A while ago I went to Maputo as part of a four-man ministry team.
A bishop of a group of non-denominationally aligned local churches had asked us to help him establish a school of church leadership. The idea was to present a two day preaching workshop, followed by a further two days servant leadership conference.
About fifty pastors from sixteen different churches attended all four days. On the fifth day another 120 or so leaders joined the group for a recap of the material.
The first day started thirty minutes late as delegates straggled in from their long taxi rides from all over Maputo. Then the hosting Bishop made his ten minute opening address last for thirty minutes! But hey, who was watch-watching? Certainly not me, because I wasn’t wearing one! So, we eventually began the workshop an hour later than planned and started off by asking the delegates to be in the building before nine each day. The next day most of them were there by eight thirty and we started the session at nine. Every day they arrived a little early so that we could begin on Chronos time. However, during the sessions we had to stretch the allocations for group work so that they could explore each issue more conversationally. I felt that together we found a harmony between two different approaches – no, African time is not a bad thing.
We also assumed that people would not want to talk on cell phones during the sessions. Most of the pastors who attended were very poor yet almost all of them had a cell phone. In preparation for the conference one of our team had phoned a member of the hosting organisation. “Why are you whispering?” he asked, and the pastor replied, “because I am busy preaching.” We asked them to switch off their cells phones before the start of each session. But the problem with this is that we made no allowance for local transport conditions. What about the delegate standing waiting for a taxi and just calling to say “Please send someone to pick me up. I don’t want to miss any of the teaching”?
Actually, we assumed many things. For instance, we had no idea that small group work is not common in the local environment. Most of their instruction is of the ‘chalk and talk’ variety. Throughout the four days of instruction we had them sit at tables of four to discuss and then work through exercises. At first they just looked and us, and then at each other, and then they went for it with gusto. Ten minute exercises took twenty minutes, and it was hard to get them to stop ‘sharing’, but we were relaxed and allowed the discussions to continue until the kairios time was right.
We assumed that the delegates would know how to respond to session evaluation questionnaires, but they didn’t understand the concept. They perceived the ‘teacher’ to be an authority figure and didn’t understand why we would want them to presume to comment on his material or presentation. We assumed that they would understand our westernised illustrations and applications, but of course in many cases they didn’t – our fault, not theirs. We assumed that the organisers would know what we would expect them to arrange for the conference, but they didn’t. Tables and chairs? What for? Remember that small group work was a foreign concept. Tea breaks? (or should I say ‘cell phone breaks’) Great idea, but you mean we need to actually provide tea? Not as strange as it seems because they are a poor people and usually just have a drink of local water at the breaks.
The preaching workshop included a steady build up to a five minute sermon presentation. The small group work centred on helping each other with each stage of the preparation. Because there were so many delegates and we had limited time, we decided that we would only ask seven of them to present their sermons. The first one up was a dignified looking man in his late fifties who had been preaching for forty years. He read his text and then proceeded to preach on everything except what the text contained. My heart sank! A major point of the workshop was to teach expository, not topical, preaching. He concluded happily and I asked the other pastors to comment. To my joy they picked up on everything they had learned from our time together and pointed out the poor man’s shortcomings. “I know” he confided later, “I had planned to preach as I had been taught, but when I stood up it all just disappeared, and I found myself doing what I had been doing each Sunday for forty years.”
These Pastors generally operate as ‘one man bands’ and see themselves as doing the work of the ministry, instead of preparing God’s people for works of service (Ephesians 4:9). In fact, many of them see ‘works of service’ as the people serving them. We taught on servant leadership and used Jesus’ foot washing as an example. At lunch times some of the women took basins, jugs of water, and towels which they held so that the ‘pastors’ could wash their hands before eating. On the day we taught on servant leadership, we took over that menial role. The next day we asked the four Bishops present to perform that service, which they happily did. I noticed that the senior Bishop liked to wait inside the hall for his food to be brought to him, but my spirit soured when I saw him with a basin in his hands. On the last day of the conference I spotted him standing in line like all the rest!
I must confess that this ministry trip has given me a lot to think about.
I am convinced that biblical principles far outweigh cultural considerations.
So I am comfortable teaching the concept of expository rather than topical preaching. But I wonder if it is not presumptuous to teach that a sermon must have a clear purpose, a proposition, a short introduction and a content appropriate conclusion? Is this really the best way to preach in a typically African cultural setting? Good governance is a biblical principle, but do they really need to have a formal church membership? Stewardship is certainly taught in the Bible, but is a finance committee necessary in a small indigenous church?
How would I pastor a church if I were in their circumstances? They have so little, and even their language does not lend itself to philosophical or spiritual concepts. Yet they appear hungry for truth, and they seem to want to be faithful pastors of God’s people. And oh how they love to sing and to pray – if only I could import that spirit of spontaneous boldness! Perhaps the ‘inch deep’ aspect of African Christianity is more a matter of definition than of fact!
I hope that we left a lasting legacy of truth and praxis. I trust God that some mindsets shifted. However, I know that I have been changed in some ways by the Pastors of Maputo, and I bless them for this. I wonder if at least one of them said, “aiysh, those peoples’ ideas are a mile deep but only an inch wide!”