There is the difficulty of stuffing African behavior into Western categories.

One of the first things a newcomer to Africa learns is that the continent is big. The United States can fit about four times into its land area, and there are 50 different countries; but that only begins to suggest the cultural diversity. Even without the Arab North and the white-dominated South, you have hundreds of distinct tribes, large and small, as different from each other as the U.S. is from France. Within Kenya, one small country of about 14 million people, you have in effect a United Nations. The several dozen tribes speak different languages, have different customs, and different personality types.

Besides that diversity, there is the added diversity imported from the West, brought into the church in the form of denominations as different from each other as Quakers and Pentecostals, and with such national origins as Italy, Britain, and America.

Generalizations on how the gospel is doing in Africa or, more narrowly, in Kenya, are thus desperately difficult to apply. For example, there is the generalization that the church continues to grow at a dramatic pace in Kenya. While that is true, what shall we say about the sizeable, sophisticated coast people, influenced for centuries by Arab traders? There the church is tiny. And for very different reasons, the church is struggling among the Masai, a people who, to the immense annoyance of the government, have resisted modernization and education.

Add to that the subtler difficulty of stuffing African behavior into Western categories. It is true, for instance, that Kenyans are generally conservative about sex; they are shocked when they hit New York City—or even Wheaton College. It is also true that the number of pregnant brides in strong, evangelical Kenyan churches would shock most Western Christians.

I am a newcomer to Kenya. My work of less than a year has put me into contact with most of the churches and missions in Kenya, as well as many top journalists. But while I can’t pretend to have any sort of in-depth understanding—and those who have lived here 20 years tend to think that one can never really get over being an outsider in Africa—the view from outside may be as interesting as the view from inside, particularly to other outsiders. My overview of Christianity in Kenya will be quick, somewhat superficial, definitely not “inside,” but closer than the view you can see from where you are. One caution: you must take anyone’s generalizations about Africa with a grain of salt, for it is a huge, diverse, complicated continent.

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Of all African countries, Kenya is generally believed to be the easiest in which to live, work, evangelize. There is still a large white presence in Kenya, whereas in many African countries most of the whites have either fled or been forced out, or they were never there in the first place. In Kenya the big houses built by colonialists are still mostly full of Indians or British, and although whites no longer run the government, they hold crucial positions in fields of business and technology. Most of the white presence is in the cities, primarily Nairobi. So are many of the missionaries, and organizations like the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and World Vision have established headquarters here.

The white population is not so significant numerically—perhaps 40,000 in a city of nearly a million—as it is psychologically. Colonialism ended and Kenyans began to run their own business just over 15 years ago—something college students can still remember. Missionaries were part of that colonial presence, and they are part of the remnants of it that survive. They are, therefore, admired, resented, toadied to, asked for cash, and very, very rarely angrily confronted. The atmosphere on the surface is quite benign. In fact, to an American raised on racial animosity the easy acceptance and graciousness can be giddy. But underneath there is tension, frustration, and misunderstanding. “I wonder why Africans always do it that way?” missionaries, even veteran missionaries, muse. And sometimes a Kenyan will hesitantly ask a missionary he trusts what missionaries really think. But usually the questions and the intimate understanding a discussion of such matters might bring are repressed. “Why did you come here?” a Kenyan friend who has worked with missionaries for years asked us curiously, not hostilely. “What made you think that Kenya was a place that needed you?”

In this context, the nationalization of churches takes on complications never dreamed of by those who only write the theory. It is like a dance between two people unfamiliar with each other’s moves: both have agreed to the dance, both hunker over each other nervously, and both, usually, like kids at their first dance, are too embarrassed simply to laugh when they step on toes, or to stop and frankly talk about what the next move is.

Churches are being nationalized; missions are moving toward a servant role. In many cases they do so reluctantly, but the government says they must, and they agree (though their hearts protest at times) that it is the right thing. But the pace is agonizingly slow, and most missions let go of the reins of power at the pace they themselves judge to be best. The very fact that they are the judges make it clear that paternalism is far from gone. At best, the national church can only protest; at worst, they can call on the government, like a big brother. In this dance, the mission usually leads.

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There is a wide variance in how quickly missions have moved to turn over their work to Kenyans. In general, you could say that the mainline churches—Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians—have made the speediest transfer, while conservative or independent missions—Southern Baptists, Africa Inland Mission, Pentecostals—have been the slowest. In the Anglican church, for instance, which in Kenya is basically evangelical in belief, national leaders govern not only the church but also the missionaries who come to help. Africa Inland Mission, an evangelical, interdenominational mission with 350 missionaries in Kenya, is somewhere in the middle: the church runs the church, but the mission still runs the missionaries; they are working now to change that. With other missions, it is no secret that the missionaries still run virtually everything.

This discrepancy may hold future problems, for though nearly all churches in Kenya preach sermons that make glad the heart of an evangelical, the future is not so clear. A young, well-educated Kenyan knows quite well which churches are likely to offer him chances at leadership, and which ones will see him as a lifetime assistant. And doctrinal differences seem small to most Kenyans: after all, in Presbyterian and Anglican churches, just as in Pentecostal churches, the pastors preach for the purpose of getting people saved. Of course, the outside influences of theological education, political involvement, and money may conspire to wean the leaders away from their evangelical beginnings. A lay leader of one of the mainline denominations told me, in a puzzled, saddened tone, “All our pastors are saved. I don’t understand why our leaders aren’t.”

In a catch 22 situation, leaders in missions that are changing slowly often complain that they can neither find nor keep the educated, high-quality national leaders who could do the job. They have lists a yard long of people they have worked to train who have disappointed them. But when you talk to young, educated Kenyan Christians you soon find out why; word gets around. How fast a mission turns over leadership to nationals may have a more lasting effect than how well done is its education on biblical inerrancy.

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Of course, there are severe difficulties in turning over an organization that has grown up over many years along Western lines to people who do not think along those lines and who live in a culture that is behind the West both financially and educationally. A good example of these difficulties is seen in the experience of the Africa Inland Mission. They are in the middle of the transition, and unlike some other missions, are genuinely trying.

All mission property was turned over to the Africa Inland Church, the offspring of the mission, quite a few years ago. But in many cases, the mission still is effectively in power. The following will suggest the difficulties to be resolved:

1. Like most churches in Kenya, the AIC is affiliated with the National Christian Council of Kenya, which is affiliated with the World Council of Churches. As the mission in Kenya becomes totally part of the national church, how will this affiliation (which, in the Kenyan situation, implies no theological liberalism or WCC funding) be understood at home?

2. Should mission funds simply be given to the church in a lump sum to disperse? What if it decides then to cut missionary salaries to the level of national church leaders—a standard that most Americans would look on with some horror? What if there is a financial scandal, and a missionary’s salary simply disappears? What if the church decides to cut funds for evangelism projects in remote regions of Kenya? What if the church’s control of Rift Valley Academy, the high school for missionary children, leads to acceptance standards that do not leave enough places for missionaries because African children have filled the places?

3. Nearly all missionaries with AIM have a college degree; hardly any church leaders have anything close to its equivalent. In projects requiring technical expertise, who’s to be boss? Can a Bible college graduate really give direction to a Ph.D. in areas where specific technology is involved? But given the colonialist ethos, how can the Ph.D. give direction to the Bible college graduate without misunderstanding?

4. Can and should missionaries who work together have their own fellowship gatherings, separate from the church leaders with whom they work side by side? Missionaries struggling with culture shock and adjustments to the New Order often do not feel at ease to express themselves in an African group.

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5. When there are power struggles within the national church, should missionaries take sides, stay silent, or work (paternalistically) as mediators?

From an outsider’s perspective, all these questions and many more are being faced with reasonable grace by both AIC and AIM. Of course there is pain in facing up to them, and the transition doesn’t promise to be easy. No one doubts that some missionaries should be sent home; but there is some doubt whether the national church will function totally rationally in deciding which ones.

Trust is perhaps the core of the issue. It is easier to talk about being a servant to the church than actually to be one: a servant not only serves, but obeys. It is hard to take orders from someone who only recently was taking orders from you. But missions in countries like Kenya must put their fate in the hands of the church they have worked to create—and, I might add, in God’s hands.

In a sense, concern over nationalization is a luxury. There is, after all, an African church, and a bustling one. Long years of missionary work and sacrifice have paid off bountifully: the church is growing faster here than it is where the message came from. When you read accounts of the earliest missionaries, you can scarcely believe this is the same continent. Evangelical Christianity is welcome at nearly all levels of Kenyan society; even the university, perhaps the most unreceptive institution in Kenya, has its share of Christian professors and students who are not ashamed of their faith. While remote tribes and areas of Kenya where the gospel has barely penetrated remain, by and large the challenge of the Kenyan church lies in reaching the second and third generation Christians who have grown up in the church. The tide of nominalism is tremendous.

Americans know Africa as the continent of conflict, but the conflict between Marxism and free enterprise seems relatively small compared to the ongoing battle, fought at every level of society, in every church and every family, between the new and the old. The grandparents of the Gikuyu people, for instance, watched the British settlers come in their oxcarts, over land without roads. The parents took the fierce spirit-fraught Mau Mau oath to drive them out. The children wear platform shoes and go to American movies every week, barely remembering colonialism; they are educated but their parents cannot read. They ride the bus to work; their parents may yet live in grass-thatched huts you can’t reach on four wheels. They talk about boyfriends and girlfriends; some of their parents might have been introduced to their polygamous marriage partner on the day of the great event.

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A Kenyan bishop was quoted recently as saying that Africans have a biblical culture, meaning, I think, not that Kenyans have a particularly godly culture, but that they have a culture very similar to the one you read about in the Bible, in particular, the Old Testament. How easily some things make sense. We Westerners have a hard time explaining why Isaac, when he blessed Jacob by mistake, was full of remorse because he had no blessing left for Esau. No Kenyan is puzzled by that; it is as natural as breathing.

Kenya, with one of the highest rates of population growth in the world, is a youth culture—but certainly not a youth-worshiping culture. Baiting and berating university students is a journalistic pastime. Some church elders, far from being concerned about the lack of young people in church, go out of their way to vent hostility toward young people during church services.

Let me give a poignant and rather ordinary example. A friend’s sister graduated from high school but didn’t do well enough on her exams to go on for more education, for which the competition is extraordinary. Nevertheless, she had no choice but to go home to the small farm her father and three mothers keep. There she became pregnant. Abortion and birth control are seldom considered; there seems to be a basic African revulsion to anything that might interfere with the best thing that can happen in life: babies. So, after having her baby, she was in a dilemma about what to do for the rest of her life. In other days, she would have been a second or third wife, but today there are fewer polygamous marriages, and at any rate her family is Christian. She might still be a first wife, except that the boys who have stayed in her village would be frightened off by the amount of education she has gotten. Graduating from high school is too much education to fit in with the old ways, but not enough to get a job and survive in the city. And staying at home unmarried is, to say the least, not an option. The pressure on a girl who reaches her late twenties unmarried is enormous.

So what can she do? Her only option is to join the lines in the city: lines looking for jobs, for education, for any opportunity. In her case she was lucky. An older brother, my friend, let her stay with him and paid for a secretarial course. Hopefully, that will lead to a job. But in the course of this dilemma, there was really no one in the church to whom she could turn for wisdom. For one thing, she would probably only have been told what a bad girl she had been. For another thing, the elders (the pastor is shared by at least half a dozen churches, so is seldom around) are not in a very good position to give wise counsel to someone trapped between the traditional culture and the urban realities. They simply would not know how to advise her.

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A newcomer to Kenya is quickly aware of the full churches: it is not uncommon to see people actually standing at the windows and doors because there is no room inside. But such a hunger for the gospel presents another problem. Most evangelism seems to take place either through one-night-stand crusades or, to a greater extent, in secondary schools, since most of the 2,000 Kenyan high schools have what is known as a Christian Union, a club run by the students. Since most of the best schools are boarding schools, few students even attend a local church. And when they return to their home churches as new, enthusiastic, and usually charismatic Christians, they seldom find much of a youth program. From church elders they may meet suspicion and antagonism. Cut off from mature guidance, these Christian Unions are often sorry, if enthusiastic, affairs. Yet through them most evangelism is done.

There is an awareness of this problem everywhere I have been in Kenya. Church leaders are trying to do something about it. Now there are, in Nairobi, many “youth services,” and in rural settings, youth camps, and youth groups. But often these efforts expose all the more the church’s difficulties, for it lacks what Kenya lacks: money and education. These young people are in high school—but how many church leaders do you suppose have been to high school? Again, there is very little Christian literature written by and for Africans, especially for young people. Some missions have stressed literature, and while they have generally succeeded at establishing printing plants, they have mostly failed at training Africans to write the articles and books and to run the publishing houses.

One might suggest that the young people should have youth ministers; but in a church that does not have enough pastors to provide more than one for every 6 to 10 churches, where would these youth pastors come from? And who would pay them? Without miracles Kenyans are unlikely to give enough in the foreseeable future. One might try to raise the money overseas, but such money can usually be more easily raised for famine or to send missionaries, but not to finance the “normal” activities of the African church. But the point really is moot: where would these youth pastors come from?

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Before coming to Kenya, I had heard a lot about the African Independent Church movement, that vast expansion of Christianity in certain areas of East Africa without any missionary instigation. The churches are an interesting and very successful model of indigenousness, and missions scholars have shown a great deal of interest in them. Actually, I think I heard a great deal more about them in North America than I have since coming to Kenya. My current ignorance may be instructive, for I think it points to a failing in the way American Christians approach the African situation.

We are interested in the movement largely because it promises a quick fix to the difficulties of changing a mission-based church into an indigenous one. We would rather not struggle with it; it would be far nicer if the Holy Spirit would solve the problems for us. What are generally ignored, at least in my reading, are the limits of the African Independent Churches. They are, for one, restricted to a certain geographical area, and thus to certain tribes. Second, they show doctrinal aberrancies in many cases. Third, and most crucial, they are going in the opposite direction from Kenya. They are rural, unsophisticated, personality-dominated churches that make almost no inroads among educated young people. Most educated Kenyans seem to know very little about them, and want to know even less. Like it or not, the mission-created, denominational church holds the future.

We have other ways of looking for the quick fix. Most Kenyan church leaders are extremely suspicious of any American Christian organization that is not closely tied to a well-known, reliable church body. It is very seldom that a Kenyan will voice opposition to another Christian, so if you are a traveling evangelist setting up a three-day tent show in Nairobi you will probably be unopposed (and you may have the best altar call of the tour). But likely you will not be appreciated by many church leaders weary of American free-enterprise religion. They want to know that you are going to work with the church, and that you are going to be there to pick up the pieces after the fast action is over. One well-known Christian parachurch organization “helped” organize a mammoth crusade a year ago; in fact; by the assessment of many of the African leaders involved, they took over under the maxim “Our money, our program.” The results, however evangelistically successful, were questionable in terms of building trust. It may be many years before Nairobi sees such “cooperative” evangelism again.

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Americans take for granted the huge, well-oiled church machinery they have working for them. Pastors are educated, and plentiful. Buildings are already built, and overbuilt. Seminaries are established, and competing for students. Sunday school materials, books, theological texts, and magazines abound. In that context, what attract attention are the “extras”—crusades, seminars, best-sellers, celebrities, new approaches. We can afford them, for our base is strong.

Currently, however, a fair amount of our “exported Christianity” in the form of missions also goes into such extras. At least, that is the way it looks from Nairobi. But primarily what is needed is to build the church that exists, the church that we, in part, brought into existence. This is particularly true in the urban areas where, ironically, crusades and parachurch organizations usually end up.

One can’t help but be thankful for what God has done in this sun-washed, verdant land. A hundred years ago there was no church; today there is a strong, growing one. Its leaders would be leaders anywhere. Missionaries seem affected; they may not understand and fit into Kenyan culture, but they are nearly all aware that they should, and most are trying. And though there are some missionaries who could probably go anywhere in the world and still be failures, there are also missionaries who are impressively talented: bright, energetic, idealistic, hopeful, thoughtful and, like their hosts, gracious. They are particularly helpful in filling the gap of education and money. And while it would not be true to say that the national church and missionaries are yet working in equal partnership, there are signs that such a relationship may not be too far away in most of the denominations working here. It can happen, where the missionaries are willing to serve and to understand.

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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