Monday, 8 April 2013

What is East African Christianity really like?

I just read the following blog post:

I felt that I couldn't but add this comment:
This is all very encouraging. However, as someone who’s just completed 5 years in Kenya, mostly in the Rift Valley, I’m sorry to say that it’s also not representative of reality. This is a typical and understandable short-term visitor’s perspective, but represents only a superficial understanding of the state of East African Christianity; and unfortunately one which is damaging when allowed to spread.

As outsiders, short term visitors interpret what they see and here, as if they were seeing the same things in a Western context. The author of this post has his heart in a very good place, but he is not aware of how to interpret the different phenomena that he has seen and experienced with understanding. He is not aware that what is said and shown to short-term visitors is carefully selected and scripted. To give a trivial example: “He is always emailing me, enquiring about my family and telling me that they are praying for us.” And indeed there are plenty of African pastors who are continually emailing visitors from the West, and combining that with utter neglect and disregard for their own flock (apart from dispensing some goodies now and again, in order to maintain their positions of respect and power). Why is that? Because short term visitors from the West are wealthy, powerful and hence useful to a local pastor looking to get on, whereas their own flock are usually useless in that regard. Is the writer’s contact of that kind? I cannot possibly know, of course. But I can know that the overwhelming majority are.

Many times we have met short-term visitors, who have had limited contacts with a few select local pastors. They have their own impressions of how wonderful those folk are. As residents, we are able to tell them what the folk they are working with are really like, and what they really get up to when visitors aren’t looking at them. This is unpleasant fodder to hear, I well realise. Are the writer’s contacts like that? Again, I have no way of knowing. But I do know the Christian scene in the Rift Valley of Kenya, and by report from residents from beyond. The writer has come back accepting the superficial image that is projected – but the state of Christianity on the ground is utterly different, unfortunately. The phrase “a mile wide and an inch deep” is not applied so often to East African Christianity for nothing. Most short-term visitors come away believing that this only applies to other projects than the ones they happened to visit. I’d advise folk to pause and wait until they have a deeper insight into how this dynamic works.

I say all this not to depress anyone, but because these superficial impressions are so harmful to the real gospel work that is going on. The idea that East African Christianity is booming ultimately leads to more easy money being pumped into the hideous religious marketplace which our investments have created, which in turn increases the number of people without a heart for Christ or his cross coming into that marketplace, and exacerbating the problem.

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