Evangelism sweeps through Kenya as conservative Christianity floods Africa

Nairobi, Kenya - An American evangelist with a mustache and microphone paces back and forth on a makeshift stage, his Texas drawl echoing off the tin-roofed shacks in one of Africa's largest slums.

"How many people need a miracle tonight?" preacher Loren Davis asks a throng of thousands in Kibera, the Kenyan capital's biggest shantytown that is home to an estimated 800,000 people.

The answer roars back: "I do," and among the sea of raised hands is Esther Mutinda, 28, who says: "There are so many people here who are sick, who are jobless. We hope he can help us."

Miracles are in high demand in Kenya, especially among the poor, and Davis is one of a number of foreign evangelists to have embarked on missions here, joining local clergy in preaching redemption to growing congregations.

The trend is apparent across Africa, where the evangelical movement caught fire as Christianity has spread rapidly since 1970, rising from about 100 million adherents continent-wide then to more than 400 million today.

But nowhere is it more evident than in Kenya, where evangelicals now make up a majority -- 56 percent -- of the country's total and predominantly Christian population of 32 million, according to a recent study.

A 10-country survey by US-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found Kenya to have the largest percentage of evangelicals in Africa, beating much more populous South Africa and Nigeria at 34 and 26 percent respectively.

Kenyans are apparently also more devout believers with 87 percent of Pentecostal evangelicals in the country saying they have personally experienced or witnessed the divine healing of illness or injury, it found.

Last week, during his second "Gospel Crusade" in Kenya this year, Davis blamed Satan for causing

AIDS, but said God can provide a cure.

"I'm not a doctor," he told the Kibera crowd, "but I know The Great Physician."

Davis has attracted a large following here but he is not alone and competing in a field dominated by Kenyan evangelists.

Since 2000, the number of such churches in Kenya has nearly doubled, from 20,000 to 38,000, according to the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya and experts say that figure may be low due huge growth in small, unregistered churches.

The boom is most evident in Kenya's urban slums, where promises of salvation can be found on almost every corner, but also in the rural countryside.

In the Langas slum of Eldoret in the northern part of Kenya's central Rift Valley, more than 50 houses of worship, some tiny but nearly all evangelical, are crowded within a few kilometers (miles) of each other.

Among them, the "Maximum Miracle Church" and "The Church Where Jesus Still Changes Lives" attract worshippers in this town about 310 kilometers (190 miles) northwest of Nairobi.

But along with the soaring number of churches have come divisions.

Charles Otieng, a professor at Moi University in Eldoret, argues the abundance of names themselves reflects discord within the evangelical movement.

"The names do not reflect parts of a whole," he wrote in the September issue of the Africa Ecclesiastical Review. "Rather, they portray a house that is ideologically or conceptually in conflict."

Occasionally, disputes over church funds or leadership cause congregations to divide and new churches to arise, said Mutiso Wellington, head of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya.

For example, about 200 disgruntled evangelicals in Eldoret split from "The Door Christian Fellowship Church" in 2000 and started "New Horizon Church" less than a kilometer away.

Churches crop up this way, Wellington said, because "most evangelical pastors are not trained to be doing the work they claim to be doing."

In Eldoret, Joseph Olubwa, a member of Life Tabernacle Church, smiled and shook his head at the explosion of new churches, which, he joked, "almost outstrip the number of people."

"You can go to that one or that one," he says, pointing at two churches nearby. "But their messages are not very different."

Despite rivalries and differences many of Kenya's evangelicals have united around the conservative rallying cry, particularly when interpreting the Bible.

In August, Kenyan Evangelicals sparked the ire of scientists when they protested the national museum's world-famous collection of hominid bones pointing to man's evolution from ape to human.

Arguing the exhibit "is just one theory" of man's creation, they have demanded its removal before the museum reopens after renovations in June 2007.

Two months later, the Pew survey found 98 percent of Kenyan evangelicals believe homosexuality "is never justified" and that 80 percent say scripture must be interpreted literally.

Still, there are some who feel the Bible deserves leeway in Africa and in Kenya several theologians published the continent's first scripture analysis, aimed at African believers.

The 1,600-page Africa Bible Commentary applies the Biblical teaching to contemporary African problems such as AIDS, corruption and female genital mutilation.

"God has not promised that, because we are believers, we will not die a violent death or suffer disaster," wrote Tewoldemedhin Habtu, a Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology student in a commentary on the Book of Job.

Back in Kibera, Davis swiftly made his way from Genesis to Romans to Corinthians.

As night fell, he leads the audience in a meditative but raucous prayer, instructing the crowd to close their eyes and raise their arms.

"I command you demons to come out!" Davis cries.

Minutes later, with tears in her eyes, a woman named Lucy is on stage telling Davis her ailing back has been healed. She bends down to touch her toes and the crowd cheers.

"And she couldn't do that before!" Davis proclaims. "Hallelujah!"