Some of the world’s most intense singing and dance styles come from Africa, specifically East Africa. Even more specific: Democratic Republic of Congo. (I will give you a minute to open YouTube in another tab.) See?
I am a Ugandan Christian and our neighbour to the West is DRC. And so, when the so-called contemporary “Balokole” (born-again) movement of the ‘80s broke onto the scene in my country, it disrupted the religious tradition of the day. There was an unprecedented affection for the things of God. Choirs literally “danced for The Lord”.
For all the thunder and lightning there is a troubling lack of gospel word. In many places African Christianity is defined by the pursuit of experience—even entertainment
I can remember going to crusades with my mum in the late ’90s. Every ramshackle church featured a guy on drums and a choir in long dresses moving and swaying. Fire-spitting and hysterical preachers in Nigerian attire tapped their pointed shoes. Heads nodded vigorously and arms waved frantically as “God’s presence powerfully came down.” It was indeed a disruption—a fairly good disruption, dare we say. What we knew and endured through hours of dreary liturgy and tradition was gratefully displaced. Church became interesting.
Not Singing from the Same Hymn Sheet
It now seems a trend across Africa, as more and more music flows from Nigeria. But there is a problem: the theology, or lack thereof. For all the thunder and lightning there is a troubling lack of gospel word. In many places African Christianity is defined by the pursuit of experience—even entertainment. The rise of expressive singing and dancing has seen the demise and fall of sound pulpits. And among those who insist on the irreplaceable importance and authority of the preached word, the temptation to sing a different theology nags at their better judgment.
Among those who insist on the irreplaceable importance and authority of the preached word, the temptation to sing a different theology nags at their better judgment.
In some rare but interesting cases, as soon as the preacher of the day takes his seat – assuming he’s preached the sound biblical gospel – the choir step up and lift the roof with a totally different theology. Two different messages confront the same audience. In urban Africa, as the influence of the West grows, many churches have settled for what entertains rather than the truth that exhorts and encourages.
Theology Shapes Worship in Ephesians
In Ephesians, Paul waits four chapters before admonishing believers to sing “spiritual hymns” (Ephesians 5:16). He certainly knew the importance of grounding Christian practice in the person and work of Christ. The imperative to sing follows the rich new identity found in Christ. The exhortation to praise God flows from understanding his praiseworthy character and salvation. One wonders whether Africa’s church music experience comes close to this.
True worship should be grounded in the truth and not evaluated by how many feet are moving. God’s word needs to be as prominent in the pulpit as it is in the heart of the pianist
Paul would have understood the modern temptation to replace sound instruction with instrumental genius. The recipients of his letters could no doubt have easily been whipped up into emotion and ecstatic hype by the latter. But Paul fronts Ephesians with the former; with an emphasis on the gospel. Therefore true worship should be grounded in the truth and not evaluated by how many feet are moving. God’s word needs to be as prominent in the pulpit as it is in the heart of the pianist. Sound theology is not something to place alongside powerful music, song and dance. It is the only appropriate driving force of those things.
Tune Hearts Offstage and Onstage with Truth
A weekly emphasis on performance rather than faithfulness, vocal finesse rather than personal holiness, make congregations into spectators rather than participants. The band or choir may be rocking up front but the worship will be lacking in the pews. The antidote to this poison is discipleship, instruction, sound doctrine and an emphasis on the good news—the theological riches of the gospel.
When believers – onstage and offstage – apply themselves to “the knowledge of him” (Ephesians 1:17), distinguishing substance from form, African worship will become what it is supposed to be: a sweet aroma, pleasing in God’s sight (Ephesians 5:2). Consequently, African worship leaders will be singing even better if only they embrace sound theology. This will mean injecting all of individual and church life with Scripture. It is God’s truth that transforms the mere act of singing into something that glorifies him and shapes faith.
A weekly emphasis on performance rather than faithfulness, vocal finesse rather than personal holiness, make congregations into spectators rather than participants