I’d spent most of my life in small congregations, where megachurch Christianity was a distant rumor riddled with heresy, scandal, and religious consumerism. I was (grudgingly) willing to admit the good done through the few megachurches I personally knew, but on the whole I regarded the model with deep suspicion. True to its title, however, Megachurch Christianity Reconsidered by Dr. Wanjiru M. Gitau (IVP Academic, 2018) caused me to reconsider.
Gitau’s work provides more than a deft case study of Mavuno Church in Nairobi, Kenya. It offers an innovative framework for understanding what megachurches are, how they work, and how they fit within their particular contexts. At a time when the discussion surrounding megachurches tends either to glorify or demonize the model, Gitau’s perspective invites proponents and detractors alike to grapple with megachurch Christianity anew.
If our faith has no bearing on our work, our art, our politics, our entertainment, our checkbooks, our education, our infrastructure — then ours is not the faith of the Bible.
Practices, Not Numbers
With incredible attention to detail, Gitau posits that “the rise, activity, and success of a church like Mavuno should be seen as a response to the fundamental dissonance of their [megachurches’] worlds” (9). Megachurch Christianity, she argues, is an attempt to articulate the gospel to a community whose frameworks for reality have ceased to function. In the case of Mavuno, that community has been the millennials of Nairobi.
This generation came of age as Kenya was seeking to carve out their place in a world modernizing at lightning speed. Because of this, Kenyan millennials found that “the fixed boundaries and stable structures of society that once lent overarching meaning to life ha[d] been dissolved” (63). Gitau outlines how even “Christianity was lost in translation” (47) for this generation, leaving them without a stable framework within which to find meaning and purpose.
With this in mind, Mavuno’s leadership resolved to “rewrite the map of reality with the gospel as the primary compass” (10). This, Gitau convincingly argues, is the ethos which characterizes megachurch Christianity, and her perspective puts the Church on much better footing for critiquing and applying megachurch practices. Such techniques are often dismissed (or indiscriminately embraced) as mere means of amassing a large following, when in fact they might be better understood as efforts to introduce the biblical worldview into a culture whose frameworks for reality have been deeply shaken.
Mavuno Church, for example, certainly makes use of tools that are popularly associated with megachurches, such as social media (72), preaching on hot-button topics (107), and incorporating popular musical styles into corporate worship (24). Yet these methods are simply practical applications of Mavuno’s vision of engaging a target demographic (Kenyan millennials) in the midst of their daily life (social media), in a format they can easily understand (familiar music), and in a way that emphasizes that the gospel is both eternally significant and immediately relevant (preaching on contemporary issues). Whether or not these techniques are good or bad depends on whether or not they support the church’s essential vision, not on some arbitrary standard of church size. And no matter the size, every church can take at least two cues from Mavuno.
Know Where You’re At
Mavuno Church knows the importance of understanding those we hope to engage with the gospel. This body of believers took considerable time and effort to understand how Kenyan millennials thought, what they cared about, what they feared, what they wanted most. And they used this knowledge to craft a gospel presentation and a discipleship pipeline that met this community exactly where they were, and brought them steadily toward Christ.
This process of contextualization is not just good marketing sense; it’s biblical. The apostle Paul “became as a Jew, in order to win Jews” and became as a Gentile in order to win Gentiles, so that by all means some might be saved (1 Cor. 9:19-23 ESV). Wherever he went, he made the good news at home in that culture.
What’s more, God himself became human in order to bring us salvation. Consider: the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Lord of the cosmos saved humanity by becoming one of us. He ate the local food, spoke the local language, and wore not only the local clothes but the local skin. If he went to such lengths to tailor a heavenly message to a human audience, then surely we must do the same for our fellow humans. And if Mavuno Church found the work of contextualization necessary in crossing a generation gap, then surely that work is indispensable in crossing the far wider gaps of language, ethnicity and culture.
Daily and Eternal Life
Mavuno set out to do what every church in every nation should hope to do for their community: “rewrite the map of reality with the gospel as the primary compass” (10). They determined to present Christianity as both the way to eternal life and a way of daily life. In a nation struggling through the growth pangs of modernity, they are attempting to demonstrate “how to be Christianly modern . . . how to live as a Christian in a world of access to technology, style consciousness, comfort, entertainment, transient and fleeting means of communication, and so on” (150-1). The success of their efforts might be up for debate, but the worth of their cause is not.
If our faith has no bearing on our work, our art, our politics, our entertainment, our checkbooks, our education, our infrastructure — then ours is not the faith of the Bible. “There is not,” in the words of Abraham Kuyper, “a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” Every moment of our lives should be lived as a testimony to and manifestation of the good and glorious reign of God, until the day Christ makes “all things new” (Rev. 21:5 ESV).
Mavuno Church calls this, “Turning Ordinary People Into Fearless Influencers Of Society.” Jesus of Nazareth was a bit more verbose when he called it, “go[ing] and mak[ing] disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . [and] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded” (Matt. 28:19-20 ESV).