Visiting a rural diocese in Tanzania, Stephen Spencer was intrigued to discover that the church was full of freshness, vibrancy, and growth.
The road from the town descends through some rocky hills on to the plain. Fresh green vegetation, that has sprung up after first rains, soon disappears behind us. The land here is bone dry, the earth parched and cracked. Gusts of wind whip up sand into small whirlwinds. Bedraggled herds of cattle with protruding ribs are cajoled by their young herdsmen. It is not clear where they are going as there is no green grass in sight and the herdsmen are not allowed to move their cattle out of the immediate area.
Once we are in the village, an extended series of homesteads spread over a wide area, shapes can be seen lying on the ground in the distance. As we draw near the dreadful reality of the situation becomes clear: these are the bodies of dead cattle, lying in the sun and beginning to decompose. Further on the number of bodies multiplies, some now mauled by local dogs. There are too many for the villagers to bury. The stench of death hangs around the homesteads. My companion, from the local diocese, says that he has never seen this before in this region. The drought that began three years ago is now taking its toll. If it continues, how will the people themselves survive?
The scene is very depressing. It is my third visit to this village; I already knew that it was a drought-prone area and that help was needed from outside. Over the previous couple of years I had encouraged fundraising at home for the drilling of a borehole, so that the villagers would not need to walk 5km to the shores of Lake Victoria for water. The fundraising had gone well, with a number of people giving sacrificially. Thousands of pounds was sent and a drilling company paid to do a survey and sink the borehole. The first attempt, down to 122 metres, failed to yield water. So a second attempt was made, a little further away, down to a similar depth. The devastating news was that this had also failed to yield enough water, and now the drought was taking hold with a vengeance.
Why could not something more be done? Why would the Tanzanian government not come and save the cattle, or at least bury them? Why did the people have to lose the animals in which their livelihoods were invested? Why did those who have so little have to lose even the little they have? Questions and frustration mounted up.
But then we arrive at the small mud-brick, tin-roof church. As we get out of the car we can hear singing and when we go inside the church we find a crowd of people caught up in dance and song, led by a choir of young people smartly dressed in matching brightly coloured batik material and filling the place with life and movement. It is enthralling and humbling. Then, during the service, it becomes clear that some of the older people are caught up in the intercessions, adding their own affirmations, raising their hands, being transported by the worship. Even if desperation brings them to church they are not dwelling on their misfortunes but lifting their minds and hearts to something greater than the hard land they live on.
They are caught up in a grace and joy that somehow transforms this little church into a kind of gateway to something greater. The contrast with what is outside is stark. It stops my dejection and frustration in its tracks. It does not remove the need for drought relief but places the whole situation within a bigger and more hopeful context. This bears fruit after the service when the congregation has a community meeting to discuss the drought and decide on what should be done next. Through the discussion a consensus emerges on the need to work with the local government in seeking resources to find a different solution. It is clear that both the worship and the meeting have helped to energize and inspire the people to work together to try to overcome the effects of the drought.
This is not an isolated example. Over the seven years I visited Mara I found a number of other churches where there was a similar combination of acute need and irrepressible Christian life. On top of this were the simple facts of church growth in this region. Over 25 years Mara Diocese had grown by over a hundredfold. At its creation in 1985, as already mentioned, the diocese had 12 parishes plus a large section of the Serengeti national park (including one million wildebeest on their annual migration!). Following the division of the diocese into three in 2010, growth continued, with four or five new parishes established most years. And this church growth has not just been about congregational enlargement: it has gone hand in hand with a range of development projects at parish and diocesan level, from weekday children’s nurseries to digging wells for drinking water to pastoral and medical support for victims of HIV/AIDS. Church schools have been started and extended, agricultural development work has taken place and theological education enhanced.
If such growth was possible in Tanzania then maybe it could happen in Britain? It has certainly happened here in the past, through the Evangelical revival of the eighteenth century, the Catholic revival of the nineteenth century and the growth of ecumenism in the twentieth. Why not a fresh revival in our own century? Given the lack of overall progress in renewing and growing churches in Britain in the last decade, Tanzania could provide an example that offers clues to a promising way forward.
To find out if this might be the case I needed to explore the causes and development of this flourishing expression of church life. I decided I would turn to church growth in Mara and explore its dynamics. I would begin with the personal reasons why people had become Christians and joined their local church, because ultimately church growth is about actual people deciding to commit to Christ and become his disciples. Beginning at the local level, then, with the experience of new Christians, the question would be this: what was drawing these people into an active Christian faith? Only after answering this would I then explore the steps the church leadership had taken to enable this to happen and look at how the new Christians were being supported by clergy and lay ministers. Finally, Mwita Akiri, as one of the bishops of the region, would add his thoughts on the causes and dynamics of this growth at different points in the narrative, so helping to identify the key themes of this remarkable story.
This is an extract from Growing and Flourishing: The Ecology of Church Growth, which is published later this month. You can order a copy of the book at a special pre-publication price, via our website.
Stephen Spencer is Director for Theological Education in the Anglican Communion.