Some mornings, I’m not particularly in the mood for church African style. I know that sounds horribly unspiritual of me and would get me kicked out of many missionary circles, but its true.
In some ways, as wonderfully vibrant as the worship is and as profound as the preaching can be, sometimes church in
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not making a comparison of African church and American church and saying one is better than the other. The are both wonderful. But they are very different and I’m simply saying that I am at times very aware that I haven’t been in Africa long enough to always feel at home during services here.
So, it was with these thoughts chiseling away at my peace of mind that I dutifully made my way to a church in one of the shanty compounds in Livingstone on Sunday morning. The service started at 8 a.m. and we arrived just as the first chorus was getting underway. We entered and were escorted to the front, as we always are because Africans are so gracious and honoring of their guests. As much as I admire them in this, again, there are times I long to enter a service anonymously and take a seat and worship the Lord, just as another member of the congregation.
As the service began and the first few songs finished, a man began to make his way to the exit that was near where we were seated on the side of the church. He was weeping, and was having difficulty walking and I wasn’t sure what was going on. The pastor, seated next to me, got up and helped the man out and quickly returned without saying a word.
Then as the next song started what had happened to the man that walked by, began to spread. First the worship leader, a sort of big lady, just fell to the platform floor right in the middle of a song. Other members of the worship team started toward her, as if to help her, and then backed away realizing that she had collapsed because the power of God had come over her, and not due to illness. They draped a cloth over her legs to preserve her modesty and continued with worship.
Then, within seconds, a second person on the worship team went down, and then a third. Soon, people in the front two rows of seats began to be overcome by the power of God and fell to the floor, some weeping, some convulsing violently as though a struggle between light and darkness was being fought within them. All over the sanctuary member of the congregation became overwhelmed by the power of God and for two hours this whole scene repeated itself to varying degrees.
I have seen some real abuses of what some have called “being slain in the Spirit,” a term that refers to a person collapsing under the power and presence of God. Some say it is all a show and would say that the practice is not found in the Bible. Others would go so far as to say it is of the devil. I have seen ministers who in their zeal to see a move of God have resorted to practically pushing people over so that the person being prayed for would “go down,” as though God wanted them to go down, but needed a little help to make it happen.
But this was different. No one was laying hands on any of these people (though laying on of hands is certainly biblical). One by one, they were falling to the floor, many weeping hysterically, some convulsing violently and there was no doubt that the Living God was among us. There was no one to point to and say “ahh, this person is stirring up this hysteria by getting everyone all excited.” No. It was a sovereign move of God and no one could take the credit for it because it happened all on its own. At one point I looked over at Paula and she too was crying and when I sat down to see if she was ok, she said “Yes. I’m just getting blessed.”
The church we were at that morning normally has two Sunday services. One at 8, and the other I think at 10 or 10:30. What was beautiful about what was taking place though was that the pastor didn’t stop what was happening because there was another service. By the time the second service was supposed to start, we still hadn’t concluded the worship and prayer time, because obviously God hadn’t concluded the worship and prayer time. Instead of shutting everything down though, the pastor at about 10:30 invited those who were waiting for the second service to come in and he just rolled the two services into one.
As the worship time began to wrap up the pastor had called another person from the congregation to come up and lead in worship and he began to lead us in the most joyous praise I have ever been a part of. People knew that they were in the presence of God. That reality was inescapable, undeniable. We all knew that something truly Holy had happened that morning and the whole church erupted with dancing and singing and one couldn’t help but join in. I tend to be pretty conservative in my worship, at least by Pentecostal standards, but I found myself dancing and singing as I never had before. Rarely do my feet leave the ground in church. I tend to do most of my dancing on the inside, but that day, it was impossible to keep my feet still.
As I reflected on the thoughts I had left home with that morning, and my longings for the familiarity of the church back home, I thought about what a privilege it was to have been in an African church on this particular Sunday. I realized that sometimes that longing for the safety of the familiar can keep us from the discovery and experience of the wonderful. And I realized, or maybe just remembered, that church isn’t about style. It’s about being in the presence of God. It’s about the fellowship of believers and about encountering the One true God and yet it so easily becomes about so many other things. It becomes about the style of music we love and cherish or it becomes about being with good friends or about hearing good preaching, nothing of course being wrong with any of those things. But I’ve noticed that if I’m not careful I can become a church critic picking apart this and that aspect of the service and all together missing the whole point of being there. Because the truth is, all of those things are secondary, and in fact are subordinated to the purpose of our church services, which is to bring the people of God into the presence of God.
I couldn’t help but wonder if I had been the pastor of that church on Sunday morning, if I in my western worldview, would have dogmatically stuck to the program (because after all there is a schedule to keep and people are depending on me to keep it), or if I would have thrown myself wholly into what God was doing, as Pastor Kobella did.
And sometimes here, I really wonder who is teaching who.