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In a Village Church, part three

August 25, 2008

IN A VILLAGE CHURCH, part three.

Here is the third part of my report on the events of a visit to Martin Seliane’s church. Martin is one of our students here at Christ Seminary in Polokwane, South Africa.

[CULTURAL NOTE: It is not at all derogatory in South Africa to refer to the different races as “whites” or “blacks” or “colored” (mixed races). All people of all races use these terms all the time with no insinuation of racism. I use these terms in this update.]

Time and a schedule are more like general guidelines to the black African culture and that is true for when church is scheduled to start. On Sunday morning we arrived with Martin and his family about fifteen minutes before church was due to begin. The time to start came and went and, besides Martin’s family and myself with two of my kids, there were only two other people at church. People started to make their way in and the church was finally full about half an hour after the service was supposed to start.

I feel it would be appropriate to mention that there was a middle-aged white woman at church on that morning. This is highly unusual in that Martin’s church is on the edge of town in an all black settlement where the poorest of the poor live. She is a lawyer (which to me it is more surprising that a lawyer came to church than a white person came to a black church). She lives in town and Martin had been ministering to her and inviting her to church and she decided to come. Martin witnesses to everyone and invites them all to church. He does not care what their color is and he is trying to break down racial barriers and wants a multi-racial church. A few months ago Martin heard that the man who used to be the head of the South African secret police during the time of white rule had become a Christian. This was the man who’s organization kept track of and “dealt with” any dissent in the country. He is an old white man in his seventies. Martin heard he became a Christian and so he found the old man’s phone number, called him and invited him to come to church and share the gospel and what God had done in his life. The old man accepted. Needless to say there was more than just some raised eyebrows among both the whites and the blacks. Martin advertised, rented the meeting hall and the place was packed with hundreds of people that Sunday. It was quite a day and maybe I’ll have Martin write down what happened and I’ll send it along.

Back to the Sunday I was at Martin’s church – In the black African churches the pastors sit up front on a platform and face the congregation. Since there is no platform in Martin’s church he and I sat against the wall at the front of the shack. This meant my six year old son Michael could not sit with me but instead sat with the other kids his age near the front. Whenever we go anywhere Michael is my constant companion and holds on to me tighter than my shadow so he was not comfortable sitting away from me in new place.

We all sat there for a moment and then, it seemed to me, the congregation just spontaneously began to sing. There was no song leader, but different people would start a song whenever they felt like it. All the singing was in the Sotho language but many of the tunes were familiar. It was mainly responsive singing with one person singing a line and then the congregation echoing the line back. There are some strong voices in Martin’s church and the singing was quite loud. The volume increased with each song until everyone up and down the dirt street could hear us clearly.

The rhythm also increased and, as the singing got louder and the service wore on, each group of people took their turn jumping, swaying and marching up and down the short aisle of the church. The old grey haired women (the “mothers of the church”) came first shuffling and bouncing to the rhythm of the songs. Then the middle aged and young women came forward, kneeled in a circle, threw back their heads, sang, shouted loudly and shook themselves as they swayed in and out of the circle. After one song they withdrew to their seats and the little kids jumped around for a minute. Then the young men came forward and jumped and shouted and shook and clapped and sang.

My daughter Kimberly and I had experienced this before so it was no big deal, but for my six year old son Michael this was brand new, and foreign. I glanced at him every few moments and for the whole song service he stood perfectly ridged and upright, arms straight down at his sides and knees locked. His eyes were as big as silver dollars and he did not turn his head. He watched in fear and amazement. He glance at me a few times and I gave him a reassuring look, but when the circle of ladies began to shake and shout he fell back on the bench trembling and sobbing. I walked over to him, sat down and put him on my lap and reassured him. I said, “It’s OK buddy, I got you. It’s OK, they are just singing and praising God in their own way. Listen, do you hear that song? Do you recognize the tune? We sing that same song in our church. They just do it a little differently here.” He buried his face in my shoulder and sobbed for the next five minutes. I began to sing along quietly in English and he began to recover and by the end of the singing he was doing better. I am glad he went through that. One of the big benefits my children have is being in different churches in different cultures and experiencing how they worship and relate to God. It was quite a lesson and growing experience for Michael.

When I got up to preach I had a big wet spot on my shoulder from where Michael had been crying. My text was Romans 1:16. I preached through an interpreter, which I don’t like at all and have never done well. You can never really get going when you have to wait for an interpreter. But, even if I was fluent in their language I will never be as effective a preacher as one of their own. This is why I teach Martin at the seminary instead of trying to plant a church in some village. The students will always be far more effective in reaching their culture and preaching to their own people than I or any other outsider ever could be. We have around sixty-five full time students at the seminary form numerous African countries. We have an immediate impact on dozens of churches from many different African cultures when we teach these men in the classroom. Though I don’t think I preached that well, everyone was kind after the sermon and said I did a good job and someone asked if he could have my notes. I knew they were all being kind and I thought of the proverb, “to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet.”

The next update will come in a day or two and will be the final one for this trip. In part four I will relate what was, to me, the most poignant and memorable experience of the whole weekend.

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