Nigeria - For many, this highway leads to the future of the Christian faith, and at 9 o'clock on a Friday night, traffic is heavier than a Los Angeles rush hour.
Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians, from street vendors to computer consultants, sit through the exhaust and the squealing horns to reach evangelical campgrounds with churches as large as airplane hangars. The names are as spectacular as the hopes they sell: Mountain of Fire and Miracles, Deeper Life, and the largest and oldest, the 12,000-acre Redemption Camp.
The worshipers are drawn by a program of rousing song and dance and by an eminently practical gospel promising health and prosperity. They come seeking quick fortunes or protection against mundane maladies, from hunger to arthritis to armed robbers. They shout hallelujahs until close to daybreak, when the highway, famous for accidents and bandits, is safe to make the crawl back to Lagos.
Here nobody, it seems, can afford not to pray.
"In countries where everything is very O.K., where they take care of their citizenry, people are very lethargic when it comes to religion and God," said Oluwayemisi Ojuolape, 27, a lawyer in Lagos, who attended this all-night vigil, called Holy Ghost Service. "They are not encouraged to ask for any help. They seem to have all of it."
Not so in the developing world, where Christianity is drawing followers as never before.
That growth is changing the complexion and practice of the Christian faith and other religions in a fervid competition for souls, generating new tremors in places like Nigeria, which are already marbled with ethnic and political fault lines, and causing schisms between the old Christians of the north and the newer ones of the south. It is also beginning to be felt in the political life of these countries.
The new Christian expansion is particularly striking in Pentecostalism, a denomination born only about 100 years ago among blacks, whites and Hispanics in an abandoned church in Los Angeles. Emphasizing a direct line to God, its boisterous, unmediated style of worship employs healings, speaking in tongues and casting out demons.
Spreading Pentecostal congregations ?a quarter of all Christians worldwide ?are bumping up against established Christian churches and Islam in Africa, and chipping away at what has long been a virtual Roman Catholic monopoly in Latin America.
In Brazil, where the national identity has been intertwined with Catholicism since the Portuguese landed 500 years ago, the emotional services at thousands of Pentecostal churches amount to a religious revolution in the world's largest Catholic country.
In the 25 years of John Paul II's papacy, Brazil's Protestant population has quadrupled, with the biggest surge coming in the 1990's among evangelical and Pentecostal groups. More than 25 million Brazilians belong to such churches, leaving pastors like Ezequiel Teixeira of the New Life Project Church in Rio de Janeiro so giddy that he predicts, "In another 25 years, Brazil will have a Protestant majority."
By some estimates, more than a third of Guatemala's population is now Protestant, and Pentecostal churches are making significant inroads in Argentina, Colombia and Chile, where Catholics account for 70 percent of the population.
Across the tropics and the south, Christian worship, especially Pentecostalism, has captured hearts and minds in countries where the precariousness of ordinary living ?blackouts, robbery, disease, corruption ?makes rich and poor alike turn to divine intervention.
"It allows for spiritual or divine agency, so that God has the power to fix and heal and also to protect you," said Lamin Sanneh, a professor at Yale Divinity School who specializes in West Africa. "You might fall into a ditch, or you might be in a car accident, roads such as they are. You are always in present danger. Pentecostalism speaks that language very well."
In Africa, a big part of the success of Pentecostal movements, scholars say, rests on the ability to tap into traditional cosmology, in which gods have long been solicited in pursuit of specific, worldly favors.
"God has become a modern-day juju God," said Chichi Aniagolu, a Nigerian sociologist and a Catholic who, by her own admission, dips into Pentecostal services. "You appease him. You bring him yams, goats, make sacrifices, and you get what you want. Today, you're not making sacrifices. You're giving tithes."
Churches have become formidable economic empires. Most troubling to critics is the enrichment of enterprising preachers, who say their fine cars and expensive suits can convince others of what God's grace can provide. Critics accuse them of duping the poor and doing little to ease poverty or repair endemic corruption.
Yet their appeal has been seemingly irresistible. Worship today is a far cry from the rituals once imposed by European missionaries. Services are conducted in Swahili and Igbo. Most of all, services can be much livelier than their European antecedents.
"I was in Rome the other day and I found the way they celebrate the Eucharist a bit boring," said Bishop Anthony Ireri Mukobo, of the Archdiocese of Nairobi.
A Gospel of Success
From the stage at the Redemption Camp outside Lagos on a recent evening came a gospel of success.
"There will be no more sickness," sang Pastor Enoch A. Adeboye, the general overseer of the vast empire known as the Redeemed Church of Christ.
"Yes, Lord, I believe," the worshipers, more than 100,000 of them, sang back.
"There will be no more failure," the pastor sang.
"Yes, Lord, I believe," answered the crowd. "Yes, Lord."
Like other proponents of prosperity theology, the pastor likes to remind his congregation that God multiplies what the faithful give to the church. "If you don't sow, you don't reap," he says.
"I have heard God speak," the pastor went on, "and I can tell you, I have heard the sound of abundance."
Abundance certainly has come to the Redeemed Church. There are no fewer than 5,000 parishes worldwide, about 4,000 of them in Nigeria, Mr. Adeboye said.
A former mathematics professor close to the Nigerian president, Mr. Adeboye could only estimate the total membership at around two million. Asked about church revenues, he demurred, saying only, "By the grace of God, we are able to take care of our ministers."
There are some 40,000 of them. The church has built a school and a health clinic at Redemption Camp. A university is under construction.
The congregants are by no means all in need. Emmanuel Dania, a tall, fit, British-educated computer consultant, rolled into the V.I.P. parking area of Redemption Camp in an air-conditioned white Toyota pickup truck, then high-fived a friend who had arrived in his own chauffeur-driven BMW. A beggar was quickly turned away.
Mr. Dania regularly worships at an affiliated church in a stylish section of Lagos, where he has found a network of like-minded, upwardly mobile young Nigerians. Some months ago, Mr. Dania said, he had bid on a project with the Central Bank of Nigeria. The official in charge of the contract was a member of the same church.
"He said he was so happy he was dealing with a man of God," Mr. Dania recalled. "You can actually do business in the church. You don't have to go anywhere else. There's a lot of prosperity in the church."
Many traditional Christian theologians, particularly Catholics, dismiss the message that faith will bring wealth and success.
"They're preaching Cross-less Christianity," said the Rev. Iheanyi Enwerem, of the Catholic Secretariat in Lagos. "The idea of everything joy-joy, prosperity-prosperity, well-well. In life, there are certain things we can't have because God doesn't want it. For them, everything is Easter joy, no Good Friday. We say it's totally un-Christian."
But for the poor, the very presence of the rich in the same sanctuary serves as a powerful lesson, much like the testimonials that those who say they were miraculously healed deliver: If God answered their prayers, maybe he will answer mine.
Iwalola Adebusoye, 40, sells rice at a Lagos market. At Redemption Camp, she stood from her seat, closed her eyes, put her hands on her hips and spat her prayers in rapid-fire Yoruba, as though shouting at a no-good deceiving husband.
Uneducated herself, she said she had put three children through school on her earnings selling rice. She was now praying for an opportunity to expand her trade, maybe sell eggs. "To move forward," she said in halting English. "No helper," she said of her predicament. "Only God. And Jesus."