As I venture out into the brave new (for me) world of blogging, I wanted to begin with a topic close to my heart. You see, the fact that I grew up in church was more an evidence of God’s grace (and of my parent’s upbringing) than of the church’s ability to attract ‘people like me’. The problem, I believe, was best stated by historian Arnold Toynbee when he said that ‘nothing fails like success’. The things that helped the church (or any other organization) to succeed yesterday are the very things that are causing it to fail today!
What do I mean? Let me try and explain. I believe the church in Africa (at least in my corner of it) has had at least three distinct phases…
1st GENERATION – ‘THE CONVERTS’ born pre 1940
- 1st converts in their areas (they directly encountered the early missionaries)
- Ostracized or on the fringes (rejected in their culture and thus open to the new, or became rejected by their cultures for accepting the new)
- Village identity but tribally aware (their sense of identity came from their village but they were aware of the larger tribe out there)
- Focus of the church was on the missionaries giving care to the locals (e.g. through schools, hospitals etc)
Every good (and not so good) thing has a shelf life however. A time came when nationalist movements began to agitate for independence from Western influence, both nationally and within the church. Some breakaway churches (e.g. Legio Maria) completely rejected western ways. For much of the church, a transition to the 2nd generation had began…
2nd GENERATION – ‘THE CONFORMERS’ born 1940-1960
- 1st generation African leadership (many were educated in missionary schools)
- Christianity widely accepted in the culture (people were expected to at least be church goers)
- Expected to retire upcountry – even if they worked in the towns (they had a ‘dual status’, as immigrants in the city)
- ‘Culture abandoning’ – They picked up not just the gospel but also the missionary culture and methods…e.g.
*Prized Western ‘baptism’ names (identification with missionary culture)
*Valued Western methods of worship (e.g. classical hymns, clergy robes and choirs)
- Tribal identity but nationally aware – even groups in church were (and in many of these churches still are) divided along tribal lines…..
This, incidentally, describes the church that I grew up in – my parent’s generation. With time too, that became dated. As African’s began to settle in towns and become truly urbanized, it was time for a new generation church to be born…
3rd GENERATION – ‘THE ADAPTERS’ born 1960-1990
- 1’st true Kenyans (or Ugandans or Tanzanians etc)! Born as citizens of a nation/state and not naturalized citizens from a former colonial power like their parents. We have no memory of colonialism (e.g. in Kenya, most don’t know the difference between Madaraka & Jamuhuri Day)
- Urban – Many grew up in the city which is their first (and perhaps only true) home. Those still migrating in don’t intend to return. (The 2004 Kenya Youth Survey showed that 64.8% of youth across Kenya live in or aspire to live in the city).
- The paradox of ‘Neo-Africans – (we are very western BUT reaching for & proud of our African-ness e.g.
*Many (& certainly their kids) have African names but don’t speak our mother tongues
*‘African’ weddings in English (incredible ‘African’ décor but with only 150 people in attendance!)
*Many claim to love their nations (‘jivunia’ in Kenya) but don’t have a voter’s card
*We know more about European soccer clubs than about our own national teams!
- National outlook but globally aware – (this generation went to school with people from other tribes – groupings are along social class, rather than tribe)
Our main question is ‘does it make sense?‘ Christianity and church need to make sense to us, and because they often don’t, church attendance is often reserved for weddings, holidays and special events.
Here’s the problem… Many church’s in Africa are using 2nd generation methods to reach a 3rd (or even 4th) generation!
When I reflect on Jesus’ stories e.g. the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son in Luke 15, I begin to wonder if this does not present a major problem. Jesus did not set out to start churches to meet our needs, but he envisioned a movement of His followers who would live lives that point people back to God. The reason we’re here right now and not in heaven is so we can share His love with those who don’t have it! And in the process of doing this, we ourselves are formed to become more like Him and – paradoxically – we find our own needs met!
So, maybe it’s time to for the church to stop being a ‘safe’ place for Christians to hang out and to become configured to serve others, and especially those most in need of God’s love and relationship. Or what do you think?