My latest story in Boom: A Journal of California…
Saturday mornings, as the sun rises over the master-planned streets of the city of Irvine, a fleet of dusty pickup trucks bearing peaches, carrots, tomatoes, bok choi, and other farm-fresh produce trundles into the parking lot of one of California’s largest evangelical megachurches.
Therein lies the future of American Christianity.
The farmers in the trucks set up stands for the Irvine Certified Farmers Market, staged weekly by the ninety-eight-year-old Orange County Farm Bureau. The market—the largest in Orange County—moved to the church in December 2014. Before then, the farmers had leased a shopping center parking lot across the street from the nearby University of California, Irvine, where for two decades well-heeled customers “in everything from burkhas to bikinis,” as market manager Trish Harrison put it, stocked up on produce grown on local farms. Harrison said the shopping center welcomed the market in the 1990s, when the city was half its present size. But the market grew and the city grew until “people were saying, ‘I can’t find a parking space, I’m going home.’” Merchants complained. The shopping center complained. “I knew we had to move,” Harrison told me.
The farmers couldn’t afford to move. “It’s a high-rent district, let’s be honest,” Harrison said. She tried the university. “So much bureaucracy.” She considered a nearby high school. Too small. Then, one day, Harrison thought of a parking lot that “looked like Disneyland.” The 2,100-seat space, tree-lined lot sloped gently from a fifty-acre landscaped campus of glass and steel buildings arranged around a lake, a stream, waterfalls, and a playground with a climbable Noah’s Ark and a smiling life-sized whale opening its mouth to swallow little Jonahs. The lot belonged to Mariners Church, one of the most influential evangelical megachurches in the United States, with more than 13,000 members, four worship centers in Orange County, and a network of global church partners in Kenya, Uganda, Congo, China, Egypt, Haiti, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and Germany. Harrison checked out the lot one Saturday morning and noticed something else. “They have tons of bathrooms.. . . We [wouldn’t] have to wait to pee.”
Harrison told customers that she was thinking of calling the church. “They said, ‘You will not get an appointment with them. They will not speak to you.’” Harrison called the church. A few days later, she was touring the parking lot with senior pastor Kenton Beshore and some other staff members. “You want this lot?” they asked. “I said that would be perfect. They looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I almost fell on the floor.”
There is nothing outwardly remarkable about a farmers market in a church parking lot—not even a Southern California farmers market, with its requisite nonsectarian kaleidoscope of aging hippies, Persian soccer moms, skate punks, Vietnamese restaurateurs, immigrants in minivans, and real estate flippers in Audis. Mariners Church doesn’t profit from or proselytize at the market, although church volunteers do run a free miniature train ride for kids. What is remarkable in this scenario is the chain of events that led to Kenton Beshore’s casual “Let’s do it.” A few years ago, no one at Mariners would have seen the point of welcoming a secular institution onto its grounds. But that was before the missionaries arrived, and before Mariners, once dubbed by a Los Angeles Timesreporter “the Dallas Cowboys of churches,” began modeling itself on a thriving, social-service-oriented megachurch in a middle-class neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya. The story of that unlikely transformation—which happened to prove fortuitous for Trish Harrison and her farmers—is a California story, a story of America’s immigration bellwether showing the nation’s churches a possible path forward in a rapidly secularizing nation. “God is throwing a global party, and it’s in the southern hemisphere,” Beshore told me when I asked him about the immense changes Mariners has undergone since the day eight years ago it hired a young Kenyan pastor to help with missionary work. Actually, the global party has been coming to California for years. That an evangelical megachurch noticed and decided to throw open its doors to the multitude might give the rest of America’s beleaguered Christians something to celebrate—and emulate.
By evangelical megachurch standards, Mariners is a venerable congregation. It began in 1963 as a Bible study group in a Newport Beach tract house. The study group grew, expanded to other nearby houses, and then hired a full-time pastor in 1967. The church took its name from a local elementary school where early services were held in an auditorium. The congregation was classic Orange County—white, well-to-do, informal, fond of worship services at the beach, and prayer breakfasts with the mayor and city officials. The church remained medium-sized until 1984 when Kenton Beshore, a native Southern Californian who had arrived at Mariners six years earlier as a college pastor, was promoted to lead the church. Beshore, who at the time looked and talked like the star of a 1960s surfing film, transformed Mariners into a magnet for spiritually seeking baby boomers. The church joined other notable innovators—including Saddleback Church, also in Orange County, and Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago—dubbed by a 1996Atlantic magazine story as exemplars of an emerging “Next Church” movement. These churches, super-sized with thousands of members, had experienced spectacular growth by sweeping aside fusty church traditions to make way for up-tempo music, sleek sanctuaries, and a seven-day-a-week menu of activities and programs designed, in Beshore’s words in the Atlantic, to give people “what they want.” By the early 2000s, Mariners had more than 10,000 members and a multimillion dollar budget.
It was then that Christian Mungai, born in a village in Kenya and raised near a Nairobi slum, appeared in Mariners’ 3,400-seat worship hall as part of an African gospel group called Milele. The five-year-old group, modestly successful on the African gospel circuit, was touring American churches to sing and, in Mungai’s words, help American evangelicals “learn how to do missions” in twenty-first-century Africa. Mungai had recently returned to Nairobi after earning a divinity degree at Claremont School of Theology in California. His time in America, he said, had solidified his view that many American evangelicals’ understanding of contemporary Africa was woefully out of date. “It’s a form of neocolonialism,” he said of some Americans’ approach to missionary work. “For someone to come and think they can bring the gospel and God—previous generations of Western missionaries already did that. They did their job and raised up leaders. We don’t need people coming to do that anymore. Why not support the leaders already there?”
After their concerts, Milele’s members—Mungai and three childhood friends—sat down with host pastors and urged them to shift the focus of their church’s missionary work toward supporting African-led efforts to ameliorate the continent’s problems. The message was not well received. “It’s hard for Americans to learn from other people,” Mungai said. Mariners Church was the last venue on Milele’s 2003 tour. Given the chilly reception the group had just received at nearby Saddleback Church, Mungai said he was not surprised when Mariners’ pastors politely told him they saw no need to alter their approach.
Mungai returned to Kenya discouraged but unwilling to give up. He remained in contact with American pastors and booked more concerts, including a 2004 reappearance at Mariners recorded live for a music video. As before, Milele’s music was more warmly received than its post-concert lectures.
Then, in 2006, Mungai learned that Mariners had hired a new director of international missions, a thirty-three-year-old pastor named Matt Olthoff. Mungai emailed Olthoff to ask if he’d like to meet. Later that year, the two sat down in Olthoff’s office. To Mungai’s dismay, even this new, young pastor was uninterested in pursuing partnerships with African-led Christian social-service initiatives.
Walking out of the meeting, Mungai wondered whether he was partly to blame for his lack of success. “I went in with an agenda just like the Americans do,” he said. “I needed to lead from a place of relationship.”Impulsively, he called Olthoff back and asked to meet again—no agenda, just to get to know one another.
Olthoff, it turned out, had just gone through a divorce. “I was broken, feeling isolated,” he said. Mungai, thirty-two at the time and single, was and remains an ebullient personality, with a ready smile and a head sometimes shaved, sometimes topped with finger-sized dreadlocks. Sitting in the Mariners’ campus café, Olthoff found himself telling Mungai the story of his divorce. Mungai, in turn, shared his frustrations about American missionaries.
“Who else talks like you, about a new Africa?” Olthoff asked.
Mungai mentioned the pastor of his church, a rapidly growing Nairobi megachurch called Mavuno, which had expanded in part by encouraging its members to become what the pastor, Muriithi Wanjao, called “fearless influencers of society”—people who solve local problems by harnessing the resources of the church. Mungai said he wished more American evangelicals were willing to learn what churches like Mavuno were already doing and join them in that work. “Americans offer strategy and resources,” he said. “But Africans offer a sense of resilience. They are the most resilient people in the world. They love music and culture and dance and family and community, things that in America are breaking down.” Mungai said to Olthoff: “I can help you. Come to our church and see what we’re doing.”
A few months later, Olthoff was in Nairobi. He spent time with Mungai and met Wanjao. Taken aback by the size of Mavuno Church and the number of members who had committed themselves to social service projects, Olthoff impulsively offered Mungai a job. “I’m like, what if we brought Africa to Mariners?” he recalled. “We’re always sending people to Africa. But that person would change our church forever. I remember thinking I was new on the job and I was going, ‘I don’t know how to do African ministries. Wouldn’t it make sense to bring someone who knows the culture? Wouldn’t that make sense? Maybe this is crazy.’”
Mungai said yes. “I literally went home and cried,” he said.
Mungai started work at Mariners in November 2007 as coordinator of missions to Africa. Soon after, Muriithi Wanjao, pastor of Mavuno Church, invited Kenton Beshore and other senior Mariners leaders to visit Kenya and learn more about how Mavuno worked. A group of Mariners pastors, including Kenton Beshore and his wife, Laurie, traveled to Nairobi in early 2008. Arriving amid widespread violence following a contested election, the pastors were as struck as Olthoff had been by Mavuno’s size, rapid growth, and level of spiritual commitment. They were even more surprised when the Kenyan pastors delivered a blunt lecture about the changing power dynamics in global Christianity. “Churches in the western hemisphere are dying,” one of the pastors said. “But in the global south they are growing. Shouldn’t it be that we should be the ones sending people your way and revitalizing your churches? Your world is post-Christian. We are growing.”
Oscar Muriu, the Kenyan pastor who delivered that message, was in fact not from Mavuno, but rather was the leader of another even larger church called Nairobi Chapel, which had spun off Mavuno as one of numerous start-up congregations a few years earlier. Beshore and the other Mariners pastors realized that the megachurch they had come to visit, growing faster than their own, was just a small part of an even larger and more rapidly growing Christian network.
“Kenton felt like Oscar slapped him,” Mungai recalled. “He says to me, ‘I have never heard anything like this.’” The Mariners pastors attended raucous worship services at Mavuno. They met church members who had started a micro-finance loan network in a nearby slum. Beshore said he realized Mavuno thrived not by giving its members what they wanted, but by demanding from them a total commitment to Christian life, especially Jesus’ call to serve others. “They have things we don’t have,” Beshore told me. “They’re killing it doing what they’re doing.” At the end of the visit, Beshore invited Muriu to come to Mariners to show him how to make his church more like Mavuno. “It’s so arrogant to say we’re the best country in the world,” he said. “It’s so unattractive. And it’s not true.”
Beshore’s—and Muriu’s—assessment of global Christianity is correct. Roughly 60 percent of the world’s Christians now live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of the world’s religious populations.1 That share is forecast to grow to nearly three-quarters by 2050. Meanwhile, in the United States, Christianity is steadily contracting. Just two-thirds of Americans are expected to be Christian in 2050, with a quarter of the nation claiming no religious affiliation at all. Already 35 percent of Americans born after 1980 are nonreligious. The unchurched are America’s fastest growing religious demographic.2
American Christianity is changing as it shrinks. Smaller, older churches, especially those affiliated with once-dominant Protestant denominations such as the Southern Baptists and various Presbyterian groups are struggling. Catholic dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest are closing parishes and schools. Only two kinds of churches continue to grow: those that attract immigrants, such as Pentecostal congregations and Catholic parishes in the Southwest; and megachurches, whose big budgets and robust programming have drawn Christians fleeing smaller, dying congregations. Studies by Leadership Network, an evangelical research organization specializing in large churches, show that over the past decade megachurches have grown and remained financially stable even as smaller churches shrink and struggle to make their budgets.3
The trend toward consolidation has been good for megachurches but not for Christianity as a whole. Megachurches have proven adept at wooing Christians dissatisfied with traditional forms of religious expression. But like evangelicalism itself, megachurches mostly have not adapted to America’s rapidly changing demographics and cultural mores. More than four-fifths of megachurches are majority white, according to a 2011 Leadership Network study.4 Hispanics and Asians—America’s fastest-growing demographic groups—are underrepresented in American evangelicalism by wide margins.5 Millennials are the least likely of any age group to be Christian.6
At a time when America and Christianity are globalizing, most evangelical churches are organized to meet the needs of an older, whiter population that, in a few decades, will no longer be the American majority. “The West has the money, but the numbers are in the non-west. That’s our context,” said Ryan Bolger, professor of intercultural studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
A decade ago, Mariners Church was mostly indistinguishable from America’s other successful megachurches. The budget was big, the programming was robust, the worship services were high-tech, and the congregation was mostly white and financially well-off. Mariners differed from other megachurches in supporting a robust array of local community service initiatives both at the church and in four church-run community centers in low-income areas of Orange County. The initiatives were largely overseen by Laurie Beshore, wife of Kenton, the senior pastor. They were popular in the congregation but not central to the church’s agenda. “The irony is, my husband doesn’t have a big heart for the poor in the community,” Laurie told me. She meant Kenton’s focus at the time was on bringing people to Jesus, not solving Orange County’s economic problems.
When Oscar Muriu arrived at Mariners with several other pastors from Nairobi, he brought with him an approach to Christianity that is difficult to categorize in American terms. According to historian Philip Jenkins, who has written extensively about the global shift in Christianity’s center of gravity, African Christians combine beliefs and practices that straddle—and sometimes transcend—Western churches’ often debilitating divide between liberalism and conservatism.7
African Christians have supported repressive anti-homosexuality laws in Uganda and practiced forms of spiritual healing that, to Western observers, verge on witchcraft. But churches in Africa also have played prominent roles in struggles against colonialism, and they continue to view themselves as engines of social and economic development for their communities. The unifying thread is their wholehearted response to the Bible—to Scripture’s traditional sexual mores, its call to redeem the world, and its assumption that God is powerfully active in everyday life. That unreserved embrace of faith as a means of both personal and social liberation has contributed to explosive growth in non-Western churches.
While visiting Mariners, Oscar Muriu immediately asked why the church’s community outreach initiatives were not center-stage. “Why do you have Laurie where you have her?” he said, referring to Laurie Beshore’s social service ministry. “She should do things at an all-church level.” (Laurie now serves as a senior pastor alongside her husband.) Muriu preached at Mariners’ weekend services, telling the assembled Orange Countians what he had told Kenton Beshore in Nairobi: “There’s a global party, and the American church has not been invited.” Beshore warned the congregation to expect changes. “I want to be part of this global party,” he said. “I don’t want to be left behind.” Muriu received a standing ovation.
Change in the church world, especially at large churches, is generally slow. Churches are inherently conservative institutions, run by governing boards of longstanding members often wary of innovation. By these standards, the changes at Mariners following the arrival of Christian Mungai have been rapid and far-reaching. A year after Muriu’s first visit, Mariners implemented a spiritual development program pioneered by Mavuno Church called Mzizi, a Swahili word meaning “rooted.” For ten weeks, Mariners members met weekly in small groups to help one another discern how they were being called by God to serve their community. The goal was not simply to produce a new crop of soup kitchen volunteers. Mungai said Mariners wanted its members to “become known for their radical generosity. You give and there are no strings attached to people who never give to you or don’t have an ability to give to you. We want people to say, ‘I’m a fearless influencer of society wherever I am.’”
The church began offering no-strings-attached money and volunteers to local nonreligious service organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, a local public continuation high school, and a nonprofit called Women Helping Women that helps formerly drug-addicted or incarcerated women find jobs. Two Mariners members, one a former Muslim, formed a group to visit local mosques and forge ties with Muslims. The group helped to stage a series of forums about Islam at Mariners and at a mosque in Mission Viejo. Mariners then partnered with mosque members to feed the homeless in downtown Santa Ana. When the pastor of Templo Calvario, a Spanish-language megachurch in Santa Ana, asked Laurie Beshore if she and Kenton would consider joining a national group of evangelicals to lobby for comprehensive immigration reform, the Beshores said yes, breaking a longstanding vow Kenton had made to himself to keep Mariners out of political debates. “It’s a dangerous subject, no doubt about it,” Laurie told me. But conversations with the Kenyans had changed the Beshores’ view of advocacy work. “Our strategy is to serve, starting with the poor, the marginalized, and the forgotten,” Kenton said. “In this church, there are lots of wealthy people. I tell them, ‘You need the poor more than the poor need you. You’re poor in spirit.’ People who come to this church think money and power is the solution to everything in this world. Jesus said by being willing to get down and serve, you’re transformed.”
Mungai began taking groups of Mariners members to visit Mavuno Church. Some were initially confused when Mungai told them they would not be bringing money, food, school supplies, or any of the other donation items typically offered by American evangelicals traveling to Africa. “I had to say, ‘This is not just what you’re going to do. You have to ask what is God going to do in you?’” The Mariners visitors attended services at Mavuno, learned how the church worked, and met laypeople who had started successful community service initiatives. Bob Drobish, a technology startup CEO and member of Mariners’ board of elders, recalled his surprise meeting Daisy Waimiri, a Mavuno member and mother of three who had started a thriving community-based micro-loan program in Kibera, Nairobi’s—and Africa’s—largest urban slum.
“Isn’t she a force of nature?” Drobish said of Waimiri. The loan program, called Maono (“Vision”), grouped local businesspeople—hairdressers, coal sellers, sweepers—into accountability groups who borrowed and repaid collective loans together. Waimiri said she conceived of the program after attending Mavuno’s Mzizi classes. “My church has this thing. . . they take you through trainings, and at the end they expect you to go to the community and do something,” she told me via Skype. Waimiri’s first investor was her husband. When she met Drobish, she told him she needed more investors to expand the initiative. Five years later, with help from Drobish and other Mariners’ members, Maono has loaned roughly $100,000 to more than one thousand businesspeople in Kibera. “They haven’t imposed anything on us,” Waimiri said of her Mariners partners. “They don’t tell us what to do. Even when they give the money they say, ‘You’re on the ground, you know better.’ Which is very rare with Western donors.”
Robyn Williams, a forty-three-year-old former corporate publicist who attended Mariners as a child, said she remembered returning to the church after college in the 1990s and thinking, “Everyone here drives a Mercedes. . . they’re not really doing much for the poor.” Williams was one of thousands of Mariners members who signed up for the Rooted spiritual development program, inspired by Mavuno Church’s Mzizi program. In her Rooted meetings in 2011, Williams began “exploring what has God created me to do and how am I going to make an impact on other people’s lives in the community?” She joined Christian Mungai on one of his trips to Nairobi, where she met a Mavuno member named Ken Oloo, a marketing executive who had helped children living in Kibera earn money as videographers by supplying cameras and teaching the children how to use them. Suddenly, Williams said, her work for a mid-sized Orange County public relations company seemed disconnected from social justice by comparison.
Returning home from the Nairobi trip, Williams began looking for a new job. Through a banking client, she met the CEO of Women Helping Women. A few months later, Williams was hired as the nonprofit’s program director, working longer hours for less money but feeling “at the end of the day, what brings me the most joy and reward is that I’m making a difference and helping someone else become who God created them to be.” She has returned several times to Nairobi, where she says she now hopes one day to start an equivalent of Women Helping Women. Earlier this year, Williams was in the Women Helping Women booth at a clinic in Anaheim where mostly Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq were offered free medical care and job assistance. The clinic was a partnership between Mariners and an Anaheim Arabic-language church. “My friends tease me and say I’m half Kenyan,” Williams said. “What’s exciting is, it’s not just happening in Nairobi. It’s happening in Newport Beach.”
Encouraged by the results of exchanges between Mariners and Mavuno, Mungai sought out other international church partners. Those partnerships—now with nine churches on three continents—are not structured like traditional missionary relationships. Mariners’ members visit partner churches and help with local service initiatives. But the partner churches also send members to Mariners. A residency program Mungai started two years ago invites pastors of partner churches to live and work at Mariners for one year, mostly for the purpose of broadening Mariners’ international perspective. It was one of those visiting clergy residents, a Mexican pastor named Daniel Nuñez from a church near Tijuana, who happened to remark one day last year, “I can’t believe the grass at Mariners is always so green.”
Puzzled, Mungai asked what Nuñez meant.
Nuñez said that in Mexico, no church lawn stays green for long because it is always being trampled by “people playing, eating. and doing community.”
Mungai gazed with embarrassment at Mariners’ immaculately landscaped grounds. “What he was saying is that to have green grass means it’s not being used,” Mungai said, “Whereas to us it means beauty. It’s a totally different mindset. We realized we have to use our campus for community.”
Not long after that exchange, Trish Harrison from the Irvine farmers market called looking for a parking lot.
Mariners has lost some members since it began its Nairobi-inspired transformation. Volunteers have left the missionary program because “they’ve resisted working alongside African leaders. They want to be the leaders,” Mungai told me. Kenton Beshore said “a few hundred people” walked out of the church when an evangelical immigration-reform activist was invited to preach. Three years ago, when Beshore and other Mariners pastors joined the national evangelical immigration-reform movement, enough Mariners members withdrew financial pledges that the church ended the year with a $500,000 budget shortfall.
And yet, the changes continued. Today, bolstered by new members offsetting the departures, Mariners is larger and more ethnically diverse than it was a decade ago. (The church does not track the ethnic identity of members. Pastors I spoke to estimated the church’s nonwhite population at anywhere from 20 percent to 35 percent of the congregation.) Church staff members speak Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Swahili. Mariners remains a leading partner in the Evangelical Immigration Table, a national coalition of evangelical churches and para-church organizations advocating comprehensive immigration reform. “We got crazy tight Republicans to change their views,” Beshore told me. While volunteering at Mariners’ outreach centers, “They get involved with kids and the kids grow up and their parents get deported and they say, ‘This isn’t right.’ They’ve had a change in their world view.”
It is a change that could happen anywhere in America but was most likely to happen in California. Orange County today, like neighboring Los Angeles and California’s other major immigrant landing zones, is a spiritual gazetteer, one of the most religiously diverse places on Earth. The county is home to one of America’s fastest growing Catholic dioceses, where three-quarters of parishes celebrate at least one mass in a language other than English; one of the nation’s largest mosques; Buddhist temples and a Buddhist university; Korean- and Spanish-language megachurches; and a predominantly Asian megachurch, called NewSong in Irvine, started by a half-Korean pastor who envisioned a Christian community that transcended race entirely. The ideas brought by Mungai and his mentors from Nairobi felt revolutionary when they arrived. But, really, they were inevitable. What historian Philip Jenkins calls the “Next Christendom” has been taking shape in Orange County for years. The Kenyans simply helped the rich, white Christians at Mariners Church wake up to their new demographic reality.
Now it is Mariners’ turn to help. Three times each year, the church hosts a conference teaching other congregations how to implement their own Mzizi spiritual development programs. To date, roughly fifty churches, some from Southern California, others from as far away as Wyoming, have attended the conference. Mariners’ partner churches abroad also have adopted Mzizi programs. Last year, inspired by Mariners’ example, Concordia University, a conservative Lutheran college in Irvine, began hosting annual gatherings of international clergy and scholars to teach students how to minister in a globalizing America. Christian Mungai, Pastor Wanjau from Mavuno Church, and historian Philip Jenkins headlined the inaugural gathering. This year, speakers included the director of research for the Southern Baptist Convention, the pastor of one of Orange County’s largest African American churches and the director of faith formation for the Catholic Diocese of Orange.
“Our engagement with the global south has taught us that we don’t have all the answers, that there’s much to be offered by the rest of the world,” Mungai said. “It’s not from west to east. It’s from everywhere to everywhere.. . . The vision for the church starts with the vision of a lost world, and the church is not for the church but for the world.. . . The Kenyan way of looking at discipleship is a lifelong process. It’s not a few weeks and you’re done. It’s a whole life transformation.”
Photographs by Matt Gush.
1 Pew Research Center, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010–2050,” 2 April 2015.
2 Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 12 May 2015.
3 Warren Bird and Scott Thumma, “A New Decade of Megachurches: 2011 Profile of Large Attendance Churches in the United States,” Leadership Network, 2011; Warren Bird, “The Economic Outlook of Very Large Churches: Trends Driving the Budgets and Staffing Activities of North America’s Biggest Congregations,” Leadership Network, 2013.
4 Bird and Thumma, “A New Decade of Megachurches,” 7.
5 America’s evangelical population is 76 percent white, 6 percent black, 2 percent Asian, and 11 percent Hispanic (Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 52). By comparison, according to the U.S. Census, the United States as a whole is 62 percent white, 13 percent black, 5 percent Asian, and 17 percent Hispanic.
6 Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 70.