Megachurch Christianity Reconsidered

Millennials and Social Change in African Perspective

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Wanjiru M. Gitau
Missiological Engagements
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , October
     2018.
     190 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830851034.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

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.

About the Reviewer(s): 

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.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wanjiru M. Gitau s a scholar of Christian History, World Christianity and Missiology.

Comments

Wanjiru M Gitau

I appreciate the time that Asonzeh Ukah has taken to engage the book and post a review. My profoundest thanks to him. I appreciate this detailed and engaged review because it allows me to clarify some important points. 

First of all, I get that he is giving a sociological reading of the book. In fact, this book is informed by studies in the field of World Christianity, and is most usefully seen as a Practical Theological resource that takes the lived experience, the theology, some cultural reading, and some contemporary social history into dialogue with the phenomena that foregoing scholars have simply designated as "megachurches".  In terms of demographic data in chapter 2, the book was released in 2018. There was the normal lullbetween data completion, writing and publication. Data is always in need of updating so I'll give him that, but the larger point of demographic transition is still salient and has not been addressed anywhere else in theological/ ecclesiological writing. 

Second, I do not qualify Berger's secularization thesis. Rather, I use Berger's secularization theory  analogically but not qualifying his overall thesis. In place of secularization I talk about what happened in Kenyan society in terms of  "desacralization of religious sensibilities", in fact "contra" secularization, and I use the story of the Redykyulass comedy troupe (amongst many others that could be told) to show how this desacralization process occurred  (pp. 43-44). As an African, I agree with him that Africa has not experienced secularization in the way it was experienced in the west, and I do not make that claim. 

Third, this book as a pioneer of its kind---there is no other book exploring the raison d'etre of why and how megachurches emerge into these large communities in the first place, particularly in Africa. Other studies are currently in development, but this was a first. Prior to my study, the only scholarship I could find about megachurches in Africa gave them an externalized readings that fail to take them seriously and consider them on their own claims, on their own terms--this is why chapter 3, chapter 4 and chapter 5 are written to be representative of how this particular church frames and shapes its own message, and the apparent outcome of their message and method. The point here is to give this church its own reading, with sufficient scholarly attention or anyone who reads my book to make sense of it--my dissertation, on which it was based, was an ethnographic case study. And in writing this book, that is the point of "reconsidering": an insider reading with sufficient scholarly scaffolding. The rationale here is that scholars need to understand the megachurches' ecclesiological persuasion first if they are to contribute constructively to dialogue about their place in the contemporary world. Otherwise it will continue to be a dialogue of the deaf, with scholars speaking one way about the problems with these churches, and megachurches entirely ignoring what critics are saying. My future scholarship is headed in that direction. I do not conceal my insider status, I make the disclaimer in the introductory chapter, but also show how I have distanced myself through research and wider global encounter. I also make the case that this is a partial reading, an invitation that serves as mirror for others, inviting other detailed studies of megachurches elsewhere. I am the first to own that Mavuno Church is not representative. This is  a situated case study (situated in emerging Africa, reaching millennials, hence the publisher's chosen book title), and not the whole. 

Fifth, the reviewer has not engaged the argument of chapter 6 and the conclusion, where after the foregoing case study in chapters 1-5, I "reconsider" megachurch Christianity in general  by drawing attention to their theological, historical, sociological, biographical dimensions.  The do not get an unqualified pass, but they are churches, and it is not enough to give them a sociological reading without understanding their theological logic or historical placement in the modern world. 

Finally, this is a case study (Mavuno Church), specific to a particular location (Nairobi), and which was shaped by observable cultural inflection points (the point of chapter 1 and 2), and which as at the time of writing, was a relatively unburdened by the typical baggage of megachurches that have substantial histories. Again, that's the point. In the absence of other substantive readings, I used Mavuno's story to show the why, and how churches rise to "mega" size (+2000 members) in the first place. Ultimately it invites more detailed and richer engagement, because as I argue, the latent ecclesiology needs more than a veneer of dismissive scholarly critique. 

A final comment on this reviewer's claim that  "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", this is a totally misplaced non sequitur in as far as the data, construction of the argument and conclusions of this book is concerned. 

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