During the past two weeks, I have had the opportunity to attend a couple of Christian events. One, a Sunday service at a Pentecostal church, and the other, a praise celebration at All Saints Cathedral, Nairobi. I was struck by the differences I found between these events and my experience of Christianity back home in England.
As a disclaimer, I must admit that I’m not really comparing like for like here. My experience in England is mainly with the Anglican Church, which is definitely on the higher end of the scale. However, I still believe this piece to be relevant.
Kenya Rocks for Christ
Christians abound in Kenya. Admittedly, the coast is predominantly a Muslim area but huge swathes of the country are bursting with Christians. Whilst Christianity in England is on the decline, Kenya is seeing massive growth in its churches. New churches are planted almost every week and existing churches are commonly erecting tents outside to hold the overflow.
You can’t walk around Nairobi without seeing an expression of faith. The matatus, buses and trucks often carry messages such as ‘God is good’ ‘Christ is alive’ ‘The everlasting King’ ‘Following Christ’ etc. There are even signs in the streets and paintings on buildings.
Kenya REALLY rocks for Christ
Every Kenyan Christian I have met has passion. Nowhere was is more apparent than at All Saints Cathedral last week. Thousands of Kenyans (and one little English girl) packed the cathedral for over four hours of singing, dancing, and celebration, topped off with an energetic sermon.
The Differences (+ve/-ve)
- Emotion. These people have passion, and energy, and excitement, and happiness. They are Christians, they are saved, they have Christ and the Spirit in their lives, and they’re not afraid to show it. Unlike us reticent Englishfolk, they express themselves without censor. And why not? Christianity is something to celebrate so why are we not celebrating? However, I do believe they lack something that we have in abundance – a solemn respect and that Biblical ‘fear’. We tend to express our repentance and awe of majesty much more powerfully. Life is not all solemnity, but neither is it all joy and celebration.
- Environment. Here I’m focusing on the church I attended recently in the outskirts of Nairobi. The church ‘compound’ was amazing. Landscaped gardens, a children’s playground, offices, kitchens, and a huge school attended by hundreds of children of all ages every Sunday. And of course the church. A huge airy building plus the tent extension. Back in England, churches tend not to have large amounts of land, very few provide full catering, and Sunday schools generally take place in a ‘spare’ room. Of course, there are many beautiful English churches. For me, stained glass, stone spires, and the traditional bells will always be a part of my faith life that gives me a good feeling.
- Size. I’ve already mentioned the huge difference in the congregation sizes. Here, a service can be attended by thousands and it’s unlikely to be the only service of the day. There are so many children growing up in the church also. In contrast, English congregations are generally shrinking, and the youth are often in the minority. Kenya is great for the future of Christianity in regard to growth – that’s undeniable. However, large congregations have their downsides. In a small church in England, you can expect to know most people by face if not by name. If you have any problems, you know you will have someone to turn to who knows something about you. So perhaps we sacrifice the personal touch when we have such large churches. And isn’t a large part of Christianity about community?
- Money. All churches need money. Our world functions on finance. That’s no different in Kenya to in England. What is different seems to be the attitude towards raising funds. In England, we often seem a little embarrassed about asking for money for our church. A collection is slipped into the service with the giving disguised by a hymn (at least in my church). We acknowledge the giving in an appreciative but low-key manner. Contrast that to my experiences in Kenya, where the service completely changes its focus. Pleas for funds are loud, forceful, and rather protracted. There’s no hiding from the fact that you’re being asked to give. I can’t say which is best and I don’t know which is most effective. Should we feel a slight shame over asking for money (certainly very English) or should we be highlighting and celebrating the act?
- The message. Now this is one I really don’t think can be compared. Culture and life priorities are bound to dictate the content and focus of a sermon. We all read the same passages of the Bible, but the message we take from those verses can be quite different. In England we are more likely to focus on how the Bible helps us to improve ourselves on a spiritual level – becoming more like Christ. In Kenya, the message is more often about the promises of God and the ways life is improved by following Christ. There’s more talk about the provision of God and His protection. This is understandably in line with our different priorities. In Kenya, there’s a daily struggle for so many to survive so the basics of living are at the forefront. In England, we are often fairly comfortable (although that is changing for many) and so we have the ‘luxury’ of being able to focus on the more emotional and cerebral. Shaping a sermon to take account of these differences makes that sermon effective, so neither style is intrinsically better or worse than the other.
Kenya certainly rocks for Christ. However so, I believe, does England. It’s simply that we do it in different ways. Whilst the Kenyans are exuberant, the English are restrained. I know that I’m feeding stereotypes here but that can’t be helped. I believe that there’s a lot that we, as English Christians, can learn from the Kenyans; I also think there are things the Kenyans can learn from us.
Of course, I’m comparing a tiny scrap of Kenya’s Christians to a small number of English Christians. Whether you can extrapolate, and therefore whether this discussion is even useful, is probably up for debate.