Lessons from the African Church (Part 1)
I recently returned from a trip to Africa. I had the opportunity to partner with my friend, Rev. Cliff Wall, and a group from Clarksbury UMC in North Carolina to work alongside some of the churches in the Nairobi District of the United Methodist Church in Kenya. Our work was varied but it was primarily a relationship building trip. We partnered with the local District Superintendent to host a training day for Nairobi area pastors and leaders. We visited four of the six UMC churches in Nairobi. And we spent a good amount of time working alongside the people of one particular church, the Huruma Tent of Prayer.
It was an incredible trip. We met so many beautiful people who love Jesus very much. We also saw brokenness and poverty unlike most in the United States can even imagine. We made friendships that will last and I believe have begun to forge ministry partnerships that will bear eternal fruit.
Since returning to the States my mind has swirled in reflection. My experience in Kenya was stretching, but such a gift. There is much I want to share, and yet so much that is hard to express in mere words. When you encounter both the presence of the Lord, and the tangible ravages of poverty, in such profound ways, it is not an easy task to convey that experience to others. And still I feel I must try.
My sense is that the American church has a great deal to learn from the African church. I believed this prior to my Kenyan adventure and my experience only cemented that conviction. So the following is the first part of three where I will attempt to unpack lessons I think we might learn in the U.S. from the African church.
Before I begin, here are two disclaimers. First, I am not so naive to believe that experiencing a handful of churches in one major city in Kenya can somehow reveal the whole nature of the church across such a massive continent. In the same way that visiting a few churches in the U.S. will not give you the whole story for Christianity in this country, my limited time with a few churches in Nairobi cannot speak for the whole of Kenya, let alone Africa. Second, the church in Nairobi has people. Therefore, it has problems. While I found so much of what I experienced to be inspiring and I intend to emphasize those components in these articles, this is not an attempt to aggrandize the African church into something it’s not. It’s not perfect. They deal with real sin. They fight corruption. They deal with selfishness and complacency. Just like the first church in Acts, which sometimes gets made out to be the church without flaws, what I experienced was a real church, with real people and real issues. But that doesn’t mean there is not much to admire and from which we can learn.
Here are the first couple observations I want to share from the church in Nairobi...that I also long for the American church to discover.
1. They pray like it actually matters.
In particular during our time with the Huruma Tent of Prayer I was impressed with the way prayer is such a vital part of their life together. Talking with church members it is so obvious that prayer was not an afterthought or a nice obligatory add-on to ministry. It was the foundation of their church. Extended times of prayer are not uncomfortable for average church-goers. It is the way of life. Prayer vigils and seasons of fasting are common.
And when they pray, they pray with passion. They pray like it actually matters. I witnessed this first hand, not just from the pastor, but from the ordinary folks in the congregation. They cry out to God with sincerity and the sort of conviction that reveals their belief that as they pray they are indeed moving heaven and earth.
How I long for the church in American to rediscover prayer as a first resort! Can you imagine prayer meetings where you don’t have to beg people to come because they count it an other-worldly privilege to enter the Holy of Holies together? God moves when his people pray.
The Lord is not looking for competent people who will ask him to bless their already well-crafted efforts. He is looking for desperate people who will pray as though they genuinely believe what Jesus said in John 15 that apart from him we can do NOTHING.
2. They are humble and hungry.
The UMC churches in Nairobi are almost all in slum neighborhoods. They do not have elaborate structures, nor even the meager sort of small church buildings we know in rural America. They meet in simple gathering places, usually in rented spaces, some made only of patched together corrugated metal. They generally do not have running water. The Huruma Tent of Prayer, for example, is in the region of the city called Mathare. According to the locals Mathare is the third largest slum in all of Africa. Nairobi is home to both the second and third largest slums on the continent. And the UMC has a church in each. Mathare has in the neighborhood of a half million or more people, mostly living in abject poverty.
We had the opportunity to visit many church members and community members in their homes for prayer and encouragement. I use the term “home” here generously by Western standards. Many of these dwellings are smaller than a single bedroom in the U.S. And in the slums most of these structures are pieced together wood and steel shanties. The people technically do not own the land, so the structures are all temporary such that they could be removed at any point by the government.
One woman we visited for prayer in such a neighborhood was a single mom of two boys who had been beaten and then abandoned by her husband. She had learned a craft and diligently made intricate beaded designs on leather that she sold in the city to another craftsman who attached them to sandals. She earned the equivalent of one dollar for each that she sold. And she had the ability to make about three or four such pieces a day. So she and her two boys live on at maximum, $3 or $4 a day. And in reality this woman had more consistent work than many we met.
These are the sort of people that make up the churches there. And here’s the thing. While that comes with incredible challenge, and even life or death daily needs, there is a spiritual gift in it. These were people who had absolutely zero delusion that they could live apart from God. They were not prideful. They did not get caught up in the likes of American isolationism or attempts at self-sufficiency. They are hungry, many of them literally, and so they are hungry for God. Their faith is one that translates into real daily living. They cannot suffice on platitudes and a nice casual worship service before going back to their own self-centered lives.
Jesus taught that it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. In Luke 6:20, Jesus preaches, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” I saw the truth of Jesus’ teaching first hand in Nairobi. God is near to the poor. They live with the hope of heaven in a way we do not understand in America. They literally trust God for their daily bread and experience the joy of true dependence.
“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humility stands at the heart of Christianity. After all, we are the ones who claim to follow the One who left heaven and humbled himself, even as King of Kings, to the point of death, even death on a cross.
What might happen if we in America stopped pretending we had things all figured out? Why might happen if our churches stopped trying to manufacture solutions and admitted our desperation? Why might it look like if we didn’t try to buy our way into successful churches (whatever that means) and realized that our ridiculous affluence might actually be more of a curse than a blessing?
Andrew Murray defines humility (which he believes is not just one of the Christian virtues but the foundation of all virtue) as “…simply acknowledging the truth of [your] position as man and yielding to God His place.” I saw this fleshed out in Africa through brothers and sisters in Christ who were truly humble before God, and it made room for God to work in miraculous ways.
Perhaps God might use the church in Africa to teach us something about the truth in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1…
“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”