earthen vessels, East Africa, and the gospel

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A Couple Church Planting Firsts

Rather than marking church planting progress in numbers of people, I’ve been inclined to concentrate on the amount of input delivered. Specifically, I am trying to capitalize on interactions over God’s word I am having with people involved in the church plant. While the results are not my final measure of success, they are worth celebrating. Here are a couple church planting firsts.

Preaching in Usagara

Sunday sermon in Usagara

First Offering in Usagara

After 11 months of meeting for weekly corporate worship, we are now just starting to receive offerings in Usagara. July 10 we took a special collection for a lock box and notebook; and on the following Sunday we put them to use in our first regular offering.

This represents the culmination of introductory teaching on giving and multiple discussions on procedure. While the basic concept is simple, we’re seeing that managing collections without banks or a building can be complicated!

First Open Air Evangelistic Message

The church in Nyakaliro is pressing forward with their plans to plant a church in Bukokwa. My part has been mainly in encouraging Pastor Jonas. Their efforts have focused on house to house visitation, but in mid-July they held the first open air meeting. I was invited to deliver the message.

Evangelistic message in Bukokwa

Outdoor evangelistic service in Bukokwa

I preached the gospel from Luke 18:9–14, the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector. My interest in that passage comes from many comments I’ve received during recent gospel conversations. Like the tax collector, many assume that their good works merit God’s favor. By comparing ourselves to ‘those other people,’ anyone can be easily deceived about their condition before God.

I’ve now had the privilege of sharing the gospel many times in Swahili. This was the first time to preach it in Swahili for an open air meeting.

August 24, 2016   No Comments

An Engagement in Usagara

Last Monday I participated in a Tanzanian rite of passage: the negotiating of a bride price. After such a brief time working in Usagara we are already heading toward the first marriage among us. Since it’s in everyone’s best interest to make the engagement official, we agreed that the young man along with representatives of the church should meet with the young lady’s family to make intentions known.

couple in Usagara

A Christian Version of Tradition

Traditionally, marriages were negotiated between families. These days the church is more often filling the role that role especially when the couple are Christian and the family is not. The church’s involvement preserves the good aspects of tradition while enabling believing couples to dispense with non-Christian customs. For example, covenant-like accountability in marriage is good; but overbearing parents trying to force traditional religion on the new family is not good.

Most of our churches favor a procedure like as follows: the young man ready to marry approaches church leadership. The pastor counsels the young man and plans are made to start meeting with the young woman’s family for negotiations. The pastor and other adult men from the church would represent the young man in these meetings. Their objectives would be first to secure the consent of the young woman and her family, agree to a bride price which would be paid to the bride’s family, and then arrange plans for the wedding.

Meaning of Bride Price

An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. (Proverbs 31:10)

The bride price is an expression of the groom’s commitment to his bride (Compare Gen 34:12; Ex 22:16–17). Traditionally, it is also seen as a compensation to the bride’s family for giving up one of their household workers (to start a new family usually near or at the groom’s parents’ home).

The closest thing we have to the bride price is the engagement ring. But unlike our customs, the bride price is arranged by families, paid collectively from one family to another, given as cows and/or cash, and could be relatively more costly than the equivalent of that ‘one month’s income’ guideline we hear from Western jewelers. At any rate, the comparison makes for some pretty interesting thought experiments. I couldn’t help but imagine my parents sitting down with Laura’s parents to negotiate how many carats her diamond engagement ring should be. If the discussion went any thing like bride price negotiations here, her parents would certainly point out that she has a college degree, there are other eligible men lining up, and so on. (I’m so glad we did not have to do that!)

how many cows?

Outcome and Take-Aways

For our part we were successful last Monday. We received the bride’s family’s blessing and reached agreement on a bride price. If deadlines for delivering it are met, we should have a wedding by this time next year.

Other miscellaneous observations as an outsider:

  • The negotiating skills at work on that day truly impressed me. The Tanzanian reputation for talking their opponents into submission was proven on that day. Negotiations lasted 6 hours that day, but typically could go on for days.
  • The trip provided the opportunity to visit a part of the country I’ve never been to before.

    Msalala, Geita Region, Tanzania

  • I might consider introducing our family to this custom by the time Kyla comes of age (but most definitely after Ian marries)
  • When asked to be one of the young man’s representatives, I hesitated thinking that I had nothing to offer the negotiating process. But I was told that the family would be interested in pastoral involvement. So, in the end, I was glad to represent the spiritual interests of the couple.

July 20, 2016   1 Comment

Encounters with African Traditional Religion

witchdoctor[image credit: BBC News]

I used to be of the impression that outward and ritualistic practice of African Traditional Religion had become so unpopular in Tanzania that it’s practitioners were now just a small and marginalized minority. I’ve since been forced to readjust my thinking. Belief in the supernatural aspects of traditional religion are alive and well. Perhaps the evidence of this is most visible in places like Lusolelo, where we are further removed from the city. Here are some recent encounters. [Read more →]

June 28, 2016   No Comments

June 2016 Ministry Update

The dry season has most definitely arrived. This is the time of year agricultural work slows down, building projects pick up, and we exchange all the rain clouds for dust clouds. As brown and dry as it is now, it is hard to imagine how everything was so green and wet five months ago.

Evangelism in Bukokwa, Usagara, and Malimbe presses on. In each place we have seen enough positive responses to begin regular discipleship work with young Christians. At the same time, we have been working long enough in these locations to experience disappointment over relationships that don’t carry on (usually because there is some disagreement with the gospel or our teaching).

William Moves to Usagara

William, Mama Eliya (Kristina), Eliya, Festo, and little Abigail moved from Shadi to Usagara this month. They were formally commissioned by their sending church in Shadi and generously helped by them to make the transition.

William packing

William packing with help from friends

They intend and we hope that this will make their work in Usagara both more effective and less burdensome. We also know that, like any move, they will be adjusting to a new place and figuring out how to keep up relationships with friends and family that are now farther away. Though the challenges are not as extreme in William’s case, past experience has demonstrated that moves for the sake of ministry in this context can be very difficult.

Prayer Update

  1. Wives of both Maiwe Livingston (language tutor and employee) and William Samweli (church planter in Usagara) gave birth to beautiful baby girls on April 29 and 30. Thank you for praying! All are healthy and starting to recover from sleep deprivation.
  2. Beginning this Monday (20 June) the church in Shadi is planning outdoor evangelistic meetings in their village. A meeting place will be made near the “center” of the village and the gospel will be preached there daily until Saturday. Please pray that the gospel may be clearly proclaimed, that God may graciously engage hearts and call people to give Him the glory He deserves.
  3. Thank you all for praying for the various church planting efforts. God has truly given us an open door to proclaim the good news (Col 4:3)! Continue praying with us that we may speak wisely to saved and unsaved and that this door may not be shut on our toes (cf. 1 Cor 16:9)!
  4. Work for the next Bible Institute class has already begun. Students who attended the class on the message of the Bible should be wrapping up their assignments by the end of July. These assignments include sharing the gospel with others and executing some expression of unusual kindness for fellow church members in need. Pray that God may use these assignments and the ongoing Bible Institute coursework to build His church.

June 17, 2016   No Comments

Jonas Update

Remember Jonas?

Some of you may remember the testimony of Jonas’s departure from the church in Lusolelo as I shared it in our US church meetings last year. I explained his struggle to make ends meet and the circumstances which led to his stepping down as their pastor. Mentioning his experience was intended to help you see the complexity of the challenges facing the Tanzanian churches: specifically that spiritual growth in the churches is in some way affected by the economic condition of the churches and their pastors.

Jonas’s is one example among a few similar circumstances that led us to begin temporarily supporting the Tanzanian pastors with modest stipends and helping their churches with building projects. Similar thinking is driving our agricultural projects.


Jonas’s spiritual and material recovery since those days has been a source of thanksgiving to God and encouragement to us. After leaving Lusolelo, Jonas returned to his sending church in Nyakaliro. Having reconciled with the church in Lusolelo, he took up occasional ministry with the church in Nyakaliro. His service stepped up when Pastor Elias made the move from there to Sweya. [Read more →]

May 26, 2016   No Comments

How Much Does it Cost?

A recent sermon preached in Usagara provides a means to consider both an important matter in following Jesus as well as an example of contextualizing Bible teaching. [Read more →]

May 18, 2016   1 Comment

April 2016 Prayer Update

We are starting to see the multiplication of gospel workers pick up speed. Bible Institute students are growing in confidence as they share the good news and churches are reporting that their neighbors are responding to the gospel. Having already gone to many of their immediate neighbors, visitation has already expanded to places requiring, for example, a 30-minute-walk from the church in Lusolelo and a 20-min-bike ride from the church in Nyakaliro. And, in this month’s pastors’ meeting, anticipating the birth of new churches, we started discussing the revision of the existing constitution to make provision for how churches can be added to the fellowship.

This feeling that we’re strapped to the front of a train that’s gaining speed is probably normal. Though the condition of the track ahead is uncertain, it’s all exciting and a bit unsettling at the same time! Let me give you a quick snapshot of what’s happening. [Read more →]

April 21, 2016   No Comments

Usagara Update

We reached a small milestone in the Usagara church plant last week when the church in Shadi formally recognized me as a co-evangelist with William Samweli. Whereas before I was primarily supporting William, I now have permission from the Mama Church to initiate evangelism and discipleship meetings with residents of Usagara. Although it may be a technicality, it helps shape the relationship I have with William with respect to the church plant.

the tent in Usagara

The Tent in Usagara before Sunday Service on 10 April

William, by the way, has been more occupied at home supporting his wife, who is nearing the due date for their third child. It is uncommon for a Tanzanian man to do the cooking, but that is what he is doing.


William and I will be working together to plan preaching for Sunday services so as to prepare the group for baptism and church membership. Recent sermons have addressed giving and membership; baptism, church constitution, and other doctrinal distinctives are upcoming.


We are starting to work through the evangelistic visitation that was assigned to the students who attended the recent Bible Institute class. Just seven months ago many of us from Shadi started making weekly trips to Usagara to go house to house sharing the gospel, now those who have responded to initial efforts are starting to share the good news with their own neighbors.


Not everything is sunshine and roses, of course. Some who started well have become less regular in attendance. Others outside our little group have started some unpleasant rumors about us. Nevertheless, God has been gracious in the work towards reconciliation. We pray that as William and I can respond to these matters more consistently and as our Usagarian friends are enabled to serve one another that God’s graces may multiply.

April 14, 2016   1 Comment

Anthony Sollo

Anthony Sollo came to the tent in Usagara for Sunday worship a few weeks after starting services. Already committed to finding a church which preaches so that people may know God rather than getting cars and wealth, our little group instantly appealed to him. Since then, I’ve come to recognize him as one of the most interesting Tanzanians I’ve met so far. Let me introduce him to you using a few recent episodes.

Anthony Sollo and his wife at Bible Institute class

Anthony Sollo and his wife at Bible Institute class

Bible Institute

About two weeks after he started attending Sunday worship services in Usagara, he asked for the opportunity to study the Bible with us. This has been an interest of his for some time. Anthony’s primary occupation is volunteer work with an organization which defends human rights. Among other matters, he advocates for victims of accidents and accused criminals who would otherwise become victims of vigilante justice. He believes that a better understanding of the Scriptures will help him serve his neighbors.

I failed to mention it in the video about our recent Bible Institute class, but we were joined by five students from the church plant in Usagara; Anthony and his wife were among them. We believe that he heard the gospel clearly for the first time that week. Though he grew up going to church, he says that what he learned at Bible Institute convinced him that he had yet to be born again.

Butimba Prison

In a way, he has returned the favor by revealing to me many aspects of Tanzanian life that I know little about. Part of his job is to educate his fellow Tanzanians about the less-known details of the judicial and civil systems (most details such as basic rights are not understood). It’s all appeared pretty opaque to me, so Anthony proposed taking me on a visit to the nearby prison.

Butimba Prison is “home” to over 2,000 inmates–very few of whom have definite sentences. Once you’re locked up, it’s very difficult to get you out. We went in for two purposes: to distribute informational materials provided by Anthony’s parent organization and to explore the possibility of starting a gospel ministry the prison. Regarding the first, the prison staff officers were very receptive to receive any information and training regarding legal rights, admitting that “many [of the inmates] had no reason to be locked up.” (!!) Regarding permission to preach the gospel to the inmates, we would have to get permission from higher-ups in the corrections system.


Anthony is currently in the next major city south of Mwanza locating a home for an abandoned boy that showed up on the doorstep of one of our friends in Mwanza City last Sunday. This boy is about 12-yrs-old; he is originally from north-eastern Tanzania; and he answers to Jumanne, which is Swahili for “Tuesday.” There are procedures and systems for helping abandoned children, but, unfortunately, I’m not that familiar with them. Tumaini Children’s Home is already at capacity, the police have turned Jumanne away and social service system is overwhelmed (they weren’t happy to see us bringing them another child). So what do you do?

Anthony stepped in to help find an orphanage that could care for “Tuesday.” He has received an invitation to stay in Shinyanga where some close friend will vouch for the boy’s wellbeing. But since “Tuesday” is not in the welfare system, somebody will be needed to track down any relatives to confirm his biographical details and the truth regarding his abandonment. That somebody will be Anthony.


Take-Aways from a Few Laps with Anthony

  1. Great commission work touches a staggeringly large swathe of life. Let’s pray that, where it isn’t already, the Lordship of Christ may reach into areas like parenting and legal matters.
  2. As demonstrated by the comments of the prison staff, the line between guilty and innocent is so much more blurry here than it is in the West.
  3. Even after 3.5 years here, it is still fitting to be the learner. It is good to lean on Tanzanian friends as resident guides.
  4. God is sovereign in building His church. He is drawing people from different walks of life and equipping them in various ways to accomplish His purposes. It’s a beautiful thing.

April 8, 2016   No Comments

March 2016 Prayer Update

I have maintained blog silence for longer than I’d prefer. There has been some intense focus on the Bible Institute during February and then some equally intense focus on a family vacation in early March. Following that, the first thing I wanted to pass along to you is the answers to prayer we’ve seen in the Bible Institute classes of the last month. To give you the best look at what God has done, I’ve spent some time putting a video together. It’s now ready. The video is longer than our usual updates and the craftsmanship is spotty, but I hope you’ll agree that the content is significant.

Prayer and Praise

  1. Thank you for praying for the Bible Institute class. Without a doubt, this has been one of the most encouraging experiences of our work here thus far. Perhaps the greatest praise is that God continues to bear fruit as students use what they have been taught in evangelism and mutual encouragement. Praise the Lord with us and pray that God may be pleased to sustain what He has started.
  2. May our families and churches be properly focused on God’s grace to us through Jesus’s death and resurrection this weekend. I will be preaching the Good Friday message in Shadi. Other pastors are planning for evangelistic messages this Resurrection Sunday. Pray that God may be glorified.

March 24, 2016   1 Comment