This article explores some of the distinctive features of Christianity in Nigeria within the context of African Christianity to demonstrate the ways in which Christianity in Nigeria resists and renews Western Christianity.

The vibrancy and growth of Christianity in Africa has aroused the interest of sociologists of religion. The 20thcentury witnessed a demographic shift in the global distribution of Christians. Research show that in 1900, 68% of the world’s Christians lived in Europe. In 2018 Africa became the continent with the highest number of Christians and in 2022, there were over 692 million Christians in Africa more than in any other continent. Studies have shown that by 2060, 46% of the world’s Christians will be living in sub-Saharan Africa. As Kwame Bediako argued, Christianity has now become a non-western religion.

Nigeria has the largest Christian population in sub-Saharan Africa (90 million) and the sixth largest Christian population in the world and, according to a Pew Research study, Christians make up 46.9% of Nigeria’s population. It has been argued that Nigerians are the most religious people on the planet. This is debatable but the intensity of religion in the life of Nigerians is undoubtedly very strong. A survey showed that 87% of all Nigerians say religion is very important to their lives. More than three quarters of Nigerian Christians (88%) attend church at least weekly and about 92% of Nigerians say they pray everyday. These Christians represent a diversity of denominations from the mission and mainline churches of the colonial era to the indigenous churches, the Pentecostal and new generation churches.

The importance of the Christianity in Nigeria to African and world Christianity is underscored by the fact that not by 2060,Nigeria will have the third largest Christian population in the world but also because as Prof Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu says: “it is impossible to understand African Christianity without extensive reference to the phenomenological, historical, and theological developments in Nigeria.” But to talk about African Christianity is not to suggest that it is a homogenous, monolithic reality. There are many forms of Christian expressions in Africa that are each shaped by the particular social, cultural and religious context in which it finds itself.

This lecture will demonstrate the ways in which Christianity in Nigeria resists and renews Western Christianity. I will explore some of the distinctive features of Christianity in Nigeria within the context of African Christianity.

Christianity in Nigeria

In the classic novel Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, the story is told about the arrival of six missionaries, including one white man, into the Igbo village of Umuofia. The story is set in the late 19th century. The Igbo people have their own culture, religion and traditions. The white man tells the people of Umuofia about Christianity, and that this new god would replace the false gods that the people had been worshipping. Through the work of the missionaries, many of the people of Umuofia convert from their indigenous religion to Christianity. But the elders of the village are not happy and fear for the younger generation. They describe Christianity as an “abominable” and “lunatic religion”. The protagonist Okonkwo says:

"Does the white man understand our custom about land?" "How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad…The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion…Now he has won our brothers...He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart."

Things Fall Apart” is of course a fictional piece but it illustrates the historical reality in the Igboland in the late 19thcentury. The indigenous people believed that Christianity would bring destroy Igbo culture and lead to the distrust of belief in spirits and ancestral worship which has a fundamental role in African belief and worship ancestors. The customs, values, traditions, way of life and all these things that held the communities together would fall apart at the hands of this new foreign religion.

The kingdom and communities of the south of Nigeria during the colonial era were entrenched in the traditional religions and as the British advanced, a lot of those people consulted their different deities and traditional priests as they tried to resist and overcome the encroachment of the imperial government of the British people and their missionaries. Indeed, as some Nigerian scholars have pointed out, the African Independent Churches(AICs) in Nigeria emerged at the end of 19th century as protest movement against the stigmatising of traditional African religious worldviews and the paternalistic attitude of the European missionaries which discriminated against African leaders.

Fully African and Fully Christian: A moral problem

The episode in “Things Fall Apart” foreshadowed problem that African Christianity has not yet full resolved, that is how one can be fully African and at the same time fully Christian. This tension between being fully African yet fully Christian is at the heart of the Christian moral crisis afflicting Nigeria.

There is a philosophical dissonance in the mind of the African between the imported western colonial Christian morality and the indigenous African worldview. For example, in the Igboland, the biblical command "thou shalt not steal” may mean not disgrace your family or community for the sake of their name. In African societies, the concept of honour and shame helps to prevent people from stealing. Stealing stigmatised and brought shame on the thief, his family and community. But "thou shalt not steal" in the Bible means you shall not belittle your God for he is Holy or destroy the common economy of your people.

In a recent lecture Nimi Wariboko uses the Nigerian forgiveness principle of “I-beg-you” to illustrate the moral crisis in Nigerian Christianity.  I beg you is an African virtue ethic that seeks to build community. The principle of I beg you is an ethic whereby an offender, in order to be redeemed by her community seeks forgiveness from her victim. The  humanity of the victim is judged by her willingness to grant that forgiveness. In African culture, the failure to grant forgiveness renders the person as inhuman and capable of some terrifying act. In tradition Africa morality individual actions are focused on their contribution to the good of the community. This is at variance with modern western Christian moral philosophy with its emphasis on the inviolability of the individual and rationality as its guiding rule.

Colonial and post-colonial Nigeria has struggled with adapting imported Christian moral philosophy to Nigeria's socio-cultural behaviour and practice. This was the fear anticipated in the story "Things fall Apart". As Nimi Wariboko goes on to say the “split subjectivity is the point of departure for thinking of ethics and moral philosophy in African Christianity.”

There is also an issue about the kind of Christianity practiced in Nigeria. The mainstream historic churches adopted a form of Christianity brought by the western missionaries and which to some degree has adapted to the Nigerian sensibilities and worldview. However these churches have not been able to articulate a social justice theology that addresses Nigeria’s specific social challenges. As Agbiji and Swart asked: “Why have Africans, both in moments of crisis and when in political or elevated positions, failed to live up to their religious vocation, especially in terms of enacting sound moral values? In as much as these are extremely difficult and disturbing questions, they clearly call for deep reflection on the part of religious scholars and practitioners.”

This moral crisis can be resolved and thus the position of religion as the most effective instrument in the moral fight against corruption can be restored so long as Africans draws it sources of morality from Africa’s intellectual and cultural resources that are relevant to it's current situation and problems. As Professor Nimi Wariboko says the issue is about engaging with the moral situation and asking the questions about how were construct Christian social ethics in Nigeria.

African Independent Churches

The AIC churches in Nigeria today include Church of the Lord Aladura (people of prayer), Christ Apostolic Church, the Celestial Church of Christ, the Eternal Sacred Order of Cherubim & Seraphim Church and the Zionist Church. What helped in the growth of these African independent churches was the translation of the Gospel into the local vernacular. The Right Reverend Dr Samuel Ajayi Crowther, along with his friend and CMS General Secretary Henry Venn, acknowledged what they called ‘the vernacular principle 'in mission. Crowther translated the entire Bible into Yoruba, published in1884. The late Dr Lamin Sanneh said, ‘With the use of African languages in Scripture, prayer, worship, and study, Crowther formulated terms for Christianity as an African religion.’

Another aspect that contributed to the development of AICs is African Tradition Religion (ATR) One other related challenge is resolving the tension between ATR, which is deeply embedded in the subconscious and orientation of the typical Nigerian. It indicated to the European missionaries that Africa already had its own understanding and knowledge of God from their pre-Christian past.

The indigenous churches over the decades have arguably transformed the religious landscape of Nigeria and were the inspiration for the growth particularly after the Biafran War and towards the end of 20thcentury of the neo-Pentecostal churches in Nigeria, or as they are often called in Nigeria the new generation churches, are sources of resistance and renewal of western orthodox Christianity. What is distinct about all the churches in Nigeria, as in much of Africa, is they opted for the charismatic attributes: healing, speaking in tongues, exorcism, prophesying and a particular focus on the spiritual forces. Hence healing and evil are major characteristics of Christian belief and practice in Nigeria.

African Christian Theology

The other development that emerged from the growth of AICs in African Christianity is African Theology. from the 1950s onwards. I quote Dr Muzorewa's definition of African Theology as "a reflective interpretation of what the biblical God is doing to enhance African survival through the agency of people who are informed by Scripture and traditional concepts of God who is revealed to us through the faith and life of Jesus Christ." This definition has the benefit of confirming African Theology as distinctly African because it speaks to the world view and cosmology of the typical African whose traditional religious belief already contains within it a belief in the existence of a Supreme Being that is immanent and transcendent and is also personal and is concerned with the survival of the African person.

It is acknowledged among scholars that the Nigerian theologian, the late Bolaji Idowu, was a pioneer of African theology and who called on Africans to produce theologies that speak to the spiritual needs of Africans. He as well as the other early African theologians argues that Africans were adding to Christianity by offering a African divinity.

African Christian Theology is also a theology of liberation. It is concerned with the liberation of the oppressed from economic, psychology, social and political bondage. It seeks to expose the structural, religious and linguistic powers of oppression and injustice. It does this by revisiting the Gospel to discover the Jesus who sided with the oppressed and came to set the captives free. African liberation theology is fully African because it "theologize[s] and reflect[s] on the Christian faith from the perspective of African conditions. The idol to be overcome in Africa is the idol of colonial Christianity through the incarnation of the Christian faith into African cultures and the neocolonial structures that impoverish Africans" (Ogbonnaya 2015:37). As articulated in a statement by the African Conference of Churches meeting held in Abidjan in 1969, African Theology is a theology that is grounded in the Bible and which speaks to the Africans mind set. It speaks to the spirituality of the African as well as her material and immediate socio-political challenges (Muzorewa 1985:96).

Spiritual healing and the Invisible world in Nigerian Christianity

Common to all the Christian communities in Africa is they are spirit orientated. at they are underpinned by a common worldview which postulates the existence of spirits, lesser gods and ancestors that all governed by a supreme being who name differs in every African culture. In the Nigerian religious culture, this supreme deity is given the name Olorun in Yoruba and Chukwu in Igbo. The scholar Gerrie ter Haar explains that “religion for Africans refers to the belief in an invisible world inhabited by spiritual forces or entities that are deemed to have effective powers over the material world.”  

Most Nigerians believe in the existence of an invisible world of spiritual beings who interact with humans in the visible material world. This invisible world shapes and controls the phenomenal, material world and it is through religion that one is able to control the forces of the invisible world. Religion gives the person the ability to control and master the invisible, thereby enabling the individual to manage her real world and everyday life. Nigerians believe that reality is visible but at the same time invisible; the spirit world is distinct but not separate, contrary to western epistemology, from the visible world of humans. The invisible world is an extension of the visible world and involves people’s social relations. The means of interaction with the invisible world is through spiritual possession.

Healing ministries are one of the distinctive features of Nigerian and African Christianity and are intrinsically linked to belief in the spiritual world. I share this story a medical doctor related to me. A man had come to him privately complaining of an eye problem. After he examined the eye, he told the man that he had an abnormal growth in his eye that need to be surgically removed and the eye operated on. The man rejected that insisting that the growth was cause a spiritual curse put on him by his relation. He believed that what would cure him was healing and exorcism. The doctor was helpless, unable to convince him otherwise. The man walked out refusing treatment. The man then went to see his spiritual healer because they have the power to control the invisible forces in the spirit world. This story is not unusual or unremarkable because it can be witnessed in many parts of Africa and the rest of the world where traditional medicine is preferred to science, western forms of medical healing.

The missionaries and western churches today struggle to understand this African approach to spiritual healing. What baffles western observers and again is a problem with western church relationship with African Christians is the neglect in western churches of this type of healing that is not just healing of the physical body but also the person’s spiritual and communal life. Healing in the African sense is more holistic and involves the removal of all forms of oppression and sin.


Current Challenges in Christianity in Nigeria

Given that the social and political environment affects the material, psychology and spiritual health of the person it is no surprise that African theologians have been writing and reflecting on a theology that takes the socio-economic and political structures in Africa seriously.

Nigeria’s post-colonial social and political problems, exacerbated by the militarisation of its government in the late 20thcentury, has seen Nigeria and the churches struggle to respond to the nation’s social, economic and political problems. The failure of government and state institutions to fix the country’s education, health and housing challenges among others has created a social welfare gap that is being filled by the Christian churches. The Pentecostal churches have led the way in filling the welfare gap in society. As scholar Matthews Ojo said they “are increasingly responding to the needs and aspirations of Nigerians amid the uncertainty of their political life and the pain of their constant and unending economic adjustments.”

Between the years 1980 and 2000 the Pentecostal churches took the lead in establishing colleges and universities, some being rated as among the best in Nigeria. Many of the mainline, mission churches –the Baptists and the Anglicans – have followed suit. According to Lamin Sanneh, "Although they were little prepared for it, the churches found themselves as the only viable structure remaining after the breakdown of state institutions, and as such had to shoulder a disproportionate burden of the problems of their societies.”

While it is true that the church has spoken out against corruption and other social problems such as the recent EndSars protest, it is arguable whether it has been effective in challenging and exposing national systems, legislations and policies that adversely affect the youth and marginalised in society such that it can be said that the church was instrumental in bringing about social reform. As Ruth Marshall says in her book Political Spiritualities, the charismatic movement has replaced biblical principles with “empire building” and a prosperity message. Thus, despite the growth of the charismatic movement in all denominations, the state of the Nigerian people has remained largely the same.

The churches have an obligation to contribute to the establishment of a just and fair society. This is a debate that the church needs to start having. Whilst the endemic problems of African poverty and corruption should first of all be blamed on the African political elite, the blame rests in the second place on religious leaders who are part of the elite and have done little to stem poverty and corruption.

Julius Nyerere said, and which still applies today that "the Church must obviously and openly fight the existence and maintenance of the physical and spiritual slums and must work with the people to build a future based on social justice…only by doing so can the church hope to reduce hatred and promote its doctrine of love to all men…love expressed in action against evil… the church acquiesces in established evils, it identifies itself and the Christian religion with injustice by its continuing presence".

The church in Nigeria has to begin to preach a theology of poverty. According to a World Bank report, 40% of Nigeria's population live in poverty. Nigeria has a very young population, with 60% of its population under 25. The country also has the largest number in the world of young people in poverty. It is the young who suffer disproportionately from Nigeria’s high rates of unemployment. In the face of the country's socio-economic challenges, preaching the prosperity Gospel appears attractive and reasonable. However, preaching a theology of poverty speaks directly to the condition and situation of the least in society and offers the individual real hope of breaking free from the structures of material, physical and spiritual deprivation. The church finds its prophetic voice when it preaches poverty because by doing so it articulates the Gospel that Christ preached. Perhaps, one of the challenges in addressing social injustice is the individualised piety of evangelical theology which places emphasis on private morality. The problem with this approach is that it neglects the importance of this world. It minimises the relational aspect of Christianity. The church must rediscover the relational dimension of justice and community transformation.


African Christianity has developed independently of European Enlightenment philosophical and epistemological concepts, values and categories. In the words of the Africanist, the late Prof Andrew Wall, “African Christianity is undoubtedly African religion, as developed by Africans and shaped by the concerns and agendas of Africa; it is no pale copy of an institution existing somewhere else.”

There are cultural and theological problems with the kind of Christianity practiced in Nigeria. Nigerians are very religious people and given the powerful hold and influence of the churches on people’s lives, questions remain as to the effectiveness of the church’s role in addressing the problems in the country. To meet the needs of Nigerian Christians in the 21st century, a carefully developed, articulated and authentic Black African Theology that addresses Nigeria’s social ills and developmental concerns such as poverty, gender and patriarchy.