We’re back early from Arusha and the last few evenings on the St John’s university oval, there’s been some sort of rally. We think they’re just using the oval rather than it being a student thing — semester doesn’t start for another two weeks and students aren’t really back yet. Also the people who were gathered looked like families and people from around Dodoma’s suburbs rather than students. Even though we haven’t attended the rally, it’s been inescapable: the speakers point in four directions and are turned up very loud.
From other events like this we’ve observed, this one was pretty standard. The format of the service is pretty similar to western revival rallies — lots of singing at the start, then a preacher, followed by a worship leader or other person who leads a prayer or ‘ministry time’. Many of the songs were pambios and we were familiar with some of them. The preacher and other leader were both men.
Here are some of the elements of the sermon:
- The preacher stopped after most sentences to say ‘Bwana Yesu asifiwe’ [Lord Jesus be praised] to which the correct response is ‘Amen’. Sometimes he said ‘hallelujah’ instead. Another exchange we’ve heard but that this guy didn’t use is that the preacher asks, ‘Sema au si sema?’ (roughly translates, ‘Do you agree or not?’) to which the reply is always ‘Sema!’ (‘Agree!’).
- Stories and illustrations are told partly by doing impressions and acting things out.
- The content of the sermon was about healing, starting with stories of people who had been healed.
- When the speaker gets fired up, he not only yells, he also uses what I call ‘the cookie monster voice’, a gravelly shout. It’s a tone you often hear at rallies.
- There was some kind of ‘power’ sound effect used for emphasis when the preacher was delivering people.
- There was wailing and hysterics from women.
This kind of preaching turns me off completely. The stories are interesting even if I don’t agree with the content or theology, but it seems to be so aggressive and coercive by the end. I’m dismayed that people get so caught up in it, which is a reminder to me of how little I understand African spirituality still. But this kind of preaching is not the only thing there is in Tanzania, and it has its Tanzanian critics too.
Nominalism is a big issue in Tanzanian Christianity. You could say that’s because of preaching like this, which offers short-term experience and response without follow up or discipleship. Many of our colleagues in student ministry offer this kind of critique. But I wonder whether it’s possible that this kind of preaching is also trying to respond to nominalism, to get people to feel the power of God.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.