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Kenya in Motion 2000-2020

Marie-Aude Fouéré
Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle
Christian Thibon

Focus no. 3

The Church as a Provider of Material Support: An Inner/Outer Circles Perspective

Yonatan N. Gez

Note de l’auteur

This text was written within the context of the project “Structures anthropologiques du religieux: butinage et voisinage,” financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (2010-2013; prolonged for 2013-2014). Fieldwork at The Sanctuary Mission was carried out between May and July 2014. Some of the ideas hereby presented were developed in conversation with Lena Kroeker of the University of Bayreuth.

Texte intégral

1In this brief text, I discuss independent Pentecostal churches in Kenya as facilitators of material support for their members, and illustrate some of the dilemmas that these churches face concerning the allocation of limited resources in assisting members in need. I argue that, in order to understand such practices, we must take into account congregations’ internal diversity, including socio-economic disparity and varying degrees of commitment. While such divisions might be expected in large congregations, I evoke the example of The Sanctuary Mission (pseudonym), an independent Pentecostal church of about 40–50 members located in Kisumu, to show how even small and quite tightly knit congregations contain such internal diversity. Using the distinction between inner- and outer circle members, I suggest that churches’ behaviour in response to members’ material needs is largely influenced by the tension between repelling and drawing in lesser-committed members.

2Scholars often emphasise the role of religion in maintaining spiritual, social, and material benefits as a key for understanding its particular appeal in the Global South. For instance, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart hold the view whereby societies’ drift away from religion, especially in the Global North, can be tied to “existential security—that is, the feeling that survival is secure enough that it can be taken for granted” (Norris & Inglehart 2004, 4). This is clearly not the case with fast-urbanising Kenya, where the relevance of religion appears to coincide with volatility and precarious living circumstances, above all for the low and floating classes. Already as far back as 1977, Andrew Hake suggested that migration to Nairobi can generate a thirst for religion, which in turn offers a sense of security “particularly when traditional beliefs and groupings are threatened with break-up” (Hake 1977, 234). More recently, with regard to Kenya’s thriving Pentecostal movement, Damaris S. Parsitau, and Philomena N. Mwaura (2010, 16) argued along similar lines that “Pentecostalism provides a place of spiritual security and personal community to people who find Kenya’s rapid social change to be both unsettling and frightening.”

  • 1 One leader at The Sanctuary Mission evoked the image of the New Testament story of the wedding at (...)
  • 2 This being said, there appears to be indications that religious trust in Kenya is eroding (Gez & D (...)

3One of the ways through which religious communities can serve as a haven of stability is by providing material support to its members in their hour of need. Informed by a sense of camaraderie and Christian values, as well as by a missionary zeal, churches tend to acknowledge a certain obligation towards the wellbeing of their members. As examples throughout the history of Christianity show, this sense of material obligation tends to be intertwined with an ultimate preoccupation with spiritual salvation.1 Wherever their motivation for assistance may lie, Kenyan churches are often perceived as islands of solidarity within a general climate of institutional mistrust.2 But while mainline churches may afford to finance special ministries dedicated to assisting members in need, independent Pentecostal churches have less room for manoeuvre. These churches, which have emerged since the 1980s-1990s, struggle with intense competition. With their small and mainly lower classes congregations, and little to no overseas partnership and financial backing, many of them barely manage to keep themselves afloat.

  • 3 Such collections may take place on Sunday after the main service.

4While these new churches might not have a designated department or fund for assisting members in need, they may offer congregational assistance on an ad hoc basis, for example by using the church platform to hold fundraising called harambee.3 Yet such interventions tend to be quite rare, and are limited to what one Sanctuary Mission member termed “overwhelming problems,” such as death in the family and outstanding hospital bills. Intervening in cases of everyday challenges, such as school fees arrears or need for travel fare, risks attracting disgruntlement and bitterness from other members, who feel that they too are struggling, and can lead to accusations of nepotism. As one lay leader at The Sanctuary Mission explained, “you cannot say in front of the church [that you need school fees]. You know, sometimes, if we say [that] we have a fundraising for someone, there is somebody on the other side who will be in need for school fees too.”

5More can be said once we draw a distinction between The Sanctuary Mission’s inner- and outer membership circles. The church’s inner circle, which amounts to about 15 individuals, consists of the church committee, which includes the clergy and lay members engaged in various institutional departments. This inner-circle congregational commitment appears to have significant correspondence to the congregation’s income and educational elite. Overall, members of the inner group hold more prestigious, middle class jobs (e.g. accountant, teacher, businessman) compared to less committed congregants. Thus, for instance, the five partners in The Sanctuary Mission’s lucrative car hire business, which requires substantial initial capital through the ownership of at least one vehicle, are all members of the church committee. The wider Sunday assembly, by contrast, includes a majority of lesser-committed, low-income individuals, many of whom are youth.

6This association between socio-economic advantage and assuming church roles is probably not coincidental. In my research, I often noticed that better-educated and better-paid individuals tend to gravitate towards church leadership. While this might be because such individuals see themselves, and are perceived by others, as natural leaders, they may also be coaxed into such positions in attempt to ensure access to their talents and means, and to ensure their long-standing institutional commitment in an environment of high institutional turnover (Gez and Droz 2017). Indeed, placing a member in a position of institutional responsibility involves a tacit expectation of him or her to be committed to the success of that particular ministry—among other things, through pledging economic contributions. By contrast, it appears that, by and large, lesser educated and lesser paid Kenyans are more prone to religious mobility. This tendency might be linked to precarious living and pragmatic outlook, as well as to greater reliance on religion as a provider of such services as healing (Gez 2018; Gifford 2009, 125–33).

  • 4 Thus, for instance, despite its small size, The Sanctuary Mission has a complex institutional stru (...)

7In a highly competitive religious market, the church is particularly preoccupied with drawing members of the outer circles towards greater commitment, for instance by inviting them to join one of countless church departments.4 When it comes to members’ material needs, while being assisted by the church may help to bind a non-committed outer circle member, it may simultaneously repel other members, who already feel burdened by Pentecostal churches’ reputation as emphasising economic contributions. As one church leader explained, “when we say, “next week we have fundraising, we need money to assist somebody’s school fees, we hope to do like this”—we realised that when they reach that day, other members are not coming—[namely,] the non-committed ones.”

8Understanding this distinction between inner and outer circles and the risk of disaffiliation on the part of outer circle members offers insights into the considerations surrounding members’ assistance at The Sanctuary Mission. All formal requests for assistance must pass through the church committee, which then deliberates and decides whether to pass the request on to the congregation and to organise a formal fundraiser. While the committee may reject requests or approve them, cases that are less than “overwhelming” are most likely to be resolved within the committee itself. One of my interviewees explained this procedure using the following, hypothetical example: “[if a member needs money for] transport to go and see someone who is sick in Nairobi […] and we announce that in church—we cannot [do that]. They need transport, so we come and sit [in the church committee], […] the pastor gives 500, I give 500, so-and-so gives 500, that money is enough.” While resolving members’ needs within the committee level might be economically strenuous for those inner circle members, such a course of action may offer an effective response to a number of challenges. As the committee is predominantly comprised of the church’s socio-economic elite, providing solutions within the committee may obey a redistributive logic, whereby those who are in need—who are most likely to be from among the fragile outer circle—are assisted directly by the higher earners from among the inner circle. Moreover, resolving individual challenges on that level can mitigate the discomfort of excessive demands from the church’s lower-class lay members through the Sunday assembly, thus reducing the risk that appealing for assistance might drive outer-circle members out of the church. Indeed, the better-resourced members of the inner circle might hope that, by assuming the costs of assisting outer-circle members in their hour of need, they would be able to draw them towards greater commitment.

9One more advantage to such strategy of action is discreteness. From the assistance seeker’s perspective, resolving challenges within the church committee replaces the need to face the entire congregation and announce one’s economic fragility and dependence publicly. This discreetness might also be preferred by the institution, for the inconspicuousness of such appeals saves the church from the risk of incurring an influx of additional requests. The Sanctuary Mission already had such a negative experience when, some years back, it experimented with issuing membership cards, yet soon had to abandon the idea, after it has seemingly given members a sense of entitlement to material assistance. As the church’s pastor explained to me, the issuance of cards attracted a stream of requests, including from uncommitted—and even former—members, who re-emerged, waving their membership card as proof of the church’s obligation towards them. Indeed, in a setting where basic material lack is high, the church must consider how its moves might open the floodgate to unrealizable demands and overwhelm the rest of the congregation.

10It remains to be seen to what extent what was observed in the case of The Sanctuary Mission—and especially, the rough association between degrees of membership commitment and social class—can be generalised as a common trend in Kenya, or even beyond. Patterns may vary between small, medium and large congregations, as well as across socio-economic levels and degree of congregational disparity, and between urban and rural churches.


Gez, Yonatan N. 2018. Traditional Churches, Born Again Christianity, and Pentecostalism: Religious Mobility and Religious Repertoires in Urban Kenya. Cham (Switzerland): Palgrave Macmillan.

Gez, Yonatan N., and Yvan Droz. 2015. “Negotiation and Erosion of Born Again Prestige in Nairobi.” Nova Religio 18, no. 3: 18–37.

Gez, Yonatan N., and Yvan Droz. 2017. “The Sheep-Stealing Dilemma: The Ambiguities of Church Visits in Kenyaa.” Journal of Religion in Africa 47, no. 2: 163–89.

Gifford, Paul. 2009. Christianity, Politics and Public Life in Kenya. London: Hurst.

Hake, Andrew. 1977. African Metropolis: Nairobi’s Self-help City. London: Sussex University Press.

Norris, Pippa, and Ronald Inglehart. 2004. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Parsitau, Damaris Seleina, and Philomena Njeri Mwaura. 2010. “God in the City: Pentecostalism as an Urban Phenomenon in Kenya.” Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae 36, no. 2: 95–112.


1 One leader at The Sanctuary Mission evoked the image of the New Testament story of the wedding at Cana, whereby Jesus’ miraculous provision of wine made the wedding participants attentive to his words. As my interviewee concluded, “some people, if we go the extra mile to show we care for them, for their needs, they will be motivated to sit down more and listen to what we are teaching them.”

2 This being said, there appears to be indications that religious trust in Kenya is eroding (Gez & Droz 2015).

3 Such collections may take place on Sunday after the main service.

4 Thus, for instance, despite its small size, The Sanctuary Mission has a complex institutional structure, which can be understood as one way of binding members towards greater institutional commitment. The church’s ministries appear to include the following: women, men, and youth ministries; Sunday school; church development; instruments; praise and worship; intercession; ushering; and discipleship.


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