I deeply appreciate Peter Oduor’s effort towards bringing to light the various problems plaguing the Kenyan church and 21st Century evangelicalism in general. On 13th February, he wrote an article on Daily Nation’s DN2 magazine, addressing the premise: “The Kenyan Church is on a roll, but what’s the inspiration behind its colossal growth over the past decade?” I do find his choice of title rather misleading though: “The Kenyan Church and the Gospel of Prosperity” Such a title gives one the impression that the article is going to zoom in on Prosperity Gospel, which wasn’t quite the case:
A TROUBLING TREND IN LOCAL CHURCHES
Peter Oduor provides a well researched, overall (albeit surface), diagnosis of the changes that have taken place in the Kenyan church in the past decade. Some of the highlights include:
In 2007, the then Attorney General Amos Wako was quoted as saying that Kenya had over 8,000 registered churches and that the office of the registrar of societies received more than 60 applications a month…
…Church buildings today are warm, exciting, and welcoming structures that make one feel like… a friend is here. On Sunday, those at home can follow the service through Facebook or Twitter or on TV.
The church mouse is today wealthy, debonair, adroitly shaven, and knows that Dolce & Gabbana are not part of the cities of the Decapolis.
The author then takes a shot at some of the probable causes of this religious bubble, with an emphasis on increasing liberalism in the churches:
With freedom, church leaders also changed. Pastors are no longer insipid and enigmatic. These days they wear charisma and flair on their sleeves and are more grandiloquent than politicians. Also gone is their insular nature and in its place is an emancipated man of God. Suave, debonair, and well versed in any issue under the sun. Most of them are young and well educated.
These new church pastors are liberal and do not just make arbitrary decisions on behalf of the church. They consult the congregation through discussions and meetings. They give out questionnaires; What would you want changed in the Sunday service? Which visiting preacher should we invite for the Supper Sunday?
It is easy to offer critiques that are abstract and vague, for fear of offending people. This often only manages to make the critique irrelevant at best. The author was also bold enough to name names and put a face to some of the claims he made. For instance, he points out the inclusive nature of the modern Kenyan church. By inclusive, I don’t mean the acceptance of people from different cultural, educational and economic background, I mean the acceptance of teachings and topics FROM difference cultural, educational and economic bases. This is a subtle but significant observation:
It is not about scripture, songs, and offerings alone anymore; services today have sessions for career advice and relationships and marriage counselling, among other services. Upcoming events at one of the Nairobi Pentecostal Church (NPC) branches in the city include a Valentine’s dinner for married couples this Friday and premarital classes for the not-yet-married thereafter.
NPC is not alone; Mavuno Church has Ndoa — a 10-week interactive and experiential marriage course that takes place every January, May, and September, while the Catholic Church has programmes for orphans and widows. Pray, who is left out?
THE BIG QUESTION: HAS THE MESSAGE CHANGED?
Then the author asks the million dollar question; “Could it be that the message has changed?” And the answer is yes. but it is not a blind yes. The changes taking place in the messages on our pulpits have been cleverly justified by today’s preachers. The article points out some of these justifications:
A senior pastor at one of the evangelical churches in the city who holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible and theology from the East Africa School of Theology asks a simple question; what is good news to you? That, in her view, is what changed. Preaching today is done to meet the needs of the 21st century congregation. “We are a fast-moving society and the message can be adjusted,” she adds.
During a recent Sunday service in the city, one evangelical reverend introduced his main message for the day as “12 secrets to an effective prayer life”. One of the points under this was “creative miracles”. He went on to expound: “Imagine what you want. Call things which are NOT as though they ARE. In your prayer, prophesy to dry bones.”
It sounded like Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen. Or The Secret to True Happiness by Joyce Meyer. Or, odd as it may sound, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. That is how the message changed (or did not change), to put more emphasis on secular and social issues…
The author then concludes with a clever, satirical, allusion to a message from Mavuno Church’s just completed January series: “You don’t want to be caught having kept your gold coin under a rock.” In other words, maximize on all the opportunities that God has given you.
I appreciate the article, and I believe that it will go a long way into upsetting the consciences of many readers, enough to make them seriously consider some of the changes happening in their own churches. The article however fails in not providing an alternative to what is evidently a troubling trend in the church today. The reference and allusion to a gospel of prosperity is not grounded in any definition of this gospel, or how it differs from the true Gospel, if it does at all. This means that the best that may happen is that, people will nod and agree with the diagnosis, but leave unchanged because there was no prescription. We will continue to troop back into our churches and listen to skewed “Christian-sounding” messages. Since we don’t know any better, we won’t find a reason to question the message, and even though something at the back of our minds will continue to disturb us, we will do our best to suppress it as “the devil.”
THE SCOURGE OF THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
I will conclude with these related insights from my publisher, Andrew Gullet:
We can talk of people’s needs changing. But our greatest need as men and women has not changed. Our greatest problem is that God is angry with us because of our sin. Christ had to die because it was the only way to pay the price of our sin. The Gospel of the Bible is powerful because through it we can be saved for all eternity. The “prosperity gospel” does not have the power to save from sin – did your new house or new job require the death of the Son of God? The Apostle Paul said that if even an angel preaches a gospel contrary to God’s word, he is cursed. We must never stop checking what we believe and preach and then asking the question: is it the Gospel? Is it the Gospel that God has revealed to us in the Bible?
African Christian Textbooks (ACTS Kenya) has published a book, “Gaining the World, Losing the Soul – How the Prosperity Gospel Distorts the Good News”. It is written by two Kenyan pastors, Michael Otieno Maura and Ken Mbugua, along with Pastor John Piper from the U.S. The book addresses the question of “prosperity” preaching head on. You can contact me for more information on how to get a copy of the book.
In His Service,