A Very Big God Oh …

By Kyama Mugambi

I am a third-generation Christian. I grew up in an Anglican home where the biggest influence on my faith was my paternal grandfather. He was a first-generation Christian who fought in the Second World War. He had a living memory of the first Church Mission Society missionary to his home area, Embu, in central Kenya. 

The church gatherings are vibrant and the music lively. The preaching is passionate, and the prayers are confident.

My grandfather’s devotion to his faith despite formidable limitations inspired me. His poor eyesight and low literacy meant that he could only read or write with great difficulty. His sharp memory made up for what his eyesight and reading skills could not supply. Though they were members of the Anglican church, my grandparents identified more with indigenous Tukutendereza Christians. Tukutendereza was the name given to East Africa revivalists. 

New Movement of the Spirit

They were a community of Christians from different historic denominations whose fervent faith inspired a revival in the entire region. They went to their respective Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran churches on Sunday mornings, but met in fellowships in the afternoons and evenings to support each other in their faith. This movement that started in the 1930s found its way into Kenya in the 1940s. That is how my grandmother found her faith during the mid 1940s. My grandfather joined the community after his service in the war. 

My father ended up becoming a lay Anglican theologian and taught religion in a state university in Nairobi, where I grew up. My parents were both teachers, and so our house had many books. The discussions inspired by the books played a role in my journey of faith. They taught me to ask questions and reflect deeply on matters of faith in relation to the world. 

We were exposed to other expressions besides our Anglican background. Charismatic Christianity was the form that had the most profound impact on me in my teenage years. I enjoyed going to the Pentecostal church up the street when we were not reciting liturgy in the Anglican church.

“Jesus Is Able”

During my teen years I had a profound conversion experience. This moment brought a range of feelings in me. One of these was an intense sense of connection with the fervent, almost tangible, revivalist faith that my grandfather had. In my college years I joined a church that celebrated the immanence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This was a faith I felt I could own as mine. Within it, several streams of thought come together. 

In one sense it was, and continues to be, a personal experience. It challenges my inner-most thoughts and evaluates them against the teachings of Jesus. It is also a shared communal experience. It is something I take part in with those who are close with me. Perhaps this is why my grandparents are such an important part of that story. My parents are also a part of it. Their nurture and intentional exposure to spiritual things shaped my earliest memories. My relatives, especially my wife, and children form an integral part of that communal daily experience of faith.

The broader culture in which I live affects my faith too. In Nairobi, people take seriously the role of religion in almost every aspect of life, People pray a lot. They pray before meals in public. They pray at national events. Most private and public meetings start, and end, with prayer. Many churches conduct all-night prayer vigils. Business premises and transport vehicles have religious phrases such as “Jehovah Jireh provides,” or “Yesu Anaweza” (“Jesus is Able” in Kiswahili), and verses from the Bible painted on them. People often invoke the name of God in conversation.

Colonial Conundrums

Christianity has not always been so dominant in my part of the world. Traditional religion predominated in my grandfather’s era. Change occurred in my lifetime. By now, like other countries in Africa south of the Sahara, Kenya has a high percentage of Christians. The last census showed that 84 percent of the population are Christians. 

Christianity continues to grow in Africa with the population. As the faith increases so does the diversity of its expressions. Many of these are independent denominations. Others are historic mission churches whose denominations are well known in the Global North. These communities, whether ancient or new, share certain characteristics. Their gatherings are vibrant and their music lively. The preaching is passionate, and their prayers are confident. They plant churches prolifically and send forth missionaries—many finding their way to the Global North where, in various regions, a once-dominant Christianity is declining. 

For all its effervescence, Christianity in Africa is not without its challenges. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Harry Thuku, Jomo Kenyatta, and other leading African intellectuals argued in the 1960s and 1970s that Christianity was a colonial religion. In many ways they were right, especially when it came to white missionary complicity in the colonial enterprise whose effects Africa continues to suffer from. The foreignness of Christianity often comes up in conversations even today. What I find interesting is that it doesn’t seem to affect many Africans’ sense of identity as Christians. The unfortunate mission history has not dampened the prolific growth of the faith. It is as if the religion of the colonialist and the Christianity of many Africans are different. 

Vices and Vitalities

Another challenge with Christianity in Africa, especially among Pentecostals, pertains to the excesses of our leaders. In my country, several Christian leaders have in the recent past had trouble with the law because of fraud. Others have been vilified in the mass media for taking advantage of their congregations. Again, this does not seem to affect people’s attitude towards the religion: people are owning the religion for themselves.

Since independence 60 years ago, Africa seems to have made little progress in the areas of equity, justice, and the commitment to democratic ideals. Some have argued, forcefully, that for all its Christianity, Africa south of the Sahara has little to show in terms of eliminating institutional vices that plague their politics and economics. 

I have my doubts about the presuppositions of this argument. Examples could be given of countries that have been Christian a long time whose record in the areas of equity, justice, and democracy leaves much to be desired. That said, the lingering question is, given the vitality of contemporary Christianity, why isn’t Africa a much better place? I realize this is a complex question, but it points to a dissonance between what we see in the continent, and what we hope to see as a result of the effects of Christianity.

Spiritual Solidarity

This paradox is one of the nagging questions that prompted my calling into academia. My faith journey, including more than two decades of pastoral ministry experience along with my continuing research, has compelled me to ponder deeply the nature of Christian belief in Africa.

One thing I’ve learned is that Christianity is much more than a set of ideas to believe about a religion that claims to connect people to God. I have found that Christian faith on the continent is a way of making meaning of daily reality among people who believe God is the reason for their very existence in community. They view the triune God as the entity who brings people together and connects them to each other.

The person of Christ draws people together through His story in scripture. Efforts to reenact the lives of His first century followers and to celebrate them inspire hope when much else seems to be falling apart. Faith in God therefore is not just a way of accepting a religion, but rather a way of being together in it. It is the means of surviving the myriad challenges that we face as Africans, helping us navigate through crisis or uncertainty, strengthening solidarity as our nations transition from rural patterns to urban, industrialized, global-minded societies. 

Two-Fold Truth of God

But this belief in Jesus is not just concerned with survival. Christian community, especially in its more vivacious Pentecostal-charismatic forms, urges people to aspire to thrive. Its sermons, music, and especially prayers cast a vision of a God who transcends the human condition, and yet is concerned about our personal and communal lives. This transcendent God is active in their lives “in the now” through the Holy Spirit who energizes the faithful.

The refrain of a Nigerian song we sing often in Kenya captures this thought well—“I serve a very big God Oh/he’s always by my side/always by my side.” Congregations sing this refrain many times, using repetitive dance and movement to embody in communal worship the dual truths of God’s transcendence and immanence.

As I have studied African Christians around the continent, I’ve also learned that this big vision of God—the two-fold truths of divine transcendence and immanence—provides a spiritual posture that is able to deal with the ambiguities of life, including experiences of unanswered prayer. Their vision of God inspires them to think of the tensions we find in life not as an occasion for a crisis of faith but as an opportunity to see God differently. It seems to me that Africans are quite willing to give God the benefit of doubt when He doesn’t seem to act in the way we expect.

Such a posture invites people to see every moment of worship, liturgy, and prayer as an opportunity to reflect on relationship with this God through faith in Jesus His Son. Knowing this God in community is a powerful source of hope. Somehow the Christian life gives meaning to those many moments that form the mosaic of the African experience—community celebration, music, beauty, lament, pain, and joy in life. I find this irrepressible hope to be true for my own faith journey as well. 

Kyama Mugambi is Assistant Professor of World Christianity at YDS, with a focus on Africa. He joined the YDS faculty in 2022 from Africa International University, where he was a senior researcher and faculty member at the university’s Centre for World Christianity. He specializes in ecclesial, social, cultural, theological, and epistemological themes within African urban Christianity. He is the author of A Spirit of Revitalization: Urban Pentecostalism in Kenya (Baylor, 2020).