If you listen to enough stories of Kenyans converting to Christianity, you’ll start to see a pattern: most of them thought they were Christians already.
“I was a weed-smoking, girl-chasing rebel,” said Ken Mbugua, who grew up going to church. “I was always getting into trouble, and then I’d pray to God and ask him to please bail me out.”
His culture is thick with Christianity—in 2010, 9 out of 10 Kenyans said they’d been raised Christian and remained Christian. Most of the population thought Christianity was gaining influence in the country (67 percent) and that was a good thing (64 percent). Christians were—and still are—seen as honest, devout, tolerant, and respectful of women.
Even though none of those words described Mbugua, he had said the sinner’s prayer and marked the date in the front of his Bible, so he figured he was a Christian. Facing his third threat of expulsion toward the end of high school, he planned to ask God to rescue him again.
“I started thinking that I was going to pray to the King, to the Father, but I loved the stuff he hates,” Mbugua said. “I boasted about it. I was famous for it. And I liked it.” That’s when it dawned on him: I don’t have a relationship with God. He isn’t my Father. He isn’t really my King.
“I cried out to God and asked him to save me—and everything changed,” he said.
The outline of Mbugua’s story is a familiar one in the capital city of Nairobi. It’s also familiar to anyone who experienced the United States in the 1950s and ’60s, when more than 90 percent of the population identified as Christian. Most adult conversions then weren’t people who had never heard of Jesus but rather those who tipped into believing the salvation story they’d already memorized.
There are other similarities. America and Kenya both share a penchant for health-and-wealth theology, which began as a Pentecostal offshoot in post–World War II America and established itself through Trinity Broadcasting Network television preachers in both countries.
And increasingly, they share the Reformed resurgence. Kenyan pastors are beginning to quote Calvinist theologians and pastors (who often quote African theologians such as Tertullian and Augustine). A network of gospel-centered churches begun in 2017 reaches more than 1,000 local pastors. A publishing company has produced more than 100 titles, including R. C. Sproul’s The Whole Counsel of God and Greg Gilbert’s Who Is Jesus? College ministries are asking pastors for messages on the authority of God or the sufficiency of scripture.
A lot of this work is connected to Mbugua, who leads the largest Reformed church in Nairobi—a city so culturally and economically important it functions as a type of New York City for eastern Africa.
“The Lord has continued to allow truth to spread in the city,” said Mbugua, a founding Council member of The Gospel Coalition Africa. “We are seeing continued spread and growth and influence of these pastors [in Nairobi]. There is a hunger—a continued and sustained hunger—for truth, for a God who is transcendent above all the trifling.”
Christianity on the Continent
Christianity came late to sub-Saharan Africa, smoldering for generations as it slowly worked its way from the coasts inland. And then, in the 1900s, the whole place caught fire.
From 1900 to 2020, the number of Christians skyrocketed from about 7 million to about 645 million—in other words, from about 9 percent of the population to just about 60 percent, according to the World Religion Database.
The growth doesn’t show signs of stopping. By 2050, the number of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to top a billion—which would mean that four out of every 10 Christians on the planet would call sub-Saharan Africa home.
“It is the fruit of initial missionary work that took place from the 19th century into the early 20th century,” said TGC Africa Council member and Zambian pastor Conrad Mbewe. “And then in the first fifty years of the 20th century, churches and missions work were handed over to indigenous leaders, who took the ball and ran with it. They saw it as their responsibility to share the gospel message with others.”
It helps that there hasn’t been a lot of government or societal opposition in Kenya, he said. Even if you don’t believe in Jesus, it’s easy to feel kindly toward a religion that so publicly cares for the sick and educates the children.
And, hey, maybe it can make you rich.
In the 1990s, preachers like Benny Hinn and Creflo Dollar appeared on African televisions and scratched just the right cultural itch.
Those in poverty are nearly always hungry for promises of wealth, Kenyan pastor Christian Lwanda said. And those promises sometimes seemed to pay off—while African poverty isn’t dropping as quickly as in other areas of the world, conditions are improving.
“People would start hearing this stuff at church, and a certain number of them were already working hard or good at business,” he said. “Now you are crediting your upward mobility to this new gospel. And pastors could point to these businessmen—look how they thrived because of this prosperity gospel.”
Even more importantly, the prosperity gospel’s focus on manifesting reality fits well with African culture, he said. “In African traditional religions, you have a kind of mystic, spiritualistic understanding of the world—an animistic cosmology.”
From 1900 to 2020, the number of Christians skyrocketed from about 7 million to about 645 million—in other words, from about 9 percent of the population to just about 60 percent.
Animism teaches that humans need to “discover what beings and forces are influencing them in order to determine future action and, frequently, to manipulate their power,” writes Nick Moore, academic dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary of Zimbabwe. It’s a payment system—I do this, or say this, or believe this, and I’ll get a reward.
That’s why animism involves “a lot of shouting, pleading, screaming, and emotion,” Lwanda said. “And here these prosperity guys are doing the same thing to ask God for what you need.”
Prosperity theology “is like the Arabian camel that gave the impression it simply wanted a little space in the tent, but now the whole of it is inside and the true gospel is outside,” Mbewe told TGC. “Everywhere, especially on radio and television, almost all you hear is this message about how God in Christ wants us to be physically healthy and materially prosperous.”
That’s what Mbugua was watching and listening to when he became a Christian. “My most frequent prayer in the first year of being a believer was that the Lord would make me very wealthy as a businessman and that I’d use all that money to get missionaries to go to the hardest places in Kenya that have not heard the gospel,” he said. So when pastors in his life kept noticing his gift for ministry, he told God he wanted a sign.
“If you are calling me to be a pastor, let a child in my Vacation Bible School class become a Christian,” he told God one summer. The next day, two girls in his class told the pastor’s wife they wanted to become Christians.
“Those don’t count,” Mbugua told God. “If you really want me to be a pastor, let seven kids tell me they want to become Christians.”
At the end of the week, he asked the kids to raise their hands if they wanted to become Christians. Nine hands shot up. “I couldn’t even pray with them,” he said. “I had to step out because I was bawling.”
The effective-atheist-turned-prosperity-Christian was headed to Bible college.
Theological Reformation of Ken Mbugua
Mbugua enrolled at a little Bible school in Nairobi. When he attended a Baptist pastors’ conference a few months later, someone handed him a copy of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.
“The Lord used it to expose me to the beauty of conversion—to the much bigger doctrine of election—and it really caught my heart,” he said. The conference also introduced him to expository preaching.
Realizing there was a lot more to learn than he’d thought, Mbugua enrolled in Central Africa Baptist University in Zambia. There, a professor gave him a copy of Desiring God, and the little understanding he’d had of big God theology exploded.
“I was like a rocket that disappears into the night sky,” he said. “The school had a WiFi plan of six gigabytes per month, which is very little. My friend and I would download audio files from D. A. Carson—I had so many D. A. Carson audio files—and any other T4G [Together for the Gospel] or TGC speaker we could get our hands on. We downloaded John Frame’s whole section of lectures on philosophy. Once we were done with classes, I’d be on my earphones doing my chores while listening.”
The classes were good, but it was the internet that gave Mbugua most of his Reformed theological education.
“I graduated with my bachelors,” he said, “and went back to Kenya reformed.”
Reformation in Nairobi
Kenya’s location on the eastern coast of Africa—and Nairobi’s location at the railroad hub in the middle of the country—make it an important economic and transportation center. That’s maybe why Christianity grew so quickly, from 2 percent of the population in 1900 to more than 80 percent today, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.
But when Mbugua returned to be a youth pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church (EBC), he felt completely alone.
“I saw a vision for church and theology in my mind,” he said. “But I knew what was waiting for me in Kenya was wilderness.”
His wife, Arlette, explains it like this: “Many Kenyans think they can be saved by being a good person, going to church, or not being a Muslim. People aren’t trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus for their salvation. They’re trusting in other things.”
A few months in, after a long week with kids at a summer camp, a tired Mbugua was forced by a rainstorm to accept a friend’s invitation to a Bible study. He listened as a guy named Chris, who worked for Google, opened up the book of Romans and led a group of about 30 young professionals through an expository study.
Mbugua just about fell off his chair.
“I’m just like, How in the world is there a group like this in the city I’m serving?” he said.
He wasn’t the only one wondering that. For a long time, the only Reformed Baptist church in Nairobi was Trinity, planted in the late 1970s by a British missionary named Keith Underhill. A few months earlier, two of the guys from the Romans Bible study found it and asked if they could become members.
Underhill couldn’t believe it, they reported. In more than 30 years of ministry, he’d never met a single Reformed person in Nairobi that he hadn’t personally taught about the doctrines of grace.
“The new Calvinism explosion that was happening in the US—TGC, T4G, Sovereign Grace music, Christian hip-hop—all of that stuff was happening here at the same time,” Mbugua said. It was also happening in the same way, through the internet.
But what the young, restless, and Reformed in Kenya didn’t have was a group of older men to teach and lead them. Or established churches besides Trinity. Or seminaries, conferences, and books.
Reformation of Emmanuel Baptist Church
Mbugua took a job as an assistant pastor at EBC, a primarily expatriate international church of about 150 members. The lead pastor, an American who had grown up in Kenya as a missionary kid, was generous in sharing the pulpit.
“He knew my convictions were different from his, and he was open to say, ‘Show me from the Bible,’” Mbugua said. “The places where we disagreed, he’d say, ‘Ken, you do those things when I leave.’ He knew the church would change.”
Indeed, it was already changing. As Mbugua preached—“My style was influenced by John Piper at that point”—it began resonating with pockets of people. The church grew.
At a conference in South Africa, Mbugua met Mark Dever. The next year, he flew to Washington, DC, to do the Capitol Hill Baptist Church internship, coming back with 9Marks ecclesiology and an American wife. Soon after, he became the lead pastor.
“I’ve watched the church culture change,” his wife, Arlette, said. “I’d call it a revitalization.” Mbugua introduced more meaningful church membership and discipline. He led the church to move from a single-pastor model to a plurality of elders. He focused on relationships and community, exhorting members to confess sin and to pray for one another.
“It’s been a testament to the power of the gospel preached and the church led by faithful leaders,” Arlette said. Former members “who would come back now would not recognize it.”
EBC gained a reputation for being gospel-centered. And since Mbugua was young and Kenyan, it started attracting those young Kenyans who were learning about the doctrines of grace online.
“They all wash up on the shores of Emmanuel Baptist Church,” said Lwanda, who was one of them. He grew up in a Christian home, converted to Christianity in high school, and ran across Francis Chan on the internet while working as an assistant youth pastor.
Through Chan, he found Piper and Keller, Carson and Begg. “I couldn’t unsee this stuff,” he said. He started preaching the doctrines of grace in the church where he was serving. The congregants wanted more, but eventually the leaders recognized his trajectory was different from theirs.
“I went to EBC, and it was like a cold cup of water in the middle of the Arabian peninsula,” said Lwanda, who now does ministry in the United Arab Emirates. “I can’t say enough about Ken Mbugua’s great patience. Many people had questions about this theology which they knew to be true but struggled to understand. He was never once impatient with the barrage of questions that came his way. He understood his context well enough to know that those poor sheep had been swimming in the cesspool of prosperity theology, and it would take great patience before they grasped these truths.”
Over the years, the EBC community became “rock solid,” he said. “The people have confidence—I’m not sure I’d ever seen that before—confidence that God will do whatever he wants, and they’ll be fine.”
These days, EBC has shifted from about 70 percent international to 90 percent Kenyan. It has about 350 members, though weekly attendance often tops 450. (“Parking is a nightmare,” Lwanda said, laughing. “People are parking everywhere. They’d park on trees if they could.”)
Growth often provides doors of opportunity, and Mbugua started flinging them open.
“We started an internship program, because who doesn’t once you’ve been with Mark Dever?” Mbugua said.
Then EBC started planting. So far, they’ve launched four churches—all in different parts of Nairobi—with another planned for 2023.
Mbugua launched Ekklesia Afrika in 2017, “born out of a burden to provide access to theological resources and wanting to see churches become healthier,” he said. With copyrights from Crossway, he started printing ESV Bibles and titles such as Church Membership, Church Discipline, and What is a Healthy Church?
Before, books had to be purchased and flown in from another country. Now, Ekklesia is printing and distributing them in Nairobi, which makes them available and affordable. Over the last five years, they’ve printed more than 100 titles.
The next step was obvious: “We organized them into a curriculum and made it a four-year program,” Mbugua said. Pastors read a book a month—David Helm on expositional preaching, Deepak Reju on counseling, John Piper on missions—and then write an essay and discuss it twice a month with a learning cohort.
On a continent with inadequate theological education, the program immediately grew numerically and geographically. Today, there are 1,108 Kenyan, Ugandan, South Sudanese, and Malawian pastors in the program.
“It’s not the most ideal,” Mbugua said. He’d prefer full, in-person theological education. But, he continued, “People are reading, discussing, and being exposed to the truth. This morning we talked about expository preaching, and one pastor said he needed to apologize to his church because for 18 years he hasn’t been telling them what the Bible says. We’ve even had some guys wanting to shut down their churches because they weren’t sure their group of people was even functioning as a church.”
The teaching is already making a difference. “There are now a lot more churches who are not Reformed but will have biblical sermons,” said Chris Kiagiri, the Google manager who taught the Romans Bible study that surprised Mbugua. “You’ll find among any number of nondenominational pastors a good number who would embrace the Reformed label, even if their churches wouldn’t. And I’m thankful for that.”
Normalizing Reformed Theology
The seeds planted through the internet and watered by churches like EBC and ministries like Ekklesia Afrika are bearing fruit all over Nairobi.
“Initially, everybody you’d talk to would tell you they came to gospel-centered theology through people and places such as Piper, T4G, TGC, or Ligonier,” Mbugua said. “Now people are not saying that. Many are coming to these biblical truths through the African people who came to those truths before them. It seems to be a wave.”
It’s especially true on college campuses, he said.
“I think good theology appeals to university students because it’s rigorous and engages the mind,” Kiagiri said. “There has been a rise in university fellowships trying to find guest preachers who are faithful expositors, including those at Trinity and Emmanuel.”
It helps that they “don’t have to leave Kenya to attend a good Bible conference or to obtain good, affordable books,” he said. “Reformed theology used to be a sort of strange thing for a very niche population of Christians. Now, while it’s not mainstream, it’s certainly something most Christians in Nairobi would be familiar with or have heard about. That’s all happened in the space of 15 years. Just this past week I dropped in on a Simeon Trust workshop at Emmanuel that had more than 100 pastors. I never thought I’d see something like that.”
The wave of good theology is also washing back in the other direction. Lwanda spoke at the T4G conference in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2022. Mbugua taught at the Sing! Global conference in 2021 and is slated to be a main-stage speaker at the TGC conference in Indianapolis in September.
In fact, Lwanda first found out about Mbewe through his influence in the West. “I saw Don Carson having an interview with Conrad Mbewe—I was like Who is this?” Lwanda said. “I Googled him, and it turns out he’s been a faithful [Reformed African Christian] for longer than I’ve been alive.”
The growth of good theology is important anywhere, but in Kenya it’s especially hopeful, said Mbewe, who has been praying for this for decades.
“In East Africa, Kenya is the decisive country,” he said. “It’s the hub of economic strength, and wherever you have that, you tend to have a country that is going to impact other countries in the region. . . . So the Reformed faith growing in that country means it will impact the rest of the region. It’s only a matter of time.”
To be living in Africa now feels like “living in a day of opportunity,” he said. “Like Paul said, it’s like a door has been opened for us in this region. And now the Lord is answering our prayers beyond what we were able to ask or imagine.”