The first Christian contact in Nigeria occurred in the fifteenth century when the Portuguese introduced Roman Catholicism. However, it was virtually extinguished over the following 200 years until Roman Catholic missionaries returned in the 1800s. Since then, the Catholic Church has grown and now claims approximately 19 million members and adherents, mainly in the southeast.
The first Protestant missionaries to Nigeria were Wesleyan Methodists. They began work in the southwest among the Yoruba in 1842. Other Protestant groups followed: Church Missionary Society (evangelical Anglican), United Free Church of Scotland, and the Southern Baptists. Over the last 100 years, several other missions have entered Nigeria: Qua Iboe Mission (now known as Mission Africa), Sudan United Mission (incorporating such groups as the British and South African interdenominational branches as well as the CRC, Netherlands Reformed Church, the South African Dutch Reformed Church, the United Methodists and the Danish Lutherans), Synodical Conference of Lutheran Churches, Salvation Army, Assemblies of God, and the Mennonite Church of North America. Almost all of these missions have planted large and vibrant churches. For example the (Anglican) Church of Nigeria now numbers over 11 million members and adherents.
SIM began work in Nigeria in 1893 when Walter Gowans, Thomas Kent and Roland Bingham attempted to take the Gospel inland. Gowans and Kent died within the first year; Bingham returned to Canada. In 1900, Bingham made a second journey to Nigeria, but this second venture failed due to sickness. In 1901, Bingham returned to Nigeria for a third time and was able to begin work among the Nupe tribe. By 1902 the first station was opened.
Since then SIM has pioneered in 30 language areas. Through medical ministries, much of the Islamic north has opened to the Gospel. In 1954, the SIM-related churches came together to form an indigenous body that is currently known as the Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA). In the following years, mission stations, Bible Schools, academic schools, and medical programs transferred to ECWA leadership.
To conform with government publishing and retailing requirements in 1974, SIM literature ministry, including about 30 bookstores and the production of Today's Challenge magazine, was incorporated into an indigenous organization called ECWA Productions Limited. On November 19, 1976, ECWA accepted responsibility for all remaining SIM ministries.
All SIM missionaries in Nigeria entered a new role of partnership with ECWA. SIM missionaries help to train Nigerian leadership as well as aid in the task of reaching Nigerians with the Gospel. A Memorandum of Understanding signed in February, 1998 and regularly updated and renewed gives clarity and definition to the dynamic partnership between ECWA and SIM.
The SIM-Related Church
ECWA churches are growing rapidly throughout Nigeria, especially in the central regions where some churches have experienced as much as 400% growth in the last 10-15 years. Even churches in the strong Islamic centres are growing steadily. Currently more than 5,000 congregations can be counted with an estimated attendance of over four million.
ECWA also runs eight seminaries and Bible colleges and 15 theological training institutes. Around 90% of the graduates of these institutions go into some form of full time Christian ministry, usually as pastors, missionaries, and Bible teachers. Most students come from Nigeria but the seminaries usually have some students from other African countries. In addition students enrolled in seminaries and colleges come from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds, not just ECWA. Many students are already engaged in Christian ministry and are seeking to upgrade and develop their skills and abilities.
SIM assists five of these institutions with missionaries and urgently needs more missionaries to assist in the other schools. With such rapid growth in ECWA, there is an extremely urgent need to train pastors and church leaders who can meet the spiritual needs of an increasingly educated church body. Many churches have a strong missionary vision and are seeking to reach Muslims and other unreached groups. They need the help of the missionaries and evangelists trained in the ECWA institutions. Finally there remains a fantastic opportunity to reach Nigerian young people through training Bible teachers to take compulsory Christian Religious Knowledge classes in all elementary and post-elementary schools in the country. Missionary theological educators thus have tremendous opportunities to train and disciple hundreds of key church leaders and through them thousands more believers right across the continent of Africa.
Another major area where SIM missionary personnel assist the work of ECWA is in the provision of medical services. Currently SIM medical doctors assist the work of the ECWA general hospitals in Jos and Egbe. In Kano ECWA also owns and operates an Eye Hospital which is assisted by the Christian Blind Mission. There are ongoing needs for missionary medical doctors in all of these institutions as well as some other types of medical personnel. This need can only grow, especially as ECWA develops the proposed Bingham University Medical Centre near Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital.
The growth of the HIV/AIDS epidemic right across Africa is opening up a new form of ministry in counselling and assisting its victims, and in presenting a sound Christian perspective. SIM missionaries have been pioneering this kind of ministry along with our Nigerian colleagues. There are continued opportunities for missionary involvement in this work.Editor's note: Online sources on the history of Christianity in Nigeria are not easy to come by. Some of these include
- The National Open University of Nigeria has published an online, comprehensive syllabus (115 pages in PDF) for their course “Christianity in Nigeria.” It not only contains a summary history but of course includes many references.
- The History of Christianity In Nigeria: The Urhobo, the Isoko and the Itsekiri.
- A Short History of Christianty in Borno