CHURCH MEETINGS AND A VIEW OF GOD
by Richard Chowning
"Let me go anywhere in the world and I'll show you the church of Christ." I heard that statement from preachers during my first years in the church. I used to believe it. My experience in Africa has taught me that it's just not true.
The Kipsigis Church
The Kipsigis church does not look like the church in America. It has taken on Kipsigis culture just as the American church has taken on its culture. Kipsigis churches love to sing. More than twenty songs are sung in a typical service. Men sit on one side of the gathering, the women on the other. A praise period begins each meeting. All who desire can tell the congregation what the Lord has done for them.
The Lord's Supper is not served to the congregation, but members go forward to eat in small groups at a table or on the ground.
It would be very difficult for an American to visit Kipsigis and identify the Lord's church, because culture has changed the format of the meeting. The exterior signs and functions of the church are only the most visible change from one culture to the next. Peoples from each culture perceive God, or their divine beings, in different ways. New converts carry this view of God into the church and Jehovah God continually molds this view into reality.
The American Culture
American culture puts emphasis on the individual. Each person is trained to be an island, to "be able to take care of himself." Christians gather in corporate worship to worship individually. Their thoughts are "God I love you;" "Help me with my problems;" and "I feel uplifted." Such phrases as "my personal savior" and "personal spiritual growth" are often spoken. Americans sing in the first person singular.
The Kipsigis Culture
Kipsigis culture is group centered. An individual only finds worth as he finds an accepted place in the group. The group's thoughts are "God will help us change this village" and "we are God's children." They refer to God as "Our Lord" and Paradise as "our home in heaven." Songs are pleas or praises of the group.
Neither of the two extremes I have just painted are a complete picture of the church in America or Kipsigis. They are stereotypes. Neither is completely correct. The truth is a combination of the two.
God's Part in the Meetings of the Saints
What part does God play in meetings of the saints in Kipsigis? This is another question in which culture molds the answer for new converts. Americans see God as only minimally active in the meeting. They lift up petitions and praise to God. They do not go to the meeting expecting God to do something in their lives. He is not thanked for the way he has lifted the congregation up.
The Presence of God Among the Kipsigis
Kipsigis go to the Sunday meeting for God to feed them from his Word and Spirit. They believe he blesses or curses them in the meeting depending on what they think and do in the meeting. Many times the service ends with the prayer "forgive us if we have done something wrong in this service." The Kipsigis think the divine know everything. The ancestors and God are aware of their inner thoughts. Christians in the tribe are extremely aware of God's presence in the congregation. They fear being hypocritical, because God sees the duplicity and will judge them for it.
Often the church will view its problems as God's punishment for some wrong they have done. This makes repentance and humility basic components of their worship mindset. They often tell God, "We cannot teach you anything, you know everything" and "we are little children."
God is the sustainer in Kipsigis traditional culture. This is identical to the Christian view that God provides for man's needs. In meetings they often say, "I tell God thank you because I have been blessed to see this day which others desired to see, but have not seen." They come to the meeting expecting to be fed by God. God does want traditional views of him to remain in the church. He changes the mindset of Christians as they mature in Him.
Kipsigis tend to approach God with so much awe and reverence that they miss the truth that God is father and friend. They do not expect to have an intimate relationship with him. They respect and praise Him from a distance. But when they see the Biblical examples of drawing near to God they begin to struggle with making that close relationship a part of their life and worship.
A great blessing in Christ, that is difficult for Kipsigis to accept, is that God forgives his people and has mercy on them. They know God has washed away their sins at conversion, but they are troubled with forgiveness of sins they commit after conversion. They struggle to understand and accept that God has set rules, but even if the rules are broken he is willing to forgive. There is no such forgiveness in traditional Kipsigis culture. Christians grow into this understanding. Missionaries need to attuned themselves to culture in order to perceive what corrections need to be made in any tribe's Christian meetings. The characteristic forms and practices are obvious, but what goes on in the mind of the congregation is much harder to discover. The time and toil to discover the mind of worshipers is absolutely necessary for the cross-cultural evangelist.