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Missionary Spotlight – Kenya

September 1999 | by Keith Underhill

The coastal strip of Kenya has been open to the world as long as men have used trade winds to speed their commerce. Portuguese Catholics made sporadic efforts to Christianise Kenya during the sixteenth century, but these came to nothing. Not until the 1840s did Protestants begin to evangelise coastal areas of Kenya and inland. At that stage, they had greatest success amongst colonies of freed slaves.

A large number of Christian missionaries later came to Kenya as a result of two further developments. These were the partitioning of Africa amongst different European countries during the 1880s, when Kenya came under British influence, and the building of a railway from Mombasa on the coast into the Kenyan hinterland in the 1890s.

Rapid spread

Thus, as far as Kenya is concerned, Christianity is little more than one hundred years old. Yet so rapid has been its spread, that, after a single century, over two-thirds of the nation claims to be Christian. It should be noted, though, that parts of Kenya are to this day untouched by the gospel. The coastal strip and the north-east of the country are predominantly Muslim. The peoples in the remote areas of north Kenya have proved difficult to reach.

Because of the apparent receptivity of most Kenyans, and a legal freedom to evangelise, almost all Western denominations are represented in Kenya. The cults are present too, while Roman Catholics are the largest group of all.

The largest Protestant churches are the Africa Inland (deriving from the Africa Inland Mission), Anglican, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. The last-named have multiplied in many places. Another feature is the presence of large numbers of ‘African Independent Churches’, many of which originated on Kenyan soil as breakaways from mission-controlled churches. Perhaps as many as one-fifth of professing Christians in Kenya belong to this type of church. Few of these would preach a biblical gospel.

To a casual visitor, then, the cause of Christ seems very strong. Church buildings of all descriptions abound. Many other groups meet in public buildings and in the open air. Places of worship are filled with enthusiastic congregations.

Christian meetings proliferate during the week. These range from evangelistic crusades to before-work prayer meetings; from lunchtime open-air preaching to after-work seminars. Radio and TV programmes for the Christian cause abound, especially on Sundays. Kenya still has one of the highest percentages of missionaries per head of population in the world. Nearly all of these would claim to be Evangelical, in the sense that they say the Bible is the Word of God.

 What is the reality?

But what is the reality? Sadly, it is a far cry from what is claimed. Kenya is reputed to be the third most corrupt country in the world! What has gone wrong? There are many sincere Christians in the various churches, but the following are grave problems.

Nominalism

Mission churches are filled with nominal Christians who do not even claim to have had a conversion experience. Much of this nominal Christianity is the result of education (lacking in distinctive biblical content) being used as a prime tool in ‘evangelism’. A second cause is that churches major on community development rather than gospel preaching. If it had not been for the East African revival, which started in the 1940s, many of these churches would be totally dead. That revival spawned a ‘church within a church’ in such denominations as the Anglicans. That is why some spiritual life can still be found in these groups.

Decisionism

Encouraging people to ‘make public decisions for Christ’ has achieved great results in terms of numbers coming forward at meetings. But, in a context where little effort is made to teach the biblical gospel and in a culture where people are eager to please others, decisionism has resulted in a proliferation of false converts.

Lack of expository preaching

The use of stories, testimonies, and Bible texts without attention to meaning and context, are almost universal in Kenyan preaching. Careful explanation of a passage of Scripture with relevant application is thought of as ‘teaching and not preaching’.

Consecutive expository preaching in the churches is, therefore, nearly unknown. Much of this failure is due to a lack of proper ministerial training. Coupled with this, most pastors have more than one congregation to care for and few tools to aid their personal Bible study. Much of their time is taken up with committee meetings and with talking to people, in a person-oriented culture. There is a dearth of proper biblical preaching, and in consequence, little healthy basis for evangelism and Christian growth.

Nairobi, Kenya
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Appeal to felt needs

The so-called ‘health and wealth’ gospel is preached everywhere and is understandably given a ready ear by people beset with disease and poverty. In a different way, the African Independent Churches appeal to those enamoured with the traditional culture. They have syncretised Christianity with pagan African traditions.

Reformed faith

The Reformed Faith is almost unknown in Kenya. This reflects a general tragic ignorance of the true Christian faith. Imported Arminian practices predominate in the churches, which is not surprising, since Western influence affects Kenya both from within and through Kenyans studying abroad.

There are two graduate Bible seminaries in Kenya, one sponsored by the Association of Evangelicals of Africa, and the other sponsored by Life Ministries (Campus Crusade). There are also a plethora of other seminaries and Bible schools belonging to various denominations. But only a few of these have teachers committed to the doctrines of grace. However, seven or so churches affiliated to Trinity Baptist Church in Nairobi have taken The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith as their standard. Many of these churches are still very young, as are the forty congregations with the Africa Gospel Unity Church that have also recently adopted this confession.

Two Presbyterian denominations in Kenya hold to The Westminster Confession standards. These are the Independent Presbyterians and the Africa Evangelical Presbyterian Church, both of which are relatively small groups. Each has its own theological training programme. Together with these churches we began an annual Pastors’ Conference in 1998 with the specific aim of spreading the Reformed Faith. Over sixty pastors and church leaders registered for the first conference. These, and the other developments outlined above, represent green shoots of hope in Kenya.