“Why don’t you go to church?” 12 reasons for church ministers to reflect on
I asked this question on Facebook and placed a caveat: abusive and inflammatory comments will be deleted #Maturity. The responses were generally mature. Even the passive-aggressive comments were mild. I received many responses. Many commented directly on the status. Some wrote to me personal inboxes with vivid personal accounts. I tried to respond to as many as I could. You must understand that majority of the responses were from Kenyans. There were a few international responses and their reasons did not differ greatly from the local ones.
A background to Kenya’s religious scene
The reason I explicitly mention Kenyans is for one main reason. Kenyans are generally very religious. First of all, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) released the following results on religious demographics in the year 2013, just 5 years ago:
OTHER CHRISTIAN: 4,559,584
OTHER RELIGION: 557,450
NO RELIGION: 922,128
DON’T KNOW: 61,233
Numbers don’t lie. Kenyans are not abandoning religious practice anytime soon. And if you think they are, hear the personal experience of a foreigner. In the year 2014, Elisabeth Stoddard (an American) penned an article for the Berkley Centre of Georgetown University that was titled “The ubiquity of religion in Kenya.” In it she affirmed: “The pervasiveness of religion in the everyday lives of Kenyans struck me forcibly when our team was in Kenya this November. As an American who, by nature, is conditioned to keep religion relegated to the private sphere, the omnipresent manifestations of religion all around the city of Nairobi were almost jarring. The store fronts of local businesses bear the name of Mary, Jesus, or God; for instance, God’s Mercy Unisex Hair Salon. If the store name had no mention of religion, you were sure to see crosses or art depicting religious scenes somewhere within the store.” Elisabeth expressed her sincere shock but went on to note something positive. “Since religion is such a crucial part of the everyday lives and cultural fabric of Kenyan society, it seems only natural that development or peace-building would be framed within this context…Faith actors’ influence on Kenyan society, along with their long histories of development programming, makes them an important part of the future of sustainable development in Kenya.”
Elisabeth notes that the historical impact the church has had on Kenya may be one main reason why we are so deeply religious. What is this impact? There are several hospitals, schools and social centres started by churches, especially in rural areas. They have benefitted the public greatly, even right now. One may argue that her analysis of Nairobi alone is not broad enough. But if you are a Kenyan you know that the fabric extends to the entire country. But one would think that this translates to a Christlike nation on the ground. Unfortunately it does not. On a practical level, consider this. Many Kenyan drivers overlap and cuss you on the road but have “Jesus saves” as a bumper sticker. Kenyan politics is filled with religious analogies and prayer rallies but characterised by violence, impunity and paid prophets. Many Kenyan citizens are disgusted by theft and corruption yet the rate of cheating in national exams is very high and many are in careers through means of bribery. Many Kenyans will say that they love God but consult the occult. Facebook and Instagram accounts are filled with lewd images with captions such as “God is good.” In summary, the Kenyan religious scene is filled with contradictions. But don’t get me wrong. I don’t say this to mean all Kenyans. I even dare not say most, for I have no empirical evidence yet. But I safely say many. And many could mean most. But many does not mean all. After analysing the responses from my Facebook timeline, I picked up the top reasons for a refusal to attend church from my fellow Kenyans. When true ministers of God’s word read these answers with the backdrop of our religious scene, I believe they will receive the necessary wisdom on how to minister effectively because it is not business as usual in a seemingly “Christian” nation. Here are the 12 top reasons why Kenyan youth don’t attend church:
#1 Church Wounds
Church wounds were top. Many belonged to this first category. They had been wounded by people from fellowships and did not desire to return. One lady commented saying that the pastor at her church has said single mothers were lazy and that they should look for their husbands. Because of such several jaw-dropping stories, many young people prefer to stay at home on a Sunday morning. Some will catch the church service or some spiritual Christian program on TV or YouTube as an alternative. Many have concluded that the further they are from personal interaction with church folk, the less they hurt. I am cognizant that hurt will occur everywhere. And I know of no place on earth where humans interact and there is no wounding. Even in a family of loving parents and loving children hurt will occur. However, some hurt is unnecessary and this is what is keeping many young people away. The challenge: How can we as ministers of the Gospel (especially pastors) offer platforms for such grievances from unjust experiences to be aired? These are the facts. God help us come up with the solutions.
#2 Lack of belonging
A large number of the people that wrote to me said they felt alienated from their church and did not belong. A lady who preferred to inbox me privately revealed, “…my church is great. Great worship, nice people but I don’t feel like I belong.” Another private message from my inbox read, “I have never felt at home in a church community. I have always benefitted from the sermons and the discipline and humility that comes with service. But, I have always felt like an outsider when it comes to the church community. To use the line that has ended most relationships, “it is not them; it is me”. I am incredibly introverted and this often gets in the way of being sociable, particularly in large crowds.” In my five years in youth ministry, I see for a fact that small intimate groups give people a sense of belonging, especially of the leaders have been trained on how to handle small groups. The challenge: How can church continue beyond Sunday? This is a challenge for mega churches especially. The general definition of mega church is a congregation with more than 2000 people.
#3 The prosperity “gospel”
The third category of people warmed my heart. They stayed away from church because they could see through the prosperity gospel. I personally believe that a church that preaches materialism as a sign of godliness or godliness as a means to get riches is a false apostate church. My good friend John Musyimi has written a book titled: A Counterfeit Gospel: Understanding the danger and unravelling the deception in the ‘health and wealth’, ‘name it and claim it’ message of prosperity. Look for it. I will plan to review it one day on Pen Strokes. We know that the prosperity gospel is no gospel at all. Jesus did not die to make you rich. One Engineer Annette Ounga said, “Prosperity gospel has become too much and many of us are gullible.” Frank Otieno said, “…you become a church elder for example because you have money not because you believe in its values.” Wanjiku Magu spoke the heart of this group when she affirmed, “Christians do not want another rock concert or slick bookstore, they want deep relationships and they want real, raw Jesus.” The challenge: Is your church preaching the true Gospel? Is your church preaching sin without trying to be politically correct? Does your church preach salvation through Christ alone? Does it preach from the authority of the scriptures or the authority of a man’s latest Range Rover or his golfing tour in South Africa?
#4 Judgement and hypocrisy
The word judgemental and hypocrisy must have been used over twenty times on my timeline. It is easy to see the genuine from the false when it comes to judgement. Some people get angry that biblical preaching requires them to repent and so they call it judgement. That is wrong. Jesus was clear in John 7:24 that judgement can be done righteously. Paul the Apostle also added in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 that righteous judgement must occur within the church for the sake of discipline. If people get angry at this kind of biblical teaching it is clear that they are on the wrong. However when the judgement from the church takes the angle of a Pharisee attitude, then they are on the wrong. Though many failed to express examples of what judgement in the church looked like, we can imagine what it entails: Being side-lined because of a tattoo, being frowned upon because of a hairstyle, being publicly humiliated for sin etc. Hypocrisy was next. A great number of people saw through the double standards in spiritual leaders. A teenage girl I spoke to privately explained how the worship leader raped her in the church studio after everyone had left. She reported the matter to her parents. They were livid and confronted the pastor. The pastor said he would follow up the matter but did nothing. They proceeded to the police. When the pastor heard of it, he bribed the police to ignore the case. The parents angrily left the church and so did their children. The girl got pregnant and gave birth. The worship leader’s wife found out it was her husband at fault and tried to reach out to the girl to apologise. But it was too late. The story was twisted out to be that the worship leader had consensual sex with the high school girl and that she got pregnant. And in a society that has the woman on the losing end, the worship leader kept serving like an innocent victim of seduction and the poor girl left with shame instead of compassion. The girl told me that the worship leader keeps lurking after other girls in the worship team. They have complained to the pastor but the cries have fallen on deaf ears. The challenge: How can we deal with errant church members? When was the last time your church ex-communicated someone biblically in line with 1 Corinthians 5 standards. Ex-communication is very biblical. I am aware there is some ex-communication that is based on hypocrisy. Often it is the latter that happens and not the former. At the same time, how do we minister to people offended by hypocrisy? Apologist John Njoroge correctly said it when he affirmed, “Hypocrisy in the church neither nullifies the Law of God nor absolves unbelievers of their guilt before Him.” In short, a hypocritical pastor is not a free pass to ignore God’s requirement of you. God will deal with him. But we must know that he will deal with us too. How do we minister in this environment?
#5 Aloof leadership
The next reason was aloof leadership. One lady said, “The church leaders have become silent on current injustices in our country.” This may look like an obvious point but it is not. Both sides of the political divide in Kenya have been notorious for trying to get the church to support their agenda. Politicians from both sides will attend church masses and services and speak almost on behalf of God. At the end of the day you realise that they really don’t want to be on God’s side. They just want God on their side. Unfortunately this cancer that is rooted in the vice of tribalism spills into some church leadership platforms. The young people see this and it makes them leave the church. I was proud when my Bishop, David Oginde, bit the bullet and rebuked both the Government and the opposition in his sermon on the danger of dichotomy. His message went viral and was shared even on non-religious circles. However, the tribalists did not like his message because for once, the men of God were not playing to the tune of the political gods. They were submitting to the one true God. The challenge: youth are asking for more David Ogindes on the pulpit. Where are they?
#6 No relevant impact
Some admitted that attendance had zero impact on their lives. One Wambui Ng’anga’ admitted, “Stopped attending years ago. It did nothing for me so I didn’t see the point in attending.” Another responded, I just didn’t feel “fed”. The messages are great but they are just not for me. I struggled because it was my mother church where i was baptised and confirmed. So I cheated on my church, went somewhere else and I was fiiiiilled.” When a human of the 21st century confesses that their church does not challenge them, you have to admit that the church is not doing much. In a time where depression is up 400%, suicide is on the increase, marriage is failing, the occult is bold and love has gone cold, a church must make an impact. Some churches are afraid of speaking from the scriptures because people will be offended and leave. But that just means that they have no idea of who Jesus is. The crowds and sinners followed Jesus but they abandoned him with the same great proportion. They were offended at his message. Some believed and were saved but many were angry and they left. The challenge: Does your church have an impact? Are the suicidal given hope? Are the depressed uplifted? Are the sinful rebuked? Are the saints edified? Are the possessed delivered? Do people proudly living in sin hear a true message on the wrath of God? Do people overwhelmed by sin hear a true message on the forgiveness and grace of God? Are marriages restored? Are children taught the scriptures?
#7 Disappointment with God
The next category was people who had faced disappointment with God. Harriet said, “Because I can’t handle the silence thing that He does. How I’m I supposed to be in a relationship with one who is always just…silent!! Plus, He says He never gives you more than you can bear…I doubt He knows my limits.” Another says, “A few years ago I was in a really dark place and I lost connection with God. I was sort of blaming Him because I felt He was watching me endure so much pain without coming to my rescue.” The challenge: who will do the strenuous task of discipleship? Discipleship offers a platform for such pains and disappointments to be addressed and sound responses offered. Without discipleship, the fire for God will wane. I have personally discipled people for over six years. My wife disciples a group of young ladies. She has been at it for two years. Discipleship is by far the most impacting method of ministry. It is what Christ asked us to do before he left (Matthew 28:19-20): to make disciples. This is very different from evangelism. The Great Commission is centered on discipleship. With discipleship, you see lives change. You cry with people. You laugh with them. You hear their problems and you walk with them. Discipleship helps believers eat full spiritual meals and not depend on Sunday sermon pulpit snacks. A good place to start for any minister out there is a book titled The Lost Art of Disciple Making by Leroy Eims. The book is only available on Amazon.com
#8 A lack of apologetics
The next category of people stayed away from church because they could not make sense of the contradictions of the scriptures. One said that he could not believe in a white Jesus. Another said they had many questions on some biblical passages that made them doubt the faith. Any seasoned minister will know that people often reject the Bible primarily not because it seems to contradict itself but because it contradicts how they are living. However those objections by atheists, agnostics and skeptics must be addressed. This stems from a need for apologetics. This is specialized ministry that should not be ignored in our post-modern age. The skeptics must have their questions answered by the local church. Several online resources can help this, but if one is looking for a church community that actively does this kind of ministry, then The Saturday PM service held at CITAM Valley Road is for you. Every once in a while, they have forums to minister and debate with skeptics on the validity of Christianity. The debates are sober, mature and not characteristic of the immature vitriol you see on social media. But The Saturday PM service is just but one avenue and limited to Nairobi. The challenge: Where are the apologists that God has called for Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru and the rest of the country?
#9 Fatigued ministers
The next category was faithful church attendants that said they felt the church was using them. They used their gifts to serve and spent the whole weekend at the church but when they needed the church to help them when they dealt with loss, they found themselves alone. This left them emotionally and spiritually fatigued from giving and not receiving. The challenge: How do we minister to our own soldiers in the spiritual war? Our church offers an appreciation dinner every year for ministers. However beyond that, we must attend to our ministers when they lose loved ones and are in dire need. If we don’t, they will leave.
Waywardness refers to a lack of discipline. Some admitted openly to being lazy and lacking discipline to belong to a fellowship. Another truthfully said that Sunday morning is hard to commit to because Saturday night is party time. Another honestly admitted that Saturday hangovers keep them attending Bedside Baptist courtesy of Pastor Pillow and Bishop Duvet. The challenge: don’t get angry about this. It’s just a fact.
#11 Performance pressure
Some faithful attendants said they miss church at times because of performance pressure. One said that she missed just one service and the pastor was upon her like she had backslid. She felt pressure to look the part and it wore her out. So it discouraged her attendance. Linda added, “Because sometimes I don’t want to feel like I have to dress up and to perform the worship session by ‘enjoying the music and dancing through the climax as per expectation and to feel like the worship was meant to impress me more than the one to whom it was raised to and I don’t want to turn to my neighbour all the time unless I’m asked to pray for them.” The challenge: In house matters. Church attendance is good and even biblical (Hebrews 10:24-25) but we must not use it as a measure for one’s seriousness with God. The fruit should tell the story. There are people who live in sin unrepentantly yet attend church without fail. There are some sold out to God completely and yet you see them twice a month. We may want to find out why. Do they have alternative fellowships? Because going to church does not make one a Christian just as standing in a garage does not make one a Christian. That said, we must underline that meeting together for church is biblical (Matthew 18:20, Hebrews 10:24-25).
#12 Busy work schedules
When asked if she would attend a service if invited, Subira answered, “If I was in the country, I would. I’m in Juba now.” Another one wrote a private message saying that her work demanded her to avail herself on some Sundays. An air hostess from Qatar affirmed that her work does this too but she is glad that she can have her sermons recorded and listen to them on the plane. The challenge: These are our ministers where we cannot reach. How can we support them effectively when they are not with us in the weekend meetings?
But it is not all doom and gloom. Some believers echoed that church gave them some good experiences.
Why do you go to church?
Wanjiru says, “I go to church because I know nothing that happens in my life catches God by surprise, I go to church because I’ve seen many prayers being answered in my family and those of people dear to me. I go to church because I believe in God and I have a level of self-awareness that allows me to realize that I am not at a level where I can do this (study the word) on my own.”
Faith said, “Aside from it’s what i have always done on Sundays (that train up a child story is real btw), I go for community (people to walk the journey with), to grow and have a place to contribute directly/indirectly in furthering the gospel.”
This is the summary, Beloved. I hope it gives you something to think about. Our Kenyan Christian scene is not as rosy as we would like to think. Of course ultimately, the church is not the institutionalised gathering but rather the Body of Christ. But the Body of Christ is found in those institutionalised gatherings. Also we must understand that in light of prophecy, a divided church and a fallout is inevitable. It has been prophesied. It will happen. Just ensure you are on Christ’s side of the divide and not the world’s. One of my heaviest convictions after listening to people like Richard Njau aka ASTAR of 4UP Digital and speaking to Robert Burale is that if people will not go to the church, then the church should go to them. And one way is through the Internet. The harvest is online but the labourers are offline. This may be a way to start fishing those at home on a Sunday morning. But even if we employ these new methods, it will mean nothing if Christ has not changed us. The Gospel message will be accepted if the messenger is visibly changed by it. May we be the bible people read before we reach out to minister.