It’s great to be back after a couple of Sundays in Kenya where I traveled with members of my doctoral cohort from Asbury Seminary. The jet lag is slowly subsiding after 30 hours in transit to come home but one of the things I’ve noticed is that jet lag tends to give you strange dreams when you are able to sleep. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had dreams like one where Bronco quarterback Peyton Manning had decided to take up residence in my grandma’s house—weird.
Then again, I was reminded during my time in Africa that our dreams, while often manifestations of our inward imagination, can also be used by God to tell us something. Certainly there is biblical evidence for that—Joseph dreamt that he would rule over his brothers, Daniel interpreted the dreams of a Babylonian king and dreamed a vision of God’s rule over the earth…just to name a few. Then there’s this dream we read about in Acts 16:6-10 where Paul dreams about a man from Macedonia calling him to come over to their region and help them. In 2 Corinthians we learn that while Macedonia was a prosperous region, the church there was quite impoverished and yet very generous in its giving to the needs of others. Paul would use them as an example of what God can do with people who have very little to give and yet give everything to the work of God’s kingdom.
For generations, Christians in the West have seen Africa as a kind of Macedonian call. Over the last two centuries, thousands of missionaries came to the African continent to bring the gospel to people who have long been thought of as backward, impoverished, and even savage (that’s the famous 19th century term, at least!). And, by all accounts, those missionaries were successful over the long haul—amazingly so, if you look at the numbers. Christianity in Africa is multiplying exponentially while churches in the West are declining.
According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, in 2005 Africa had 390 million Christians, which was more than three times the number there were 35 years ago. That number is likely to grow by another 200 million by 2025. At the same time, Europe is expected to shrink by 17 million Christians over the next two decades while the number of self-identified Christians in the U.S. has dropped by 10% since 1990. I saw this trend at the United Methodist General Conference in April, where delegates are seated based on the church membership of their particular region. In 2008, the African delegation was 20% of the total conference delegates. In 2012, they were 30% of the delegation.
The bottom line is that the center of Christianity is no longer the U.S. or Europe—it is now in the global south. Indeed, North America is emerging as one of the most open mission fields in the world and, in an amazing reversal, it is the African church that is beginning to send missionaries to us. The dream is going in the other direction!
While we were in Kenya we spent some time with Pastor Oscar Muriu and the staff of Nairobi Chapel. The church sits on a plot of ground just outside the city and is housed in tents because it’s cheaper and they never know when they will have to move since they lease the land from the Kenyan government. What I saw at Nairobi Chapel was not a primitive church in the way that many Americans might picture when they think of Africa, but a vibrant, innovative, and mission-minded church with a big vision to change Kenyan society and, even more so, to change the whole world.
Pastor Oscar told us that the African church has appreciated the work of those missionaries over the last 2-300 years, but that missionary legacy has left a bad taste in their mouth as well. Injustices and exploitation took place, but even more troubling was the fact that these missionaries did not believe that the Africans would ever be able to be a church on their own. They were simply transplanting the church models of the West and not paying attention to the unique way that Christianity engages indigenous African culture.
What I saw in Kenya was a church that has a very clear vision, a vivid dream of what God is up to in the world. That dream emerges from their culture and the legacy of poverty, slavery, and oppression that dominated them for so long. It’s a dream that isn’t as much concerned with growing churches as it is growing disciples of Jesus, and a dream that is less about preserving the church than it is about changing their whole society. They are laser focused on a process for moving people from complacent church-goers to people who are using their faith to engage the frontline sectors of society in places like government, education, and business. In that way, they reflect more of a movement than a church. Churches have a tendency to calcify and atrophy. Movements intensify and spread.
It struck me that what was going on in Kenya looks very much like what was going on with the early Methodist movement. The early Methodists were focused on growing people and changing society. They had an intentional process for making disciples through small groups and engagement in mission. The Methodists built schools and hospitals, Wesley preached in the street and at the factories and coal mines. They used the enthusiasm and energy of young circuit riders to plant churches in every town and village on the American frontier. The movement changed 18th century England and post-Revolution America. In the 19th century, however, the movement settled into becoming an institution and it began to calcify. What was once a vibrant and growing movement of faith has become an institution concerned only with its survival.
In Kenya, however, I saw the possibility of a movement once again. The ones who onced received missionaries are now the missionaries themselves, spreading a world-changing Gospel in all the corners of the earth. Look at the goals of Nairobi Chapel, for example.
Win 1 million souls to Christ.
Impact society through social justice
Disciple 100,000 people
Establish 300 new churches in gateway cities around the world
That’s a big vision, especially for a church in a country where people have very few resources and where poverty and crime are rampant problems. Every building in Nairobi is surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire or an electric fence. Nobody goes out at night. The Kabira slums reveal some of the most degrading poverty the world has ever seen. And yet, the churches in Kenya believe that God can and will change their society through them. And person by person, they are doing it.
But they do it in their context. It was interesting to see some of the stark differences in how the church in Kenya is so different from how we do things here. Their music, for example, is very different than ours. Western music, said Pastor Oscar, is about precision—getting the notes right, getting a wide variety of instruments in tune and in time. Everything is written down.
In Africa, all of that is thrown out the window. There are only two instruments in traditional African worship—the drum and the voice. Oscar said that we Americans are hilarious because we put cages around our drums to keep them quiet. The Africans unleash the drum because it is central (and I said, Amen!). African singers don’t read the words, nor do they even need to sing on key. Their only criteria is that the singers sing in a way that gets everybody up to dance. We did not attend a service in Africa where there was no dancing!
There’s also the different way that Africans read the Bible. We tend to the read the Bible through the lens of precision. What does this text mean? What did it mean in Paul’s day? The concern is always the correct application of the text to the context.
Africans, however, read the Bible through the lens of immediacy. With people coming out of such poverty and fear every day, the question is always, “How will this text make my life better immediately? If God cannot speak to my situation it doesn’t mean anything.” Africans don’t generally have the resources to know all the background and context of Scripture. There is no way they can know what the text meant 2,000 years ago, only what it means now. Maybe, said Pastor Oscar, all of our sophistication in doing precise theology is what’s killing the church in the west. Why would the African church be concerned about Western methods and Western theology when the church in the West is dying? “Maybe,” he said, drinking from the cup of Western theology is drinking from a poisoned chalice.”
That may be a little strong, but I think his point is well taken. We all have our unique corruption of the Gospel and we all need the whole Body of Christ—the African parts, the American parts, the Asian parts—to keep us corrected. We have a tendency to complicate things (ok, I have a tendency to complicate things!), and as I listened to Oscar one of John Wesley’s statements came to mind. “I desire plain truth for plain people.” That’s the kind of preaching and teaching that inspires a movement.
What I came away with from my time in Kenya is that we have so much to learn from our brothers and sisters in Africa, but also so much to give. As the church of Jesus Christ goes global, we need to start thinking not in terms of independence (our church has it right) but to interdependence. The key to recapturing the power and movement of the Gospel is going to be found in partnerships with churches in other cultural contexts. The church in Africa needs the resources of the West that can help them change their society from poverty to health. The church in the West needs the spiritual resources of Africa to help recapture the spirit of a Christian movement that will change our own society. We need a spirit of reciprocity—we send them a mission team, they send us one as well. We learn from them, they learn from us. We need each other and, really, that’s the way that Jesus intended his church to be from the beginning!
A week ago Friday, we traveled miles from the city of Nairobi out into the African bush and the home of the Maasai tribe. The long and bumpy track of road to the village of Oloilalei took us miles into the backcountry where we saw wild herds of gazelles, wildebeest, ostriches, zebras, and even giraffes. The tradition is to chase giraffes when you see them, so we jumped out of the matatu (van) to watch them run as if in slow motion (but very fast!).
The Maasai are the quintessential people you think of when you dream of Africa. They are pastoralists and herd cows, sheep, and goats for their subsistence. The traditional Maasai religion was about one god who had gifted all the cattle in the world to the Maasai, and their warriors were all task with bringing them home (i.e. stealing them from another tribe!). The men still carry their herding sticks as a sign of their manhood, while the women where beautiful beads and maintain the life of the village.
We arrived at the village and were greeted by Josiah, the elder chief of the village, and his wife Sara. As we settled into our tents in the compound, the men took a goat from the herd and slaughtered it in honor of our arrival. It was the first time I’d ever seen dinner go all the way from pasture to plate in less than 2 hours (it was delicious, by the way).
At dinner Josiah told us his story. When he was a boy, he was a bit of a trouble-maker. One day, he stole an ostrich egg, and ostrich chased him across the savannah. Ostriches are some of the most notorious killers in the bush as they are known to be able to kick a person to death. Well, Josiah was lucky enough to climb a tree and scream for help. The men of the village came and drove off the ostrich, but the kid was in big trouble. Some time later, the Kenyan government came to the village and wanted at least one of the children to be educated at a distant school. The village elders offered up Josiah immediately!
While at school, Josiah trained to be a teacher. One day during his teaching years, he was looking for a book to read and, thinking it was a novel, picked up a book by Billy Graham and read it. He gave his life to Christ after finishing the book and made the decision to return back to his home village of Oloilalei to bring Christ there and help the people with what he learned. The result now is a thriving little village with a church, a growing school, and the emergence of a project to get clean water into the village. Josiah supervised the construction of a gravity-fed water system that collects rain water at the bottom of a hill using catch ponds and then feeding the water through pipes to collection tanks. People used to have to walk 20 kilometers to get water, and now they only walk five. The goal, however, is to try and pump the water back up the hill so that the villagers can get it more easily and efficiently.
We met Josiah and Sara’s son and daughter. Kokan is doing youth ministry in Nairobi, getting city kids out into the country to experience things like camping and rock climbing. Neema is a famous Christian singer in Kenya (she has won the equivalent in Kenya of the American Dove award!). They still come back to the village when they can because it’s home.
We worshipped with the village church during a celebration on Saturday where we feasted on roasted goat and laid the foundation of a room on the new church being built in the village. We also toured the school where 110 Maasai children are now being educated and heard plans to build more rooms to house even more children. We sang, we worshipped, we laugh, and we danced (well, they danced and laughed at what we were trying to do).
Those two days in that village were some of the most profoundly joyful in my life. I got to see the kingdom of God at work in a place that most people will never see. It was a kind of dream of what is possible when we respond to the call of God and join him in changing the world.
That little village needs resources to build classrooms, to finish their church, to develop a way to pump clean water back to the people. We have those resources right here. I am going to ask our Church Council to consider releasing some of the mission and ministry money set aside during our capital campaign to help Josiah in his work. But I also know that Josiah and his village, and indeed all of Africa, has something to give us as well—a big vision, a joyful vision, of the work of Christ.
So, I am dreaming of Africa these nights. I’d like to take some of you there so that you can dream, too. I’ve come home with the conviction that my vision, our vision as a church, needs to be a lot bigger than we every imagined—that we can dream big dreams because anything is possible with God.
Assante sana, Baba. Thank you, Lord.
(special thanks to Rev. Steve Dunmire for shooting such great photos of our trip!)