I grew up in a non-liturgical church. I was an adult before I attended in service in a liturgical church. When I got to Africa I found that there are quite a few liturgical churches here.
Presbyterian church in southern Ghana
For any of you haven’t experienced a liturgical church, one of their features is that they read a lot of Scripture during the service. In fact, many liturgical churches have a fixed set of readings that take them through much of the bible every couple years. Every Sunday, they read several different types of scriptures. For example, they might read a passage each from the Old Testament , Psalms , an Epistle , and the Gospels. Not long ago, I attended a liturgical church in rural Ghana. In the course of the service, five longish passages were read, first in a regional language, then in the language of the congregation. In another church service, the reading went on for 20 minutes.
This kind of worship is very well adapted to places where many of those attending church do not know how to read. For them, the liturgy is the only time during the week that they hear the Scriptures. In contrast, those attending a non liturgical church may hear only a few verses each Sunday, and they may get no overview of Scripture in spite of attending church for years.
In places where the Bible has not yet been translated, liturgical churches read the Bible in another language which sometimes is not well understood by the congregation. These churches are often the most ardent supporters the translation effort
In his excellent YouTube video on good writing, Harvard professor Steven Pinker points out that the central problem of writing is “the curse of knowledge”. Here’s my favorite explanation of this curse:
The curse of knowledge means that the more familiar you are with something, the harder it is to put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s not familiar with that thing
A writer knows something that he wants to write down. Because he knows it he finds it very difficult to put himself in the place of his readers who don’t. That may lead him to leave out information his readers need because he wrongly assumes that they know it because he does.
The same thing happens with something called church language. It is quite common that Christians develop understandings of certain words in church. Then we speak them with the church understanding and hear them the same way. Some Christians will forget that people outside the church understand the words differently. Those Christians are suffering from the curse of knowledge.
I experienced this first hand in Burkina Faso. We were translating the story of John the Baptist. So I asked a local pastor how one said baptize in the language. He responded “bateezeng”. That is obviously just and adaptation of the English word. Aware of the problem of church language, I asked several people who did not attend church about ” bateezeng”. They all told me the same thing. It means to give a newborn its name on the 8th day. Of course, we can use “baptize” for naming in English too. I went back to the pastor and told him of the responses I got. He agreed that was what everyone understands by the word. We eventually found another word for baptize that communicated much better than bateezeng.
The curse of knowledge is one of the reasons why we have a step in the translation process called community testing. When a translator translates a passage, he does so knowing what he meant to say. He then finds it very hard to forget what he meant and read his translation for what is actually says. It helps to let the translation sit a while then come back to it, but a surer solution is community testing. The translators go out into the community and read each passage asking people what they heard. Because the people don’t suffer from the curse of knowledge, they will tell the translator what the translation really wrote, just like those people in Burkina Faso who told me that bateezeng meant giving a child a name.
What do the words “African Church” evoque in your mind? In 2015, I attended the centenary celebration of a Ghanaian church. Here’s what I saw and learned about the church.
- Emergency medical services organised by the church were available during the event as were free blood pressure, blood sugar, and hepatitis screening
- The event was live-streamed on YouTube.
- The church has a university and the rector was introduced.
- The church has 6 million members in Ghana.
- The church’s offices in Accra are its international headquarters because it has congregations in a number of other countries.
- The church offers scholarships to needy students.
- The worship was mostly in Ghanaian language and was very vibrant.
- The speakers had advanced degrees – Doctor this, Professor that.
- Economic woes, moral decadence, materialism, seeking after power, and corruption were all mentioned in the same breath – a manifestation of a profoundly holistic approach to ministry.
- An elder of the church is part of the government of Ghana. He’s the Minister of Housing.
- The leader of the event was the leader of a different, major denomination of Ghana; an amazing show of practical unity among churches.
- The event was held in a major conference center in downtown Accra with thousands in attendance.
- The unveiling of a new church logo included pyrotechnics
- The church has a relief and development arm.
Of course, all churches in Africa are not like this one. But whatever “African church” means, today it has to include this church and others like it.