Friday, February 1, 2013

The African Phenomenon Of The Rented Crowd

Kabwata Baptist Church congregation. This can easily be
a rented crowd on a Sunday and thus prove very misleading!
Every so often I see pictures in American magazines or newsletters showing big attendances at some church that I recently visited. The number of people in attendance far exceeds anything that I have ever seen there. If I were not part of African culture, I would conclude that this is pure deception. I would think that the church leaders deliberately went out to rent a crowd in order to deceive the visitors into thinking that their church was a mega-church.

I recall this happening when a missionary from the UK took over the pastorate of a church that had sent out a missionary into the northern part of the Zambia. When I met him upon his return, he was full of glowing reports about how the work that their church missionary was doing had really blossomed. When I called one of the members afterwards to find out about this revival, he told me that nothing of the sort had happened. They were still a skeleton congregation!

How are we to explain this? Well, the answer is quite simple. In our African culture, a distinguished visitor coming to a village draws the attention of the whole village. Life comes to a stand still. Everyone comes to welcome the visitor. No one wants to simply hear about the event afterwards. They all want to be there. It is bad manners, therefore, to receive a visitor and not send word around. It is like receiving Father Christmas alone and not sharing him—and his gifts—with your neighbours and friends.

So, when you announce to a pastor in Africa’s rural or semi-rural areas that you will be coming to visit his church, he will tell his congregation who will in turn inform their friends and relatives. The result of this is that on the day of your visit, half the village will be at that church, with many hundreds failing to fit into the building. This is especially the case if you are a muzungu (a white man) or a bishop (or some such high title). The excitement and the singing are not at their usual pitch. They are heightened by the thrill that a special visitor is in their midst. So, you will go away with a totally wrong view of the numbers that normally attend that church and the spiritual ecstasy in that congregation. There is no conscious effort to deceive. This is a phenomenon that just happens.

This is why, when I am going to visit any of our church plants, especially those who are in the rural or semi-rural areas, I never announce that I am going there. I just show up! Of course, our missionaries really complain because news soon does its rounds and they are castigated by their neighbours afterwards for “eating the candies” alone.  I still prefer this as a lesser evil because I want to know the real state of the church. I do not want to get back to Kabwata Baptist Church with glowing reports about church growth that has not really happened.

So, next time you visit Africa with your camera and take pictures of a congregation in any of our African townships or villages, easily divide the attendance by a quarter in order to arrive at the regular attendance of that church. The other three-quarters were not gathered in order to deceive you but simply because you were the most important event in the area and the people did not want to miss out. You can be sure that as soon as you got into your car and left, the congregation melted faster than ice when put on a red-hot stove.


  1. I wonder how often success stories from various mission fields are inadvertently exaggerated by those who return without an understanding of what really happened during their visit.

  2. I'll never forget my trip to Kenya last December. Traveling through villages I would hear children yelling in excitement "Muzungu!" I was invited to a speak at a pastor's conference. The whole village didn't show up but pastors and leaders from all over Mount Elgon came to here me speak. I also spoke at another church I assumed unannounced. Yet, the building was still packed. I was ministered to more then I ministered to the people of Kenya.

  3. Thank you for this. I often wondered where everyone was hiding. Now I know.

  4. Very interesting observations :-)

  5. Hey, when you report to a minister in Africa's rustic or semi-country territories that you will be coming to visit his congregation, he will tell his congregation who will thus advise their companions and relatives. The consequence of this is that upon the arrival of your visit, a large portion of the town will be at that congregation, with numerous hundreds failing to fit into the building. Thanks all!!