Dr. Ope Banwo, an entrepreneur, lawyer, author and motivational speaker, is the founder of an internet-based Christian ministry, The Cyber Embassy of Christ based in Omaha, Nebraska. The full-fledged online church, according to Dr. Banwo, is established with a global mission to utilize the power of the internet and social media to reach and reconcile people to God via the teachings of the Scriptures.
Banwo, as an online marketing coach, is renowned for exploiting the internet to turn challenges into opportunities. His passion to making sure the people take advantage of the fortunes in internet business, gave birth to Netpreneur360 and Nollytainment, which remains a success in the business and entertainment sectors. By establishing The Cyber Embassy of Christ, he says he sees another opportunity in using the internet to bring people into membership of God’s family, develop them for spiritual maturity, and empower them to influence the world for God as Christ’s Ambassadors.
In this interview, Banwo dissects the controversy around the viability of running a successful internet-based church, while affirming his status as the pioneer of the first ever 100 percent online-based Christian ministry. For Ope Banwo, if going to church once a week is just about gaining what a man needs spiritually to make it through another week, then tuning in to an online church rather than working miles back and forth to a physical church building, would be just fine.
He has challenged pastors questioning the effectiveness of his argument to a public debate, and more. Excerpts…
You’re a pastor, lawyer and businessman with the zeal to succeed at all cost; how do you combine all these successfully?
To whom much is given much is expected. I have been blessed by God to be able to do lots of things, and some of them well, while some also do not work out as well. So it’s not an issue for me to do so much. I have been blessed with the ability and energy to do them. My goal is simple: to die empty, to download every idea and every vision God has given me as long as I have the resources and ability to deliver them. It’s for others to criticize my efforts for good or for bad. Of course, one always hopes that others will be kind in evaluating your work but in the scheme of things, people’s opinions are not relevant to your eternal evaluation. I am concerned more about Jesus’ evaluation because I know, just like the parable of the talents, Jesus will evaluate me based on how well I used the talents He gave me.
It has been observed that a small percent of Christians has embraced streaming technology to stay connected for worship; do you have an opinion why this is so?
Yes it is sad but not surprising that many Christians were slow to embrace the potentials of the internet for pursuing the agenda of the great commission. As you know, the Church is often the last to embrace any technological advancement for various reasons, ranging from irrational fear, ignorance and aversion, to what we think may rob the leaders of their control of the faithful. The Church was slow to embrace radio, the Church was also slow to embrace TV with some of them even calling TV the ‘Box Of the Devil’ and banning their members for watching it. But now, every church has or dreams of having its own radio or television channel. So, the early neglect or outright rejection of the internet as a viable means of spreading the gospel and developing members for spiritual maturity simply followed the traditional approach of the Church to technology advancement.
What then is your view of the role the Internet especially is playing in influencing the spread of Christianity?
The Internet is the single most powerful medium God has made possible for us Christians to influence the world as God intended. That is the truth. Personally, I consider Netvangelism as one of the biggest benefits of this Coronavirus challenge, if one can ever find anything good in a pandemic. This dreaded disease has the side effect of showing Church leaders and Christians that the church is not the building but a gathering of people united in a common cause under Christ Jesus, wherever we are gathered; whether on land, on sea, on the moon or on the Internet. So now we have no choice but to rethink our priorities and strategies for the Kingdom work in the context of the Internet. Now, when I talk about using the Internet for church work, I am not talking about just streaming sermons or church services. That’s pedestrian. I strongly believe, and I have proved it, that to really maximize the potential of the Internet for the Gospel, churches must raise their game and actually think of having a full-fledged church online, just like The Cyber Embassy of Christ where every aspect of the Gospel work like worship, ministry, evangelism, fellowship and discipleship are done online. I have been shouting this for three years and some big-name pastors would say I was erratic.
Now that the Covid-19 challenge is enforcing more churches online, would it be right to say that your three-year effort was not in vain after all?
Interestingly, some of these Pastors who had called me names are now consulting me to help them design some of these elevated operations of the online church for their ministries. I am gratified but nothing to gloat about. My job remains to help as many pastors as I can to do better church online. Honestly, I don’t think the Internet will ever replace physical churches but it will remain an undeniable complement to the Mission of every church from now on. Coronavirus is making sure of that.
With the present technological development, are we going to see some kind of competition among churches where you have one claiming superiority over the other?
First on this question, let me say I think it’s gross irresponsibility for any church or pastor to think it has a leverage over other churches in anything. That’s ignorance and spiritual arrogance. Churches are not competing against each other. The Church is one. So, while a church with a specific mission may get tools to do its work better, like CyberEmbassy that has the Internet explosion to do its works online, the issue of leverage against other churches does not arise. We all work for one God and one Kingdom. Our individual operations differ but we are one unit. Now, It’s obvious that churches that shunned the internet or that really did not see the massive potentials the internet represents for the Great Commission, were caught napping.
How would you rate the response now regarding the Church’s acceptance of the importance of Internet in spreading the Gospel?
You see, many never believed churches, events or governments could close down activities because of anything. Even when Coronavirus started happening in USA, many African churches were in denial. Now, it’s here and many are scrambling. It’s sad that majority of our churches can only so far do Sunday live broadcasts with most simply uploading recorded contents from their churches or homes. So, I don’t see Coronavirus as putting Cyber Embassy over any other church at all. It is only a vindication that our call as a church to use the internet to minister to people on the internet, while they are on the internet, is not a frivolous pursuit or a commission from the devil like some pastors first accused us. Many called me names and wanted me to stop talking about doing worship or church online. Corona is just a vindication of our vision, no more. As for our niche, The Cyber Embassy of Christ is really on its own where the internet is concerned. We as a church don’t just use internet to stream services or preach sermons, we do all areas of church exclusively online.
Are you saying you pioneered regular online Christian fellowship?
We are the world’s first full-fledged 100% internet church. I am not joking. I dare you to research and tell me any church that has been doing what we do on the level we do it. That’s not just a claim for publicity. It’s fact. While there have been churches doing evangelism online or even churches who say they are all online, I do not know of any full-fledged 100% internet church with a full complement of staff and is organized in a way where every area of church is done 100% online. We have no buildings and have no attachment to any physically. We are all online and registered as such. We are unique in the sense that we do worship exclusively online. In fact, we are organizing the 1st 12-Hour all online worship event with over 50 worshippers participating from across the globe. It has never been done anywhere. We do Ministry exclusively online; for instance, we just finished providing food for a week for over 600 widows in our Food For Widows programme, raising the money exclusively online and then digitally sending money to verified widows’ bank accounts online, in partnership with organizations that care for widows. We do Evangelism exclusively online where we have staff called netvangelists and soul e-hustlers who share Gospel only online. We do Fellowship exclusively online where we form members into different fellowship groups on different social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Telegram and others. Even, now we have over 1,100 people in 30 different fellowship groups going through a 40-Day Of Purpose programme (40-DOP), all online. We also do Discipleship exclusively online; we do bible study live, we train new members on Zoom and we run different spiritual growth programmes online with full staff. We really have a unique niche that we take very seriously and pray others will join us as we also wish to help as many churches too to have 100% online parishes even if it’s going to be a branch of their physical ones. The more we have them, the more name of God is glorified.
Are the physical churches missing on any opportunity now that Coronavirus has given cyber churches leverage?
Yes, the physical churches who are not embracing the internet as a tool to do all areas of the Great Commission are missing out on a great opportunity. Beyond just preaching to them online, people as a church still need to do ministry to others; they need to do evangelism, they need to do fellowship, and they need to be discipled or have spiritual maturity. Now, that coronavirus has forced everyone to stay out of physical buildings does it now mean people will not be catered to in the five main purposes of the church like worship, evangelism, fellowship and discipleship, including even church administration? So, we believe many churches are leaving a lot of souls on the table, and that is why I am organizing another seven-day online Netvangelism conference free for all pastors to teach all I know to anyone who wants to learn.
It’s free, it’s part of my commitment to this online ministry campaign.
You have been consistent with your online church campaign for some time, based on that reality, are you convinced that there are better opportunities in reaching the people where they are via online service instead of physical attendance?
Without a doubt, there are. The Internet of today presents far more opportunities to execute the Great Commission than physical buildings do by a magnitude of 100 to 1. I say that with all sense of seriousness and responsibility. Though, many pastors won’t admit it, the fact is that the attendance trend for most churches has been on the decline for the last five years and is getting worse every day. People are simply not as strong with attending physical churches today as they used to do seven years ago. Now, the question pastors are not asking is, where are the people? If someone is not in church on Sunday or Wednesday, he is somewhere. The truth is that most of those not going to churches on Sunday and attending other church programmes spend most of that time online. That’s just for normal church people. In addition, most of the people today who are not Christians will not even be caught in any church programmes unless it’s to attend a wedding or funeral. Yet, the Great Commission asked us to ”go and get them”. So, where are they? Most are online. I have been screaming for at least three years now that it’s time to take the Church to the people if they won’t come to church. Jesus himself took the Church to the streets because in His time people were no longer going to the synagogues for worship because the synagogue had been turned to a money making marketplace as is happening in some churches today. With the internet you can reach far more people than that you could with physical building. For instance, my sermon last week has been watched by 28,000 people in less than a week with a $50 advert. My sermon in February now has over 770,000 views, with over 300,000 playing at least 15 minutes of it with just about $200 in advert spending. Do you know of any church with that kind of Return-on-investment on their budget? Do you know how much it costs to organize a Sunday service with 1,000 attendees in a physical church? It’s humongous. But with Internet, you can reach people anytime and anywhere and people can attend bible study anytime, and people who can’t make it because of traffic or work can simply follow it on their phones and even ask questions and get to participate in the Bible study online.
In other words, it is time up for physical church attendance, or what does that imply?
Now don’t misunderstand me; physical churches will always be there but they had better brace up, for the fact that more of their people will be elsewhere than that building most of the time, and they must plan accordingly. I remember once attending an Anglican Cathedral Church in London a few years ago. The building could take about 3,000 people but I saw less than 10 people there on that Sunday. Yet there was a time that the Cathedral used to be full and even had extra chairs outside the church. Times changed, worshippers migrated elsewhere and those big Cathedrals didn’t even know what hit them. Many of our big edifices of today too are probably headed that way but their pastors are still in denial instead of planning for an inevitable future. It may come slower in places like Africa because of our level of Internet use and abundant poverty and spiritual ignorance but eventually, technology will catch up with even Nigerian churches. For example, right now, over a million people gather each month at RCCG camp for the Holy Ghost night. But how long do you think that many people will keep making that difficult journey where you spend six hours in traffic just to get there and another three hours to get out after spending all night in prayer? And this is something they can just open their phones and join. Even pastors will start questioning why they have to do that each month when they can join by telecast.
Do you mean a ministry as massive as RCCG could opt for live online service someday?
Even Daddy Adeboye has been compelled to start doing live services on Dove TV now because he recognized the sign of the times. I actually smiled when I saw him do Holy Communion by telecast. And this is a matter some people had called me mad for suggesting it. I predict that this telecast thing is going to have more and more people tuning into it than driving to camp. So, I am 100% convinced that the Internet presents infinitely much more opportunity to carry out the gospel commission than physical churches though but will complement each other.
What is the uniqueness of the Cyber Embassy of Christ?
With all humility, I did not just embrace the idea of all-Internet church, I believe I pioneered the first full-fledged Internet church where all areas of a full church are being executed 100 percent. We are the first church, as far as I know, and I am yet to be proven wrong, that actually aggressively executes all areas of the church exclusively online. Other churches have, of course, done something similar but we don’t know of any church anywhere, either in Africa or USA or anywhere in the world that is exclusively structured to minister live to the people online our church missions start online, are done only online, and end online. We do not just use the internet to do church, the internet is our church. As far as I know, no church before has approached the Netvangelism concept on the comprehensive level we have taken this from day one. We didn’t evolve into a full-fledged online church from a physical church or do half-hearted online strategy. We strongly believe and operate in the acceptance that our mission from God, from day one, was to be 100 percent full-fledged Internet church.
Before coronavirus, some clerics had argued against placing much emphasis on digital service, believing it could help to decrease the reach of the message, and discouraging faith growth. Do you agree with that?
Those who say the internet will reduce the reach of the gospel have no clear concept of how the internet works. Contrarily, the internet will actually help pastors reach more and even help them get more people into their physical churches than taking them away. The internet lets your church reach more people with the message and your activities and helps you invite more to visit your church. For instance 20,000 copies of fliers may cost you about $1,000 to print and distribute offline. But how many people will actually visit your church from them or how many will your message effectively reach with a flier? Most will simply just throw it on the floor after taking it. On the other hand, the same $1,000 spent on advert in social media promotion for your digital flier could get you about two million views. Once you understand the fact that the ‘reach’ of your message is not just for those physically in front of you on Sunday, then you will understand that the internet is way more effective in reaching people than your small or big church building. You must understand that a soul is a soul, whether in a building or on the internet and God is Spirit. Therefore, God can move, regardless of medium.
Could there be some reasons they insist going all-Internet could deny the Gospel the desired reach?
Those who say the Internet prevents the reach of the gospel are only thinking in terms of satisfying their ego, when they physically see people in front of them. If they consider that reaching someone in Ghana or Australia from your bedroom with the message is the same spirit of God, they will calm down and embrace this thing. I know most big pastors still think Internet is a joke but with the Coronavirus challenge, the joke is on them now. So now, they sit at home and can’t feed the flock of God with solid meat everyday beyond posting some recorded or live sermons on Sundays. As this drags on, they will be forced to wake up and put more church outreach programmes on the table or become irrelevant in the Great Commission. God does not play and Gospel cannot be caged. We are rapidly getting to a point where you as a minister of God either become relevant outside the four walls of your beautiful church building or gradually fade away into irrelevance. Those three billion people on Facebook daily or elsewhere on the internet are being fed something by somebody. Somebody is ‘preaching’ something to them and they are accepting something. My passionate appeal to Pastors still with the old mindset is to get over the fear of the internet and stop seeing it as competing with their physical church buildings and instead embrace it as a great tool for the Great Commission. Your church building is not the church of Christ, Internet is. So if people won’t come to the physical building, then go find them on the ‘Internet building’, instead of whining about how the internet is affecting your daily physical attendance. Where two or more are gathered in the name of Christ, there the church of Jesus would be. Right now more of that gathering is on the Internet. Like I mentioned before, the Cyber Embassy does online most of what physical churches do offline and, even more. We just did a huge ‘Food For Widows’ scheme where we were getting resources to feed 2,500 widows and 5,000 kids as Coronavirus palliative. So far, we have done about 600 of those, with 1,200 kids at an average of two kids per widow. I don’t think those widows who got alerts of N7, 000 each in their bank accounts will think we are a joke. And we are about to launch an empowerment scheme for self-employment for people on a global level through internet training. I don’t think those who would benefit from that programme too will think the idea of internet church is a joke. Many people are not going to physical churches right now, anyway. Our own mission is to still reach them with the message of Christ the Lord.
Are you convinced that running an internet based church would provide the same level of accountability and mutual trust as the physical church, regarding fund management?
Accountability for fundraising has nothing to do with whether your church is online or offline. Someone who does not want to be accountable will not be accountable. For instance, how many accounts of physical churches have you seen? Many don’t even have records of bookkeeping that are auditable. Yet, all transactions with online churches are auditable since all records are electronic and permanent in some platforms. So, structurally, accountability is better in online churches than the physical offline churches. Internet churches always have records while some physical churches do not have. Not because they want to be unaccountable, they just don’t just have the structure in place. Internet provides more structure for accountability because everything has electronic record that cannot be manipulated. Besides, accountability comes down to the pastor or church, whether online or offline. Both can be abused very easily though it is harder to abuse online than in the physical church.