A Class with Oscar Muriu, Senior Pastor of Nairobi Chapel in Nairobi, Kenya
In June 2013, Prof Diane Stinton brought five ladies from Regent College in Vancouver to CWC-AIU for a theological exchange class. Besides other experiences, the class met Christian leaders who are on the cutting edge of ministry, one of whom was Oscar Muriu. Oscar is the senior pastor of Nairobi Chapel, a church that grew from 20 people in 1989 to over 3000 people in 2000. In 2005, Chapel divided into five churches and spread around city and now has a combined membership of more than 14000 people. Besides his leadership at Chapel, Oscar has traveled and spoken widely in churches and conferences around the world. He gave a very rich lesson to Diane’s class which we have decided to share with our CWC networks. His talk was a response to the question, “What must one be aware of to engage in contextual ministry in Africa?”
Relational Economy as the currency of ministry: Ministry, as with most business in Africa is all about a relationships. In the West, time and money are the currency on which the economy runs. Choice, individual rights and personal boundaries are valued, and the culture is assertive and direct. To effectively engage in ministry in the African context, the most important thing to understand is the value and nature of relationships. People become involved in projects and make, or don’t make, commitments because of relationships they have built, or burned. Face-to-face leveraging is vital to get things done. Efficiency and productivity are not the primary influences in decision making. Money is not the primary influence in decision making, even in some business transactions. Decisions are made with the necessity of maintaining, building and preserving relationships in mind. The relational economy produces a shame-based culture in which the worst offense one could make would be to shame someone. When someone has taken the time to reach out and share something important with you, to reject it would be to shame that person.
Africans usually take a posture of poverty when in conversation with people from western culture, because the western standard of wealth is money. But don’t let that fool you. African culture still holds great beauty and contains wealth that is difficult to find in the West, such as the emphasis on relationships over time and money. One’s networks of extended family and friends are more valuable to kingdom work that cash because these can be depended on. Acknowledging, respecting and capitalizing on these alternative riches that Africa has to offer is key to effective ministry on the continent. Money is important but has less currency on how things get done here.
Powerlessness embedded in a history of domination: Pastor Oscar believes that Africans don’t speak out against grave injustices in their society and culture because of the pervasive sense of powerlessness that is the legacy of the colonial enterprise. African countries began gaining independence from colonial powers in the 1950s and 1960s. However, a deeply scarred and wounded culture lingers across the continent. The empire mentality of colonialism, compounded by the long-lasting effects of the Atlantic slave trade, left a sense of inferiority in the African psyche that will take time to change. Oscar sees this sense of inferiority as so deeply engrained that many Africans will look down on their own African values or products while they embrace what comes from other cultures outside of Africa, particularly the west. “You hear Kenyans say things like, ‘if you want a job well done, give it to a mzungu, give it to a while man’.”
That said, Oscar puts the dysfunction in African society in perspective by comparing it to the state of affairs in a country such as the USA. Most countries in Africa have only been independent for roughly fifty years, some less. The USA has had two hundred years, and yet it still has lots of issues! It is not fair to compare African countries as they exist today to Western countries. They are not historically at par. In fact, most African countries have done very well by western standards. For instance, the USA took over one hundred and fifty years to officially end racial (ethnic) bias. Even so, race relations are still thorny in America. One should evaluate some of the conflicts in Africa from this perspective. The same applies to other issues, such as economics, politics and so on. If Africa which has just had decades to get itself together is judged based on the state of Western countries, that is not an equal measure. Give us a break.
Acknowledging the history of powerlessness in African society is vital in one’s approach in ministry. A Western Christian arriving in Africa could easily perceive a seemingly inferior attitude as incompetence or unintelligence. Such a one then takes a dominant and authoritative attitude over those he or she is working with. It takes a conscious effort to humble yourself, to avoid accepting the position of superiority and to submit yourself to local leadership.
Generations of Christians
Pastor Oscar identifies three generations of Christians in Africa, who are the legacy of the modern missionary movement in Africa.
The first was the missionary generation, which has now largely passed away, evangelized by missionaries. They were taught to be compliant and to value whatever was presented by the Western Church as ideal. Missionary churches were Western replicas, a sentiment that still lingers in some mainline churches in Africa today though not in all. African expressions of worship were rejected as pagan, and so cultural expressions were exclusively Western.
The next generation, the children of the missionary generation lived in a time of increasing nationalism and great hope for independence. Christians from this generation began incorporating African styles of worship into their faith, and reclaiming their cultural roots. These changes were embraced and nurtured in movements such as the East Africa Revival, but were rejected by the missionary generation which still held onto church leadership positions as fellowships and prayer meetings. Eventually most of them evolved into churches that became thriving Pentecostal churches such as deliverance church in Kenya. At the same time, the more elite class rejected the white missionary and the colonial enterprise; there was a massive departure from the church after countries began gaining independence. Many maintained institutional affiliation but not devotion so everyone will tick on a form that they are Christians but can remember the last time they went to church.
The Uhuru generation was born after independence, and so they have not experienced colonialism firsthand. They have adopted a more moderate view than the previous generation; without wholesale acceptance of the missionaries of the colonial period, they choose to accept much of what the previous generation had turned its back on in its widespread rejection of anything Western. The “Children of Uhuru” have begun to process the history and cultural experiences of the previous generations, and to discern what is valuable and what needs to be rejected as cultural imperialism. They embrace their Africanness and have filled the airwaves with popular African Christian music and movies. Contextualisation has became a hot topic in Christian circles as this generation discerns what needs to be rejected from traditional African culture and what should to be accepted or reclaimed. There is an upcoming 4th generation which is growing up in the globalized world and less aware of the issues of previous generations and their traditional African realities. Styles of worship are changing to reflect this next generation of Africans is increasingly influenced by the West. This will have a great impact on the church in the years to come.
If one comes to Africa but doesn’t understand the above dynamics they will not be effective. According to Pastor Oscar, there is a problem with how the West is still doing missions, even among major churches and mission boards in the west. From his experience of engaging missionaries from some of these he laments, “ A lot of western churches don’t have a clue into what is happening globally so mission is still being done the way it was done two hundred years. They don’t realize the train left the station and left them behind”
In his experience, many mission teams coming to Africa still want to call the shots on the ground. They are focused on getting a return on their investment rather than on building long-term relationships. Unaware that the gravity has shifted to the southern hemisphere, they hold onto a triumphalistic mentality. He notes however, that the Anglican and Catholic churches are doing very well in catching up with the changing tides of missions.
Oscar Muriu speaking at Intervasity’s Urbana Conference, US
The currencies of mission
One key aspect of missions that must change is the currency on which it is run. In Jesus and Paul’s missionary enterprise, the currency of missions was not monetary. Hospitality was the currency of the day. It became very important that the church learn how to be hospitable. You pick that a lot in the gospels and Paul’s letters. Their support of his ministry flows out of a culture of hospitality.
At the fall of the Roman Empire, monasteries took on responsibility of missions. Monks could travel easily, depending on hospitality of strangers as they went. The Celts revitalized world missions by setting out on long journeys with very little to their names and no expectation that they would ever return home. After the missionary enterprise passed through another dark period, it was the British Empire that took hold of world missions. Livingstone, Carey and other British missionaries took the baton of mission as a faith enterprise based on what Oscar calls “Pax Britanica”. The colonial expansion of Britain and other European countries opened doors for Western missionaries just as the Pax Romana had for Paul and company.
Oscar notes that throughout history, the center of Christianity shifts as the global situation changes. Likewise, the currency of missions shifts: from hospitality, to Pax romana, to the poverty of monks, to Portuguese trade routes and the colonial railroads. Never before has money been the currency of missions, until the 20th century when mission shifted to Pax Americana. The Pax Americana, which has been adopted by other countries, model is dependent on the green buck, the dollar. This model depends on functional economies and high levels of disposable income. This has led to a decline in significance of relationships in the missionary enterprise; it is no longer necessary to depend on hospitality. It is possible to purchase the goods and services that you need, thus creating transactional instead of personal relationships. The faith factor that made the pax britannica missionary movement so successful has also diminished. Admittedly, the Pax Americana had its place in the world of 20th century, and may yet continue for several more decades. But it is unsustainable because it has priced itself out of the market. For instance, the costs of travel, insurance, of maintaining a missionary family in the field and so on is prohibitive.
Pax Africana and the baton of missions in the 21st century
Oscar says the time has now come for the Pax Africana to lead in world missions. Pax Africana (including Asia and Latin America), coming as it is out of dysfunctional economies is dependent on three things: 1)youthful energy, 2)poverty and 3)African creativity. Africa (as does Latin America and Asia) has a great resource of young people who are ready to be mobilized for missions, within their own countries, around the continent and beyond. Most of these do not have to go as missionaries per se. They go as students, or in alternative professions. Secondly, surviving the hardships of the African context means that an African can thrive almost anywhere in the world without the costly safety nets that westerners require. Thirdly, even though Africans don’t have structures and systems in place, they still get things done. Africans have learned to innovate in any circumstance and this is a resource for mission.
Oscar concludes that as the African church continues to grow and mature, raising up theologians and church leaders eager to transform the continent, they must lay hold of these resources they have in abundance and make the most of them for the cause of missions.