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Died: Joseph Kayo, the Kenyan Leader Who Revolutionized Worship in East Africa

His Pentecostalism put him at odds with many but the Deliverance Church founder stood firm in his convictions “to bring back the glory of God back to the Church in these last days.”
Died: Joseph Kayo, the Kenyan Leader Who Revolutionized Worship in East Africa
Image: Illustration by Christianity Today / Source Images: Joe Kayo Ministries

Joe Kayo, known by many as the father of the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement in East Africa, died on November 2, 2023. He was 86.

Kayo founded churches in four countries: Deliverance Church Kenya, Deliverance Church Uganda, Juba Pentecostal Church in South Sudan, and Family of God Churches of Zimbabwe. At the time of his death, he was leading the Christian Family Church in Nairobi.

Kayo described his ministry as a place “where the power of God is seen working with tangible manifestations, to bring back the glory of God back to the Church in these last days.”

Kayo embraced his spiritual calling as African nations were gaining independence from their European colonizers. His vision of creating churches, led and financed by Africans, that contextualized the Christian faith within African culture caught fire throughout East Africa. It also was at odds with many of the churches that traced their roots back to Western missions and with which he tangled frequently over worship styles and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

“This is the man God used to break barriers and rocks that stood in front of the charismatic movement and Pentecostalism in East Africa,” said J. B. Masinde, a bishop at a Nairobi congregation Kayo had founded, in 2019. “He paid a price … this man carries scars that some of you will never understand in your life.”

The eldest of six children, Joseph Kayo Nyakango was born in Nyamira County, western Kenya on May 5, 1937. When he was 12, his mother died, and he dropped out of school prematurely due to lack of school fees. In despair, Kayo sank into drug abuse and petty crime. Later in life, he would narrate how he attempted to take his own life three times without success.

More hardships came with young adulthood. Around 1954, Kayo was imprisoned for eight months after he left his job at a sugar company to take a new one. (Because this punishment did not seemingly fit the offense, some have speculated that something else was amiss.) In 1957, while living in the coastal city of Mombasa, he fell seriously ill and was hospitalized. According to his ministry website, his nurses gave up on him, leaving him at a crusade organized by American televangelist T. L. Osborn. While there, Kayo committed his life to Jesus Christ and was miraculously healed.

Soon after that, Kayo experienced the Pentecostal baptism of the Holy Spirit and began testifying widely to God’s power. Formerly a night club musician who entertained with his guitar, Kayo now began using the instrument to lead worship at the very same clubs, at a time when mainstream churches still used organs.

“I love music and I began to play the guitar in Mombasa before I got born again. I said, if I can change this thing and play it for God’s kingdom, why not? … I found it was very effective,” he later said. “The guitar itself is not sinful. … It is just an instrument, just like the piano … and the songs I sing are totally scriptural.”

By 1960, Kayo had established congregations in the Kenyan coastal cities of Mombasa and Kilifi. From Mombasa, he moved back home to Nyamira, but his family members, who worshiped ancestral spirits, denounced his newfound faith and beliefs. The hostile environment prompted Kayo to relocate to Kisumu, a Kenyan city on the shores of Lake Victoria, where he lived with the American charismatic missionary Derek Prince.

In the late 1960s, Kayo moved to Kampala, Uganda, where he stayed for nearly a decade. Alongside several other Christian leaders, he pioneered the Pentecostal movement there, serving as an itinerant preacher, speaking at schools, colleges, and universities, and preaching on the streets.

As his meetings began to attract huge crowds, mainstream churches associated with Western denominations felt threatened. At the time, many of them had a formal, regimented style of worship, and speaking in tongues was a new phenomenon for them. Confronted by this new expression of Christianity, accompanied by reports of miracle healings and deliverance experiences, many accused Kayo of manipulating people and sheep stealing.

“Kayo, in his characteristic stubbornness and grit, was not moved by [these] allegations,” wrote wrote Damaris Seleina Parsitau in her thesis on the history of Deliverance Church in Kenya. “He believed that God had called him to bring back vitality into the Church of Jesus Christ, a Church which had become lukewarm, ineffective and irrelevant in the African context.”

Over time, Kayo, who spoke Ekigusi, Dho Luo, Swahili, and Luganda, received speaking invitations for rallies, conventions, and camps from the countries he had called home as well as Tanzania and Rwanda. His proficiency in English, honed by studying the language as a young person and practicing it with Westerners, made it possible for him not only to preach in English but to expand his ministry as far as Zambia.

As he fielded these speaking invitations and held open-air meetings, Kayo avoided organizing gatherings on Sunday mornings, so as not to compete directly with nearby congregations. But in 1970, after months of immensely popular Monday prayer meetings and Saturday revivals in Nairobi, he and fellow leaders decided to start a Sunday service. On November 22 of that year, 56 people attended the inaugural Sunday worship event.

Kayo led Deliverance Church until 1977, when he stepped down and moved to the United States amidst accusations of adultery and lack of financial accountability. In his absence, the church continued to expand and formalize its structures and hierarchy.

After spending time in the US, Kayo returned to Kenya and started Christian Family Fellowship Church. He wrote numerous books and became the publisher of Revival Digest, a magazine published through his own Joe Kayo Ministries. Beyond Africa, Kayo ministered in Canada, South Africa, England, Japan, and Hong Kong.

Kayo did not hesitate to criticize prosperity preachers. The FAQ page of his website includes a statement that “If the preacher teaches that God cannot bless you unless you give them money, it is false.” To an inquirer who wondered why he did not encourage people to invest in local pastors’ ministries, Kayo responded, “If that offended your pastors, then I have no apologies to make, money is not the gospel.”

In 2004, Kayo reconciled with the leadership of Deliverance Church. Following his death, the General Overseer of the Deliverance Churches in Kenya, Bishop Mark Kariuki, conducted his memorial service.

Kayo leaves behind a widow, Rose; three sons, Junior, James and John; and several grandchildren.

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