Out of Africa: What North Americans can learn about celebration in worship

Stephen Githumbi, raised in a Kenyan village and later educated in theology in the US, has had close experience with the Christian church in both cultures. He offers the following observations on celebration in African worship as "a way of living out the Christian faith that can be instructive to the American church."

The African people celebrate life. They appreciate life. Consequently, Africans look for ways to celebrate. We celebrate, for example, when a new child is born. We celebrate a harvest. We celebrate when the rains arrive—even in the city!

Celebration comes out of the recognition that God is totally inseparable from all the events that take place. He is ultimately responsible for all of life, and therefore is seen as being behind everything that happens. Because of the sort of suffering our people have experienced, they depend on God. This results in spontaneous celebration of God's provision, and that spontaneity carries over into worship ....

If you were to attend worship in a Presbyterian church in Nairobi, what could you expect to experience? When you arrive, you would likely find the congregation already singing. And there would be a significant amount of time spent in singing.

And what singing! Music is just part of life among our people. We sing when we are working. We sing during times of sadness or times of rejoicing. Singing is part of our chemistry, the way our people are made.

But singing can also be very boring unless there is movement in it—clapping of hands, waving and lifting of hands, and dancing. A drum is a very integral feature in many of our worship services. Consequently, music is very releasing. It's therapeutic for the people—a way of surrendering one's life to God.

After singing, there would be time set aside for people to speak to God, first quietly so that they are able to repent of their sin (there's much emphasis on penitence so that people are right with God). And then there would be a time of intercession—a period of serious prayer.

Intercessory prayer would normally be done by one or more members of the congregation—women and men—but in most instances, not the pastor.

The prayers of the people would be followed by the offering. The time of giving in a congregation can be quite dramatic. Whether it is a liturgical (Anglican, Roman Catholic), traditional (Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational), or charismatic (Assemblies of God, Pentecostal) church, the people always come to the front with their offering. This is not done with solemnity, but with hilarity. Many times they give while singing and even dancing. They bring their offering to the front, dancing or jumping or praising God in a song.

That offering is not always money. On special occasions, people will bring produce from their farms, their gardens, or the market. They will bring potatoes or live chickens or sugarcane

or bananas. In one church in which I preached, a very poor woman brought firewood she had painstakingly gathered throughout the previous week. Somebody bought that firewood from the church, thus providing the revenue the church needed.

The apex of worship, of course, would be the preaching of the Word. It's usually done by the pastor, who preaches a sermon expositing a portion of Scripture, usually to some depth and without significant time constraints. Then more singing would follow, and most services would end with a benediction from the pastor.

Of course, such worship cannot take place in a sixty-minute straight-jacket! The shortest service is at least one and a half hours. And the standard service is usually two hours or more.

Yet you rarely see a bored person. People love to come to church because they will meet their friends there. Church is a place where they know they will be prayed for and where they can worship God. So, they enjoy it.