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.
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.
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.
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.