Book Review: Megachurch Christianity Reconsidered, by Wanjiru M. Gitau
Wanjiru M. Gitau, Megachurch Christianity Reconsidered: Millennials and Social Change in African Perspective. IVP Academic, 2018. 190 pages.
I love reading a book that challenges me to think outside the box. That is what Wanjiru Gitau’s book Megachurch Christianity Reconsidered did for me, especially because I am very skeptical of megachurch Christianity. My skepticism arises from the fact that in most places where I encounter it, it seems to fulfill the prophecy of the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 4. It sacrifices the heart of Christianity—the life-transforming gospel of the Lord Jesus—for motivational speaking and techniques to draw crowds. I have met too many casualties who have gone through the revolving doors of megachurches for me to read a book like this without bias. I admit that from the onset.
In Megachurch Christianity Reconsidered, you have a Christian who is also a social scientist using her professional tools to understand why one church in Nairobi, Kenya has flourished among and impacted a generation of millennials.
One cannot miss the rare mention of topics like sin and salvation in the analysis of this church, I suspect, because of the background of the author. Although her membership in the church predisposes her to being biased, she has tried to show both the downward and upward side of Mavuno Church. To borrow her words, in reading this book, she wants us to “revise their less savory practices and encourage their better outcomes” (13).
A few matters worry me still.
References to church grounds being anointed before a church service show the usual African syncretism we still need to recover from. Franchising churches also betrays the fact that often such growth is purely psychological and a fruit of marketing tactics, rather than a spiritual work of God. Then there is the reference from time to time to female preachers, which is a growing and worrisome trend in Africa.
Finally, whereas I am all for mixing old and modern hymns in worship, yielding totally to the taste of young people is, in my opinion, going too far. They need guidance in appreciating truth, beauty, and goodness that has been proven over time and brings out the deep truths of redemption, rather than mere self-centered sentimentalism.
Having said that, Gitau’s analysis of urbanized and educated young adults in Africa is accurate. This alone is worth the price of this book. As a pastor who ministers to such a congregation in the capital city of Zambia, I agree with her analysis. Africa’s millennials are restless, working hard towards a better life financially, looking for friends to connect with in a social circle often divorced from family, while processing what they perceive as the inhibiting demands on them of church and culture. To minister effectively among such people, one must bear this reality in mind. It is often a failure here that drives them away from churches. There is no doubt that this is what Mavuno Church has done so well.
Where Gitau’s book challenged me to think outside the box was in the innovative way pastor Muriithi Wanjau developed the Mavuno Marathon discipleship tool. Most of our churches have a members’ class where we give those interested in joining our church the basic information on Christian doctrine and of our church life and practice. We often simply release those who finish the class to find their feet in the church as they see fit.
Muriithi went further to integrate them into groups where they are discipled to maturation according to their areas of interest and giftedness. He gave those groups names that resonate with them, and thus they more easily identified with those groups. He also developed an internship program that went beyond pastoral internship, so that those who stood head-and-shoulders above the others in various fields could be sharpened even further. This, I admit, is food for thought.
Part of what motivated Gitau to do her research on Mavuno Church was the impact this church was having on millennials in the city of Nairobi and the nation of Kenya. The fifth chapter of her book is dedicated to this. Some of the impact is impressive, such as bringing about a spiritual turning point in Kenya’s gospel music industry.
In the short life-history of this church, that is the best one can do in assessing impact. Yet, in gospel work, we look for long-term impact of changed hearts and seismic moral change in society, rather than the loud bang that attracts a lot of attention and soon dissipates. We may need to be patient and see whether the innovations introduced by Mavuno Church will stand the test of time and bring about long-lasting changes to individuals and society. It is too soon to tell.
ONE MORE CRITIQUE
My greatest criticism of Megachurch Christianity Reconsidered is its fixation on one segment of society—millennials. Whereas churches that have lost them must bemoan their blindness and failure and do something about bringing millennials in, a church must be a place where the whole of society is well catered for. Churches that pamper to the whims of one segment of society—like millennials—will grow quickly, but they stop being churches after the New Testament pattern and simply become clubs.
Church leaders must help millennials to live and worship with little children all the way to octogenarians. All should make up “the body of Christ.” The gospel transcends superficial human boundaries. It shows all of us our need for salvation and sanctification in Jesus Christ, and then it sends us out to live selflessly for the glory of God—whoever we are. As a pastor, I would have loved Gitau’s book to show how Mavuno Church is obeying Jesus’ call to minister to “all creatures” in their area of Nairobi because that is our calling as a Christian church in the world.
Having said that, let me reiterate that Wanjiru Gitau has written a good book. It deserves a place among those books that analyze Christianity in Africa and its impact on the continent today. It also helps those of us who are settled in our old ways of doing things to take a fresh look at what we are doing to see how we can improve our service delivery to the millennials who are swarming all around us but not settling in our churches.
Amid all the innovative ideas in the book, we must not miss that the biblical way of growing churches is through confronting people with the gospel of Jesus Christ and teaching them to obey everything that Jesus has said, according to Matthew 28:18–20. Social scientists like Wanjiru Gitau help us to see social movements that partly—and secondarily—explain why the spark of God’s word turns into a forest fire in one place and not in another. Yet in all places, it is God’s word taught and preached to all people that gives life to dead persons and churches by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what we must seek and pray for daily.