Learning from African Christians

Bryan with team members Daniel & Jalia Matovu

As we prepare to lead a team into an unreached area of Tanzania, I wanted to share our views on the importance of entering a new culture with the attitude of a learner.  We should always be learning, seeking out new ways of understanding the world and our role in God’s redemptive plan.  Let me share with you some of the things I have learned from our Christian brothers and sisters in Africa.

Christians who are committed to understanding God’s word eventually come to the realization that humans are limited in their ability to understand that word.  A particular and localized worldview, for example, impedes a person from fully grasping the complexity of scriptural revelation that was given for all peoples at all times.  With this in mind, it becomes apparent that cross-cultural interaction and discussion provides participants the opportunity to increase their ability to understand the God who lives in all cultures and communities.  This type of communication opens up the scriptures in unexpected ways, gradually showing the reader another side of the multi-faceted diamond that is the word of God.

As American Christians engage the bible with their African counterparts, the differences in their cultural and linguistic backgrounds will eventually rise to the surface.  Instead of dissecting all of the many historical and socio-economic factors that determine either the American’s or the African’s worldviews, let’s look at one generalized difference between the two: the American’s sense of individualism compared to the African’s sense of communal identity.  A typical American Christian will have the temptation to read the bible from an individualistic perspective, focusing on the relationship between God and the individual sinner, with an emphasis on personal salvation.  This person, then, can benefit greatly by listening to an African’s understanding of the corporate teachings, encouragements and exhortations that are present throughout the bible.

There is a word used in southern Africa that carries with it a great cultural significance.  “Ubuntu” originates from a Zulu/Xhosa heritage, but there are variations of the word all over the continent.  Ubuntu is an African philosophical idea that, at its core, means, “A person is a person through other persons.”  Thus it can be said that a majority of the African population find their identity through their relationships with their communities.  The Swahili word “harambee” (let’s all pull together) is another popular expression that symbolizes the African emphasis on community.  This aspect of the African worldview is the lens through which they read the bible.  Furthermore, the communal aspect of African life more closely resembles the culture of the 1st century church.

There are many examples of how interaction with Africans can provide a fresh perspective on the scriptures for an American.  The end of Acts 2 gives us a picture of the early church much more recognizable to African brothers and sisters than to Americans.  Luke’s description in verse 44 of “all who believed were together and had all things in common” is read in a new light after spending any amount of time in an African village context.  Cross-cultural experience and dialogue, more than anything, provides Christians with a much bigger picture of God and the bible.  There becomes more opportunity for exploration of the text in order to expand the concepts and place them in different cultural arenas.  Paul’s letters are an excellent example of this expansion.  The last five chapters of the great letter to the Romans are instructions on how to practically live out the Christian faith so eloquently described in the first eleven.  While many Christians in America can easily mistake these instructions as individual, they are, indeed, very corporate, given to the entire body of believers in Rome (I urge you, brothers and sisters – Rom. 12:1).  It is tempting for Americans to take the “you” that is prevalent in many of Paul’s letters as a singular word, but, in fact, it is plural.  Africans, however, have no problem seeing the plural you.  The truth is that, “having read it with the African eyes…Paul’s image of the people of God as One Body under Christ is quite at home in the African people’s experience of the interactive unity among the kin-groups.”*  Africans, then, feel comfortable with the biblical concepts that focus on corporate union in Christ, and their ability to speak into the American Christian faith about these biblical principles should be encouraged and appreciated.

As the global church continues to find its center further away from the Euro-American “heartland” where it had resided for so long, fresh and different perspectives on the scriptures will continue to be spread amongst cultures.  American Christians should be encouraged by that fact and intentionally seek out ways in which they can glean new insight from other Christians.  African Christians are continuing to develop and define their faith in ways that are helpful to Christians all around the world in the continuing pursuit of understanding God and his relationship with humanity.

* Ukachukwu, Chris Manus. Biblical Interpretation in African Perspective (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2006), p. 207.