earthen vessels, East Africa, and the gospel
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Counter-Cultural Church Planting in Mbugani

Something is happening in Mbugani which is proving to be a added challenge to the church planting effort there. All throughout the region (and maybe most of Sub-Saharan Africa) church choirs and choir music videos are extremely popular. At least in this part of Tanzania Christians co-opted the love for traditional dancing competitions and made church choirs sensationally popular. Much like troupes dance and drum for the greatest crowd, church choirs now compete for popularity and prizes. In Mbugani, some have added a dash of entrepreneurial thinking—and poof—church planting becomes a profitable business!


The Pattern

Since the start of the evangelistic effort in Mbugani, the church from Lusolelo found themselves competing with choir competitions. So many of these outdoor meetings are taking place that some groups start theirs at sunset. We conceded that our voices and speakers aren’t amplified enough and have moved our efforts further away from town center.

Main Street of Mbugani

Residents naturally attempt to associate us with groups who have preceded. They ask, “When are you going to build a building?” Some have made offers: “You can meet on my property, but we need a building for the choir.” And after several months of sharing the gospel there, many who initially responded positively begin to get restless.

If we were to follow the pattern of church planting now established in Mbugani, this is what we would do: First, we would choose a resident with a centrally located home. Then, we would build up his house to accommodate choir shows. Finally, we would bring in speakers and large choirs to begin meetings. To add a spiritual veneer to the operation, we would conclude each meeting with a short Bible message. But the key to the whole operation is timing the offering sometime before the sermon. Since many people come just to see the choir, if you place your offering after the sermon, far less will be collected.

The Response

We’re not following that pattern.

The church-planting-as-business pattern does explain what we are observing in Mbugani. There are a small number of churches for the size of the town (and practically no gospel witness). At any one time there far too many choir meetings masquerading as churches, but these groups don’t last. They are there long enough to turn a profit before interest in a particular group fades and transfers to another.

evangelists from Lusolelo in Mbugani

While there is a great need for gospel-believing churches, there is an overabundance of non-gospel meetings and choir competitions. This explains why many residents don’t understand why we like preaching the gospel so much. We haven’t built anything yet; we haven’t held enough large outdoor meetings. We have spent many hours sharing the gospel and opening God’s word in homes. Nearly each time someone asks, “Why don’t you build a place for meeting?”

What should our response be? While others may peddle the gospel with cheap entertainment, we are encouraging one another to rely on “the open statement of the truth“ (2 Cor 4:2). Our hope is that we may walk together with people in Mbugani long enough for them to see that there is more to the truth than what others are peddling (4:5–6). Our prayer is that our message may adorned by perseverance that none of the other groups can match (4:7–18).

October 24, 2017   No Comments

To Build or not to Build

At some point in the church planting process most churches will want to build a building. In almost every case, the cost of building can present a young congregation with one of its first sizable challenges. When people are poor or property and building materials are expensive, the challenge is more acute. Here in Tanzania it seems the difficulty in building church buildings runs cross grain to what everyone expects a church building to be.

big church

A beautiful church building for $170,000

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September 17, 2016   3 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

A Foreigner’s Brief Guide to Weddings in Tanzania

Giving of Vows

Last Saturday we attended a wedding at the church here in Shadi. Establishing a marriage covenant between two believers is certainly an occasion worth celebrating. And, celebrating is something Tanzanians do well. In comparison to the African interpretation, the typical American church wedding would seem short and bland to our African friends. For us, this was a prime opportunity to better understand how important community is here.

In case you are considering having your destination wedding in Tanzania, here are few things to keep in mind:

  • First of all, weddings are all-day affairs. Announcing a starting time is optional. Just expect everyone to show up sometime in the middle of the morning and stay well after the sun goes down.
  • You may feel like the pace of the procession is obnoxiously slow, but drawing out the procession is one way to celebrate the occasion. There is no hurry; we have all day (literally).
  • After the bride and groom themselves, the most important piece of the whole day is the choir. Your special day would be incomplete with anything less than a dozen or so choir specials sprinkled throughout the service and reception.
  • A wedding is a joyful occasion, but the bride and groom must refrain from smiling. To suggest that you are joyful about leaving your parents would be disrespectful—a more serious crime than being the only one with a straight face in your wedding pictures.

Bride and Groom in Procession

  • Be thankful that there is no rehearsal. Just remember that if the generator or sound equipment fail multiple times during the service, go with the flow. This is normal.
  • If you decide to serve cow for your wedding reception, you may notice something on your plate that resembles gray fuzzy coral. This is cow intestine. Please, enjoy it. I did!
Beef stew for wedding

Kettle ‘o Cow

Lenard feeding his wife cake


October 11, 2012   2 Comments

Language Learning by Immersion

One of the most regularly asked question we received over the past year was “How well do you know Swahili?” Most are not expecting to hear that we haven’t put much effort into learning the language. We have intentionally waited to begin the process until we can be learn from native Swahili speakers. Most missionaries now say the most effective way to learn a language is to be forced to use it in real life settings. Books and lectures are merely supplements. After all, children, the best language learners in the world, learn by listening, mimicking, and readjusting. In order to hold a conversation with our neighbors in a way that doesn’t make them cringe, we’ll need to go beyond the grammars and stumble through situations where we can’t fall back on English. This is learning by immersion, aka barefooting.

The two weeks we spent in Toronto last month were the first big step in our language learning process. In that course we were introduced to the language learning techniques that missionaries and linguists have been fine tuning for the past 40 years or so. In practice this involves exercises that are not too different from Pictionary, charades, and Simon says. If we know what the Swahili speaker is talking about, we can listen and repeat after them. The goal is to skip translating back into English and instead associate the Swahili word with the object, idea, or action we are considering in the exercises.

At any rate, we still know very little Swahili. We are, however, learning one mistake at a time. The instructor made it clear that success in language learning will depend on our willingness to push through our own mistakes and build meaningful relationships with our new Tanzanian friends. Those relationships are the incentives that a grammar book can never provide. You can pray with us that God will give us strength to persevere through the language learning process and build relationships with Tanzanians.

September 27, 2012   3 Comments

Advice for Prospective Missionaries to Africa

Conrad Mbewe, pastor of Kabwata Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia, recently visited Allen Park for a luncheon and discussion with local pastors and seminary students. Pastor Mbewe’s church is involved in training and sending men to plant churches in several countries throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. We were glad to have the opportunity to pick his brain.

He was asked what advice he would give to anyone  interested in serving the Lord as a missionary in Africa. He gave two points: visit and listen.

1. Visit Africa. Since we can’t learn everything about a place through TV and the Internet, we’ll need to see it in person to understand what the real challenges and prospects are.

2. Listen to Aficans. Since we will never understand African culture as an insider, we Americans are not the best authority on what a Christlike believer looks like in Africa. Fruitful ministry partnerships between Africans and Westerners must involve humble two-way conversations where the Scripture and the culture are carefully considered.

Good advice. In my opinion, these points would be just as helpful if extended to any mission field.

February 28, 2012   No Comments