A Mixed Up Minister?
What insights does the book of Jonah have for ministers today?
Led by The Revd Tom Stuckey, a former President of the Methodist Church.
Window on the World - Namibia
Two years ago, my friends Charles and Anne moved to Zambia to teach in a Christian boarding school and have been inviting me to visit them ever since. So, in December 2004 I flew out to Lusaka and along with two other British teachers from their school, Andrew and Naomi, we embarked on a 6,000 kilometre, three and a half week tour of Zambia and Namibia.
Over the Christmas period we visited a British family (friends of Charles and Anne), who had been living in Namibia for nine years. Paul lectures at a Bible School in Rundu and his wife Hilary teaches their four children at home. Hilary is helped by Sarah, an American serving with the same Mission. Andy and Megan, also American, live around the corner and teach in a local school. It was with these three families that we stayed and enjoyed a lovely Christmas together.
The town of Rundu is situated in Northern Namibia. There is a lovely view from the edge of town looking down onto the Okavango River. At the other side of the river is Angola and it was therefore to the Rundu area that many Angolans fled during the recent conflict. It is said that only one in four of the population in and around Rundu are native Namibians and the rest are of Angolan descent.
On Christmas Day there was no service at the church Paul and Hilary attend, but since Boxing Day was a Sunday, we went then instead. The service began at 9.00am and ended just before 11.00am. Apparently this was a short service – sometimes services can last up to four hours and Sarah had even been to a six hour service once! The church building was not huge, but I would estimate that around three hundred people were packed in on narrow benches. Our group had taken chairs with us. Hilary explained that those who could afford their own chairs should take them, so as to leave space on the benches for those who could not afford their own. Hymn books and Bibles were not provided as they are in the UK; again, those who can afford buy them and the rest learn the hymns off by heart.
As is common in African churches (so I am informed), visitors are not just welcomed and mentioned in passing, but rather they are introduced properly to the congregation. Since we were unable to introduce ourselves, we each had to stand up whilst Paul introduced us in turn. Although he was speaking a language none of us understood (Lucazi, a language of Southern Angola) that did not matter – the fact that hundreds of smiling, friendly, nodding faces were looking back at us made us feel very welcome indeed.
At one point during the service Paul explained that we were going to hear some testimonies. I had heard people give their testimonies before, but never like this – in song and in pairs. In fact, there was much more singing during the service than we are perhaps used to in the UK. There were four or five congregational hymns or carols and several songs sung by small groups. I really enjoyed watching the small groups singing, all swaying and dancing together and singing such beautiful harmonies.
The congregational hymns were sung in Lucazi and Chokwe (a language of Central Angola). We sang O Come All Ye Faithful and It Came Upon A Midnight Clear and, to the tune of Silent Night, we sang a hymn which could roughly be translated as Listen, I’m Telling You Good News. Both languages are quite phonetic, so it was quite easy to sing along, especially with such well-known tunes.
People went out of their way to ensure that we got the most out of the service and a teacher from the town, who can speak English, interpreted the sermon for us. With the New Year approaching, the emphasis of the sermon was on preparing oneself for Christ. The main questions asked of the congregation were: are you ready for the New Year and are you ready to accept Christ?
It seems that the New Year is a very important time for the church. One of the notices read out to the congregation was about New Year’s Eve/Day. Members were told – not asked! – to be at the church at midnight on New Year’s Eve. They were to stay there in church all night until dawn and then the usual Sunday church service would follow. The interpreter-teacher read out the notices and was quite insistent that everyone should be there; he was not asking them, but telling them to be there.
During our stay Paul had taught us a few basic phrases, so that we could communicate a little – 'How are you? I am well thank you. Merry Christmas' and so on, and I am pleased to say that we did have the opportunity to practise them at church. Quite a few members of the congregation were keen to greet us at the end of the service and they were all very gracious towards what I am sure must have been our appalling pronunciation of their language!
Throughout the service, children who were hanging around outside and even adult passers-by, kept peering in through the open windows and doors, obviously curious as to what was happening. At the end of the service, all the doors were closed while we were still inside and a prayer was said. The doors were then re-opened and we were dismissed. Intrigued by this, I asked Paul to explain and he referred to Matthew 6:6 which states 'But when you pray…close the door and pray to your Father…'.
Paul cited this as an example of how the Bible can sometimes be taken out of context. He explained that one of the aims of the Bible School is to train pastors to be able to understand and interpret the Bible, so that they are then able to teach their congregation how to apply it to their Christian living. In this way, it is hoped that preachers will be able to deliver biblically sound sermons, which both teach and challenge their congregation.
Whilst church congregations in the western world often seem to be diminishing, this could not be said for the churches I saw in Africa (the one I have described here is one of three I attended in Namibia and Zambia) and I found this growth very encouraging. Questions such as 'Are you ready to accept Christ?' are of course vital, but so is the teaching which follows once a commitment has been made. I certainly hope and pray that Paul’s Bible School and others like it will equip church leaders to provide the appropriate biblical teaching needed to ensure that the church not only grows in numbers, but grows in Christ too.