At the Church of Amazing Grace International in Anaheim, California, the Bible that the Rev. Kinyua Johnson preaches from is in the language he grew up with — Kikuyu, a language spoken by about 17 percent of Kenyans.

But recently, Johnson and the community discovered something profound about their approach to worship. 

“We realized we were being selfish by just having the service in Kikuyu,” he said.

The church changed its worship language to Swahili and English, the two most widely spoken languages among Kenyans. More than two-thirds of the Kenyan population have Swahili as a second language. 

The Church of Amazing Grace International realized that having a community church

that was open and welcoming in the language the majority of Kenyans spoke would be a signal to people looking for a place to call home.

“The bottom-line experience of every Kenyan immigrant is the experience of feeling alone,” Johnson said.

After the church made the change, leaders started seeing members of other ethnic groups from Kenya joining their community. 

Over time, worship attendance doubled. And Johnson says the idea of “Ubuntu” — which means “I am because we are” — is very important to Kenyans and other Africans.

“Most of us coming from Africa had this experience all the time,” he said. “We are part of the community before we are (an) individual. When I’m born, I’m not born just into a family — I’m born into a community.”

Does your church speak a language that our modern secular American culture of non-church people (“nones”) understand, or do we speak in religious jargon that is incomprehensible to them?

Another lesson we can learn from the Church of Amazing Grace International in Anaheim and its pastor.

“I am because we are.”

These are “words to live by” which the American churches need to learn to better understand — and practice.

David Tritenbach is a retired Presbyterian minister. 

 

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