern Nigeria are growing, and much of the growth comes from students evangelizing their friends.

Parents, not peers, can be “major factors in the backsliding of the youths,” Akpan said. As a result, many young church members feel a sincere responsibility to seek – and retain – the lost.

“The church Christ here in Nigeria is growing rapidly,” Akpan said. “Still, the workload is on the youths.”

A HISTORY OF GOD-SEEKERS

The well-worn Mercedes navigates a maze of mopeds and bicycles along the palm-lined streets of Obong. Imo Akpanudo warns his passengers to roll up their windows as an overloaded passenger van swings by, sending a fog of dust into the air. These dry days are blessings, Akpanudo explains. During the rainy season, the muddy streets are impassable.

Despite vast distances in space and culture, the streets of Obong could be the streets of north Alabama. Churches of Christ dot the landscape. Only the charismatic Qua Iboe churches appear more frequently.

Next to many churches of Christ are piles of handmade cement blocks for new assembly halls. Many are new congregations, planted by neighboring churches. Some have elders. Very few receive funds from the United States or Europe.

Self-determination has characterized churches in the west African nation since the beginning. In the days following World War II, a Nigerian policeman, C.A.O. Essien, mentioned to a pen pal in Germany that he would like to learn more about the Bible. The friend recommended a correspondence course offered by the Lawrence Avenue church, Nashville, Tenn. “Come over and teach us,” Essien told the church, “and we will take our nation for Christ.”

By the time missionaries Howard Horton and James Johnson arrived in 1952, Essien’s work already had resulted in 60 congregations and 1,000 members.

Missionaries launched a Bible college in the town of Ukpom in 1954. Other schools followed, and in 1959 Horton and fellow missionaries Elvis Huffard and Lucien Palmer – along with businessmen Roger Church and Miles Ezell Sr. – established an organization in Nashville to support the schools. In 1967 the group adopted the name African Christian Schools Foundation (ACSF) and expanded its mission to include medical and benevolent aid.

That same year Nigeria’s southeastern states – where churches of Christ were strongest – seceded from the country and took the name Biafra.

Nigeria’s government fought back, and the resulting civil war claimed more than 1 million lives, including nearly 4,000 church members, according to Henry Huffard, son of Elvis Huffard and current president of the African Christian Schools Foundation.

MOSES’ ODYSSEY OF FAITH

The war also brought refugees to Ukpom, including Imo Akpanudo’s father, Moses. Then a Mennonite preacher, Moses Akpanudo encountered church members and began rethinking his faith. Like C.A.O. Essien nearly 20 years before, Akpanudo’s faith came through his own studies. He went to a Nigerian preacher and asked to be baptized.

The minister “never expected that I would come to that decision,” Moses Akpanudo said. After a long debate, “I told him I was going to go home, and I told him that, if I died that night, I believed God would look for my soul in his hands.”

“That’s when he was convinced,” Akpanudo said. “He called some of his students and we went to the stream right away.”

After the war Akpanudo and his family returned to Obong, where the church continued to flourish. The minister, his wife, and their five children eventually traveled to Nashville, where Akpanudo earned a doctorate in business from Vanderbilt University.

Returning to Nigeria in the late 1970s, the family launched Obong Christian High School with five seventh-grade students. Today the school has more than 1,000 students in preschool through high school.

About 70 percent of the school’s graduates become faithful church members, Akpanudo said. His son, Essang, serves as principal. The Mount Morris, Mich., church, sponsors the school.

To serve students after high school, the Akpanudos started the African College of Management, where Imo Akpanudo serves as registrar. Akwabia Hospital, a component of the college, serves students and the community. Dr. Emem Akpanudo, Imo’s wife, is head physician. The Rivergate church, Nashville, sponsors the college and hospital.

GROWING CHURCHES, AGGRESSIVE EVANGELISM

Today churches of Christ in Nigeria number more than 3,600, Huffard said. Most are concentrated in the southeastern state of Akwa Ibom, which includes Obong.

“You can see that the Nigerians are aggressive. They are willing to take the gospel wherever,” said Doug Wheeler, a missionary who helps to train and procure financial support for Nigerian evangelists in the western part of the country, where churches of Christ aren’t as numerous. “The only challenge is the lack of resources.”

Nigeria’s churches are thriving, said Elias Kang, who came to Obong from his home church in Kumba, in neighboring Cameroon. He oversees construction at the expanding African College of Management.

Kang hopes to return to Cameroon and preach, and he said that the strength of the Nigerian churches is inspiring. “You enter a church building and you feel it,” he said.

Nonetheless, Kang said that his time in Nigeria has convinced him that “the church will grow only if the members contribute.”
‘SURVIVING WITHOUT A PLAN’

“Vision” is the theme of Abraham Idio’s Sunday morning class at the Obong church.

“People can come to the church and not have a clear vision of why they are here,” he tells the congregation, as members flow into the building, squeezing into the pews and lining the walls. Deacons set up chairs outside the windows so additional arrivals can catch a glimpse of the pulpit.

The minister pauses to take questions. One member asks about a friend who regularly visits a “prayer house,” a common substitute for hospitals in southern Nigeria. There the spiritual healers are having visions, and telling his friend that the church member is trying to kill him. What should he do?

“I’m talking about another kind of vision,” Idio says, “but I’ll answer the question.”

Though their numbers are growing, many churches in Nigeria are “surviving without a plan,” said Enobong Essien, a professor at the College of Management. “Most congregations are not really planning (for) the future, not sitting down to say what should be done,” he said.

Education plays a vital role in that planning, and Idio said he’s thankful for the proximity of Obong Christian High School and Nigerian Christian Academy, another U.S. church-supported school in Obong with more than 1,000 students.

“We have been able to plant one church every year,” said Idio, who has served as the Obong church’s minister for nine years. “Some have no building of their own. They’re new people drawn from different denominations. We need to train (them).”

Nigeria has at least 21 schools of preaching, missionary Doug Wheeler said. Yet there remains what he called a “leadership bottleneck” because of rapid church growth.

Churches are responding by launching additional preacher-training programs. Minister Nelson Udo Ikpidung was among Nigeria’s first converts, baptized in 1956. After nearly 46 years of preaching, he is seeking two Bible teachers to train new ministers at his church’s facility. “When you come (to my congregation), you are going to see a mustard seed,” he said.

But strong churches need more than preachers, said Friday Obong, a minister in Port Harcourt who attended a late-December training seminar at the College of Management. Nigerian churches are losing youths in the state universities. Professors and various religious groups indoctrinate students with values that pull them away from churches of Christ, Obong said. He hopes to establish a campus ministry to reach and retain college students.

“We need these people in the church,” Obong said. “They are the future … wherever they are.”

ESTABLISHING A CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY

On the campus of the African College of Management, Moses Akpanudo’s dream is taking shape. His office sits in a three-story administration building, complete with collegiate columns. The building, and the vast structure nearby that will house a university library, stand in stark contrast to the humble houses in Obong.

“People say ‘it’s too big,’” Akpanudo says, with his ever-present broad smile. “I want these buildings to stand for 100 years.”

When construction is completed and the government approves the school, the newly-dubbed Obong University of Nigeria will admit its first 400 students, Akpanudo said. Eventually it will become a four-year school offering degrees in management, Bible and the natural sciences. Daily chapel is part of the curriculum.

The University of Africa Project, a volunteer organization, raises funds for the school. Ben Jones, a member of the Rivergate church, chairs the ministry’s board.

Akpanudo wants the university to help fill the need for Christian leaders in all areas of Nigerian society.

“I have discovered that, from all ages, managers are always needed in the church,” Akpanudo said. “To deal with people and materials and time and resources, a church needs well-trained hands.”

“That’s why we need (this training), so preachers of the future can understand their people, can understand societies, can understand what is available. And they will make churches better.”

  • Feedback
    i feel good to be here. It is also good to be a part of the one body, the pillar and ground of truth. Long live the church of christ, Long live the word of God. stay blessed
    Ikenna
    12 mcc rd, Aba
    Aba, Abia
    Nigeria
    August, 5 2011

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