NAIROBI, Kenya — “If we want to visualize a ‘typical’ contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria or in a Brazilian favela (shantytown).”
So wrote religion historian Philip Jenkins in The Next Christendom, his provocative 2002 book about the rapid growth and southward movement of global Christianity.
Jon Sapp, the International Mission Board’s former regional leader for Central, Eastern and Southern Africa, agrees with Jenkins — but adds a caveat. Rather than a woman in a hut, Sapp believes the typical African Christian “is going to be a young urban couple. Because we’re rapidly heading toward a 50 percent urban population.”
That’s right: Even sub-Saharan Africa is following the global movement toward cities.
Jenkins acknowledged as much in his book when he quoted Kenyan scholar John Mbiti, who observed that “the centers of the church’s universality (are) no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa and Manila.”
And Nairobi (see story links below this column).
Grappling with the future
The city’s young leaders in business, academia, politics and the church are grappling with how to guide their nation into the future — and away from the kind of social conflict that almost tore it apart after the last presidential election.
Before “the skirmishes,” Kenya had been viewed as a largely peaceful beacon to the suffering nations surrounding it, despite periodic political and tribal violence. Refugees and immigrants have long sought it out as a haven.
The savagery of the election-related violence, during which hundreds of people were burned and hacked to death, “was a shock and a surprise to many of us,” says Francis Mukusa, the young missions director of Nairobi’s 4,000-member Parklands Baptist Church.
“For me it was really sad to see human beings killing other human beings. It gives us a new challenge as a church to seek the face of God and examine our hearts. I think the church in Kenya has a big part to play in reconciliation and healing. The church is the hope of this country.”
Parklands sponsored an effort called “Wheels of Hope” that sent Christians into Kenyan towns and cities, even before the killing subsided, to encourage people to reconcile. As they traveled from place to place, Wheels of Hope participants witnessed “the glory of God, the hand of God,” Mukusa says. “They saw people from the different ethnic groups come together, praying and confessing to each other. They tried to tell people, ‘Hey, these are your brothers, they’re your sisters. It doesn’t matter where we came from. We’re all Kenyans and we all belong to one Father.”
The same challenge confronts Christians as they seek to reach the many peoples and classes of Nairobi — wealthy business owners, slum dwellers, different tribal/ethnic groups, Asians, students, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, Hindus.
Nairobi is a magnet not just for Kenyans but for people from far and wide, in part because of the ongoing crises of East Africa. “Look at who Kenya borders,” Sapp says. “Somalia, a major problem. Southern Sudan, 20-year civil war. The (earlier) problems in Uganda,” not to mention Rwanda.
“Nairobi just became the hub.”
The question is whether Nairobi’s (and Kenya’s) numerically dominant younger generation can steer society in a new direction — in a culture that has long placed most power in the hands of elders and strongmen. That’s where Sapp’s typical Christian “young urban couple” comes in.
“Their faith makes a difference” in their lives and in the environment around them, he explains. “They treat one another differently. They raise a family differently. They use their time and resources differently. I see it happening. I know people like that.”
Churches in Nairobi are being started by people in their 20s. They aren’t yet rapidly reproducing like some church movements in Asia, Sapp admits, but they’re solid and growing. “They have the passion and they’re learning how to do it on a very thin budget.”
They’ll need to move past a reliance on church buildings and land (extremely expensive in the city), past the “crusade mentality” that produces many spiritual decisions but few disciples — and toward “new evangelical tools and methods that meet the needs of the high-density person,” Sapp says.
“T4T” (Training for Trainers), the simple strategy of teaching Bible stories that can be taught to others, appears to be one of those tools (see "Hope flickers in Nairobi’s slums").
“Can you get people to take their faith to the day-to-day, to the street, to affect other lives?” Sapp asks. “That’s what we want. I’m hopeful. We’re not there yet.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Bridges is a global correspondent with the International Mission Board. See slideshow about life in Nairobi’s “trash dump” slum.)