Light for a Dark World: The Story of Tope Koleoso
His plans were frustrated again by a lousy generator. No matter how many times he pulled the rope, it would not start up. He was used to his rented generators stopping intermittently during his itinerant work in these remote parts of Nigeria, but tonight was the first time a generator wouldn't even start.
There was no time to find a new one. The open field was swelling with more than one thousand Nigerian villagers. Word of his coming had clearly spread, as natives walked some distance to gather together and fill up an open area of dusty common land that spread out from between the mud huts, a plot of land and a village so desolate it has not yet been photographed in any detail by Google maps to this day. The remote village swelled as poor farmers and their children gathered together in a village with no plumbing and no electricity.
Everything was set up, and it was now dark, but there would be no showing of The Jesus Film tonight.
It was 1989, and Tope Koleoso, a 20-year-old city boy from Lagos, was fresh out of college. Into a remote village he lugged an old and complicated film projector, a rolled-up projection screen, and this cursed generator, all things that he had rented. But it was all for nothing. Tonight, with an eager crowd gathered before him under a dark and open sky, he would have to improvise.
Sensing that the movie wasn’t going to happen, the villagers grew restless in the darkness. Children got antsy, and the commotion swelled as people began shifting and dispersing. Without any electricity, Tope’s scratchy microphone was just as worthless as the movie projector. Yelling would have done little good. So Tope stood in front of the gathering on a makeshift stage, reached into his pocket for a small flashlight, pulled it out, clenched his fist around the light and made a red ball of flesh illuminate in the darkness. He held his illuminated hand in the air as he prayed silently.
In a largely pagan agricultural village like this one in rural Nigeria, where the witch doctors outnumber the Bibles, and where it was widely believed the fertility gods held sway over the crops, prayer and fasting was what you did. No evangelist naively entered a village like this one.
A sense of boldness and fear intermingled in his chest as the crowd took note of the curious red glowing flesh in the darkness. Once the noise hushed, Tope invited the crowd to sit on the ground. They did. Tonight there would be no two-hour cinematic introduction to the life of Christ in the village before his sermon. The sermon was now. Tope turned off his flashlight. He would use it later to illuminate the words of the Gospel of John, a practice to reinforce that his message was coming from the book in his hands. On this night, his light also provided a fitting metaphor for what his gospel sermon was bringing to the remote village.
But for now the light was off. Tope raised his bare voice in the quiet twilight, and began to preach on the darkness of sin, and the good news of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.
Confidence in Scripture
Walking into these villages with erratic equipment was a perpetual test of Tope's confidence in God's word. But this was not the first or the last time his confidence in Scripture would carry him through. It was the confidence in Scripture that led his preparations for the college fellowship he started with two other students that eventually grew to over 100 students. It was a confidence first awakened in him as a young teenager when he pulled a copy of The Way, a printing of The Living Bible, from a shelf of books given to his single mom. There was little talk of Christ in the home but the stories from his Bible reading immediately captured his curiosity, and quietly prepared his heart for ministry.
Tope’s Bible knowledge developed so quickly as a boy that he remembers very easily out-arguing any evangelists that dared approached him, based on the sheer amount of biblical knowledge he retained. It was defensive knowledge, arrogant knowledge, knowledge that kept the gospel away. It was not yet saving knowledge. That saving knowledge would not arrive until his freshman year at Lagos State University when he escorted his half-sister to a church. She needed the gospel; he knew it. But he also needed the gospel; he didn’t know it. There in a movie theater church, in a room of more than 2,000 souls, his sister walked to the front to receive Christ. Tope sat in his seat and came face-to-face with God for the first time. "I thought I already knew God. I wasn't expecting to meet God. But there in that church I felt like the Hound of Heaven was after me, like I was pinned to my chair,” he remembers. “So I gave my life to God. Something radical, gut-wrenching, and real happened to me that day."
After that life-changing meeting with God, the Bible took a different shape. "All those Bible stories that I read recreationally as a boy started to come alive to me." He began attending local churches near the campus and was eventually convinced to start a campus fellowship group at the prompting of a local pastor from a Pentecostal church around the corner from the school.
So with his half-sister and one other student, Tope started the fellowship in a campus apartment living room. Each week Tope was pushed to read and study Scripture again and again. Each week the gathering doubled in size. "I basically learned how to study the Bible for myself, and break through the text, and go. Little did I know that this practice would shape a lot of what my life would look like many years later." His little group would rapidly grow to 100 students.
Snakes in the Mattress
While he led the fellowship at Lagos State University, Tope studied chemistry. As was true for all Nigerian college students, at the end of his education he was required to work for the state for one year, and Tope served as a teacher. And although he did everything in his power to avoid teaching in a remote village, that was his lot. In 1989 the state assigned him to teach in the village of Adoka, Benue, Nigeria, nearly a 9-hour drive east of his hometown in Lagos. There he would teach the children of poor farming families, children he would soon discover who had no known birthdays.
Rural life was a total shock for the city boy. As a teacher he lived in a mud hut with a bed that had to be checked daily for snakes (a tip he received from a local on his arrival). It took him awhile to sleep comfortably at night. Tope taught chemistry, physics, and biology in the village that year. He had ample opportunities to share the gospel and was well loved. He had no car and no phone. Only one bus left the village each week. He was largely cut off from his family and friends, and from fellowship with other Christians. When another teacher was was assigned to teach in the same village later in the year, it turned out to be a man who was a hostile atheist.
But Tope’s bouts with loneliness in Adoka did not dampen his preaching. Tope hiked to local villages with his unreliable technology to share The Jesus Film, to preach, and ultimately to identify and develop future leaders in each village who could plant and lead local churches. “At night in these villages you feel scared and you feel emboldened at the same time. It's a strange and weird feeling.”
When his rented generator was working he would show the film. This was a big draw, and provided the villagers with quite a dazzling contrast to the darkness of the village. Viewers were captivated and amazed by the cinematography as Jesus’s life was set to film. Tope would follow the film with an evangelistic sermon. "I knew I could, by the grace of God, stand in front of people and talk about God, the Bible, and the gospel, and people tended to listen and tended to ‘get’ what I was saying. I knew I could organize my thoughts, and I could project biblical truth with conviction. I didn't preach in the villages because I wanted to be a good Christian. I just had to do it."
Compelled to preach, he knew that even when The Jesus Film worked, it could not replace the sermon. The life of Christ the villagers saw with their eyes had to be interpreted, and had to be connected to hearts through the preaching of the word.
"The people in these villages would carry little kerosene lanterns, so you could see their faces in the patches where the dim lights were. You could see their countenances," Tope reflected. "And you could see their brokenness. One of the most powerful things I would do is describe Jesus suffering, being whipped, and then the cross. Everybody understands the cruelty of punishing an innocent man. But when you tell them that they are participants in this cruelty that they really do want forgiveness. The message was not complex or complicated, but in moving them through the message you see their eyes and tears. They cry initially because of what happens to Jesus. That is emotion. But eventually they realize that this has to do with them. They are guilty, and they want a Savior. I don't think I've ever had greater moments than that in preaching."
When his assigned year in Adoka expired in 1990, Tope traveled to London, initially on a holiday. There, in time, he found a job, and married his wife, Kemi, a British-born woman he met in college in Lagos. At the time there were a number of black churches in London, but the Koleosos wanted to learn how the English did church. Together they began attending a small and simple Newfrontiers church plant in South London, made up almost exclusively of white people. They served quietly in the shadows, and Tope did his best to keep his previous ministry experience and his preaching gift to himself as long as he could. It was here in this little church that Tope was first introduced to reformed theology in cassette tapes from Terry Virgo, R.C. Sproul, and eventually John Piper.
"This felt like a whole different Christianity,” he said. “And it scared me. It upset me initially, made me angry, because I believed this would only lead people into greater decadence and if they were told that once they were saved they were always saved. I would go home to my wife and laugh off what I heard on the tapes on my drive to work each day. The only problem is that these teachers tended to have biblical backing for what they were saying. I couldn't shake it. And it was shaking everything I had been taught. One day I got it, is all I can say. One day I understood Calvinism." It was a humble admission for a young man who had been so confident for so many years of his reading of the Bible.
In 1995, Tope and his family joined a church planting team that planted Jubilee Church in North London. He and his wife have been serving there for 17 years, and for the last 7 years Tope has been the senior pastor. In the early days growth was slow, but God gathered a team together who led the church into its next phase, and who remain together today.
Reminiscent of Tope’s conversion, in 2005 Jubilee Church moved to a movie theater with around 100 people. Immediately the church began to grow, and now has more than 1,000 weekly attendees, a church of considerable size in London. The church also reflects the city’s cosmopolitan nature and has more than fifty nationalities represented in its members.
“Tope is the real deal,” says Adrian Warnock, a prominent Christian blogger who has served with Tope since he also joined Jubilee Church in 1995. “He’s a man of prayer, joy, and humility. He’s a very wise and gifted leader — he’s a prophetic leader. And he is both a pastor of pastors and the leader of a growing church.”
He’s a leader and a trainer of leaders, and those around him affirm that he’s a humble and joyful servant who is driven to serve others through self-sacrifice. Tope is a man who loves the lost, cares deeply for his own growing church, and is driven by a firm conviction of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and a profound trust in the supernatural work of God in even the most remote and dimmest of situations.
Previous biographical features by Tony Reinke: