LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Thousands of miles from a megachurch and thousands more from the technological trappings of contemporary evangelicalism, a group of students from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary discovered a component sometimes lacking within American evangelicalism: a people whose faith shines through their transformed lives.
Four students from the Louisville, Ky., seminary and two from its undergraduate school, Boyce College, traveled to Africa during the summer to research church growth trends among the Maasai people group of Kenya and Tanzania.
The students — Patrick Barrett, Tina Corn, Eric Graf, Michael Phillips, Eldridge Smith and Elizabeth White — interviewed 535 Maasai Christians to conduct a church-planting movement assessment.
Over the past three decades, the Christian faith has grown deeply imbedded roots in the soil of the Maasai people. While the results of the group’s research is not yet final, this much is certain: The increase in converts and rise of new churches among the Maasai has been profound.
“We have so much information that has yet to be analyzed that we cannot make any conclusive statements regarding our findings,” said Graf, a Ph.D. student who led the eight-week trip.
“God is doing a truly remarkable work among the Maasai people. One of the recurring themes we found in their personal testimonies was a transformed life. Listening to hundreds of people tell you how they turned away from their sin and idolatry and embraced the one true and living God was one of the greatest privileges of my life.”
The interview responses spoke of people of whom the apostle Paul wrote — people once separated from God who are now, in Christ, children of God.
One man told the group, “I am a new creation in Christ. From the beginning, I did bad things.
“I was a drunkard, selfish, and I hated people. When I was saved, all of that changed.”
Another person told the group, “Even if I have nothing, I have peace in the Lord and the Kingdom of God.”
Traditional Maasai culture is bound to a clearly defined social structure. The people are culturally proud and their economy, lifestyle and identity spring from their role as herdsmen and warriors, Graf said. The work of God can be seen perhaps most clearly against the fact that the Maasai have largely resisted western culture, which they view as being synonymous with Christianity. Yet, thanks to missions work among the Maasai and inter-tribe evangelization by zealous converts, a vibrant Christian faith has taken hold. Once they have trusted in Christ, the Maasai typically undergo severe persecution at the hands of tribal members who remain within their traditional religion.
“The most eye-opening aspect of my experience was seeing the level of commitment to faith in Christ the Maasai have,” said White, a master of divinity student from Louisville, Ky. “I mainly interviewed the women, and most of them spoke of the abuse and dishonor they receive from their families because they have left the traditions in order to follow Christ.
“Accompanying the high commitment to faith in Christ, they also have a very simple faith in Christ. Seeing such faith has given me a fresh reminder of God’s love for those who believe in Jesus Christ. God provides for their needs and even in the abuse received from family, they know they receive their strength to remain faithful through God’s grace.”
Another sobering reality that accompanies the Maasai ancient pagan religion gave White a new appreciation for her justification by faith in the atonement of Christ. The traditional religious practices of the Maasai include sacrificing animals to appease their god and to receive answers to prayer.
“I have come to a deeper appreciation of the sufficiency of Christ,” White said. “Having interacted with people who still offer sacrifices to please God has made me see from a different perspective the need for the sacrifice of Christ and the sufficiency of his sacrifice.”
Christian believers among the Maasai, in addition to demonstrating the genuineness of their faith through holy living, also display a fervent commitment to the gospel and its sufficiency to save fellow tribesmen.
“Maasai believers are demonstrating a tremendous evangelical fervor and commitment in reaching their own people for Christ,” Graf said. “They have also withstood tremendous social pressure and persecution as Christians living in a society that is strongly defined and governed by African traditional religion.
“Yet they continue to stand firm and start new churches as God draws many unto himself through the power of the gospel. Leaders are emerging out of these new congregations and God is certainly doing a great work through the lives of these committed believers.”
There are issues that Maasai churches face, such as a lack of male leadership, which the group’s research seeks to address. And there are basic living difficulties they face such as a lack of clean water.
Still, Graf said the brand of Christianity among the Maasai is one rich in substance.
“Their communal celebration of what God has done for them in Jesus Christ puts our multi-individualistic, American Christianity to shame,” Graf said. “I realize that we, as Americans, know very little about the word ‘community.’ We are autonomous individuals who view ourselves as independent persons belonging to a church community.
“Africans tend to view their personhood in light of the broader community; they are who they are because they belong to a particular group of people. Personal rights and property are overshadowed by the greater importance of interdependence and corporate identity. I have to admit that this is a truer reflection of biblical Christianity than what I have known in the U.S.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net.
Photo titles: MUSIC WITH THE MAASAI and Q&A IN KENYA.