Martina Björkander
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1 Sunday Worship in Mavuno Church, Bellevue, January 2014

On the 5th of January 2014,1 I enter the premises of Mavuno Church Bellevue, passing through the security checks as always. The threat of a terror attack is ever present in Nairobi, and all public locations are potential targets; churches are no exception. Today I am accompanied by a private driver who has been appointed to take me to church by the Senior Pastor himself, through his assistant. As I pass smoothly through the first security check, guards from Jeff Hamilton’s security service salute us and the driver jokes and laughs in response. I jump out of the car just in front of the barracks that house offices and staffroom. Behind them are a set of medium-sized tents for youth and children and an open area functioning as a parking lot. It is still early morning and not many people are here yet. I enter through another gate and have my bag checked by the next set of guards. Then finally I am inside the premises that once housed an open-air cinema and start to walk towards the huge white tent where services are held. They call it ‘the dome’. On my way to the dome, I pass several smaller tents where volunteers are preparing for the service: one tent for newcomers, one for cds and books on sale, several for snacks and coffee on each side. Small wooden huts give shelter on sunny days, and a brick building houses the restrooms.

Once inside the dome I look out over a sea of empty, military-green, plastic chairs, set out in blocks with aisles between them. At the back is a container housing the tech team, a large mixing table and all sorts of equipment. The pastor in charge of tech greets me, guides me to the front and helps me put my camera on the stage, an elevated steel construction with a black floor and backdrop. On the backdrop hang several photos, the middle one of which is a large, white-painted footprint with the words “step out” on it. The photographs show happy faces; one of them is a wedding photo. Between the frames white footprints move outwards from the centre, and on the left side white light boxes with black footprints continue the theme. On each side of the stage are huge screens promoting Mavuno’s church services (“Bellevue Cinema”, “Sundays 9 a.m. & 12 p.m.”) and its vision (“Ordinary People” “Extraordinary Lives”)—all set against an orange background with the Mavuno logotype on it. The branding is carried out consciously and professionally and also applied to all printed matter, banners, books, and so on. Nothing is left to chance when it comes to marketing.

After an incident with the service producer—who dislikes the idea of having a tripod on her carefully set stage, and does not accept any explanations from the tech pastor and myself, but finally submits to direct orders from the Senior Pastor—I leave the tent through an open side wall and go back in as if I were an ordinary visitor. It is 8:50 and ushers dressed in black and white have formed a human avenue leading up to the entrance, handing out beautiful dark orange roses to all female visitors. They smile and tell me I am most welcome to Mavuno. I thank them and go find a seat in the middle section, not too far from the stage but out of view of the camera. A woman in her sixties sits down in front of me and smiles tenderly at me. She wonders aloud if it is my first time in Mavuno and says she comes here all the time; she loves the place. She is one of very few women present who has grey, naturally curly hair; most wear their hair plaited or permed. Her skirt reaches her ankles, in which she again is the exception. Most women have either short skirts and dresses, or really long ones, if not tight trousers. Beads, trinkets, jewellery, earrings, and make-up are standard. Men wear jeans and a fancy shirt or cool t-shirt. Some wear suit trousers, but no one is in a full suit as far as I can see. I estimate the number of congregants gathered at the start of the service to be about a hundred, while by the time the sermon begins the dome is packed with people, at least a thousand, probably more. Approximately sixty per cent are women. The average visitor is a young adult, between twenty and forty years of age; a few are older, but no kids or teenagers attend the service as they have their own spaces. Apart from myself I can see only one Western-looking face, and no Asian-looking people. It is all African.

The service is about to start and instrumentalists are already on stage. Seated to the left and right at the back of the stage, they jam playfully as people gather and new advertisements show on the screens. There is a keyboard, an electrical guitar, an electrical bass, and drums. The instrumentalists are all males. One of them has dreadlocks and wears a red t-shirt with black print and black-and-white, animal-patterned jeans. The rest wear all-black clothing. At 9 a.m. sharp the rest of the worship team comes on stage and forms two rows in the middle. This Sunday they are dressed in the Kenyan national colours: red, green, white, and black. Black jeans as a base, and then a collection of street-styled t-shirts, college vests, blouses, and accessories. Apart from the two leaders, a man and a woman, there are four female singers and one male. They are all young adults, and all are well turned out.

The male worship leader greets the congregation enthusiastically—“Good morning Mavuno!”—to which those who have made it here on time respond with claps. “Turn to your neighbour and tell them Happy New Year!” People willingly accede to his request and greet each other with handshakes and high fives. Screens now show the text, Happy New Year.

Then it is time for the first song:

My healer (healer), ruler (ruler).
Omnipotent (omnipotent) Savior (Savior). …
I belong to you.
You’re the reason the skies are blue.
No one compares to You. …
I belong, I belong, I belong.
Yes, I belong to you.2

It is a contemporary worship song, with a heavy pop-rock sound and upbeat tempo, and includes a call-response structure in the verse. The chorus and bridge are repeated many times and people stand as they sing. The worship team clap their hands above their heads and encourage the audience to do the same. For a short while people do so, but then go back to more modest clapping and swaying. The song ends in a round of applause and cheering. The male leader speaks about being grateful for 2013, and calls out, “Shout to the Lord!” He is answered by a new round of applause before the next song. This time it is in Swahili with only one phrase in English:

You are Lord of my life and Your promises are true,
Nitakuamini, ahadi zako ni za milele.
Acha waseme watayosema,
We ni Ebeneza kwangu,
Waniongoza maishani hakuna mwingine kama Wewe.3

This song seems new to many, and is a bit hard to sing although the worship team do their best to get everyone engaged. The rhythm and style resemble afro-pop with a long wordless section in the middle when the instrumentalists jam and the rest of the team dance. The dance moves are taught to the audience and many participate. It looks cool and laid-back, with references both to East African traditional dance styles and to street dance and hip hop, and includes stepping rhythmically to each side, and then a turn. The leader shouts, “How many of you are happy to be in 2014? Say, ‘In 2014 I am stepping out!’” He gets loud cheers in response and energy levels rise in the hall. After a while, the dancing and jamming switch to singing. The male leader says, “Make a joyful noise!” And the congregants do.

At ten past nine the female leader starts to speak in a quiet voice. The music immediately takes on soft, serene tones, with the keyboard in the lead instead of the drums. Another Swahili praise song, this time a ballad:

Wewe ni nguzo yangu.
Wewe kimbilio langu.
Mwanga wangu Baba yangu …
Nishikilie Niongoze.
Mbali na waovu Baba eeeh.
Nionyeshe njia zako.
Nami nitazifuata Milele.4

Each part of the song is repeated many times and the music shifts dynamically between intimate and expressive. It starts softly and then rises to a crescendo, adding more and more instrumental and vocal sound, then drops again to an intimate tone. The vocalists look fully immersed in prayer and worship—faces expressing sincerity and hands lifted towards the sky. The audience follow, some lift their hands, many sway slightly on the spot, and most sing along once they have learned the tune. This song also seems new to many and it takes some time before the congregation participates in full. At the end there is again an instrumental part, this time accompanied by a spoken prayer by first the female then the male leader. Again the male leader asks the congregation how many of them are grateful that they “made it to 2014.” People cheer and clap. He speaks and prays alternately, “Thank you Lord. We look out for 2014. Thank you that you are doing something new.” He ends with a reference to the next song, “I will follow you forward,” before he starts to sing a globally well-known contemporary worship song:

Not going back, I’m moving ahead.
I’m here to declare to You my past is over, I’m in You.
All things are made new, surrendered my life to Christ.
I’m moving, moving forward.5

Again, the song starts small and grows towards a crescendo, then shifts dynamically back and forth. At the end, the same phrase is repeated again and again, “You make all things new. And I will follow You forward.” Now the intensity grows with every repetition. I try to count them but lose track. I write in my notebook, “How many repetitions? Maybe 30?” It is at least that. The congregants participate. Some close their eyes or lift their hands, but most look upwards or forwards, although it seems as if they see nothing with their physical eyes.

While the song continues a new person enters the stage. It is Pastor Kyama Mugambi, alias Pastor K., a man in his early forties and one of today’s hosts. He is wearing a white pinstripe shirt and a pair of black trousers. He sings a few phrases along with the worship team and then starts to pray, almost inaudibly at the beginning and then louder and louder. “You make all things new in my body. You make all things new in my family … in my workplace … in my office … in my personal life. We thank you Lord. You make all things new.” After each phrase there is a short response of clapping and shouts from the congregation. I can hear people saying “Hallelujah” and “Amen” and “Yes, Lord” around me. In the end he shouts, “Let’s celebrate the Lord!” and there is a loud outburst of clapping, cheering, wolf whistles, shouts, and music. He repeats, “Let’s celebrate the Lord!” and the congregation and worship team get even louder. It all ends in a large crescendo of ovation, music, and singing. Then, suddenly, the atmosphere breaks, the music stops, and all the worship team leave the stage save the keyboardist.

A new person appears, the second host, Neema Ntalel. It is time for the next part of the service. She says, “You are looking good this year! Tell your neighbour ‘You are looking good this year!’” People laugh and greet each other as they sit down. It is 9:26. Neema Ntalel is dressed in a black and beige, African-patterned skirt, a beige safari-style shirt and big, golden accessories. Her hair is cut fairly short in a hip, henna-coloured hairstyle. She is a bit younger than Pastor K., I guess around 30. She is presented by Pastor K. as “the one and only: the cora-award winner! The one and only, Miss Neema!” There are some wolf whistles and claps in response. He says he is proud to host the service with her and to be her colleague, adding that she is a “fearless influencer”; he then holds a small interview about her musical career. Screens show pictures of her records and a clip from her latest music video, for which she recently won the Kubamba Music Video Awards. The prize is proudly displayed to the audience. She comments on it, saying that she was surprised but happy, especially with the category of Best Choreography. “It means I can dance!” she says half-jokingly, but it is clear she is pleased. Then she excuses herself for being a rookie when it comes to public speaking, and says she might just “burst into song” if she gets lost. She goes on to greet newcomers and welcome them to the vip lounge after the service, where they can “have a cool cup of tea, with a cool group of people.” The vip lounge is one of the smaller tents on the way up to the dome. Pastor K. and Neema continue to speak in turn, following the prepared script. They both speak very fast and often joke with each other and the audience. They resemble hosts at big gala events, standing in front of a round glass-fibre table, script cards in their hands. The screens constantly change, underlining the message. I smile, amazed at how well-produced the event is: it’s fun, it’s hip, it’s young. It’s urban East Africa.

The keyboard plays a new intro and Neema sings “Hill City!” as screens show a skyline in blue and purple overlaid with the words hill city. The offering is announced through a series of photographs showing Neema as she visits the new location that the congregation has bought and to which they are about to transfer. It is basically a huge construction site with a couple of containers. In one of them is what Pastor K. calls the “hyper-dome”, which just arrived from “Johaannes-buurgh.” The new tent is “bigger-better-faster-cooler-smoother”—Neema and Pastor K. continue to fill in with words. The sum already collected for this project is mentioned, up to the last shilling. It exceeds 175 million kes. This is met with loud ovations from the audience. And then the congregation is encouraged to keep giving, and also sign “count me in” cards, meaning that they promise to give a certain amount in the future. Ushers walk around the hall with collection boxes and envelopes.

The hosts then begin to talk about New Year resolutions and ask us to speak to our neighbour about our “top two resolutions this year.” I speak to a woman next to me, who is around my age and has come alone to the service. She is wearing a beautiful red dress in a silk material. She tells me she is hoping to become a better person in 2014, to come to church more often, to improve her finances. After two minutes the hosts call us back; now they joke with each other about losing weight or exercising. Screens show pictures of fit persons working out and eating vegetables. Everyone who made a promise to “occupy physically” (get active physically) last year and has reached at least one per cent of their goal is encouraged to raise a hand. Quite a few do. Two people are picked to come on stage for a game: two women, one in her twenties and one in her forties. They are each given a skipping rope and while they compete the hosts comment as if it were a large sports competition, and the audience cheer on them. The older woman wins a voucher at a Bata shoe shop, to go and buy herself “a pair of training shoes”. The younger one gets a cd with a sermon series from Mavuno. The hosts wind up with a small section on how to keep promises—count me in promises and New Year resolutions—and what to do when money is scarce in January. The advice from Pastor K. is clear: “Predetermine what to give. Be intentional.”

It is 9:45 and the hosts say they have a “special treat” for us today. A new person is welcomed by Pastor K.: “a gentleman from Uganda, born in Japan, educated in Nigeria, who relocated to Nairobi a few years ago.” He continues, “He is an artist changing the face of worship forever. Mike–O. Alias Pastor Mike!” His music is described as Christian contemporary, hip-hop, R&B, pop, and more. Pictures from his music production run on the screen while he enters stage. Pastor Mike has something mature and gentle about him, despite the hip, street-style outfit. He says the song is a Christian pop-song with Nigerian influences, including some pidgin English. He asks us to repeat the phrase, “it is not about you,” to our neighbour, because life is not about our own fame or reputation, but about God’s glory.

Some do it for the show …
Me I don’t do that.
I do it for the glory of God.6

After the song Pastor Mike provides a testimony about why he relocated from Nigeria to Nairobi, saying he was “compelled by the vision of Mavuno.” He speaks in a calm and personal way, choosing his words carefully. Then he introduces today’s preacher, “the man that God gave this vision. A man of God, Daddy M., spiritual father for many of us.” The audience start to cheer and clap and wolf whistle, some even give a standing ovation, as the Senior Pastor Muriithi Wanjau enters the stage. The man himself seems relaxed about the attention and smiles at us. He asks us to give Pastor Mike a hand and then says, “It’s not about you. It has never been about you. It is always about Jesus. Give glory to God! You made it to 2014.” There is another loud ovation.

It is 9:50, and time for the sermon, the first part in a series called “Step Out!”, with a text from Joshua 1. Pastor M. reads the whole chapter bit by bit, retells the story vividly and builds his message around it, adding personal stories to illustrate. He speaks of having dreams in life, of how God places dreams in us that are “glimmerings of God’s destiny,” “of what we were created for,” and encourages everyone to step into those dreams like Joshua and his people stepped into the promised land. “We are created for big things. Every one of us, we were created to make a difference. Step out. Make a difference. Change society.” Whether we feel ready or not, we should trust God and start doing what he has called us to do and, thus, occupy the promised land. Practical advice is offered on how to find courage, be obedient, take initiatives, form a strategy, and help others along, and the Mavuno Marathon is presented as a place to find the training and support to achieve those dreams.

An hour later Pastor M. winds up with an invitation to raise our hands if God has spoken to us during the sermon. About thirty per cent of the audience does so. He prays for them, and then asks us all to stand. “I want to bless you as you go.” People hold out their hands at waist level, palms upwards, eyes closed. “I bless you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Then, “Tell your neighbour, ‘Step out!’” and people greet each other with high fives. Screens show the words “Happy New Year.” The service is over. Quickly people gather their things and leave the tent. Catchy gospel music flows from the loudspeakers:

We lift our hands in the sanctuary,
We clap our hands to give You the glory,
And we will praise You for the rest of our days.7

2 Sunday Worship in citam Woodley, January 2014

Early morning on the 26th of January 2014,8 I get into a taxi and travel the short distance to Woodley neighbourhood and into the premises of citam Woodley. The area is surrounded by a big wall and we pass through a large iron gate to get into it. A dozy-looking guard in a navy blue uniform checks the car with his metal detector before we are allowed entry. The place is calm and almost empty. Except for two people cleaning plastic chairs, a couple of other guards and a few people walking back and forth as if they were busy with preparations, there is no one in the open area outside the church. The driver drops me off in a turning area right inside the gate, and another guard checks my bag, suspicious of the camera and tripod in it. I tell him I have permission from the Senior Pastor to film inside the premises and he is content with that.

At first sight the place looks little like a church. In front of me are a number of two and three-storey brick buildings scattered on a green school yard and behind them an open sports field. To the right is a paved parking lot and to the left a set of smaller buildings and an assembly hall; all have the same grey and beige façade, giving a neat and well-organized impression. On week days this is a primary school, housing a few hundred pupils. On Sundays, however, this is a church. The assembly hall, a large building with a sheet metal roof, is surrounded on its left by a set of low office and school pavilions, and on its right by restrooms. Leading up to the assembly hall, and around it on each side, is a semi-covered passageway. The hall has several wooden doors, two on each side and a double door in the front. Outside the main doors is what they call “the overflow”—a white marquee housing a hundred or so extra chairs.

I choose one of the side doors and go inside. The hall has an unusual shape, similar to that of a diamond; at first, I cannot decide if it has five, six or seven sides; at least, they are not all the same length. The stage and main door are on opposite sides, on two of the shorter walls, with the maximum distance between them, while the rest of the building spreads out to the right and left. The architecture gives an impression of an almost circular hall, a few pillars supporting the roof as if it were a big tent. The roof follows the shape of the building, but there is no ceiling; roof trusses hold strip lights and fans. Walls are partly covered in decoratively cut wood, but otherwise painted white. Large windows on all sides allow in some fresh air.

Two banners on the front walls of the church meet the congregation as they gather for worship. On the right is the mission statement of Christ is The Answer Ministries, printed in white letters on a blue background: “Transforming God’s people to transform the world.” On the other wall the banner says, “Growing deeper, reaching wider, for the harvest.” This is the theme of 2014, and the picture illustrating it shows a lush green garden filled with apple trees laden with red-skinned apples. I write in my notes that it looks somehow misplaced, resembling my hometown in Sweden more than Nairobi. Later in the service the Senior Pastor comments on the picture, saying that they searched for a long time to find something that could illustrate the theme before ending up with this one. The hall is packed with orange plastic chairs, organized in sections. Only the first row is different; pastors and elders get more comfortable black, faux-leather chairs. The partly elevated front area is called ‘the altar’ and here the white stone floor and the steps leading up to it are covered in a royal red carpet. At the back of this area are three rows of cream-coloured plastic chairs for the choir, and behind them shiny cream curtains with red and golden details and a big screen. On the right side is a separate area for the instrumentalists, and at the centre is an acrylic pulpit, pink floral decorations, and a number of microphones and amplifiers.

I walk towards the stage, looking for someone to help me find Elias9 from the media team. I ask the Deputy Senior Pastor who is talking to a young adult. This turns out to be Elias and he promises to help me to find a spot where I can place my tripod and camera, adding to the already crowded stage. He is a kind and gentle soul and I feel a little less like an outsider after talking to him. Then I find a seat and start to take notes. The prayers have already begun, led by a woman in her sixties in a black jacket, a matching black skirt that reaches her ankles and a white blouse. Around twenty people have arrived early for prayers and the hall slowly fills during the first half of the service until around 500 people are gathered. The next two services attract a larger crowd, around a thousand each.

At 7:50 the Senior Pastor, Pastor Charles Obara, steps into the hall, and takes the place of the woman at the red microphone. His suit is black and his white shirt spotless, as are his shoes. He prays loudly and energetically while lifting his left arm and waving it to underline his words. After praying for a couple of minutes he thanks the people gathered for coming early and announces that the service will begin shortly. He leaves through one of the side doors. A soft murmur breaks out as people turn to each other to chat.

At 7:55 the music team comes on stage and starts to sing. They are all dressed in white today. Women wear skirts or dresses that at least cover their knees, or wide trousers. A young man wears a kanzu, a long, wide gown reaching his ankles. This surprises me as I am used to thinking of this as a garment signalling Muslim identity. Obviously, it has a different connotation here; judging from the rest of his appearance I guess that it is considered trendy. Some of the men have shiny yellow polo t-shirts under their white shirts. The rest, both women and men, wear yellow, green, and blue batik shawls around their necks or waists. The visual effect is compelling. In the absence of other decorations, the choir brightens up the place. There are around 25 choir members, aged 25 to 60, plus seven lead singers and a male worship leader. He is in his thirties, dressed in a long white shirt which is loose over his white trousers. He stands still in front of a microphone, playing an acoustic guitar. The instrumentalists—on keyboard, electric guitar, bass, and drums—sound-check briefly while the choir find their positions. Very soon the worship leader starts to sing and the choir tunes in:

We give You all the glory.
We worship You, our Lord.
You are worthy to be praised.10

The song is slow and declamatory, sung in vocal harmony, the same phrases repeated over and over. The congregation immediately stand and join in. Some raise their hands, some clasp them, most sing along and sway a little on spot. In the middle there is a jam session with instruments improvising and the choir praying into their mics, together forming an intense sound. No one leads the prayer, and I can hear scattered expressions of “We bless you,” “We worship you,” “We give you glory.”

At 8 a.m. sharp the worship leader welcomes us to citam Woodley and asks us to greet our neighbours. People shake hands, wave at each other, or hug. Unlike in Mavuno, no one in this church greets with a high five, as far as I can see. Several persons smile at me and welcome me to church. A few seconds later it is time for the next song, another well-known worship song:

Water, You turned into wine,
Opened the eyes of the blind,
There’s no one like You,
None like You.
Our God is greater, our God is stronger.
God, You are higher than any other.
Our God is Healer, awesome in power.
Our God, our God.11

This song is upbeat, rhythmical, and energetic. The choir and worship leader do their best to engage the small audience, but acoustics in the hall make it hard to sing. Drums dominate the sound and the choir is almost drowned out. The congregation stand to sing, but seem only moderately engaged; it is still early morning.

Pastors and elders arrive through the left door and take their seats at the front. The choir lift their hands in a certain pattern, upwards and forward, while they lead us in the next song:

We lift our hands in the sanctuary,
We lift our hands to give You the glory,
We lift our hands to give You the praise,
And we will praise You for the rest of our days, yes!
We will praise You for the rest of our days!12

It is classic gospel with a catchy melody that everyone seems to know. In one part of the song the leader teaches us the different harmonies. He says, “Come on! All sopranos, sing, ‘Yes Lord, for the rest of our days’.” And then, “Come on! All men in the house, sing, ‘Yes Lord, for the rest of our days’.” The congregation is transformed into a choir, repeating the same few phrases in vocal harmony over and over again. In the end there is loud clapping and the leader shouts, “Hallelujah!” Then he encourages us to ask our neighbour for some extra space to dance. This is a bit ironic as the hall is still rather empty, but it works better in the second service when the hall is packed with people. He shows us the dance moves: walk forward, cross legs, and back again, weight placed heavily on the floor. The rhythm and sound no longer remind me of a black American gospel choir but of an East African rural church. Drums and electric guitar take the lead and the tempo goes up.

Pamoja na Wewe, pamoja na Wewe,
Katika safari yangu, nitatembea na Wewe.
Pamoja na Wewe, pamoja na Wewe,
Katika safari yangu, nitatembea na Wewe.13

Suddenly the congregation seems to come alive in a new way, people smile and dance and sing along with new energy. Although the specific dance moves are quickly abandoned both by the choir and the audience, the energy remains high throughout the many verses and repetitions. And it rises to another level as the choir start to walk rhythmically down from the altar, forming a long tail, rocking and clapping hands with the music. As they pass the front row of pastors and elders, they greet them with smiles, high fives, and handshakes. The leader sings, “Tembea,” and the rest of us respond, “Tembea, tembea, tembea na Wewe” (Walk, walk, walk, walk with You). I can hear people cheer and wolf whistle around me; it is clear this is a much-appreciated element of the service.

Once the choir is back on stage, the music and atmosphere change considerably. From happy and playful to serene and intimate, almost solemn. The tempo goes down, as does the overall volume. For a while the keyboard replaces the drums in the instrumental lead role. The choir again sings in harmonies.

I surrender all to You,
Everything I give to You.
Withholding nothing,
Withholding nothing
King Jesus, My Savior, Forever.
I give You all of me,
I give You all of me.14

The song begins quietly but grows dynamically into a crescendo, before dropping again to a soft, almost silent tone. The worship leader sings each stanza ahead of the choir, forming the call-and-response structure of communally sung prayers: “Lord, I give you all of me.” The refrain is repeated again and again, maybe up to thirty times. People in the congregation and choir alike lift their faces towards the sky and close their eyes in prayer. Some raise their hands in front of them or above their heads. Many sway a little on the spot.

At 8:25 Pastor Evans, today’s host, comes up to the front. He is a man in his fifties, dressed in a dark blue suit, light blue shirt, and matching tie. He starts to speak to the congregation, while the singing and music continue in the background. The address is communal and personal at the same time: “Congregation, let us surrender. Tell him to take over in your life. Surrender your weaknesses to the Lord. Surrender your challenges. Your struggles. Your temptations. Surrender everything to him.” He quotes Matthew 11—where Jesus encourages those who carry burdens to come to him—and then goes on praying for several minutes. “Father we worship you. We praise you. We give you glory. We praise you. We exalt you.” “In the name of Jesus.” His voice and the background music rise and fall together: first louder and louder, more and more intense, then again calm and peaceful. He prays for the country, for the national leaders, for security and the economy and for the congregation. Most of the audience still stand, eyes closed and heads bowed. Pastor Evans finishes with, “In Jesus’ name we pray!” and an encouragement to “appreciate the Lord.” He is met with “Amen!” and applause.

I look around at the gathered congregation. Half a thousand people of different ages; I estimate the majority to be between 35 and 55, and a good number between 20 and 35. A few kids and teenagers are present too, plus maybe a hundred or so above 55. I know that the youngsters have their own activities, explaining their low numbers. Women are in a slight majority although many seem to come as couples or families. There are a handful of Western-looking people in the hall, and apart from that all are African. The dress code is conservative and low-key, especially among women. Skirts fall below the knee, trousers are wide, blouses have modest necklines and sleeves. Very few wear high-heels, obvious makeup, or large accessories. I smile to myself thinking that even my style gives me away as a middle-class, middle-aged, conservative Pentecostal. Among the men shirts seem essential; with or without a tie, with or without a jacket or full suit. I can see feet wearing anything from black leather shoes to simple sandals of the flip-flop type. Few have opted for colourful garments or the latest fashion. Instead black, beige, grey, white, and brown dominate the palette, with a dab of red, yellow, and green. Most look clean and tidy, some very formal in suits or dresses, some less so in simple clothing.

It is 8:30 and the service moves on to the next section. We are encouraged to give the music team a hand and then greet each other, “Just tell your neighbour, ‘Karibu!’15 Tell them they are welcome to this service.” People shake hands and smile at each other. A handful of newcomers are welcomed to church; ushers dressed in black and gold hand them pamphlets as the congregation claps. A family that has just lost a child is mentioned as a prayer request and an elder is called to the front to pray for them and for the tithes and offerings about to be collected. He is calm and serious, praying matter-of-factly in a conversational tone. The congregation joins the prayer silently with their heads bowed and eyes closed. Then ushers dressed in red and white walk around the hall with collection boxes, while tv monitors show announcements of upcoming events, and loudspeakers play contemporary worship music: “Lord I give You my life”. Screens are small, their design is busy and inconsistent and it is hard to read the information on them, but there is at least one advertisement for a Valentine’s dinner, one for a pre-marital class, and one for a leadership meeting. Pastor Evans adds a few extra announcements before it is time for the choir to “give a special.”

A woman in her mid-twenties reads a passage from Numbers and then starts to sing; she has a very good voice and seems confident in the situation. She is the only one standing on stage for the first verse, wailing and filling the room with music. The choir joins her in the refrain and bridge, answering her in a form of call-and-response structure.

I’m not a man, I cannot lie. I know the plans for your life,
I’m asking you to dream again, believe again and take the limits off of me …
No limits no boundaries, I see increase all around me.
Stretch forth, break forth, release me, enlarge my territory.16

The text puzzles me as I listen to it. It is not clear who is talking to whom: Is God asking us to release him and make his territory larger, or is a human being asking God for more space? I have never heard the song before and cannot make out the meaning at first, but no explanations are given in the service. Possibly the meaning is clear to the audience.

Once the choir has finished the song, they leave through a side door. Encouraged by Pastor Evans the congregation claps in appreciation before welcoming the Senior Pastor up with yet another round of applause. Pastor Obara greets the congregation in his usual energetic way, “Good morning congregation! Bwana asifiwe!”17 Before moving on to the sermon, he leads a small ceremony to thank two of the pastors who are leaving for other appointments within citam. They come to the front with their families and are given a few minutes each to say their kwaheris18 before the elders gather in a half-circle, laying on hands to pray for them.

Today’s sermon is part of a series on important characters in the Old Testament. Last week was about Adam and Eve, and today is about Enoch and Noah. Pastor Obara describes the lineage of men in Genesis 5 as “guys who lived for centuries” and “married at the tender age of 500 years.” Compared to these guys, we are all “babies in diapers.” People laugh at this ridiculous comment and many similar that follow suit. The tone is intense and at times extremely loud. Despite the humorous framing, Pastor Obara’s message is a serious one. The sermon is an encouragement to walk with God on a daily basis—no matter the cost—and to witness to one’s generation by leading a holy and righteous life. The examples given concentrate on moral issues, especially in the area of sex and alcohol. Warning people against the easy solutions of tele-evangelists, he says, “Don’t be cheated!” “There is no magic”—only a life lived in “reverence” and “resilience” will lead to “reward.” However, he warns the congregation that unless they watch against temptation, they may well end up like Noah, who ended his life in unrighteousness, “regretting” his sins.

At 9:10 he starts to preach and at 9:50 he invites people to respond to the message. People who want to give their lives to Jesus for the first time are invited to raise their hands and then to come to the altar where several counsellors gather behind them, hands on their backs, while Pastor Obara whisperingly leads them in a prayer. The keyboard plays softly in the background. The small group is taken out to get further counselling, and after a round of applause—“Appreciate them! Appreciate the Lord!”—we are all encouraged to stand to receive the blessing. His voice is again loud and intense as he prays, “Father we thank you, we bless you … I pray for your blessings over your people. That they may leave a legacy … In the mighty name of Jesus, we pray.” The congregation says, “Amen,” and is dismissed.

Quickly I gather my stuff, go up on stage and restart the camera. Some visitors have already left, and new ones are waiting outside to come in. The next service is about to begin.


The following text is built on fieldnotes and observation notes from Mavuno, 2014-01-05.


I Belong to You by Marvin Sapp, (accessed 2018-08-22).


Ebenezer by Kanjii Mbugua, (accessed 2019-07-17). Translation: You are Lord of my life and Your promises are true, I will believe in You, Your promises are for ever. Let them say, who will say. You are the Ebenezer for me. You lead me in life. There is no other, like You. Translation by Sahaya G. Selvam.


Nishikilie Niongoze, by Kambua. (accessed 2018-08-22). Translation: You are my pillar/tower. You are my refuge. My light, my Father. Let me hold, lead me. Far from evil people, oh Father. Lead me in Your ways. And I will follow for ever. Translation by Sahaya G. Selvam.


Moving Forward, by Israel Houghton and Ricardo Sanchez. (accessed 2020-08-25).


Glory, by Mike Onen. (accessed 2020-01-10).


In the Sanctuary, by Kurt Carr. (accessed 2020-07-14).


The following text on built on fieldnotes from a visit to citam Woodley 2013-01-20, and fieldnotes of a Sunday Service at Woodley 2014-01-26.




Alpha and Omega, by Erasmus Mutanbira. (accessed 2020-08-26).


Our God, by Chris Tomlin. (accessed 2020-07-14).


In the Sanctuary, by Kurt Carr. (accessed 2020-07-14).


Bwana U Sehemu Yangu, by Elizabeth Nyambura. (accessed 2021-03-10). This is a Swahili-version of Fanny Crosby’s hymn Close to Thee. (accessed 2021-03-10). Translation: Together with You, together with You, On my journey I will walk with You. Together with You, together with You, On my journey I will walk with You. Translation by Sahaya G. Selvam.


Withholding Nothing, by William McDowell. (accessed 2020-07-14).


Karibu” means “welcome” in Swahili.


Enlarge My Territory, by Derick Thomas. (accessed 20-08-26). Cf. 1 Sam. 15:29, 1 Chron. 4:10.


Bwana Asifiwe” means “Praise the Lord” in Swahili.


Kwaheri” means “Goodbye” in Swahili.

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