The number of baptisms in Kalawa, Kenya, is skyrocketing.
Now, if you’re a pastor or missiologist, your immediate thought is, “Why? What’s the impetus behind this?” Is it because evangelists have flocked to the area, spreading God’s Word, or have there been miracles and wonders convincing even the most hardhearted of the sovereignty of God?
Nothing so dramatic. The real reason baptisms are on the rise is a simple thing: clean water.
Churches used to hold their baptisms in the only place they could, the local river, which also happens to be a crocodile habitat. You can understand why new converts weren’t eager to wade out into the murky waters and plunge below the surface in striking distance of ravenous reptiles. This gives new meaning to Paul’s phrase “buried with him in baptism” (Col. 2:12). And imagine the risks the pastors faced!
But now that World Vision has set up a piped water system in Kalawa, pastors can hold baptisms right in their own churches. Being saved has never been so safe.
If there is a more compelling illustration of the need for both spiritual and physical development in impoverished communities around the world, I can’t think of one. After accepting Christ, people ought to be able to live long enough to fulfill their God-given purpose.
We know that millions of people need Jesus, and the global church is carrying out the Great Commission to reach them. But if we only care about souls and not the urgent realities of people’s lives, we are not embracing the second pillar of our faith, the Great Commandment—loving others because we love God. We are to preach the good news and also demonstrate it.
I’m reminded of what Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “The good news to a hungry person is bread.”
And when it’s given by a Christian who demonstrates the unconditional love of our heavenly Father, it can become the Bread of Life. Caring for people’s physical needs is a powerful catalyst for evangelism.
After all, Jesus came to give us life, not mere survival—“life to the full” (John 10:1), abundance and significance. Yet life can be snatched away so easily for those in poverty, and not just by crocodiles.
Among the top killers of children in the developing world are preventable conditions such as diarrhea, malnutrition and malaria. More than 800 mothers die during pregnancy or in childbirth every day. And right now, in Yemen and parts of Africa gripped by a hunger crisis, 20 million people face the specter of starvation.
Such needless loss of life must grieve our God.
In contrast, when I visited Kalawa this past summer, I saw a hopeful portrait of faith in action: people lifted out of poverty to live out their kingdom purpose. And the church is at the center of it.
Life isn’t easy in Kalawa – far from it. The area is prone to poor rainfall and periodic drought. Many families survive primarily on the crops they grow, and it’s tempting to send some of the kids to work instead of school to boost the household income. Health clinics need professional staffing and medications; schools could use training for their teachers and better supplies. And let’s not forget those crocodiles in the river.
But what’s working in Kalawa, by slow degrees (World Vision has been working there since 2011), is equipping churches to transform themselves and bring transformation to the wider community. Pastors are learning and then sharing agricultural techniques such as digging water pans to capture rainfall for crop irrigation. They’re trained to provide family and marriage counseling and to promote child protection. They encourage parents to pursue income-generating projects like household gardens to keep children in school, not at work. And churches come alongside the academic learning to provide spiritual education through children’s Bible clubs.
The result is a kind of inside-out transformation. As people grow in faith, their commitment to physical and social improvement increases. World Vision Program Manager Jackson Muraguri explained, “After knowing Jesus, they become aware of themselves, and all of a sudden they change their way of doing things. They change from getting relief to depending on themselves. This change of mind—knowing God—has been the game-changer.”
To make this story even better, Kalawa churches have a strong partner in a church here in the U.S., LCBC (Lives Changed By Christ) Church in Manheim, Pennsylvania. LCBC teams visit regularly to train pastors and children’s-ministry leaders. And they don’t stop there. The congregation sponsors hundreds of children, providing funding for water and sanitation, better nutrition and health, and education improvements.
When I visited Kalawa, I saw for myself what a blessing LCBC has been for this community. It’s an inspiring example of the church in America embracing the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, with tangible results.
Yes, an increase in baptisms is one of those results, but not just because it no longer risks death. Thanks to the holistic influence of churches in Kalawa, it’s even more apparent that baptism means life—eternal and abundant, God’s will on Earth as it is in heaven.
Rich Stearns (@richstearns) is the president of World Vision U.S. and the author of four books, including The Hole in Our Gospel and Unfinished.