A Symphony Orchestra in Kinshasa – the rest of the story

Not long ago 60 Minutes did a report called Joy in the Congo: A musical miracle. If you have not seen it, you should. But the rest of the story is even more interesting.

Kimbanguist band in Isiro

Kimbanguist band in Isiro

The name of the orchestra gives us a big clue. It is the “Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra”. The Kimbanguist Church (that’s right, a church) is perhaps the largest African Independent church at 5.5 million members. It was founded by Simon Kimbangu in the Democratic Republic of Congo,  then the Belgian Congo. They are known for their brass bands, such as this one I found parading in the city of Isiro.

Kinshasa SymphonyIt was the leader of the Kimbanguist church himself who gave the instructions to start music groups with more variety that eventually led to the formation of the symphony orchestra. They had vision, but not much else: few instruments, no one who could read music. More, even Congolese laughed at the idea of classical music, saying that it just puts people to sleep. But they kept at in and they are making a sensation. You can buy a DVD documentary of the orchestra on Amazon!

All this happened in a country where corruption, abuse of human rights, sexual violence against women and poverty are rampant. The Kimbanguist Church has lost its way a bit, but it seems that there are reform movements in the church that could bring it back into the mainstream.

Christianity is growing fast in much of Africa. Up to now, that growth has mostly been in numbers. But now there are many signs of growth in depth. The world may not take Africa seriously. It may not take Christianity seriously. But just watch and you will see the suffering, poor, patient, and faithful people of God in Africa will do impressive things in the middle of the messes made by their leaders. A symphony orchestra?  You ain’t seen nothin yet!

Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? (I Corinthians 1:27-28, The Message)

What to make of them

We used to call them sects. They are a bewildering collection of over 10,000 independent “Christian” church denominations in Africa. As their proper name, “African Instituted Churches”, suggests, they are defined by being founded by an Africa and not by a missionary.

Harrist church service

Ladies in procession after Harrist church service

They are the growing segment of the church in Africa. Denominations founded by missionaries are stagnating or shrinking while the AICs are growing and multiplying. Is this good or bad? Do these African churches teach the truth? Do they lead people to Christ or away from him? The answer is an ambiguous “yes and no”. Their beliefs range from encouraging, to those I could live with, to those I find strange, to the completely unacceptable.

One thing is for sure, some of the AICs are quite exotic in their forms of worship, and therefore interesting. When we were assigned to Côte d’Ivoire I came in contact with the Church of the Prophet William Wadé Harris, called the Harrist Church for short. Everyone dressed in white, they had a fancy procession to and from the church before and after the service, and the head man was called a Prophet. It was fun to visit their Sunday afternoon services.

Kimbanguist parade

Kimbanguist parade in Isiro

When we were in Congo, I met the Kimbanguist Church, founded by Simon Kimbangu in the Congo. With 5.5 million followers, it may be the largest AIC in Africa. I was in a town in Congo one day when a Kimbanguist parade came down the street complete with brass band, banner, and uniforms. They were celebrating the birthday of the founder’s wife even though she was deceased. Apparently it has become an important day on the church calendar. After the founder died, the leadership of the Kimbanguist church declared that the founder was the Holy Spirit – a doctrine denounced by other churches in Congo. Apparently, not everyone in the Kimbanguist church follows this doctrine and some are working to change it.

The big debate is how to respond to the growth of the AICs. Denounce them? Separate from them? Work with them? The debate is interesting, especially because there are strong reform movements in some of the stranger AICs. Here in Ghana a special Bible school was set up for the AICs and there are mixed opinions as to whether that was a good idea. It appears to have bolstered reform movements in some of the stranger AICs.

As a Bible translator, I have the luxury of having a simple answer to guide my actions toward the AICs – give them the Bible! One of the successes of the reformation was giving people the Scriptures so that they could know when clergy were leading them astray. The Harrist church had congregations in many of the places our group was doing Bible translation in Côte d’Ivoire. They were often the most avid users of the translated Scriptures. That can only be good.

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