Learning from Listening #1 – The Maasai Mistake

There is a story from the mission church
among the Maasai people of southern Kenya, nomadic herdsmen,
who initially responded with enthusiasm to the missionaries’ presentation of the gospel.
They loved the stories of Jesus, and they loved the worship and the hymns.
They wanted to be baptized,
and would gather for singing, prayer, the sacraments and worship.
The missionaries were encouraged by the Maasai acceptance of Christianity
so they built a permanent church, and the Maasai people came to the church.
They filled it.
And they filled it with joy and celebration and song…
… until one morning the missionaries woke up, looked out and the Maasai were gone. Disappeared.
The beautiful church building stood empty, abandoned.
The days of filling it with worship and hymns and families and children were over.
Just memories.

What had happened?
The Maasai were a nomad tribe who raised and tended herds of cattle and goats.
In that hot and dry part of East Africa,
without irrigation, no patch of land could sustain the herds for very long.
The Maasai moved with the seasons.
They had to move on, they always moved on.

They had taken their herds and left.

The missionaries learned a little from this experience, but not much and not enough.
Neither has the church.
Neither have we.

The missionaries understood that the Maasai had moved on.
And dedicated as they were, the missionaries followed them and found them,
and re-established the mission with them…
And built another church…
In some tellings of this story
they keep trying to build permanent homes for nomadic people and never learn.
Not only that, they regularly arrive at a sad and discouraging feeling of failure.
Each time they feel they are failing as they abandon one church building after another.
They are slow to understand that they are using the wrong model of ministry
for the context they are in and the people they are with.

This story is a powerful metaphor
for the traditional church’s attempt to carry out its ministry with the Echo Generation,
the new nomads of modern society.

And it speaks to all of us who grieve as we remember large Sunday schools of the past and see aging congregations today and consider amalgamations and closings in the future.

My research and our experience suggest
that the local congregation is not as successful a model of ministry
as it was in earlier generations.
The cohort of young adults that we call the Echo Generation,
the children of Baby Boomers, the Echo from the Boom…
this cohort that the church might call the Missing Generation…
is a mobile nomadic tribe,
connecting to each other and forming communities on their mobiles, on line, by social media… FaceBook etc.

This is a postmodern time, a post religious era, a post-institutional population.

People are still people.
They seek a sense of meaning.
They seek a sense of belonging.
They are spiritual.
The live in relationships and community.
They care about others.
They are ethical.
But the local neighbourhood congregation doesn’t contain them for long.
They wander off, and live their ethical, spiritual lives elsewhere.
They find new communities in which to live,
they create new “tribes” and “villages” around themselves
not based on family-of-origin or community-of-origin as was traditional.

Can the modern followers of Jesus
find ways to follow them and connect with them?

Can the modern followers of Jesus
find new ways to share and celebrate and live the gospel?

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You might also be interested in the “Listening to The Echo” series posted at


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