Megachurch Christianity Reconsidered
Millennials and Social Change in African Perspective
Series: Missiological Engagements
- ISBN: 9780830851034
- Published By: IVP Academic Press
- Published: October 2018
From social scientific study of religious organizations, Wanjiru Gitau's Megachurch Christianity Reconsidered is a profoundly challenging book. While the book is well-written and accessible even to the non-scholarly reader, the challenge is how to reconcile the content with the practical and real-world experience of megachurches generally, and megachurches in Africa specifically. To understand Gitau’s book demands the reader be aware that the author is writing as an insider of an organization where she served as leader and pastor for twelve years. Because the book is primarily addressed to a Christian readership, it is valuable in providing important insights social science scholars may easily dismiss. Herein lies its extended import.
In five elaborate and fluid chapters – with an introduction and a conclusion – Gitau tells the story and adventures of the Mavuno (‘harvest’ in Kiswahili) megachurch. Gitau presents a first-hand eye- and ear-witness account of how Mavuno Church repositioned itself and its Christian message towards the residents, or rather youth, of Nairobi, “the New Jerusalem of Africa” (33). Repositioning the church and its message brought about the rechurching of the youth of Nairobi; this, the author describes as producing a lasting social transformation of the city.
This book is about a Christian response to an apparent contradiction and paradox of contemporary social life and transformation in Africa. The visible presence and expansion of Christianity and chaos, Pentecostalism and penury, the abundance of miracle and misery, immense wealth of a few and the weeping of a majority are themes that occupy the book. To address this irony of scarcity in the midst of plenty, the Mavuno megachurch was born to carefully craft a new kind of ecclesia, gospel message, and Christian experience that targeted the “lost generation” of the post-college millennials, otherwise described as the “club-hopping crowd” of urbanites in African cities beginning in Nairobi (39).
Of sociological interest is the characterisation of four generations of Kenyan Christians, a depiction that may as well be extrapolated to other sub-Saharan societies. The initial "converts” of the late 1800s to 1930s abandoned African culture and lifestyle to embrace Eurochristian worldview and ethos. The second generation is the "conformers" of the 1940s-60s who compartmentalised Christianity in a secular-sacred dualism and practised detached piety while the third generation was the "adopters" who straddled the period of political emancipation and postcolonial euphoria of the 1960s-70s. They accommodated and acculturated Christianity without living out its values and demands. Also called the “Uhuru Generation,” this is the schizophrenic cohort, “proud to be African but strongly embracing of Westernized lifestyle” (35). The last group is the lost generation of the 1980s and 90s sandwiched between collapsing nation-state, strong-man politics of the Daniel Moi era and deeply entrenched economic challenges.
The fundamental claim of this book is that the success of megachurch Christianity is that it is a movement of positive social transformation that negotiated the difficult decades of postcolonial Kenya (and by extension, Africa) “without which the country and the whole continent would be far worse off. [...] Kenyan and African society would be socially worse off without the churches” (37). In the context of confusing change and "almost-surreal destabilization of their world," (37) Kenyans (and Africans) have mobilized religious affiliation and identity to reframe and reorganize their experiences of change and life—producing a variegated range of religious organizations and lifestyles.
There are several problems with this book, a few of which are worth mentioning. A special challenge in this book is to situate, analytically characterize and understand the demographic cohort being talked about the most, “African millennials” (75), an organizing idea around which the narrative and mission of Mavuno Church were built. Sometimes the African or Kenyan or Nairobian millennials are described as post-college seeker group, socially homeless, and distrusting of their elders and the institutions and authorities they represent and supervise. They were further described as the “8-4-4 generation” (46) to whom "Christianity was lost in translation," and as a result were experiencing “a process of desacralisation” (47) and dealing with the effects of secularisation. The millennials were also the "sight and sound generation" enmeshed in urban highlife culture and therefore deserving and demanding of a special brand of Christianity—”Consumer Christianity"—which "employs methods that appeal to worldly desires, such as music, language, affective worship, and use of technology" (74). The problem with these characterizations, like claims that without Christianity Africa would be worse off, is that there is not a single study of the so-called “African millennials” to back them up.
The author’s acceptance of Peter Berger's secularization thesis as enunciated in The Sacred Canopy (Anchor Books, 1967), a thesis that Berger later retracted as inaccurate in his Desecularization of the World (Eerdmans, 1999) is deeply problematic. To claim that Kenyan society of the 1990s and early 2000s was “secularised” in the same way that Berger described American society of the 1960s was even more problematic (46). Such a claim misses the nuances and dynamics of African spirituality that pervades the totality of life rather than measured by attendance at religious events. At no time could any African society be described as secular even in the apparent context of individuals abandoning structured and organised religion.
Furthermore, it may be argued that the socioeconomic data or premises upon which part of the narrative in this book is based are faulty or at best dated. For example, the claim that “the number of people living in poverty on the [African] continent has declined” (58) seems incorrect considering the massive exodus and catastrophe which a huge number of Africans experience by trying to migrate to Europe through the barren north African desert and the Mediterranean sea in dingy boats. The book fails to account for why Kenyan or African megachurches are growing when Africa and Africans are getting poorer and more desperate. Clearly, the “Africa rising” optimistic rhetoric which forms part of the basis of the hopeful megachurch rhetoric is a myth; Africa is poorer in 2019 than it was in 2000 or 2010. The book fails to capture the despair that is in the heart of Africa, a despair and disgust partly sustained, exploited, and masked by megachurch Christianity that sells miracles and wonders in the face of unrelenting misery and woes.
While this book tells us a strong and vivid story of change in an African city, there are many questions yet to be addressed which would situate the megachurch phenomenon on a different level and depth of social analysis.
Asonzeh Ukah is Professor of Christianity and African Religions, and the Director of the Research Institute for Christianity and Society in Africa (RICSA) at University of Cape Town, South Africa.Asonzeh UkahDate Of Review:September 22, 2020