What Africa Could Teach the American Church
I don’t think I need to say it, but Americans are rather selfish, lazy and weak. I’m not sure when it happened but some time after World War II, a generational virus infected the American way.
Our culture has changed significantly in how we interact.
Major technologies like television and the Internet have shifted our information streams. Television opened up the world visually. The Boom generation even knows the exact day: November 22, 1963. The day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX. On that day, an entire nation collectively mourned around a box in their living rooms, storefronts or local bar. That box of moving images and live news changed how we looked at things.
It not only changed how we looked at the world…and also impacted how we interacted.
Within a few years, the Beatles would beam a satellite image to a global audience, man would land on the moon and the Vietnam War would unfold in our homes. The world became much smaller and television personalities became much bigger. Television created stars. Initially, celebrities were honed by executive brass. Johnny Carson. Jackie Gleason. Ed Sullivan. Then Americans identified and molded television characters into celebrities. The Partridge Family. The Fonz. Charlie’s Angels. Eventually, reality television turned the camera on us. Average Americans suddenly became “apprentices,” “survivors” and “idols.”
With the advent of the Web, things changed even more rapidly.
The Internet allowed every human with a mouse and modem to become a celebrity. YouTube became channel one for narcissism. Facebook and Twitter allowed us to tweet and post our every move, accomplishment, thought and behavior (whether it was a good thing or not). In the process, countless relationships were damaged. Social media has provoked societal ills from racism to terrorism, from addiction to divorce, from sexual abuse to cyberbullying.
In the summers of 2013 and 2014 I trained church leaders and teachers on the eastern slope of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. In this part of Africa, including larger cities like Moshi and Arusha, I discovered a world without hi-tech. Television remained rather non-consequential. The local bars showed a movie (usually 10-20 years old) or a soccer match but, for the most part, news still traveled slow and on paper. The Internet also remained obscure and largely unused.
What technology did Africans employ the most? Not surprisingly, it was their cellphone. But for reasons that might surprise you.
You see, above all other things, what matters most in Africa (to Africans) is their relationships. Every day, as our team drove through town and country, we found Africans talking to one another, waving to one another, honking at one another. It’s so important to remain in relationship that Africans will answer their cellphones, even let them ring, during situations that most Americans find offensive (like our training events). In fact, to not answer the phone would communicate the relationship was damaged, broken or over. You have to answer your phone in Africa, whenever possible (although I recall no rings during Sunday church).
The only thing that trumps a cell phone ring is an African holding conversation with another person. At that moment, nothing else matters. The relationship is central to all that’s happening. So you’d never answer your cell phone if you were talking with someone, you wouldn’t even look at it. It’s disrespectful.
Western culture—fueled by television and Internet tech—has created new social pathologies. We are narcissistic. We like to take “selfies” and post them. We are information-geeks. We want to know everything now. The Africans have not been corrupted by television and the Web. And its very noticeable. They don’t even like a camera pointing their direction. It’s a sign of hubris.
Americans and American churches can learn much from Africans. In our high-tech, info-soaked, 24/7/365 world, its critical to not lose the personal touch. Relationships matter. Communication is key.
Like the old Verizon cellphone commercial once asked, “Can you hear me now?” Good. Because if you can, give someone a hug. Reconnect with an old friend. Start a conversation. Forgive an offense. Share a memory. Tell a story. Confess a problem.
Maybe if the church looked more like a relational experience than a sit-and-soak event, it would recapture the heart of a postmodern America. It’s amazing how someone can go to church, particularly the mega ones, and never touch or talk to another person.
The Africans know better. And we’d do well to listen and learn.