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Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Five things Western Christians can learn from African Christians

This post has been inspired by U.S. Evangelical leader Dr. Michael Brown's article, '4 Things Black Americans Can Teach White Americans About Faith'. I've now spent about half of my adult life living in Africa (seven years). During that time I've married into an African family, been part of a church in which I was the only white person, and am now part of a mixed-race church including people from many African countries. I currently belong to a Bible study group in which I'm one of two white people. Hence, I've been privileged over the past few years to have a window into African culture.

When I first came to Africa in 2007 as a volunteer/missionary, my attitude was that I was coming to 'fix' Africa; that I had a lot to offer to Africa and that Africa had a lot to learn from me. However, for the most part I had it backwards. I've learned a lot more from Africa than Africa has from me. Africa has 'fixed' me a lot more than I've 'fixed' Africa (or, rather, God has used Africa to fix me). Below I want to highlight a few of the things I've learned from the African church. Some of these observations will apply to African culture generally, regardless of religion; but I'm writing in a Christian context.

First, a disclaimer: I'm not claiming that the African church is superior to the Western church, or that African Christians have nothing to learn from Western Christians. Indeed, I think everyone benefits from cross-cultural exchange in the church. However, I think there may be a perception in the West - lingering from the colonial era - that Africa is culturally and anthropologically backward, the church included. When I returned to Canada from my first trip to Africa in 2008, an elderly Christian said to me something along these lines: "So, you've been over working in darkest Africa. But tell me, is it possible to teach them any morals?" While one seldom encounters such overtly discriminatory language with younger generations, I think the assumption that African culture is somehow morally or socially inferior to Western civilization persists in a latent form.

Anyway, on to what I have learned. (Note that I'll be using the term 'Africans' to refer to black people of African descent and 'Westerners' to refer largely to white people of European descent, while allowing for a certain lack of precision in this terminology.)

1. The value of time

The term 'African time' is generally used to refer to the lack of emphasis on punctuality in African culture. Hence, you might receive a wedding invitation where the starting time is specified as 12:00, and then arrive at 12:10, flustered and embarrassed at having arrived late only to find you're the first one to arrive. In an African community church, the Sunday service time is largely dictated by when the congregants arrive, rather than the other way around. This can be frustrating for Westerners who are used to running their lives by the clock. It may appear to us to be disrespectful to God when a service scheduled for 9:00 starts at 9:07.

However, this coin has two sides. When the service starts is one thing, but what about when it ends? Western churches tend to be just as punctual about ending their services on time. A church service will typically run for an hour or an hour and a half, and if it runs long people start shifting in their seats, pointing to their watches, and generally becoming unhappy. After all, they have important things to do: Sunday lunch, grocery shopping, housework, a sporting event to watch, an afternoon nap...

In an African church, however, just as the service starts when it starts, so it ends when it ends - which may be after three hours, or five hours. Instead of trying to squeeze everything into a predetermined interval, the church gives the Spirit freedom to dictate how long the service will last. This gives the impression that, for African Christians, worshiping God is the most important thing on their Sunday to-do list. Everything else can wait. (It's much more in keeping with the Sabbath concept, don't you think?) African Christians don't get tired of singing God's praises and don't get impatient of listening to a minister preach God's Word for an hour or more.

I've experienced Spirit-filled African church services which went on for five hours but which felt like one hour. I think in the West, with our attention spans having been abbreviated by a fast-paced lifestyle and overabundance of visual stimuli, we have a lot to learn from African Christians about the value of time spent with the church in the presence of God.

2. Worship through harmony and dance

Many African people are very gifted when it comes to vocal harmonization, rhythm and dance. Consequently, African worship through music tends to be very expressive and engages the whole being: heart, soul, body and mind. Like many white people, I don't have these gifts and my body generally remains anchored in position even when my emotions and mind are deeply invested in a song.

The fact that African worship music often sounds better, looks better and 'feels' better than Western worship music does not mean it is more pleasing to God or that Western churches should abandon their own beautiful hymns and choruses and try to emulate the African church. That would be a disaster; and what is most important in worship is the sincerity of the worshiper. However, Western Christians can be edified greatly by observing or participating in African worship.

3. Belief in the supernatural

The biblical world is full of supernatural beings and happenings. There are miracles and prophecies. There is angelic visitation and demonic possession. The activity of the Holy Spirit is so central to the life of the New Testament church. Prayer leads directly to divine intervention. However, in the Western church today, with its intellectual sophistication grounded in science and rationalism, these features of the biblical worldview are an embarrassment to many. All too often, when we encounter them in the text, we unconsciously ask, "How do I make this go away?" The question is typically answered by appealing to one of two hermeneutics. The first acknowledges supernatural realities but relegates them exclusively to the distant past, safely out of sight where we don't have to try to square them with our own experience (or lack thereof). The second is more extreme and simply denies objective reality to spirits, miracles, and the rest. Some or all of these features are interpreted metaphorically or existentially. In either case, we tell ourselves that in our daily lives we can completely ignore the supernatural world of the Bible and restrict our attention to the material realm.

According to traditional African belief, spirits (both good and evil) play an active role in life. Visions, healers and charismatics have a place in the worldview. Hence, Africans bring a basic credulity to supernatural features in the biblical text and tend to accept them at face value. African hermeneutics see no need to drive a wedge between the biblical world and our own. Africans thus encounter the supernatural aspects of Bible in an authentic way that is arguably much closer than rationalistic, Western hermeneutics to the way the text was read in antiquity.

Of course, African credulity with respect to miracles, prophecies and spirits also comes with dangers - namely, the danger of being duped by false prophets and deceitful, harmful charismatic practices. The same dangers were well known in the early church. Hence there is a balance to be struck between the extremes of naive credulity and cynical skepticism. This is what, in biblical language, would be called 'discernment'. However, African credulity still serves as a corrective to the Western church which has been heavily influenced by rationalistic skepticism and consequent marginalization of supernatural aspects of the Christian worldview.

4. Respect for authority

Within the African church, and African culture in general, one of the most important values is that of respect for authority and, in particular, elders. Children are disciplined and taught to obey parents and authority figures. Younger people address an older man as a father and an older woman as a mother (indeed, they tend to address other young people as such provided they are married). One follows certain protocols in the presence of an elder in order to show deference and respect.

In general, African churches are characterized by this respect for authority (including for spiritual leaders) which translates into order and decency in church life. This contrasts with the anarchy which characterizes some Western churches, in which each congregant thinks he or she knows better than everyone else and certainly better than the leadership.

Of course, once again this virtue has its downside, which is that an environment where respect for authority is paramount experiences great damage when that authority is abused. In the African context this is particularly evident in the political sphere, where citizens show endless patience toward corrupt and repressive regimes. In the African church, too, the flock is prone to being led astray by lupine leadership. In the West, we have long since 'learned' that human leaders cannot be trusted and that all human authority is suspect. However, at least in an ecclesiastical context, the order and harmony that accompanies sound church leadership more than justifies the African model of respecting authority by default unless or until that authority is abused.

5. Familiarity with certain biblical customs

The last area of learning is not a virtue per se, but simply a fact of life. In certain areas, African culture is much closer to biblical culture (i.e. the culture of the ancient Near East and the Hebrews in particular) than Western culture is. Hence, Africans may be able to encounter certain features of the biblical narrative with a deeper understanding than Western readers.

Firstly, the bride-price custom (ilobolo in Zulu), which is practiced in various forms throughout sub-Saharan Africa, is assumed (but never explained) within the Old Testament narrative (cf. Gen. 24:50-54; 29:16-20; 30:20?; 34:12; Ex. 22:16-17; Judg. 14:1-5, 10-13?; 1 Sam. 18:20-27). In this practice, a man must pay a woman's family a negotiated amount (traditionally cattle, but in urban areas today, cash) before he can marry her. This is not a 'dowry'; in fact, the closest analogue in Western culture would probably be the engagement ring (although in this case the gift goes to the woman's family and not the woman herself). In the traditional African mindset it is this payment, rather than a ceremonial exchange of vows or a civil procedure, which solemnizes the marriage! This is no longer the case from a legal standpoint, of course, but if a man refuses to pay, his in-laws may never recognize him as the legitimate husband of their daughter. The rationale behind the bride-price seems to be threefold. (1) It demonstrates to the woman's family that the man has the means to provide for her. (2) It compels the man to value his wife and marriage and not take it lightly. (3) It compensates the woman's family for their expenditure on raising her, an investment from which they will get no further return since her obligation's will now be to her husband and his family. The bride-price should in no way be construed as the man purchasing the woman as though she were chattel (although obviously in times past the woman moved in marriage from her father's to her husband's sphere of authority).

The bride-price custom is something I experienced firsthand. The social utility of this custom is a subject of debate today, including within the church. I won't go into detail on that here, but I certainly disagree with articles like this one which oppose the practice entirely. I think African Christian families ought to continue with this practice, but parents should not be greedy and should avoid demanding an unrealistic amount that will burden the young couple financially or delay the marriage.

Other examples of biblical rituals and customs which are practiced in modern Africa include male circumcision, animal sacrifice, and polygamy. To observe this is not to endorse these practices (some of which raise profound moral and theological challenges). Nor is it to claim that the way they are practiced in modern Africa corresponds exactly to the way they were practiced in Israel or elsewhere in the ancient Near East. One can simply note that in a number of ways, African culture is closer to biblical culture than Western culture is, and so familiarity with these African customs may assist us in understanding the Bible in its sociological and anthropological context.

I'm grateful to God for all of the faithful African believers in Christ whom I've been blessed to know over the past seven or eight years.

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