Reflections on Kenyan Christianity

I’ve recently returned from two weeks in Kenya with the family, as part of a church team visiting and working with the RUSH project. It was a mind-blowing if knackering experience, and our team have blogged about it pretty exhaustively here. There are even some videos of me unsuccessfully attempting African dancing in front of about 100 Kenyan widows.

Kenyan universalists?

I jokingly said before I went that I’d ask whether Kenyan Christians believed in universal salvation (in response to a question at the recent Spurgeon’s conference). I’m afraid I failed to ask the question, but from what I’ve seen I’d hazard a pretty strong guess that the answer would be an emphatic ‘no’, or just a blank look. I rather suspect it’s not a theological question most Kenyan Christians have ever considered.

I do know what at least some Kenyan Christians think about gay marriage though – it came up in a sermon as a sign of the ‘evil times’ we live in. Liberal western society this ain’t.

Cultural Christianity

Kenya is very much a culturally Christian country, with something in the region of 80% church membership. There are churches everywhere – pretty much every other corrugated shack along the roadside is a ‘church’ or Christian meeting venue, with confident names like ‘Holy Zion Temple of Praise’, ‘Dominion Worship Centre’ or ‘Miracle Life Centre’. (Not unlike parts of Croydon in fact.)

There’s quite a large element of Catholicism, with Sacred Heart and crucifix pictures everywhere, and the Anglican church also has a strong presence. However, the majority stream (at least where we were) seems to be a kind of charismatic evangelicalism, with fundamentalist leanings and prosperity gospel elements. US preachers like Joyce Meyer and Benny Hinn are highly popular through Christian satellite TV, and their simple messages of fulfilment through faith hold great appeal in this country where a working wage can be as little as 80p (100 KSh) for a day’s hard manual labour.

To be seen as a good Christian in Kenya, you ideally need to carry a Bible with you (I was publicly ticked off for not having one at a meeting!), and you certainly need to believe what it says without question, probably in a fairly literal manner. You will have a stock set of Christian phrases and responses to be repeated at meetings such as ‘Bwana Sufiyawe’ (‘Praise the Lord’, response: ‘Amen’) and ‘God is good’ (response: ‘all the time’). If you are going through difficulties, as most Kenyans are in one way or another, you will say you are trusting God. And you probably will be – there aren’t many other options available.

So to say that Christianity in Kenya is cultural is not at all to say that it isn’t genuine. It’s just that it’s more tied up with society, social expectations and social standing than it is in the UK – perhaps more like it was here in Victorian times. The immensely high regard – reverence even – for priests and pastors is particularly noticeable, compared to here where they’re often seen as easy targets for mockery.

Church meetings

A Sunday meeting in Kenya is likely to last anything from 3-5 hours and may contain two or more preaches, testimonies and countless worship choruses. And if you think Western charismatic songs are repetitive, you ain’t seen nothing – these can go on for 10-15 minutes each, using only a few simple repeating phrases. However, the exuberance, harmony and faith with which they are sung are way beyond English versions.

A sermon can last for upwards of an hour, and will be delivered powerfully and with audience participation (‘Amen!’, ‘Alleluia’). The messages tend to be simple, strong and repetitive, with strong emphases on personal morality and on success – ‘fulfilling your destiny’. The preacher will ask direct, often guilt-inducing questions like ‘Are you a righteous person? Have you served the Lord enough this week?’.

And of course ‘Bwana Sufiyawe!’ (praise the Lord) and ‘Bwana Sufiyawe tena!’ (praise the Lord again) will be repeated ad infinitum in a meeting (my daughter lost count after about 70 times).

Views of good and evil

On the whole, good and evil are seen in quite simple and un-nuanced terms. As I mentioned, gay marriage and even homosexual desire are seen as signs of evil times. Events and circumstances are freely and directly attributed to God or the devil: one teenager told us that their crops were withering because ‘God refused to send rain’; at other times hardships and bad events were put down to the devil’s work.

Different cultures, different stages

Overall then I’d say that Kenyan Christianity (or what I saw of it) is at Scott Peck’s Stage 2 – a largely pre-critical, literal, black-and-white understanding of faith. However, this is just an observation, not a criticism. Kenya is an utterly different type of  country and society from anywhere in the modern liberal west. The whole structure of society and way of life is alien to our way of thinking. It’s highly tribal (I’m told there are 42 different tribal groups in Kenya, each with its own unique culture). Life is fragile; disease and extreme poverty are everywhere; people are much closer to the soil and to harsh realities of survival. It’s hardly surprising that their approach to God and matters of faith is simpler, more direct and less nuanced.

If anything, I found myself and my comfortable liberal attitudes challenged by these people who have so little materially and yet who often – perhaps by necessity – have such genuine and powerful faith. And they do see miracles. One of our hosts had a raft of cancers and complications last year so serious that his chances of survival were vanishingly slim, even with highly expensive surgery. But in the event he walked out of intensive care within two days, completely healed and totally unfazed – he’d had no doubts as to the outcome. When we visited them he was tired but unstoppably active – and would get up and dance like a funky chicken for hours at the least opportunity.

I’m not saying these guys are perfect or that theirs is necessarily a better way to be Christian. But it’s shown me that God can be (and is) powerfully at work even through styles of Christianity that I find theologically problematic. And it’s made me stop and think about whether the version of faith I aspire to is really right and appropriate for other cultures and situations than my own.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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12 Responses to Reflections on Kenyan Christianity

  1. Pingback: Harvey blogs on Kenyan Christianity | Will Cookson's Blog

  2. dsholland says:

    Great post. Thank you for a window to a world I am unlikely to ever see. I look forward to your evolving reflections from the experience.

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  3. Terry says:

    Good stuff, Harvey; thanks for posting. But no thanks for not asking the universalism question.

    I do find it interesting that despite the fact that it’s an entirely different culture – or even cultures – the homosexuality issue comes up. In your opinion, why is this the case? Also, given their popularity, how far do you think Benny Hinn et al. are actually giving opportunity for particular kinds of Christianity to emerge? How do you things would change, for example, if people such as Tom Wright or Rob Bell became popular?

    Sorry about all the questions.

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  4. harveyedser says:

    I’m not sure why the homosexuality issue comes up. I think it’s become high-profile globally; maybe Joyce Meyer and Benny Hinn talk about it. The person preaching on it was warning that it’s no longer just a western phenomenon, so it’s presumably seen as predominantly an ‘evil’ of the decadent west.

    It’s a tough question about Benny Hinn vs Tom Wright. I think it’s a bit chicken-and-egg – Hinn is influential because he’s on TV, but I think the reason many Kenyans tune in to him is because his type of message appeals so strongly to their cultural situation and values. I suspect that were Tom Wright to have his own show, it would be of minority interest.

    Of course, I’m making huge generalisations based on my own very short experience of a small part of a huge country, so I may be completely wrong.

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  5. johnm55 says:

    Reading your post, especially this bit:

    Events and circumstances are freely and directly attributed to God or the devil: one teenager told us that their crops were withering because ‘God refused to send rain’; at other times hardships and bad events were put down to the devil’s work.

    made we wonder exactly how far removed from the Animism that it replaced is Kenyan Christianity? Of course it can be argued that all religions are just more (or less) sophisticated versions of animism, that need gods and devils to explain natural phenomena.

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    • harveyedser says:

      Interesting thought and one that I’ll need some time to think about properly. But I don’t really have a problem with Animism – it actually seems to me to have more going for it than Atheism in some ways! Any child knows that there’s meaning and personality in the universe; only sophisticated adults believe that it’s all just meaningless, impersonal forces. 🙂

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  6. jerry says:

    Hi Harvey,
    As I was doing my random search on google, I came across your blog which I must say I found very interesting. I’m a Kenyan and I would like to agree with most of you observation of the Kenyan christianity.
    I however curious to ask which part(s) of Kenya did you visited? And which church(es) did you attend? I’m just a little bit concerned because this is always the case in all the Kenyan church and therefore I don’t think it would be right of you to assume that your observation about the Kenyan christianity is entirely true.
    By the it should be ” BWANA ASIFIWE!” not “Bwana Sufiyawe” (hahaha!)
    Thanks alot for this.

    Every blessing!

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    • Hi Jerry, thanks for your comment and for your Kiswahili correction – sorry for the mistake!

      We were in Kakamega for the most part, and the people we were visiting and staying with were the founders of the excellent RUSH organisation. The church we attended was in Butere.

      I have immense respect and admiration for all the Christians we met while we were in Kenya, and for their deep faith in the midst of many hardships. There were some aspects of African Christian faith that I found difficult from my European perspective – for example the strong anti-gay stance, and some of the emphasis on ‘health and wealth’ teachings. But one thing for certain was that God was very much present and at work among the people we met, and whether or not their theology – or ours – was correct is of secondary importance.

      Every blessing to you as well!

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  7. jerry says:

    Hi Harvey,

    Good to hear that you were in KK (Short form of Kakamega) and that you really had a wonderful time there. I hope you enjoyed the local Ugali and chickens that people around there are well know to be generous with.
    I’m pretty much sure that if you could have attended few other churches in the Area, I reckon you could have have found others churches that have different opinion to the issues that you’ve raised. Furthermore,there are certainly very major differences between the way a church in an urban, (post)modern community like Nairobi might typically understand life and the worldview of the majority in rural area of Kakamega. With the influence of globalisation with us in the major African cities,you may be interested to find many more churches with a very different, more biblically sound stand on those particular issues. I also have to admit that though a Kenyan, I may struggle with their stand as well. That’s why I said it wasn’t entirely correct to assume that your observation was a representation of the entire Kenyan Christianity. It might be just one part of the whole but not the whole itself.

    Thanks alot.

    Mungu akubariki (God Bless you!)

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    • Thanks Jerry – that’s a good point, and one I should have thought of. It’s the same in England of course, and probably in most places. You could walk into ten different churches here and have ten completely different experiences, ranging from the exuberantly Pentecostal to the staid and traditional Church of England with incense and chanting, or from the strict conservative evangelical to the ultra-liberal.

      I wonder though if each nation has a slightly different overall colour and flavour in its religious outlook, something uniquely Kenyan or English (or wherever) that it brings to the mix. With the English church, it’s probably a mixture of national politeness and restraint on the positive side, veering into unfriendly reserve and consumerism on the negative side.

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