Pastor William F. Kumuyi from Lagos, Nigeria is the pastor of one of the world’s largest and fastest growing churches. Pastor Kumuyi is the founder and General Secretary of the Deeper Life Bible Churches. His church in Lagos has 120,000 members, making it one of the five largest churches in the world. In less than 25 years the Deeper Life movement has grown dramatically to include 5,000 other churches throughout Nigeria, and 3,000 churches outside of Nigeria. The membership of the Deeper Life churches in Nigeria is estimated to be 1,000,000. Deeper Life also has started churches in 40 African nations, Europe and North America. In April 2013, Kumuyi was listed as one of the “500 most powerful people on the planet” and Deeper Christian Life Ministry was considered “the world’s largest megachurch” by the Foreign Policy Magazine.
Pastor Kumuyi was in Romania in 2005 for a series of evangelistic meetings and pastors’ seminars, which provided me an opportunity to discover some of the factors that contributed to the growth of the Deeper Life movement. In the pastors’ seminar, Kumuyi emphasized that there are biblical principles of church growth that apply to every culture, every church. However the practical application of these biblical principles varies from country to country. So not all the practices of the Deeper Life church in Nigeria may be appropriate for your context. But we wish to discover the biblical principles that apply to church growth. So we must ask, what biblical principles lay behind this phenomenal growth that can be applied universally?
Factors contributing to the growth of the deeper life movement
1. Relevant preaching for personal holiness
In 1973 William Kumuyi, who was a mathematics professor at the University of Lagos, began a Bible study group in his apartment with 15 students. Kumuyi’s Bible teaching emphasized practical Christian living and personal holiness. The Bible study grew, and by 1975 loudspeakers were set up outside for the 500 people who gathered each Monday at Kumuyi’s apartment. The movement continued to grow. Thus the number of students involved in Bible studies grew to 5,000 in less than a decade. At first students attended the Bible study groups in addition to their regular activities in their own churches. Then in 1982 Kumuyi was encouraged to start a church because participants in the Deeper Life student groups were not finding spiritual nurture in their churches. Moreover, some of the existing churches opposed the student’s efforts to revive the church.
British journalist Alan Isaacson, reporting on the development of Deeper Life, says, “The history of Deeper Life is very much the personal story of W.F. Kumuyi. He is a gifted man, clear thinking and humble. He is a dedicated Christian and deserves the title ‘the man of God,’ which his followers have given him. Since he was a young man, Kumuyi has devoted his time to reading and studying the Bible. He knows the Scriptures inside out, and has struggled to understand and apply them. As he shares that struggle and his love for the word of God, so people have been drawn to him for advice, or simply to listen. When he preaches, his message is clear, simple, and profound. Poor street traders who can barely read sit next to university professors, all equally captivated by the way Scripture becomes suddenly relevant to them.”
The practical teaching of God’s word results in the transformed lives of the members of Deeper Life. Kumuyi calls Deeper Life members to live holy lives in public and in private. An example would be the impact of application of the biblical teaching on restitution. Corruption and stealing are prevalent practices in Nigeria. So when church members, practicing the biblical teaching on restitution, return stolen items to their employers or pay for stolen goods, this captures the employers’ attention. Now companies send their job open descriptions to the church because they want to hire honest people. They know that Deeper Life members are people of integrity, trustworthy, not given to corruption. Thus we see how relevant, clear Bible teaching and application leads to life transformation.
2. Evangelism and church growth: if you go, you will grow!
Evangelism and church growth are essential parts of Deeper Life Bible Church. From the beginning of the University work, Kumuyi stressed that you come to Christ in order to go for Christ. You come so you can go. You receive so that you can give to another. “We taught evangelism to everyone” relates Kumuyi. “Many came to the Lord. We evangelized everywhere.”
Kumuyi spoke to pastors in Bucharest on Matthew 28:18-19, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have taught you.” This passage talks about what the church should be doing at this time. These commands here are valid for every church in every age. Go! Make disciples! Baptize! Teach! A command is different from a suggestion or an opinion. Jesus did not say we are to obey these commandments if our economy permits, or if the climate is good, or it fits the program of our denomination. The Lord has not given us a choice. The reason we exist is to obey the Lord. In this way the Lord gave the whole gospel to the whole church to go to the whole world.
Kumuyi places great emphasis on the command “go.” The word “go”, says Kumuyi, is a verb, a word of action. Obeying the command “go” involves a purposeful action. Many people are very active, but have no purpose. We must be clear about our purpose in going. “Go” also implies a well-planned action. If you are going somewhere, you must plan. If you are going to evangelize the peoples of the earth, you need to know how many there are, where they are, what language they speak and how to communicate effectively the biblical message. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. “Go” is also a productive action. Jesus expected results that the disciples would baptize converts and make disciples. Jesus expects us to be productive in our activity. Finally, “go” is a prepared action. “Coming to church is great,” comments Kumuyi. “Seminary is great. But both are preparation to go.”
Kumuyi related how the command to “go” took on different meanings during the growth of Deeper Life movement. At first, they went to individuals. Then the Lord directed them, “Now you need to go to other cities.” In the mid 1970’s members began moving moved to other cities and found employment. They began to evangelize and teach and started Deeper Life fellowships. They targeted regional capitals, then district capitals, towns and at last villages. Thus churches were started all over Nigeria. Then the Lord directed them: “Go to other nations.” Again members relocated in other nations and began the work of evangelism and church planting in other African and European nations. Kumuyi himself led the way by going to other cities and countries on the weekends while he was still a mathematics professor.
Kumuyi observed that some churches think only about the growth of their local church. They do not think about going out to start new churches in other areas. Obedience to our Lord’s command demands that we go out and start new churches in unchurched regions and among unreached peoples.
In speaking to a group of Pastors under his leadership, Kumuyi said: “Our emphasis should be on the practical side of going out. If the Lord comes, let him meet us working for him. Now every time I preach I try to mention evangelism. I have told all the Lagos District Coordinators and Zonal Leaders to spend half their time on evangelism and only half their time on their members. There will always be problems in the church: don’t let them take up all your time.”
Church growth begins with obeying the command “go”. “If you go, you will grow,” concludes Kumuyi. God will see to it. Going will bring growth in the church. We cannot grow unless we go. This is the secret of church growth in Nigeria.”
3. Leadership training: you are born to reproduce!
Ike Nwaobasi, a missionary planting Deeper Life churches in Austria, observes: “Deeper life has succeeded because Pastor Kumuyi has succeeded in reproducing himself in others.” In Bucharest, Pastor Kumuyi spoke about leadership training that results in reproduction. “You were born to reproduce. What the disciples received, they were to give to others. So we build up converts to become leaders. Baby boys become fathers. Little girls become mothers. The purpose of the training is reproduction.”
Because reproduction is important to the Deeper Life movement, every person is trained to reproduce from the beginning. Every person is trained to do the work of evangelism. After three months new converts begin training to become leaders. All cell group leaders receive weekly training. There is also specialized training for top leadership. Books, cassettes and video supplement face-to-face teaching. “Every church that wants to grow,” says Nwoabasi, “must take leadership training seriously.”
Training for reproduction involves much more than the transfer of head-knowledge. Deeper Life involves people in a practical training process that not only transfers to them head knowledge, but also helps them develop and master practical ministry skills. Jesus used such a process in training the disciples. This process begins with conversion. Instruction immediately follows. Next a demonstration of the skill is given. Jesus did not just give the disciples theory about out to preach the gospel, to heal the sick and cast out demons; he showed them how. Instruction provides the theory of why something works. Demonstration provides a living example of the practical outworking of the theory. In training people today, instruction is important; but demonstration is essential. Next trainees must be given opportunities to practice what they have learned and have seen. Kumuyi observes that anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly — at first. When we first start to do anything we make mistakes. This is true with walking, talking, reading, writing, evangelizing or preaching. No one who does something important does it perfectly the first time. Some say, “I’m afraid I will make a mistake” “If you don’t make mistakes,” responds Kumuyi, “you will never do anything. Start practicing and perfection will come.” For people to have opportunities to practice, leaders must delegate tasks to people. This process of training also involves supervision and correction as needed until the skill is mastered. The training process is complete when the person trained is reproduces his or herself in others. Thus the training process involves conversion, instruction, demonstration, practice, delegation, supervision, and correction resulting in reproduction.
The purpose of training is reproduction. Jesus commands us to make disciples who, in turn, will make more disciples. The leader must say to his followers, “The work I do, you will do.” Then he must involve his followers in a training process that will lead to reproductive. “Do not let this process die,” Kumuyi challenges. “Go take the Gospel to every creature.”
4. The role of prayer and miracles in church growth
Kumuyi emphasizes the importance of prayer in the growth of the Deeper Life Bible Church. God is the one who gives growth to the church. Therefore prayer to God on behalf of the growth of the church is vital. The early church was a praying, believing church. A survey of the Book of Acts shows how prayer permeated the life of the church. The church was born in prayer. This brought the power of the Holy Spirit to be effective witnesses. The church was devoted to prayer and so God added daily to the number being saved (2:42, 47). Great power was given to the apostles to proclaim the word of God with boldness. The promised signs, wonders and miracles manifest. With these God confirmed the Word the apostles preached (chapter 4). Our God has not changed. God has given us many promises about prayer. What God promises, he does. When we come together as a believing church we will not be disappointed. Prayer is the key. Prayer is the solution for every problem: marriage, family, financial, spiritual, physical or national. Prayer gives us power to go and preach. Prayer can open any door. We must give ourselves to prayer because if we do, we will actually be able to resemble the early church. A praying church is awesome in the hand of God. God still answers prayers today, and He works with believing churches as He worked with the early church. Prayer unleashes the power of God that grows the church.
Pastor Kumuyi’s humbly adds that “The miraculous has given us a great opening.” “God, in the growth of Deeper Life Bible Church, has strategically and prudently used miracles to ‘make all men come to Him.”
As an example of how healings and miracles have opened doors, Kumuyi tells about a village that was resistant to the preaching of the gospel because people were unwilling to renounce the idols they worshipped. The villagers would not allow evangelists to enter the city. Several people from this village traveled to the city church and took with them a paralyzed woman. She was prayed for but not healed. She, along with others from the village, returned home in the back of a truck. Back in the village, after everyone else had gotten down from the truck, this woman felt that her hands and her feet were well. She rose up and began to walk. No one needed to help her get down from this truck. Everyone in the village was awe struck at this miracle. In fact, the entire village celebrated this miracle for two days. Following this the villagers called for the evangelists to come. This woman’s healing opened the door for the work in this village.
5. Meeting in the temple and from house to house: functional structures for pastoral care
Following the pattern of the early church, members of Deeper Life receive teaching in both large group meetings and cell groups that meet in people’s homes (Acts 2:46). The Deeper Life church in Lagos has over 8,000 (?) cell groups that meet in people’s homes.
Deeper Life Bible Church uses a leadership structure patterned after Exodus 18 to coordinate supervise the cell group ministry. In Exodus 18, Moses was encouraged by his father in law Jethro to appoint leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Lagos is a city of 13 million people, and Deeper Life has members are all over the city. Therefore the city is divided into districts and further subdivided into zones. Each district has a coordinator who supervises the work in the zones. Every zone has a coordinator who supervises work of the cell groups and their leaders in that area.
Large group meetings are held on Sunday mornings. The central church building seats 12,500 people plus there is a separate church for children. Because seating is limited in the central church, each district takes turns coming to the central church once a month. Other Sundays the coordinating pastor teaches members in their district or zone. Because not everyone who attends the central church understands English, the sermon is simultaneously translated into several different languages. Each language group sits in a separate section so that they can hear the message in their own language.
Sunday evenings, Deeper Life members meet in cell groups in homes. Each cell consists of 12 to 15 people. There are groups for children, youth and adults. Outlines are prepared for groups so that everyone receives consistent Bible teaching. There is much pastoral care given through the cell system. Issues that cannot be resolved by the cell group leader can be referred to the zonal or district leader. Kumuyi comments, “Although we are large, cell leaders keep track of who comes and who is absent.” The cell leader has many responsibilities. He or she cares for those in the group, prays for them, counsels them, visits them, discovers their talents, and helps the group evangelize. Many new converts enter the life of the church through the outreach of the cell groups.
One zonal leader in Lagos tells how he was assigned a zone in which there was not a single member of Deeper Life. He prayed and visited people. He sent a letter to every home offering to begin a Bible study fellowship in people’s homes. Initially only three families opened their homes to begin a fellowship. This was in 1993. These families invited family, neighbors and friends to the home Bible studies. In a short while these Bible studies had enough participants to begin meeting on Sunday mornings for worship and teaching as a large group. By 1996 the number of Deeper Life members in this zone grew to 250 people and continues to grow.
This same balanced approach between large meetings for worship and teaching, and small meetings in homes are used in the other churches that are part of the Deeper Life movement.
What can we learn from the Deeper Life Church?
We see that the Deeper Life movement strives to discover and apply the biblical principles that lead to church growth. They do not use complicated, expensive programs. These brothers and sisters have a simple faith in God, accept the Bible as the authoritative word of God, and follow Christ in obedience. God has blessed the Deeper Life movement because they have taken God’s word seriously and have put it into practice. They are a people God can use to accomplish his purposes on the earth.
There is nothing that they are doing in Nigeria that cannot be done elsewhere. Many in the world are much wealthier than the average Nigerian (GDP in 2102 was $2800, 180th in the world), so finances are not an excuse. The Deeper Life Movement began very modestly and simply; many churches around the world have far more resources than Pastor Kumuyi had when he started. Let us pray that God would bless us and build his church elsewhere as dramatically as He has done in Africa!
Points to ponder:
The following questions are designed to help you think through how to apply the above mentioned principles to your church and your ministry.
- Does the Bible teaching in your church promote practical Christian living and personal holiness?
- How much time do leaders in your church spend “going out”? How much time on caring for the church members?
- Is every person in your church involved in actively sharing the Gospel? What would need to happen for this to be true?
- Is your church intentionally obeying the command to go, evangelizing and planting churches in church-less locations and unreached people groups?
- Does your church plan and prepare people to obey the commands of God?
- Does your church take leadership development seriously? Is a process in place for training new leaders?
- How important is prayer to the ministry of your church? What signs are visible in your church that God answers prayer? How would the ministry of your church change if God did not answer prayer?
- What would do you consider would be the advantages of doing evangelism and providing pastoral care though small groups?
- Do you believe God can use your church to accomplish his purposes on the earth?
- What other biblical principles for church growth can you identify? How can these be applied in your church?