‘We must have audacity to embrace vision regardless of culture’
Eight years ago, in the Ikotun area of Lagos, Emmanuel Iren, a 22-year old fresh graduate of Covenant University planted what is today known as Celebration Church International. Since then, the church has grown in leaps and bounds, with thousands of members and branches in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja and Canada. In this interview, the husband and father of two shares the journey of Celebration Church, his thoughts on marriage and family, as well as a message to Nigerian Youths in these austere times.
Many people know you as a pastor, are there other things people don’t know about you?
That is a simple question, because I love what I’ve been called to do. But in some other ways, that’s a tough question because there are a couple of other things that I have a fervent passion for.
Academically, I have a master’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Lagos. I’ve always had a knack for business being done properly, and organisations running smoothly, so perhaps, I might have explored a career in that. I also studied Building Technology for my first degree, and I’m quite passionate about interior decoration. Also, I’m a songwriter. By God’s grace, I’ve written about twelve songs performed by Outburst Music Group, including Light up the way featuring Eben. In fact, before I became a pastor, I started out as a drummer; I’ve always been musically inclined. But I think in a way, all my different experiences and gifts find expression in ministry.
Celebration Church has grown exponentially since it was founded eight years ago, what’s the secret? What actually drives the continuous expansion?
The secret is simply; the grace that accompanies the call. The Bible says that if anyone prophesies, let him prophesy according to the measure of the grace of God. Every spiritual activity should be carried out by grace and not just by effort or mere physical or even mental exertion. The truth is some other people who are called to just pastor one branch and as long as they do that wholeheartedly and do it according to what the Lord has asked him to do, then they are a success in that call. So, I don’t really consider us a success, because we are doing what is great in the sight of men, rather because we’re doing what God has asked us to do.
When people ask why open even more branches, my response is simply because that’s the vision that God gave us, a specific vision. And by the way, we realised what we emphasise is slightly different. The real question isn’t how many churches there are in the world, the question we like to ask people is, ‘well, since you’ve been going to church, do you understand the Bible? Are you growing in the knowledge of God? Not just in religion, not just in what people say or what is popular, but what the Word of God says?’ I must say that while we are grateful for the numbers, the testimony of changed lives is the greatest testimony of Celebration Church.
How did you receive the call?
It all started from me just being an undergraduate student on fire for the Lord. I just wanted to serve the Lord the best way I knew how to and be as responsible as I could, contributing to the advancement of the kingdom. But what was supposed to be a private personal fire began to grow; people literally began to come to say that they had been blessed, and they wanted to grow. That was a pointer to the fact that God had more in store, which later became confirmed and we began to have small Bible meetings that grew from three people to ten to twenty to hundred to five hundred and more, while I was still an undergraduate.
After school, God told us that it wasn’t just a youth ministry, but that He had given us a work that must continue, which is what we have done. So, about a year after graduation, almost immediately after my youth service, we set out to start what is now known as Celebration Church; we had our first Sunday service on November 11, 2020.
What would be your word of encouragement other young people, who believe that have similar calling?
My answer would be a balance of a spiritual and a natural approach. What people need to realise is that no matter how convinced you are that you’re supposed to do something, there is a requisite amount of confidence and bravery that it would take. Whether it’s a spiritual vision or otherwise, you must be brave enough to step out and do.
In the Bible, when God called people, you would often see a disparity between how God saw them and what he had destined them to be and how they saw themselves. Jeremiah saw himself as a child, Moses saw himself as a stammerer, but God called them prophets. Many times, we don’t see ourselves the way we ought to see ourselves or we don’t see ourselves through the lens of God. We’ve bought all the socio-cultural narratives that that have given us a thousand and one reasons not to do what we are born to do. But sooner rather than later, you must stand up, square your shoulders and get the job done. Just like Mary, we must have the audacity to embrace the vision and say, ‘This is who I’m going to be and this is what I’m going to do my life.’
You’re thirty years old, but you recently celebrated your 6th wedding anniversary with two daughters. What would you say is the secret to a successful marriage? Does getting married early have anything to do with it?
I really think that for two people to work together, they must realise that one of the greatest causes of conflict is when people are set in their ways regarding how things must be done. So, there must be an agreement if two people work together, just like the Bible says. As great as your parents’ marriage is or was, whatever be the case, your marriage will be slightly different. And even though the values are fundamentally the same, practically, every marriage is different.
The people involved must learn to be flexible and understanding; must learn to be forgiving and just come together and find what works for the good of the home. So, I think that once that is achieved, and conflict resolution is something that has been mastered, a huge chunk of whatever might be the trouble will be out of the way. Of course, I can’t really answer all the keys to a successful home in a few paragraphs, but I think that’s a major one I can share.
But when it comes to marriage, everyone’s timetable is different. I feel like some people may not be ready to get married at the age of 30; some may not be ready to get married at the age of 35. Some may be ready to get married at the age of 23, some might be ready to get married at the age of 20. It’s not really about the age; it’s about the maturity, the exposure. Do you know what it entails and are you ready to play your part?
Marriage is an institution between two consenting and responsible adults. There should be some level of financial independence; there should be a social-cultural independence also. You should be able to stand on your own in a community and be ready to carve a niche for yourself and more. You should have the mental, emotional and financial maturity to raise a family. At the time I got married, I was through with school; I already had a job. I had a friend that I was convinced I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.
What do you think the role of the church should be in creating social change?
The reality of the situation in Nigeria is everyone needs to create his/her own experience. While we must keep demanding good governance, don’t allow the perceived failure of the government to hinder your destiny, because at the end of the day, it is your destiny. For everything that you ought to have had opportunities to do, and it has not been placed on your lap, create your own opportunities. Nigeria is full of very many brilliant minds and a lot of people have already done great for themselves, despite the trials and challenges.
While we keep encouraging more young people to get into government and advocating for our government to do better, I want to encourage every young person out there to stand up; create your own story, change the narrative and show the world that despite all the challenges, you can still do well for yourself and for others. And as it pertains to social change, I believe that if everyone who is living a privileged life takes it as a responsibility to help more people, then change is imminent.
We must come to a point where we no longer brag about what we have, but if we must brag, let it be about what we give. I can’t tell people what to show off on social media, but one thing I can say is that it would be more honourable to show off good works and to help as many people as you can. I mean, sponsor children to school; help people who are hungry, speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves because in doing so you’ll be doing the will of God.
Some people think that the church is not doing enough to help the poor, but is instead opening branches all around. How do we balance that?
First and foremost, I want to say respectfully many churches have shown, even more what the government, they can do better. I attended Covenant University and when you look at a system like Canaanland, that has had constant electricity for 18 years, that has good roads, good water, and everything… It now lets you know that the government that we’re paying taxes to can do even better if they are more prudent with finances. I’m not saying that the church is doing too much, there’s always room for improvement, but chances are the church is doing way more than people know.
For instance, I think our church was able to help at least six people with their schooling and school fees this year alone; that’s a church that is just eight years old. Growing up, even before I became a pastor, I was in a local church that was quite generous to the poor among us, but didn’t make a lot of noise about it. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen churches speak up against injustice, and support peaceful protesters in dire need.
Jesus says the left hand shouldn’t know what the right hand is doing. The debates can be made if those things should be made more public than they have been, but I can attest to the fact that many people are doing way more than people know. As important as acts of charity are, the world needs to understand that we still have a message; that the church is fundamentally in the business of souls, of discipleship. Jesus said, ‘Go into all the world and teach all nations’ and that remains our priority.
In doing so, we carry a bag with us; we help the poor and all of that. I’m not saying helping the poor is not important. It is very important, but it is still not our core message, because poor, rich, no matter your economic status, the gospel is that you will need to believe in Jesus to have eternal life and that is still our fundamental message at the end of the day.
What’s next for celebration church?
Whatever God says is next. For now, we’re consolidating. God has helped us to reach so many disciples and we want to do that more faithfully. We don’t do anything except God tells us to do, so it’s very hard to say what’s next, but we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing; telling the world about Jesus, helping thinkers believe. Bringing the balance between reasoning and faith. Helping people realise that faith is reasonable and when we say that we believe in God, it is not a figment of our imagination; it is a fact of life. So, we would just keep doing what we’ve been called to do faithfully.