I recently attended a church service at one of the "mainstream" churches at Shanzu, north of Mombasa. I was moved and touched by quite a few things which the worshippers incorporated into their service, beyond my "traditional" expectations.
To begin with, I noticed that a large number of the ladies in the congregation wore what looked like "hijab" to me. Was this in observance of Apostle Paul's injunction that the women "cover their heads", or was it a carryover from the surrounding and predominant Swahili dress code? I could not help wondering.
I certainly had no doubt about the African influence when I noticed that every part of the service, from entrance through the scriptural readings to the offertory, communion and the final exit, was accompanied by a dance, with throbbing Swahili drums.
Needless to say, this was the most enjoyable part of the worship for me. However, I am aware of Alexander Pope’s warning to us that we should not repair to church for the music instead of the edifying sermons there.
A DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE
Another aspect of the service that particularly struck me was that, when the faithful rose to make their offerings, they actually left their bags and purses in the pews. You dare not do such a thing in Kampala, or in any of the churches where I have been to in Nairobi.
Apparently, the faith of the Coast believers is stronger than ours. But we mainlanders seem to know better that when the children of God gathered, Satan went along as well.
The sermon also struck me, but for a sadly different reason. It was in English, in a predominantly Kiswahili context. I had not expected to travel all the way to Shanzu to listen to a sermon in English. But on a closer look, I realised that neither of the leading celebrants was native. One was probably from some Asian country while the preacher was from West Africa. So, the church here still depends on missionaries.
One thing I can say for that sermon, however, is that it was neither rapped nor yelled, shouted and screamed, with the preacher leaping and bouncing all over the worship place, as we are rather wont to witness these days. Matters spiritual, worship and preaching are understandably sensitive, and we meek and humble sheep of the flock had best leave them to those specially “anointed” to handle them.
But I am sure there are many of us in salvation-seeking congregations who wish that our pastors, priests and preachers would “talk” to us, speak to us as normal, intelligent human beings, instead of hectoring us with noise as if we were stone deaf.
The scriptures may be replete with references to “shouting” from mountains and rooftops, or “making a joyful noise to the Lord”. But I wonder if these should be taken literally, especially remembering, as we should always do, that most times when we quote the scriptures we are referring to translations.
In any case, we are already living in arguably the noisiest epoch in human history. I will not elaborate on this here, but I am sure we all know of the curse of electronic amplification polluting our streets, markets, entertainment joints and, alas, our churches.
A preacher who grabs a microphone and starts yelling into it, while the amplifiers, speakers and woofers are turned up to maximum volume, is obviously hurting the ears and brains of the worshipers. In my ignorance, I would think that he or she is violating a cardinal rule of spiritual life: charity to-wards our neighbours.
But I had better return to more familiar grounds. I believe that all worship, including sermons, is communication: communication with our Creator and with our fellow human beings.
Communication is a process of sharing or transferring a message from one person to another or others, through an appropriate medium. Productive communication should, of course, have a purpose, and the purpose of preaching is, I believe, conversion and conviction.
Quite often, however, I cannot help wondering whether the preachers to whom I listen, in both conventional and Pentecostal contexts, are aware of or concerned about this process of communication. I do not want to make blanket accusations, but some of my spiritual leaders often give me the impression that either they are more interested in “demonstrating” (showing off) their prowess or generating more heat than light in their congregations.
Just taking one aspect of communication, the famous Canadian scholar, Marshall McLuhan, once made a rather sweeping statement. He said that “the medium is the message”.
This pioneer of modern communication theory implied that in order to share or transfer our messages effectively, we have to handle the means, channels and tools of communication competently.
In public speech, where I believe preaching belongs, the tools are not only language but also voice, our bodies and the spaces within which we communicate.
A speech or sermon that is yelled and shouted and screamed from beginning to end is hardly an effective handling of your medium. Neither is one delivered in fantastic, plastic pseudo-American accents.
By the time the congregation has taken in all the jumps, runs and book-thumps and aisle-raids, very little will have sunk into their hearts, let alone their souls.
INDULGE IN HISTRIONICS
They may cheer and applaud, and you feel encouraged to indulge in even more histrionics, but that is hardly the purpose for which we go to worship.
I heard claims recently that if preachers do not pep up their act with performances and gangster-style raps, the young people will go away from the churches.
I will not go into that. But there are many other places where people can go for the noise and excitement generated by the rap kind of noise. In any case, a competently and sincerely delivered sermon need not be dull and boring.
Maybe I should deliver a sermon one of these days as a demonstration, if the good Lord allows.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]