Bishop Mathes has said that the church of the future will look a lot like the church of the first century. That may be an abstract concept to twenty-first-century Californians, but my family had the opportunity to experience first-hand what, perhaps, the first century church might have looked like, and it was beautiful! We traveled to Kenya with a group from Daybreak, a church in Carlsbad, who were visiting at the request of a Masai pastor to help him teach his fellow pastors how to plant churches.
This seminar had no PowerPoint slides, no handouts, no computers and no whiteboards; in fact there wasn’t even any electricity or running water! This was definitely what I imagine a first-century gathering would have looked like. As described in the book of Acts, the first-century church was a place from which ordinary people went boldly into the world to proclaim the gospel, heal the sick, feed the poor, and defend the marginalized. They were persecuted, yet they were so filled with the Holy Spirit that they couldn’t keep the gospel to themselves. Church in America has become a social club, a place where believers gather and have fellowship once a week, and then go live their lives unaffected by the gospel. To the people of the first century, and to the Masai, spreading the gospel is something they live for and do every moment of every day. Serving others and sharing what little they have is a part of everyday life.
Pastor Daniel, who was hosting the seminar in in his church (picture a concrete block, tin roof, no glass in the windows), had at his disposal – a cell phone. That’s it! No office staff, no copy machine, and no brochures. His cell phone, charged by solar power, was the only modern tool he had to gather people from across the Masai Mara – a vast and unforgiving savanna – for a seminar.
The day before the seminar, a few people started arriving – on foot. They walked across the mara with nothing but the clothes they were wearing and a walking stick. Imagine our surprise and absolute thrill when there were 90 pastors gathered in the yard! Most of them arrived by foot; some walked for several days. They longed to start a church in their villages. They were filled with excitement and the Holy Spirit, praying, thanking God, loving one another. I could see, in my mind’s eye, St. Paul and the early Christians in the faces of the Masai – with no electricity and no running water – but so much love and genuine affection.
Many of the Masai live in small villages which consist of nothing more than a circle of mud and twig huts, with the gaps between huts filled in with prickly brush. The circular structure and prickly brush protect the people and their livestock from lions, hyenas and cheetahs. As the Masai are nomadic herders, their villages are meant to be left behind. The Kenyan government has built some schools for the Masai, but fixed buildings for a nomadic people does not work, so attendance is sparse at best.
What does it mean to plant a church in a circle of huts among people who will soon pick up and move? The church, or the body of Christ, is the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, not a building we go to on Sunday. Pastor Daniel, who had the good fortune to have a church building, felt it should be used to spread the gospel. During the seminar, the entire community was invited to eat lunch. Anyone is welcome, at any time, to draw water from the well on church property. The church offers a free school to those who cannot afford tuition. The pastor’s office is full of sewing machines that local women use to sew aprons to sell at safari resorts. The community comes and goes, gathering for fellowship or to cook meals.
Property and buildings are not in themselves bad, but one thing is for certain: “church” does not mean a building. In fact, church doesn’t mean anything physical, outside of the people involved. Church for the Masai means community. It means worshipping and praying together, and lifting one another up. They pour their love out to everyone and anyone who comes their way. Their generosity and affection were infectious. At the end of the seminar, the pastors were hugging and praying, sending each other off to do the work of building a Christ-centered community. To me, the church of the Masai truly is the church of the first century, and has much to teach us.+
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