On a sweltering hot day (115°f/45°c) at Lake Kariba in Zambia, South Central Africa, I was with our volunteer team. They had just finished a year in Swaziland and we were now debriefing, relaxing and preparing to return to our various homes. I was enjoying seeing the dynamics of this team, which I had dropped off almost a year ago. They had now developed into a cohesive A-team. Through daily living, serving, and intensely growing together, they were now a little family on mission. They had just spent the year learning from, and serving God’s Church in Swaziland.
So we had been on the road for days talking about these experiences and talking in general about the Church in Africa, the Church in the U.S. and the relationship between the two. This team of Africans and Westerners had many good and bad experiences in the various local churches they had worked with, on a daily basis, over the last year. So this conversation was rich with fresh stories and personal opinions. There was shouting, arguing, laughing and at times almost tears as we chopped it up together. There was one thread, that I noticed, ran through all these conversations; an almost grieving at what the African Church could be, rather than what it is attempting to become. And then it hit me as I stared at Jess’ t-shirt while he strummed his guitar on the balcony overlooking the lake. I realized how much the shirt illustrates this perspective on the African Church.
The rhino is running her little heart out on a treadmill with a poster of a beautiful unicorn providing the motivation. It’s an impossible and therefore laughable scenario. We all know that no matter how much rhino runs, she will never become a unicorn.
What I’m about to write, is in “small” broad strokes about the Church in Africa. Meaning, this is not about one particular church or a critique of one particular denomination, nor is it meant as a generalization of “most” churches in Africa. (Since I have not been to “most” churches) It is about far too many churches I personally have encountered.
The poster of the Unicorn-
What is a unicorn, Dictionary.com? “a mythical creature resembling a horse, with a single horn in the center of its forehead: often symbolic of chastity or purity.”
The Church in the west (usually the North American Church) is the Unicorn here. It is pinned up by many African Christians and pastors as the church they want to emulate. It’s piped in via GodTV, TBN, DayStar or one of the many Christian channels which play 24/7 on multiple stations all over sub-Sahara. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in someone’s home with this playing in the background. For many pastors who have never received formal bible training or struggle to study God’s Word in-depth for lack of tools or because of an educational or language barrier, these channels have become formative teachers in their Theological understandings. This is sadly true for many Christians in Africa and obviously tragic for these pastors. But what these Christians see is a Unicorn. And this version of church portrayed, like a unicorn, is not real. It’s a mythical version of the American church. It’s a polished up, shiny, “bright lights” production. Just like reality TV; it is everything but reality. The churches portrayed on TV are not real. Sure they might be real people and real buildings but their substance is the photo-shopped version of real. Now I’m seriously tempted to climb onto my soap box about the Prosperity gospel Preachers, but I’ll save that topic for another day.
Then there are others who are more subtle but just as guilty of promoting the unicorn. They are well-meaning evangelicals who go over to Africa and present their polished conferences and seminars regarding church ministry, leadership skills etc. Not only do they fail to bridge the gaping cultural divide, they too often end up communicating a nice, clean version of how to do Church. After all, the presenter wouldn’t be here if he weren’t doing things right back at home, right? He wouldn’t have flown half way around the world to present to us a messy, confusing picture of church… which is closer to reality. Often the good substance fails to take root and participants walk away with the wrong message; “get your act together so you can be just like us!”
And so the unicorn poster is pinned up by some of the most well-intentioned among us.
The African church is the Rhino. Here she is desperately trying to be something that she’s not. Many local church buildings and church services I’ve visited, especially in impoverished communities, have an out of place, ornate feel to them. Swooping drapes, gaudy furniture (at least in the front row for the pastor, first lady and VIP guests). Everyone is dressed to the nines and everything is done in an elaborate, verbose fashion (often resulting in a 4hr service). The singing of 80’s or 90’s worship songs, the singing of songs in English when it’s not the first language of anyone in the building and the drawn out pre-offering sermon all leave me in the twilight zone. While some of these things reflect bits of cultural beauty (honor, respect, relationship) and others are simply a matter of preference, I can’t help feel this is a reenactment of something else. Like a Pinterest project gone wrong, I find myself feeling disappointed and uncomfortable at much of this theatrical experience. I’m left feeling the African Church is frantically trying to be something that doesn’t even exist. It’s a bad knock off of a perceived Western church.
The saddest thing is that this African Church really is beautiful AND it’s tragically not seeing its own beauty. This Church is not seeing how beautiful and rare it is; how unique and how African it could be!
So what do I mean by all this?
If you summon the strength to linger after a church service, you will see the hints of the greatness of the African church. Go from there and you find the beauty in this Church. The African Church is rich in community and in relationships. People experience the joy of knowing and being known. The closeness and sense of Biblical community described in the book of Acts is tangible and present. There is hospitality and generosity, even when there appears to not be enough. There is a freedom from the “me and mine” mentality that far too many in the West deeply struggle with. In the African Church there is storytelling and testifying of God’s provision and faithfulness in the toughest of times. These testimonies are fresh and daily. I am constantly amazed at the people’s ability to reflect the goodness and faithfulness of God in the midst of adversity. Their dependence, faith and trust in God in the face of chronic suffering and crushing hardship can only be explained as a work of the Spirit. And then there is the zeal and passion for the things of God; this like no other church I have seen. In moments when the people are freed to express themselves (in their language), prayer and worship are not just duties but heart emptying declarations of the Greatness of God.
I could go on but you get the point. All of the good things I list here are unfortunately downplayed rather than built on and emphasized. When I hear some pastors share their dreams and hopes for their churches, they too often sound like dissatisfied teenagers wanting something they can’t and shouldn’t have and not seeing everything they already do have; a terrible case of the-grass-is-greener disease. Rhinos have terrible eyesight. Sadly this African Church is not seeing it’s self for itself. And so little rhino keeps on running!
To the African church I say, stop focusing on what you aren’t and focus on what you are and on what God wants you to become. Get off the treadmill of fantasy and come back to reality; get back to basics and into God’s Word and go from there. You are an endangered and rare beauty. Re-prioritize. First BE God’s church in the market, the streets and in each other’s homes. Continue to love your neighbors well and forget about the spotlights. Turn off your TV’s. Discern. I exhort you to grow in humility and joy as you care for the widows, the orphans and the broken. Know the Gospel and don’t add to it. Continue to preach the real Good News and set the captives free. Make disciples not just converts. Watch out for the wolves, they are many.
To the western Church influencing God’s people in Africa, I say be discerning about what you are promoting and ultimately who’s Church you are building. Know what Kingdom you are supporting and what poster you are pinning up.
And to those of you African and Western who peddle and promote the prosperity gospel I say, Stop Poaching the Rhino! The Bridegroom is coming back, and there will be a reckoning.
Church, I don’t know exactly what you will look like but Jesus promises “to present her (you) to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Eph 5:27)
That will be a great day for us all!