We Are Truly African, And We Are Truly Vineyard
A conversation with Bill Hanawalt, executive pastor of Vineyard Christian Church of Evanston, Illinois. Bill has been instrumentally involved in the growth of church plants in Kenya, culminating in their recent release as the newest Association of Vineyard Churches (AVC).
What was God up to in Kenya that prepared the way for Vineyard to be involved? How did the Vineyard first get introduced there?
I think the right moment was there because there was a growing hunger within the religious environment in Kenya. Some of the Protestant, charismatic and evangelically minded groups there were operating by way of a persistent strain of legalism. In some instances the existing churches had some of the worst of hyped-up American popular televangelism. There was some dissatisfaction with that, and the Vineyard values appealed to several groups in a timely moment as an authentic, refreshing alternative. But even so, it is evident that much of what launched the Vineyard in Kenya is rooted in prayer.
Really, it started off with a small prayer group of women near Nairobi that mainly focused on praying for other women who had come to faith for different reasons. They were praying for their husbands and for their own spiritual renewal. One of the key leaders of the group was from Australia; she and her husband returned to Australia for a visit and ended up going to a conference about the Vineyard in Perth. When they returned to Kenya, they brought the Vineyard materials and teachings with them, and that one small group there ended up being the formation of the first Vineyard church.
How did they actually get in touch with the Vineyard?
Besides the conference activities as they happened in Australia, we had a member of our Evanston (Illinois) church working with an NGO (non-governmental organization) in Kenya that was also connected to this group. Another connection was Costa Mitchell, who was overlooking the growth in South Africa. As the church grew and needed a full-time rather than bi-vocational leader, they sent a South African Vineyard pastor to go lead that first church. He was catalytic. He led the movement to spread throughout the country.
How did you end up getting involved?
We were involved very early because one of our church members in Evanston was working for an NGO and was attending in the early stages. She was a seminarian with a degree in ethnic musicology and she had learned Vineyard worship. She was involved in leading worship teams and identifying and forming the first African Vineyard worship leaders in Kenya. So the first conference that they asked us to come and do 10 years ago was a conference on worship.
At that point, there may have only been a few Vineyard churches in Kenya, maybe a handful at that point. Brenton Brown, who is South African, was living in England at the time. He came and led worship and Costa Mitchell and I came and taught about worship. At the meeting, African leaders from around the country of Kenya and three surrounding countries were part of this group. As they learned the Vineyard DNA and experienced Vineyard worship, some of them started going to every single Vineyard training event and seeking to become affiliated. Some of them resigned from other denominational associations, for various reasons, and began to form Vineyard churches throughout the country.
How did the Vineyard movement then move forward and expand into a place of being “released” as its own national AVC (Association of Vineyard Churches)? What were some of the key points along the way?
Initially, we were doing Vineyard conferences in the country and bringing in various U.S. partners to do training. For example, people came from all over the country to Nairobi by word of mouth. Another principal figure was a leader of the Inverness Vineyard Church who had been working with Kenyan immigrants and students in Alabama. Bubba Justice sent him back to Kenya to work with a large contingent there and start a church.
As I mentioned before, a lot of the growth started coming from existing churches switching to the Vineyard from other denominations. We had to make sure people understood what the Vineyard was really about and whether they were committed to the Vineyard values, rather than just seeing the church as a financial connection and things like that. There were some rocky times. We had to shift maybe 20 of the 80 churches back out of the group of churches that came into the Vineyard. That was hard to do.
What was interesting, though, is that once the Kenyan leadership was ready to take the reins from the South African team, they knew exactly who the non-Vineyardites were among themselves. Once they were given more ability to self-govern, they applied discernment and cleared that up right away. That was a definite way we were able to gain confidence in the leadership team and release them as their own AVC, their ability to self-govern in tricky situations.
Let’s talk a bit about the whole release process. How did it come to the place where you knew Kenya was ready to become its own separate national movement within the Vineyard?
Once the South African leader stepped back, an interim leadership committee was appointed from amongst the Kenyan leaders. The good thing was that for the most part, excellent leaders had been identified from throughout the country for this national team, and they also were in unanimous agreement on who their leader should be. During that interim time, as they were being partnered with Vineyards mainly in the U.S. and the UK and South Africa, there was a shared decision-making and governance process between the foreign partners and Kenyan partners. It was clear that the Kenyans had a firm grip on things and high quality leadership; they had solidified a connexus of over 50 churches. That’s a large group. They were already larger than several of the existing AVCs.
So you have this large number, who were being wisely led from within, and it just became obvious that they were ready to step up and take their place as a fully autonomous Vineyard group. If you went to their conferences, they historically would invite a foreign speaker. But most preaching and leading in the conference is by their Kenyan leadership team, and the quality of what they were doing, as theologians and as speakers and pastors, is so exceptional that it was clear they really didn’t need the foreign speakers to share the labors or the stage. They have a very competent and anointed group there.
You were there for the national release ceremony. Could you give us a firsthand account?
It was amazing in that there were representatives from Vineyard churches from throughout Africa that wanted to be there to witness this: the first black African Vineyard movement to be recognized. There was a sense that this was historically significant, so there were representatives from throughout Africa as well as representatives from every AVC from around the globe. The Kenyans in attendance particularly were taking such pride in the event and excitement for the release. The spiritual and emotional buzz was palpable. The different tribal groups would sing and dance; there was a great variety of worship that was performed, much in traditional costume and attire. They released their first Vineyard worship album in English and Swahili as well as some other tribal languages.
There was just this incredible buzz in the place and a sense of them finding their place on the international stage, with the other international leaders there honoring them and being there with them. It was just an exceptionally momentous feeling. As soon as the prayer time began, a proclamation of their official release was made, and hands were laid on the new national leader and his wife. The place just erupted into praise and worship and dancing. There were conga lines running around the place. All of us were being grabbed and joined in the line. I couldn’t tell how long it went. It was quite a moment when they recognized their friend and leader, Noah Gitau, was standing there in the midst of one of the largest AVCs in the world.
From having been involved there and seeing how it has grown, what would you say the new Kenya AVC can bring to the global movement? What can we learn from them?
The national director, Noah Gitau, has already been invited to participate in some international leadership events. As a group, the Kenyans bring a perspective of the developing world and their own people group which adds some much-needed wisdom we cannot get from anywhere else. They know how to make things work, how to survive without needing to use a lot of money. That can be done. You really can go and multiply a movement without the kind of finances we seem to think we need here in the U.S. I think that this is big paradigm shift. This is a voice that we don’t hear enough of, and that we need to hear to inform us as we look forward as an international movement.
What have you personally gained from being involved with the Kenyans over the last 15 years?
First, I’ve learned perseverance is required. There were so many ups and downs, so many times that we thought that the thing might crash and burn. I learned most to trust God’s sovereign hand; that when Jesus said, “I will build my church,” to witness him doing it even when you have such a mixture of obstacles and challenges going on. There was no doubt that God was really in this, really present. It continues to inspire me so much, to see the positive, to see the growth within.
My church is getting ready to plant two more churches in the U.S. this year. But my Kenya experience just reminds me that God really is about extending his kingdom and building his church, despite some tragic human barriers. It doesn’t keep him from accomplishing his purposes. Nothing will stop the kingdom from going forward.
It was so inspiring to see this happen where it did, and in this short a time span, in a country that continues to be ripe with leaders that are excellent, ready, educated and trained.
Anything else you want to add, anything that I didn’t ask about?
The Kenyan teams and our teams have grown together through the years. I think I have 20 or so Kenyan pastor-friends that I know as well as or better than my closest pastor-friends in America. We feel this family connection, this sense of being a Vineyard tribe, if you will. And I’ve realized the Vineyard values really are cross-culturally relevant. It’s a Vineyard plant being planted into different “pots,” but at the end of the day, the Vineyard DNA is there. That’s an encouragement to me, to see the values alive and relevant in another culture. As they like to say, “We are truly African, and we are truly Vineyard.” They want to be both, and they are doing a great job with that.
One of the original women in the prayer group which birthed the Kenyan Vineyard told her story to the guests and Kenyans at the release ceremony. Her final comment was, “Never underestimate the prayers of a women’s small group.” This movement, in a country where the status and power of women is regularly challenged, was born out of the prayers of this group of women. The Kenyan AVC even has women in their leadership team. I will never forget hearing those words.
Read more about the mission and vision of the Kenya AVC, including a message from the National Director Noah Gitau, here.
Bill Hanawalt, a second-generation church planter, was part of the original team that started the Evanston Vineyard in 1976. Bill received his Bachelor’s degree from Yale University and completed his seminary training at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (now Trinity International University) in Deerfield, Illinois. He was a contributor to the application notes in the Life Application Bible (Tyndale). Bill serves as one of the teaching pastors of the Evanston Vineyard and coordinates the church’s overseas missions work in East Africa, South Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. As executive pastor, he also oversees all the administrative, financial and facility functions of the church. Bill and his wife Cheryll oversee the Evanston Vineyard’s marriage ministries as well as the Vineyard Leadership Institute (VLI). He is a regular conference speaker and pastoral and missionary coach in the U.S. as well as in Africa and Latin America. He has been married to Cheryll for 40 years, and they have raised three sons and have one grandchild.
Adapted from evanstonvineyard.org