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!

Mbugani

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

Pay no Attention to the White Man in Front

Mbugani is still remote enough that the presence of white skin causes commotion. This can be good and bad for the advance of the gospel. It may attract people to hear. But it may also become a distraction. [Read more →]

August 2, 2017   No Comments

Progress from the Inside Out

Change Brought by Pastoral Stipends

The effect of the pastoral stipends has been greater in some ways than what we expected. Though there is no hard and fast evidence of this, I believe there has been an up-tick in the pastors’ engaging other people. Following that, we have had productive conversations about church membership, use of the tongue, and evangelism—conversations that we have found difficult to engage in prior to dispensing stipends. It appears that the stipends have given them enough freedom to focus on other things.

There is also what the pastors have said when asked how the stipends are helping:

  • “Now when I come home my children are happy because they have had enough to eat.”
  • “I used to have one day per week for pastoral ministry [because he was spending four weekdays every week on his farm or doing day-labor], now I have five.”

Needless to say, it is really encouraging to hear our friends rejoice in God’s provision. Dispensing of stipends and building funds, however, is just the easy part of a larger project. As I’ve said during our furlough meetings, the benevolence the churches are now receiving is a band-aid fix for several systemic spiritual and economic problems. The success of the long-term fix relies on several efforts to address these complex problems. For the sake of our labor in prayer together, I’d like to highlight a few of these efforts.
[Read more →]

October 23, 2015   No Comments

Sukuma Dancing and Worship

Sukuma Dance Exposition in Luchelele

One Saturday in September 2014, a Sukuma dance troupe visited the village near our home. I decided to check it out since the predominant tribe around us, the Sukuma, are famous in Tanzania for their dance competitions. My interest was piqued when neighbors told me that this dance society was also known for dances with live snakes!

But I didn’t get to see the Sukuma snake dance on that occasion; I left soon after the program started–once I realized that this sort of dancing was unfit for Christian scruples. Later I learned that traditional Sukuma dance competitions are typically opportunities to exhibit all the things that are otherwise too scandelous to speak of openly in the village.

[Read more →]

March 26, 2015   1 Comment

The Church in Nyakaliro

This is the second post in a series on the history and progress of the churches we work with. The first post covered the church in Sweya.

Nyakaliro and Luselelo Churches in Nyakaliro

The Churches of Nyakaliro and Luselelo Following a Combined Service (2009)

A Brief History of the Grace Baptist Church in Nyakaliro

The location for the second church plant was selected by the men who had begun studying in the first years of the Bible Institute. They settled on a village about a three-hour-drive West from the church in Sweya, along the shore of Lake Victoria. The choice was influenced by (1) a desire to move west across the Mwanza Gulf, (2) the size and location of Nyakaliro relative to other villages in its district, (3) the absence of any evangelical church.
[Read more →]

June 23, 2014   No Comments

Adding Depth to the Ministerial Roster, Part 3

This is the final installment of a short series on the Bible storying project we started in August of 2013. Previous posts may be found here and here.

The seminars in which the Bible stories are taught are divided into three parts:

  1. In the first, the participants are asked about their efforts in sharing the stories since the previous meeting. Sometimes this is an opportunity for a quick review or a word of encouragement to persevere.
  2. In the second section, a new story is introduced.
  3. And in the third, the participants are given an opportunity to practice sharing the story with one another.
    The entire seminar may take about two hours. But popping in and popping out for a meeting is unheard of here. Two two-hour seminars on the west side of the Mwanza Gulf are a full day’s work. Here is a typical day’s schedule for such a trip.
Sat, Feb 2, 2014
5:20 am depart home
6:15 am arrival at Kikongo for 1st ferry
8:45 am arrival in Nyakaliro
9:30 am participants gather at the church in Luselelo; we have chai
10:00 am seminar begins
12:00 pm seminar finishes
12:30 pm Elias and his children pack to leave
12:45 pm depart Nyakaliro
2:00 pm arrive in Sengerema; visit with Hamisi
4:00 pm begin session
4:45 pm depart Sengerema
5:30 pm board ferry at Busisi
7:00 pm drop Elias and children off at Buhongwa
8:00 pm return home

 

Suya and our truck in Nyakaliro

Suya and our truck in Nyakaliro

It will be a while before we know the true impact of teaching with Bible stories. With regard to our objective to involve more people in the work of evangelism and discipleship, we are already noticing the following benefits:

  • Bible teaching can reach a broader audience. Going to the churches and teaching basic Bible stories has made teaching available to church members who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend our Bible Institute. Challenges presented by people’s age, interest, and even language ability are being overcome. For instance, stories may be translated on the spot for people who are more comfortable in their tribal language than in Swahili.
  • Bible stories have unique strengths for teaching. During the course of teaching the stories people are naturally picking up ideas that are more difficult to teach systematically. Stories are well-equipped to demonstrate man’s need for God’s grace and God’s patience in response to us.
  • Memorizing the material makes it usable in nearly any context. We hear that Bible stories have been used in conversations where people can’t carry a Bible with them. Pastors have used the stories as texts for their sermons or as standalone Bible readings in worship services.

After finishing one set of stories we have enough experience to warrant pressing forward. To make the project truly successful, the churches will have to pick up the responsibility of leading these training sessions—something we have yet to see realized.

March 4, 2014   No Comments

Adding Depth to the Ministerial Roster, Part 2

This is an overdue follow-up to a short series on our efforts to train believers in evangelism using Bible storying. Find the first post here. This post details some of the background of the project. One more post is intended to follow.

One recent trend in missions has captured attention by making some fantastic claims. I deliberately try not to be a student of trends, but it is difficult not being impressed by the numbers of some church planting movements in the past few decades. Here is a sample:

“In the 1990s, nearly 1,000 new churches are planted in Orissa [India] with another 1,000 new outreach points. By 2001, a new church was being started every 24 hours…
In 2001 a newly emerging Church Planting Movement [in China] yields 48,000 new believers and 1,700 new churches in one year…
Despite government attempts to eliminate Christianity, a Church Planting Movement in one Southeast Asian country adds more than 50,000 new believers in five years…
A Central Asian Church Planting Movement sees 13,000 Kazakhs come to faith in Christ over a decade and a half.”

Church Planting Movements by David Garrison

Garrison, David. Church Planting Movements. (Kindle Locations 424, 655, 904, 1426). WIGTake Resources.

Whenever statistics appear to be fantastically extraordinary, it is always wise to ask how the data was gathered. In this case, how were these believers and churches counted? I personally don’t find their definitions to be fully satisfying. However, even the most skeptical assessment of these movements must admit that there is an impressive number of self-multiplying groups committed to propagating biblical teaching. That warrants a closer look.

If you did look into it, you would find that these rapidly expanding church planting movements share this in common: laypeople are immediately engaging in the work of evangelism and discipleship. Knowing that the bulk of the ministerial work load among our churches falls to the pastors, this point is particularly interesting to us. How are these movements able to mobilize so many so quickly?

[Read more →]

February 17, 2014   1 Comment

Shipping Containers and the God Who Provides (Part 2)

When I announced our shipping container’s arrival I also introduced the notion that shipping containers and missionaries have had a troubled past in some parts of the world. The trouble revolves around importing a large amount of goods otherwise unavailable in remote locations. That stuff potentially creates tension between a good desire to enjoy what God has entrusted to us and a need to avoid the misperception that God’s provision isn’t necessary if a truckload of supplies can be called in at will.

In the worst cases that misperception mutated into a Christo-pagan cult preoccupied with goods coming on cargo ships. I don’t know of any cargo cults now in East Africa, but there is a strong tendency to consider Western religion as the magical source of material wealth. Adopting some level of Christianity can and has been thought to be the opportunity for Africans to tap the same power which has blessed the West (for more on this, see this video and jump to 2:30). As counter-intuitive as it may sound, good Christian generosity has made it more tempting to view Christianity firstly as a means to more stuff.

The more goods there are available, the greater the temptation is. We all probably understand this temptation. Who hasn’t wondered at some point when considering some überwealthy American, “If you can afford your own luxury jet, certainly you could help me out with something like my tuition!” We missionaries may not be people of great means by American standards, but we are überwealthy in the eyes of our African friends.

Our concern is that our message would draw more attention than our things. [Read more →]

May 7, 2013   1 Comment

Shipping Containers and the God Who Provides (Part 1)

I am glad to say that our shipping container finally made it here last week. Container Kesho (Tomorrow) is now Container Leo (Today). Thank you for praying.

Our Shipping Container Landing at Shadi

We are grateful that the container provided a means to bring things that will help clothe our growing boy, fix some things around the house, and make food preparation a little easier. While these things are not necessities, they certainly are blessings. With the blessings, however, come a few peculiar challenges. We have prayed through the logistical challenges, but there is also a grotesquely fascinating history involving missionaries and their shipping containers.

[Read more →]

April 22, 2013   1 Comment

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