If you’ve ever stood in the middle of African worship, it’s…well, it’s pretty hard to stand still.
Gotta admit. At a refugee center staff retreat, I started as a mild observer. I marveled at the literal full-bodied movement and vocalization: music that took over my heart, my body. I was, um, really dancing (don’t necessarily try to picture it…) to worship for the first time. Moisture leaked from the corners of my eyes. Perhaps you can see what I’m talking about:
After a rousing snippet of this kind of worship in staff devotions the week before, I’d told the teachers, this is just a sliver of what the African church offers the world. Every culture has its own strengths, its own vibrant display of the image of God.
And when Jesus comes, I will have watched so many cultures become the truest version of themselves.
“Whose religion is Christianity?”
A remarkable Tim Keller podcast on culture (“Culture” on this list) mentions a book, Whose Religion Is Christianity? written by an African. And this is what I love: The man addresses the opinion that those who bring Christianity to Africa are destroying African culture. As one who finds Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible a formidable cautionary tale, this intrigues me–and somehow the answer becomes very important to my service. My life.
The author, Lamin Sanneh, counters that this argument is really saying Christianity is for some cultures, but not for all.
Africa, for one, has always known that there are powerful spiritual forces in the world, the author says (via Keller, via me, at any rate. My apologies to both). The businessman, then, who comes in and says that there are no spiritual forces, that it’s a bunch of bunk, is practicing a manner of cultural totalitarianism.
But Christianity didn’t just acknowledge those forces. It gave them true, real hope and power for those spiritual forces. (This, in fact, I have seen, in light of the child sacrifice that still causes bodies to wash up on the banks of the Nile, and from the numerous haunting stories of friends.) As Sanneh challenged, Christianity revives cultures to be their fullest form of themselves–as it did for my own ancestors, and as it does for me. Christianity makes Africa truly African.
Christianity: Never Borrowed
Some of my favorite moments with Oliver, my closest Ugandan friend, popped up when she was singing a well-loved hymn around my house—in Luganda. Not being able to resist a tune I love with so much rich history, and yet being painfully elementary in my Luganda, I’d join in with English. We cheerily sang alongside each other. At the end, she always smiled and said something like, “Who taught you that?” Like it was her song to begin with. Which always made me laugh.
It makes me grateful, at those moments and also when drove down the road past the churches, for all the global workers who came before me. The ones who brought their coffins with them, and said goodbye to their families without the balm of even spotty FaceTime or British Airways or typhoid shots. Those who didn’t know how they would die, but knew they would die here, and would likely die young. They’re people who came into these rainforests before the roads were paved or were roads at all. Their white faces were the first some tribes had ever glimpsed. No, they didn’t do it all right. They brought their sin with them, just like any other global workers. But they did give their lives to bring Jesus to Africa.
So though those hymns Oliver happily sings in her airy alto may be an evidence of European culture, they remind me of the powerful work God is doing here. Christianity is not “borrowed” in Africa any more than it is in my culture. And though at times the Ugandan church is limping through troublesome theology or the sizeable restraints of poverty, I have gotten a good peek at why it is so beautiful in God’s sight.
For centuries before Oliver and me, He has been breathing new life into peoples whom He had loved and not forgotten. He was doing it even when the rest of the world didn’t know their names, or only wanted what they could get. I love that God loves and has loved Africa, and continues to bring her to stunning, vivid life.
The videoed Swahili praise song above is translated something like, I’ve searched the world to see if there was anyone like our God, and found there is no one like Him.
Post-publication note by author: I found this Gospel Coalition video from a Kenyan pastor to be a great commentary on this topic, too.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and senior editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International.
Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) releases October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.
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