Today’s blog is by a good friend of mine, Pastor David Ewagata. We hosted him and his wife, Rose, in August this year on our relationships forum, Boy Meets Girl. He is full of wisdom from God. This blog was initially posted on his Facebook timeline and reposted here with his permission. Ewagata has been married for over 16 years and is well known for his devotion towards youth ministry. I personally attribute to him as one of the ministers who helped establish the foundation of our youth ministries in Kenya. He did this along other great people such as Ken Aringo, Munengi Mulandi, Patrick Kuchio, Tony Kiama, Tonny Gobanga and Tom Otieno. This article is potent as it does a dissection of the Kenyan church’s progress vis-à-vis the Kenyan Gospel Music industry. You want a cup of tea for this one. Happy reading!
Between the Pulpit and the Stage: The battle for a lost generation
By David Ewagata
At some point, a people must ask themselves unbearable questions and expect in and of themselves, unbearable answers.
In the middle of the 90’s something significant began to happen in the church. Coming from a background of very traditional church music, the world began to experience the upsurge of what initially was known as ‘Contemporary Christian Music’ or ‘CCM’. As early as the 80’s CCM legends like Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Carman, Petra etc. had curved a niche for themselves. Many of them were solid believers with a flair for refined music. This season also saw the rise of contemporary worship music with the rise of Integrity Music and Maranatha Music with names like Ron Kenoly, Bob Fitts, Alvin Slaughter setting the stage for the advent of the worship leader away from the traditional choir and choir masters that adorned our churches. Later on, we saw the iconic rise of Hillsong Music under Darlene Zscheck taking the world by storm from the world under- Australia.
Back home, the Kenyan music scene was greatly influenced by many of the above names. We seldom wrote or played our own music. Gospel music stations made their debut playing foreign or call it, international Christian music. With the exceptions of rarities like Munishi, Kasangas and other old-time musicians, there was nothing more to listen to in the local scene. Important to note though is that these musicians appealed more to the older generation and a young person wouldn’t be found dead listening to their music. With this setting in mind, youth ministry flourished under young leaders and preachers, who had curved a niche in speaking to young people. Among the notables were Pastor Ambrose Nyang’ao of Parklands Baptist, Paul Akatsa of Deliverance Church, among others. They organized events in their churches either independently or in collaboration with others from the same or different denominations. School and college missions with done by pastors assisted sometimes by a small band of singers to ‘create the atmosphere’. Youth camps such as SonRise Camp Under Deliverance Church and Word of Life (WOL) gave the young people week-long experiences with God. The mainstay was the preaching! Everything stopped when the preacher came on stage and there was a sense in which music was simply a preamble, a side-dish, a precursor, to the main act- preaching by the Man of God! The pulpit in this regard, was divine, unchallenged, and unquestionable. The main product was the Word of God and the signs and wonders that accompanied it, followed by a clear call to salvation. The pastor was the final act, the ultimate authority, and the reason why people gathered in such numbers. The 70’s, 80’s and 90’s were very easy times to make an impact as a pastor, teacher, or preacher. There was no competition especially in the artistic scene and Global threats were effectively stumped out by the lack of connectivity.
After years of successful ministry, churches could soon afford to host major conferences, buy state-of-the-art sound systems, and expect more from the choir than just ‘a number’ as the specials were called ‘then’. Little known to them, this afforded the gifted, and available young people with an opportunity to access open mics, music and sound equipment. They had ready audiences to try out and hone their skills with and mentors in the name of youth workers and pastors to give them their first experience of public speaking and performance.
Before long, these young people turned their jokes, dances, skits and musical acts into formidable acts and subsequently, events. Young people took the dare to write original compositions and then did the most unlikely thing… they began to record their own music. Which African does that? First, they began in the sound equipment stores of churches, then in makeshift studios in their bedrooms built on borrowed equipment (I still vividly remember one of our neighbors borrowing microphones from our church during the week and returning it in time for our Sunday service- I had the store keys hehe), or borrowed time in friends’ studios like Jack Odongo’s (Ahem, that was for the moneyed few). Initially, the mainstream media took little note of them and Pastor Pete Odera can tell you of the isolation, scorn, and rejection he faced trying to get his music to receive any significant airplay either in church or in the radio stations.
As this was happening in the music studios, a small band of out-of-the-box youth decided to try their hand out in the DJ’s arena. Using portable Discman’s, they set music to tempo and mixes began- super clumsy at first, then increasingly more and more proficient. I lost, nay, planted my coveted Discman to one of such outfits. In time, they started purchasing professional DJ machines and as they say, the rest is history! I could give you names and stories of numerous such acts but that is not the major focus of my writing today. However, it is important to note that many of them are ‘big’ names that many can barely afford to hire for our functions.
The crux of the matter
As these artists, skills and talents rose in professionalism and rank, they caught the church totally unaware. The church, unsure about what to do with such talent, confidence, and change, panicked and bolted for the nearest exit. Rather than be a compliment to the church, they eventually became a force in themselves. This was partly because the church was not sure of what to do with so much talent. In many senses, these young people were way ahead of their time. There is no way to explain how radical this sudden shift was and how counter-cultural it was for the church. The reality is that most of this passion was driven by a desire to excel; a passion to win over the lost in the society; a longing to see transformation to the lowest and highest level of society. Something of a revolution happened in a space of 10 years and church was never the same after that.
On the other hand, these young people felt they were not understood, supported, or encouraged to venture in this new field. As this battle raged on, the church closed its ranks around the safer, more mature congregation and increasingly sidelined the more youthful, energetic, and sometimes, downright ‘worldly’ artists and their music. Some of these young people dressed daring, spotted dreadlocks- dreadlocks??? Who does that and calls himself a Christian?? No, no, no!! The church came out with all guns blazing and the young people fled with their skills and music to create a force of their own- the Gospel Music Industry. The church could not contain their giftedness, nor could it understand their style of music or their demand to be paid because they are career artists. Career artists? What is that? Where is your mother? Parents could not understand this new, daring Christianity where hip was hip and hop was hop! Society and mainstream media could not understand why gospel music sounded so good and invited them to events not because they believed in the Gospel but because they could not ignore it anymore. An uneasy partnership began with gospel artists and DJ’s taking the airwaves bit by bit. No one had the script as to where the sacred stopped and where the secular began! I still remember youth pastors being headhunted to host a radio talk shows in secular stations. We blazed through the interviews effortlessly. I mean, who else would beat a man who stood in front of thousands every week to deliver the gospel? Any one of them could read a crowd, pick a joke and run it to success, squeeze a story into a teaching, make you cry and make you laugh at the same time. No one can complete against a person who takes a 2000-year-old story and brings it to life, relevance, and power! I was invited to one such offer with a great pay. However, when I enquired about the music to be played in this particular show, they promptly told me that the music director chooses the songs and its both gospel and secular! Another youth pastor was promptly interviewed for the same position and accepted the terms! So it goes without say that the demand and exchange of money in colossal amounts came with its fair share of compromises amongst the ranks as did the clamor for influence, constituents, and fame.
So now, the stage is set… On one hand, we have a successful church, and on the other, a successful Gospel Music Industry. This being the backdrop, I want to point to some of the things that began to unfold.
1. Lack of mentoring. Many of the youth enter into areas of influence little prepared. Overnight success took its toll and moral, spiritual, and social failures ranked high. The church as at the same time merciless in dealing with such shortcomings. Rather than a push to restore the fallen, the harsh retributions served to appease the influential, dogmatic adults.
2. High expectations, coupled with poor remuneration, low budget or no budget ministry, and constant battles that youth pastors faced caused a massive exit of the skilled pastors to new, more lucrative ventures. Enter life-coaching, motivational speaking, public speaking lecturers, media experts, etc.
3. Other youth pastors figured that the only way to win, especially in the boardroom, is to be senior pastors and build their own ‘Kingdoms’ where they determine the course of their destinies. Little equipped, bruised and wounded, they walked out to gather around themselves an army of misfits, tired of status quo. I fear for the next church!
4. Meanwhile, in the main churches, boards and pastors worked to consolidate their gains and focused on building structures, sanctuaries, and systems to keep the ever-demanding adults happy with ‘church’. Mission turned from outward to inward focused as budgets were adjusted to cater to the taste of the congregation and pastors. Youth and teens were no longer part of the equation considering that they are poor givers, except- except only when it started striking close to home and ‘our children’ refused to go to church, or picked the youth ‘Gig’ over our ‘Church concert.’
5. With the inward focus of the church, it became more vicious in its dealings within itself. The pursuit of the comforts of the church unveiled politics of power, clout, tribe, status, and privilege only akin to national politics. Pastors moved to protect their gains after years of slaving in the trenches. These battles that many assume are hidden from public scrutiny find their way to the ears of the young generation and increasingly alienates them from the church. Ever so often, these fault lines appear in the full glare of the public eye and media as pastors battle it out for positions, congregations, properties, allegiance, and sometimes more discreet affections. Court cases abound that simply paint the church in bad light and remove the little glimmer of hope that any young person would have in the church.
6. Pastors began to castigate the youth for making the church ‘Unspiritually cool’.
7. As the artists sharpened their skills and performances, few pastors saw the need to sharpen their skills to be able to speak in the new frontiers that the youth were opening up to them. Sermon sessions became the low point rather than the highlight of Christian events. I can confidently say, “We had it coming!” Many of the pastors did a terrible job of speaking to the youth and so the artists gave less and less time to the ‘preaching session’ not because they were less and less spiritual but because of the frustration of poor preaching. Eventually, they abandoned that part all together and took it to themselves to preach more proficiently. They assumed the role of the shepherd- many times, without the calling.
8. As the artists locked their stages to pastors, pastors also locked their pulpits to artists citing different reasons that felt justifiable in each one’s eyes. Hence, artists left churches altogether or took the back seat in churches but maintaining a high presence in the corporate world and doing self-initiated events, where their skills and influence rose. Enter the celebrity culture.
The end result
The battle lines were drawn. On one hand stood the older, ‘mature’ church- successful in her own right. On the other, a young, mobile and energetic Gospel Music Industry complete with money, fame, status, and a glamorous Gospel music award show to boot. In my humble estimation, the mantra song for this impasse is Juliani’s “Exponential Potential”. The hook of it goes,
Aha aha ahao,
Who’s laughing now,
The verdict of this battle is blood-chilling! A Church-less Youth and A Youth-less Church!
The church today stands flat on her face but stands nevertheless.
We stand at a very precarious moment in the history of the church not just in Kenya but globally. God has spoken clearly about the mandate of Kenya as a missionary sending nation- a light of the Gospel to the world. However, the Body of Christ that is meant to be working in perfect unity is torn at its most critical point. The Church is torn away from its future (youth) while its future is torn away from its foundation (Church). Unless the Church and the Gospel music industry get off their high horses and seek Christ for the youth and the youth for Christ in unity, history will judge us harshly and mercilessly.
The church today is at its lowest point in regard to having a moral voice or a prophetic voice. I watched with utter shame as pastors recently engaged in fruitless shuttle diplomacy trying to resolve the IEBC discussions deadlock. And I asked myself, “When did the church lose its power?” Is it perhaps that we are speaking King James English to a sheng-speaking congregation? Is it that we are preaching a little water and drinking a lot of wine? Is it that the cloud has moved on but left us sitting cozy under our beach umbrellas wearing sun-tan lotion and stunners?
The real battle
Ephesians 6:12 states, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities and rulers in high places…” Unless we wake up to the fact that the enemy is neither the Church nor the Musician, we will remain preoccupied with proving ‘who is laughing now’ while the next generation slips into the willing arms the secular world. The battleground is neither for the ratings on the music charts nor the filling of the pews with generous congregants but it is squarely for the soul of the next generation! Every industry in the world is on a death hunt for the next generation! They know clearly that their survival in the next millennia is dependent on their influence on the next generation and are pulling all stops to sell themselves to the next generation. Safaricom Blaze is distinctly and unapologetically targeting the youth, smearing billboards on every campus in the country.
In this regard, the Christians today must ask themselves unbearable questions and expect in and of themselves, unbearable answers! Is our success our biggest snare or our greatest opportunity to take on the next generation!