Let me paint two pictures of Tanzanian church services.
The first is a Good Friday service. It’s long and the ministers are dressed up in their robes. It’s an Anglican service. And there’s something familiar about the way the congregation responds: the mumbled words after the Bible reading, the faces buried in hymn books. No one moves, even while the choir sing a lively song, complete with dance moves. There’s no prayer book, but there’s some sort of liturgy which the congregation murmurs after the leader.
The second is an ordinary Sunday service. It’s much shorter and less formal. There’s no minister but there’s a worship leader and a preacher. A congregation member prays after the offering. It’s a Baptist service. The songs are one-liner call-and-response and they’re more lively. The band and the congregation sway in time and clap.
Perhaps the services are different because they’re on different occasions. Perhaps they are different because of the denomination of the churches. Australian Anglicans will recognise elements of the first service, and some will be foreign. Same deal for Australian Baptists with the second service.
Both services contain elements that seem to hail more from their denominational forefathers than from Tanzanian culture. Why is the Baptist service so short and devoid of ritual? Why is the Anglican service so reserved?
These are postcolonial questions. How do you do church when your Christian forebears were taught ‘church’ by someone from another country, with the power imbalance weighted firmly in their favour? It’s impossible to figure out what is a legacy of colonisers (or neo-colonists, in the case of the Americans who planted the Baptist church!) and what is ‘local’.
There’s something attractive about the idea of a church service that is authentically Tanzanian. Both these services have indigenous leadership, and yet, they feel somehow tainted by western influence. But such a search for purity is naive and condescending. (Seriously, can we pretend Australian Christianity isn’t just as mixed?)
The postcolonial problems doesn’t mean either of these services is somehow un-Tanzanian. What makes it Tanzanian is the complex history and traditions of the people who form the community. All of us are mixtures of cultures and traditions. This is what church is to these people.
Joining with God’s people in Tanzania means doing church how they do it. Some services will look different to others because the people in them have experienced different things. In all likelihood, those things will be invisible. Few of us acknowledge or are able to explain every aspect of our church or our selves.
Sharing together means resisting the urge to classify and analyse and instead choosing to be. It prioritises loving above understanding. Which means at some point we have to suspend the question of why things are the way they are and how they got that way, and participate with them as it is.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.