The most encouraging thing for me about doing the seminar on church history was the response from the group to a number of the issues I raised. I made a few attempts at applying the lessons of the past to Tanzania, but the group seized them and took them further than I could have as they talked them around. Here’s the second half of the seminar.
7. The Reformation(s) => Beware the TV preacher
My heritage touts the Reformation as perhaps the defining moment doctrinally for the church, but this time I chose to focus on the reformers’ emphasis on knowing the Bible for yourself and relying on Christ rather than men (even Big Men) to connect you to God. One participant said ‘Do not touch my anointed ones‘ (also in 1 Chron. 16:22) which is a verse used in Tanzanian church culture to rebuke those who criticise well known preachers. We talked about how it’s no good rejecting the Pope’s authority as absolute only to create other mini-Popes. The group really got fired up at this point, admiring Reformation leaders like Martin Luther for being willing to say something, and also having a vigorous discussion about how to guide people towards knowing the Bible well without becoming one of those mini-Popes.
8. Evangelicalism and Revivalism => What is lived faith?
I loved this one because I got to talk about stacks of my heroes, especially the Wesleys and the Clapham sect. We identified two markers of this period. The first is the desire for emotions to match belief, and the second is actions to accompany belief. I was able to encourage the group that I’ve seen some great examples of this in Tanzania. A distinctive of many Tanzanian pastors is the breadth of their work: they run schools, or micro-finance training, or agricultural projects as well as being pastors, because they know that combating poverty is part of pastoring their people. At the same time, many Tanzanian Christians are frustrated because they say the church does not speak to their issues, and there are pastors and even bishops who are highly corrupt. One question the group had was about the best way to advocate for others, whether small local projects were enough or whether they needed to think about involvement in government like William Wilberforce.
9. Empire and missions => The importance of self-theologising
I was very nervous about doing a history of missions in a Tanzanian context, because I didn’t know how it would be perceived. It turns out I was right to feel this way. The group told me that it’s a generally accepted fact among educated Tanzanians that missionaries came to soften people up for the take over of the colonial government. We talked about Olufemi Taiwo‘s ideas but what really grabbed the imagination of the group were Henry Venn’s principles of church planting in Africa: self-supporting, self-governing, self-propagating. To that I added self-theologising, using the desire of the participants to know the Bible as an example. I could get everyone started on church history, but the participants know their context better than me and read the Bible differently. Not only would the seminar have been less relevant without their input; it would have been incomplete.
10. The decline of faith in the west and the rise of majority world Christianity => You are the world’s Christian leaders.
A challenge for western Christians is coming to terms with the fact that we are no longer the world’s leaders, either in our home countries’ politics, or in the worldwide Christian network. But this is also a challenge for majority world Christians, to recognise that they are the ‘average Christian’. 100 years ago, 1.4% of the world’s Christians were in sub-Saharan Africa. Now it’s more like 25%. That’s a massive shift, and one that requires a head-shift and change in perspective, for Tanzanian Christians to start thinking of themselves as the world’s leaders, and contributors on a world stage. This led to a massive discussion that went well beyond the bounds of the seminar as the group analysed the strengths and weaknesses of the Tanzanian church, and what they planned to do about it!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.