Young people are more liberal than ever when it comes to religion. They question everything and are inquisitive, as the surge on those who don’t believe in any deity continues to swell. With the changing landscape, religious leaders have taken a rather radical or progressive approach (whichever rocks your boat).
Men of the cloth no longer focus on the ‘hellfire and brimstone’ threat to win souls. No longer do we have hours of preaching and a whole day of praise and worship. Sunday sessions are short and precise. No longer do we have faithful carrying the Holy Book to church. Instead, we have mobile phones and tablets with Bible apps at the pews.
Not so long ago, a video clip of Father Paul Ogalo from St Monica Rapogi Parish in Awendo, Migori County went viral. In it, the cleric ‘drops bars’ as he raps about the gospel of Christ. He has received criticism and applause in equal measure, in what seems to be a tag of war between conservatives and liberals within Christian circles. He was recently suspended for a year by the Catholic Church in Kenya, to ‘reconsider his ways’.
The 45-year-old priest has been using rap music to woo the youth to church, and address ills that plague them such as drug abuse. While young people easily connect with his acts, critics have it that he’s taken it a little bit far. His approach on religion and its value amongst young people seems to add fuel to the debate on the earth becoming the salt of the church, instead of the other way round.
But, he is not the first to go the unusual route. There is Bishop Joseph Ndembu Mbatia, of Nyahururu Cathedral, who preaches using Kikuyu secular songs. The 57-year-old bishop says this has been a great way of attracting more people from different age groups to the church, especially the youth, as they feel appreciated.
According to him, the congregation is always keen when he is preaching and they look forward to hearing which song(s) he will use that day. When he doesn’t sing, people automatically know he is either unwell or in a low mood. “I have been using secular songs for 29 years now, and this is my unique way of preaching, because I choose specific songs which have the same meaning as the day’s reading, and the relation has really helped,” says the clergyman.
Bishop Ndembu adds that since he can sing more than 1,000 secular songs comfortably, some people judge him, speculating that he attends secular dances, which he denies. “I don’t attend any of such gatherings. My interest in secular music started when I was a small boy, and that is why I have mastered so many songs. My aim is only to pass the message to the people,” he explains.
Majority of the songs he uses belong to old Kikuyu musicians such as Joseph Kamaru, because most of them are advisory. “I decided to employ the use of these songs after I realised that most Christians listen to them more than gospel songs back at home, and I saw this as the best way to combine the two,” says the bishop.
There is also Bishop Richard Aryee, a Ghanaian of the First Love Church in London, who recently came under criticism for playfully saying, “Now we are just warming up, are you feeling warm? Or are you thinking man’s not hot,” during a sermon. This coming during the musical reign of Man’s Not Hot, a club banger by rapper and comedian Big Shaq.
Pastor George Macharia, who heads City Lighters campus under Kileleshwa Covenant Community Church, prides himself in how the church is run; relating to the young audience. “Our demographic is largely made up of young serious adults who have just gotten on their feet and need guidance, and that is what we provide. We thrive on being relational. Everyone knows everyone and moreover, the church’s leadership is made up of young people,” says the preacher, who is currently pursuing a masters degree in Biblical Studies.
The oldest leader at the church is 31 years old. “They own the church, they run the programme, and most of the time, I sit and let them do everything. They are serious on knowing God themselves, and I let them explore God,” adds Pastor Macharia.
The Sunday services at City Lighters are short and to the point. “Our services run for one and a half hours strictly, and that goes a long way,” he explains. During the services, the church keeps its Twitter and Instagram pages alive with feed from the sessions. “We are not blind to the fact that the world is changing, and we are changing with it. God governs with seasons and that is what we are doing; embracing the current season and spreading the gospel,” Macharia says.
Being in the same age bracket as majority of the congregants, he emphasizes being in touch with reality. “I am on the ground, and I know what is happening, how their lives are morphing, and that helps when it comes to understanding what they need. We accept everyone. Their pasts are in the past and even with their tattoos and coloured hair, they deserve to find God,” he adds. Among the crowd he ministers to are media personalities and gospel artistes.
Nairobi Chapel’s Pastor Andy Mburu is of the same school of thought. “When I was approached a few years back and asked to join the leadership programme and become a pastoral trainee, I was in doubt because I had dreadlocks. I thought that eventually, I would have to cut my hair, but that has not been the case,” he states. Pastor Mburu gets varied response across the divide because of his hair. “Young people identify with me because of the discrimination they may have faced previously based on how they looked. The gospel is not person specific.
You do not have to be a Hebrew scholar to receive Jesus, neither do you have to look a certain way,” says the churchman, who also hosts Rauka gospel show on Citizen TV. “I get parents who reprimand me because I have locks, and I understand them. We are coming from a place where Christianity is painted a certain way and now, we have changed.
I still preach Christ. I may appear eccentric, but that does not water down the message of the cross that I spread,” says Pastor Mburu, adding that interestingly, when he travels outside the country, people think that it is acceptable here, and appreciate it. “When judgment is passed across because of one’s appearance, it does not grow the body of Christ. This generation is different from the former, and the church has changed,” he notes.
Other ecclesiastics of unconventional façade, and who appeal to the youth, include the popular self-proclaimed prophetess Rev Lucy Natasha, and 33-year-old rapper Mr T alias Apostle Anthony Mwangi. Rev Natasha, the founder and overseer of Prophetic Latter Glory Ministries International, posts sermons to her over half a million social media followers. They also admire her flamboyant lifestyle and eye candy looks. Mr T, known for songs such as Finje Finje and Ninene, also hosts a gospel show on KBC, dubbed Angaza.
At Deliverance Church Zimmerman, they are screening the World Cup live, in a bid to rescue youth who may want to watch the matches, from heading to temptetation laden venues such as bars to catch the games. During half time, the church takes advantage of the audience to share the word and interact in a Christian setting.