By Shifa Mwihaki for UNDERCOVER
How Mavuno Church in Nairobi turned gospel into a multi-million shilling business proposal, is something Catholic and the Presbyterians should eye with the envy of Cain.
The founders, or shall we say original investors in Mavuno Incorporated, opened their biblical eyes onto a few secular secrets: One, that young Kenyans in the money were not scared of hell-a laughable, distant punishment. Stuff like ‘the poor shall inherit the earth’ was not the kind of vibe they bought.
Two, individual freedom in mainstream churches was restricted with dreadlocks and mini skirts frowned at. Preaching was Oldskul and not rooted in the apparent needs of their faithful.
Those who found mainstream churches boring yearned for modern preaching and not wailings from Old Testament Prophets
Sound of Music: Unlike dominant churches like the Presbyterians, the Anglicans, Adventists, and the Catholic whose tactics included scaring adherents with fire, brimstone and gnashing of teeth in hell, prosperity gospel churches where different: they were flashy, didn’t mind dreadlocks. There were no kayamba songs. People danced, cracked jokes. They dispensed with traditional liturgical ceremonies, kneeling, and knocking your chest while mumbling “nimekosa mimi, nimekosa mimi, nimekosa sana!” when you had not wronged anyone.
Three, many Kenyans decamped to ‘prosperity gospel’ churches as the God of Abundance was a perceived ticket to the good life, here and now.
Four, that those ‘lefting’ mainstream churches were single, searching-and below 30 years. Most also perceived some churches as the preserve of certain communities: PCEA so predominantly Kikuyu, the Adventists are likely to be Kisiis and Luos while Methodists are invariably Meru. The African Inland Church has majority Kambas and Kalenjin members.
Five, that those who found mainstream churches boring yearned for modern preaching and not wailings from Old Testament Prophets.
It is these ‘gaps in the market’ that Mavuno Church moved to fill around 2005 as a ‘gospel subsidiary’ of the Nairobi Chapel=which in turn, was heavily influenced by the Ply Mouth Brethren Church which pitched tent in Kenya in 1952.
The Mamlaka Hill Chapel once had an in-house DJ, for instance
Jesus Christ Superstar: Fr Paul Ogallo nicknamed “Sweet Paul” was suspended by the Catholic Church for trying to attract the youth with rap songs in 2018. Bishop Philip Anyolo, of the Homabay Diocese in western Kenya explained that Fr Ogallo had to “choose between being a rapper and a priest” as the sacred and the secular could not mix. But Anyolo clarified that Fr Sweet Paul could use rap and drama to preach to young people – just not from the altar.
Mavuno spread rapidly in line with new converts whose herd mentality found a home in group solidarity and thus social identity through religion. Unlike their parents, these new recruits lived in multi-cultural urban settings devoid of tribal tags as Miriam Wambui Njoroge found out in her 2014 research titled, ‘A Study of Mavuno Church and its Response to Concerns of Young Adults in Nairobi.’
Wambui discovered that Mavuno employed several tactics: innovative church services to reach the unchurched. Its Mamlaka Hill Chapel once had an in-house DJ, for instance. The tailor-made sermons were made attractive, interactive, well-researched and arranged in monthly themes “influenced by day to day concerns the young adults face and offer practical ways of dealing with their respective challenges from debts, relationships, work related challenged, family issues, and personal challenges,” notes Wambui.
The above coupled with fun days increased church attendance, formation of church groups and mass migration to new movement churches which “repackaged the gospel, maintained the principles, but change the methods.”
Mavuno hardly force new members to “get save and accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior
Pound of flesh: For one, those in debt and jobless found sense in Mavuno’s financial seminars, Job Months and books like Pastor Wanjau a (above). The single and aging found a home in Patio, a grouping for those searching for spouses. If you get one and get kids then they are rooted through ‘Greenhouse’ which is Mavuno’s below 12 children ministry.
Those facing hidden personal and family issues such as generational curses, rebellion and un-forgiveness joined Simama. Being inter-denominational, Mavuno Churches hardly force new members to “get save and accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior.” And when you miss church, worry not. Mavuno Sunday services are streamed live on the Internet.
Mavuno was also helped via harvesting ready customers as a 2010 research by Josphat M Musili titled ‘competitive strategies adopted by mainstream churches in Nairobi’ showed that many young people found mainstream churches “irrelevant and does not address their needs”.
Many thus went for popular churches which were spontaneous, informal and thus hippy. Being inter-denominational made them even more appealing. Their pastors did not wear robes but luminous screaming blue suits. They made gospel sexy.
Their pastors did not wear robes but luminous screaming blue suits. They made gospel sexy
Research by Wambui Njoroge noted that majority of urban young people shunned dominant religions because “the church curtailed their freedom and refused to include them in the church structures not making them feel as part of the family of the church.” They also shun indigenous churches with great emphasis on the Old Testament and African traditions spiced with dreams, prophecy and communalism. Some also find distinct churches like the Salvation Army curious and not necessary from its white uniform.
The disintegration of the extended family, individualism and changing social mores led to identity crisis among those in the cusp of callow youth. Most found home in Mavuno Church-which was ideal as it addressed cultural, domestic, personal and societal needs of those alienated by the vagaries of urban life.
But Mavuno has had its challenges. It is such a ‘corporate church’ Wambui found that 75 percent of members have first degrees and over 90 are either employed or hustling. Members from poor backgrounds find the many cars at the parking lot a reminder of their lower social class.
Greenhouses have been turned into Day Care Centres by parents lost in fun church activities. The many different Mavunos with their differing doctrines and approaches encourage ‘religious tourism’ depleting memberships and thus donations and tithe!