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Increasing and Spreading

Jim Sayers reports on a field visit he made to Kenya in February, starting in the capital Nairobi, and then travelling over to Kisumu in Western Kenya, to see how God’s word through local churches continues to ‘increase and spread’ (Acts 12:24).

The city of Nairobi is surprising. The vast Kibera slum tumbles down the hill to the new southern bypass, its terraced shacks rusting in the sunshine. But beyond them stand shining skyscrapers in the financial district, and smart apartments are going up across the western suburbs. Nairobi has a successful middle class and thriving universities, an image of Kenya that rarely gets our notice. Kenya’s challenge is to see how the growing middle class can build a society that lifts people out of extreme poverty.

Keeping on in Kawangware

Next to these leafy suburbs is Kawangware, where maybe half a million people live squeezed in where they can, earning a living by selling goods for cash along the muddy arteries of the township. The enterprise of the street sellers is impressive, setting out a stall of food, clothes, furniture, suitcases or handbags over a sheet on the mud, and bantering with every passer-by. On one muddy street stands Injili Bible Church, planted by Sukesh and Jenny Pabari in 2009, and now run exclusively by Kenyan nationals. On the Friday morning I was with them, I had the privilege of teaching a group of local pastors. They come from churches across the township and gather every week for training. We worked our way through 2 Cor. 1-4, looking at the strength of weakness in Christian ministry. Several of them had tales to tell of mega-churches nearby offering riches and healing to the urban poor, yet ultimately failing their people with false promises. When you hear this group of local pastors say that they fix their eyes not on the seen but the unseen because it is eternal, they know this to be true in ways I can only half-imagine.

From urban to rural

To understand Kenya you have to remember that every urban Kenyan has their roots in a village and a tribe. To reach Kenya with the gospel, it is no good just concentrating on the cities, you have to reach its villages. Each village needs a gospel church, as much as anything else it needs, and, praise God, churches are multiplying fast. I flew across the African Rift Valley to Kisumu, to visit Graham and Sally Jones for a week, and to see their work amongst rural churches.

What is life like in a Kenyan village church? Graham and Sally took me to Maranda, a church west of Bondo, in a neighbourhood of smallholdings, each family farming their own ‘shamba’. Two small churches had come together for a joint service, and thirty adults crowded into the tiny hut, their Luo hymns shaking the tin roof. These Christians have faith that God can work, that he can bring their family and friends to faith in Christ. They are unabashed in their evangelism. If an unsaved person starts coming to church, they take their midweek Bible study to their home, and the newcomer’s family will all pile in to hear the pastor preach an evangelistic message. These churches are growing with only one resource – people who tell others about Jesus! Maranda has a young pastor, John Mark, who hasn’t had great education or training, yet he has an appetite for God’s Word and a hunger to preach it well. Before long, this little church will probably be helping another group nearby to start a work where they are.

Hindering or helping?

How could we spoil such churches? It would be a mistake to pay the pastor’s salary and pour in money for everything: a posh building, a digital projector, air conditioning, and a car for the pastor. That would be culturally damaging, and would build a culture of dependency from which they could never escape. Another way would be to tie the church down under the authority of a foreign missionary, giving the missionary a power of veto over key decisions. You could also convey the idea that the real ‘Promised Land’ is not eternal life in Christ but life in the West. What a tragedy if mission serves only to ruin such churches when they are growing so fast by the power of God in the gospel.  

Graham and Sally work to a different model. Graham does not serve as an elder of any church in Kenya. They see themselves as working alongside many independent Reformed Baptist churches, providing several things, the most obvious of which is training. Graham has tutored a cohort of pastors through the Good Book College course, equipping them to handle Scripture better as preachers, and to grasp the big themes of biblical theology. Having worked with this group over a number of years, he is now concentrating on a new cohort of younger pastors, running the new South African Explore course, while some of the older pastors are running another course in Luo for those whose English is not good. All of this is reinforced by regular overnight pastors’ fraternals, and conferences like the one I spoke at. Twenty-six pastors gathered in Kisumu for a three-day conference on ‘Preaching Exodus’, and Graham, myself and Doug Johnston shared the teaching. The bulk of the time was spent in workshops, studying key passages and working on a sermon outline together. It was revealing to see the things that caught their eye in a passage, and the readiness to over-spiritualise, but there was no question that these men love to preach the gospel with a passion, and their preaching skills are developing well.

Another key role is mentoring. Many men have become the pastor of a church simply because they were the Christian who brought the gospel to their village. They need Graham’s wisdom to help them handle all kinds of pastoral challenges, to visit their church for a Sunday service to see the church in action, and to be there as a critical friend-advisor. Sally works with the pastors’ wives, helping them to teach the Bible as leader of the women’s group. She has also invested a lot of effort in training Sunday School teachers, coaxing them to move beyond traditional rote learning to see how they can communicate the Bible in more effective ways. Kenya is a young country and children greet your arrival in every village, so this is crucial to the churches’ futures.

Resourcing the work of these churches is also vital. What the pastors need most are books to help them teach the Bible, and to help them grow in their doctrinal understanding. Sunday School materials have now been translated into Luo, but need to get much wider use. Good literature is hard to come by - there is a huge need for someone to replicate the work of Africa Christian Textbooks (ACTS) in the Kisumu region.