Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Tradition, Worldview and what it means to be from somewhere

Written by: on June 16, 2017

I read our assigned reading for this week, Christianity and African Traditions by Matthew Michael, with quite a bit

How different would our theological stereotype map look . . . . .or would it just be Europe?

of interest.  The church I currently serve is about 50% Cameroonian, and as such, I often – on a weekly, sometimes even daily basis – see and try to account for and understand the intersection of our Christian faith and African Traditions.  This is sometimes difficult, and often a challenge, but I can honestly say that I am always thankful to be entrusted with this awesome responsibility.

It is a responsibility that, as I look back on my life, God has been preparing me for for a long time.  I think of my unusual – at least in terms of the typical American – seminary experience where, starting from my very first class, I was regularly told and exposed to the importance and prominence of African leaders.  That very first seminary class was called ‘A History of World Christianity’ and was entirely focused on the history of the Christian faith outside of ‘the West’.  In that class, we heard (over and over and over 🙂 ) that the story of Christianity is not simply the story of Christianity in the Western World.

Beyond that, we learned that if we ignore or are ignorant of the beginnings of and further development of theology and Christian thought in Africa and Asia, we aren’t just missing some obscure history of our faith – we are missing fundamental elements of the Holy Spirits work in and through the world.  In short, we can’t get to where we are as 21st century Western Christians without the work, influence and leadership of African Christians over the last two centuries and especially in the early church.  These are facts, but I don’t think they match up very well with our perceptions, which probably run closer to the ‘worldview stereotype map’ above.

All of the above is really, just an extended way of saying that I came into contact with Michael’s work already nodding my head in agreement, both about the importance of Africa to Christianity’s past and also to to the essential work of understanding an ‘African worldview’ and African traditions as we integrate those with Christianity.

Michael says ‘The power of traditions as the origin of worldview cannot be underestimated , thus we must take seriously the challenge that the African worldview poses to biblical Christianity in Africa. (Michael, p. 11).  Unlike many of our cohort who have extensive experience with the confluence of African worldview/traditions in Africa my primary experience is their confluence in America.  In that experience and observation, there have been many touch points where there tends to be conflict, tension and/or dissonance between what I perceive to be an African worldview and a more Western one.

  • Time – This is, in some ways the one that produces the most tension and conflict.  But the precision with which many with a Western/European worldview is simply not present in those with an African worldview.  In our church we have largely navigated this minefield with a few simple steps:
    • Worship services, education programs, etc. start ‘on-time’; even if we are missing many/most/all of our Cameroonian members
    • At the same time, some provisions are made: there are no ‘dirty looks’ and minimal disruption as members/friends/guests stream in after programs have started; important special elements of worship, i.e. baptisms, etc. are always placed well into the order of worship (usually at least 30 minutes), to allow for ‘late’ arrivals; when a precise time is necessary for one reason or another, that is clearly and individually communicated.
    • When I am asked to participate in a Cameroonian community event: wake, house blessing, etc.  I am always given times in both time and ‘African time’.  For example: For a Saturday evening wake that starts ‘promptly’ at 6pm, I don’t need to arrive until around 7, as it will not begin until at least 7:30 because they are on ‘African time’.
  • Advance planning – This is another tension point as signup sheets, registrations, etc. are created for a purpose and event planning and weekly ministries are easier to coordinate when you know who is coming and what they are bringing in advance.  In my experience, while I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty what we will have to eat for our fellowship time (rice, ‘puff puffs’, chicken), I won’t know from week to week who will be bringing something or what they are bringing.  As one of our Cameroonian members explained, ‘I can’t sign up because I don’t know.  If I wake up and have time to make rice or chicken, I will do that.  If not, someone else will.  It will all work out.’ A signup sheet is not part of that equation.
  • Financial giving – Obviously there is a huge element of financial giving that is completely individualized, but in general, the circumstances and patterns I have observed do clearly illuminate different worldviews.  First, all of our Cameroonian members are ‘regular’ givers to the church.  Not all of them fill out a pledge card, but all give something on a consistent basis; this is viewed as an essential part of belonging to the church.  For the vast majority of our Cameroonian members and families there are financial ‘responsibilities’ that extend beyond the nuclear family unit – most are supporting extended family members in their household, sending some amount (often a significant amount) back ‘home’ to Cameroon, and also still supporting their ‘home church’ back in Cameroon.  That breadth of giving output, seems to be a standard for African immigrants in the US (one would assume this is true for many Asian and south/central American immigrants as well, but that is just an assumption).  Before this widely understood by members of our community from outside of Africa, there was some tension about giving levels or amounts.  Increased knowledge has led to greatly increased understanding in this area.

Relationship with tradition/authority – As I have spoke at great length on other posts, there is a great divide in the deference and respect given to me (as pastor) and to institutions like our denominational structures.  In short, our African members have a much greater level of default acceptance of and concern for traditional structures and roles.  Here there seems to be some tension within the Cameroonian community (between African marriage and gender roles and American ones and then also some, not surprising, tension between older and younger generations).

For the church I serve and for me as a pastor, understanding these differences has been critical and it was only when we began to look past the individual differences (i.e. when people show up for worship) and to the fundamental differences in worldview, that we began to see real progress in building a unified church community and crafting worship and programmatic experiences that were authentic for all of our community.

In his conclusion, Michael says:

At the end , the encounter between Christianity and the African continent is an encounter between the Judeo – Christian traditions and the age – old African traditions . For the African Christian , his loyalty is to the noun rather than the adjective that describes him , thus “ African Christian ” becomes first and foremost committed to the “ Christian ” in this label , and it is such “ Christian ” commitment that determines his general attitude to the “ African ” and the adjectival nomenclature that further describes him (Michael, p.226).

This has been an important principle for our church.  The way in which we have articulated it (not originally, but hopefully authentically) is simply: that which unites us (Jesus Christ) is greater than that which might separate or divide us (worldview, cultural ethnic differences, etc.).  It has served as an important reminder that our faith, our theology and our expression of that faith and theology is always contextual and in some ways a product of our worldviews, but also that in the end – we are not first American or African, male or female, or any other binary descriptor.  Rather, all of us are first and foremost beloved children of God and followers of Jesus Christ.



About the Author

Chip Stapleton

Follower of Jesus Christ. Husband to Traci. Dad to Charlie, Jack, Ian and Henry. Preacher of Sermons, eater of ice cream, supporter of Arsenal. I love to talk about what God is doing in the world & in and through us & create space and opportunity for others to use their gifts to serve God and God's people.

8 responses to “Tradition, Worldview and what it means to be from somewhere”

  1. Geoff Lee says:

    Thanks Chip – a really interesting post grounded in your local reality and experience, which i find really interesting and insightful. With a number of African nations in our church, many of your points really resonated with me and I can say a loud AMEN! I have also learned the importance of putting dedications of African babies later in the service as the family hasn’t turned up for the start of the service….!

  2. Mary Walker says:

    Your stories about your church are always so interesting Chip. The African culture came to you – now you will get to go there in the fall.
    Yes, what unites us is stronger than what divides us.
    You Michael’s point about adjective and noun – African and Christian. I wonder if that works in other areas too – gender, economic status, and ethnic differences. If we could all see that I wonder if there would be less injustice to those who are different?

  3. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Chip great post! Many of these same points apply in the African Americant context also. I appreciate your discussion on how you have bridged the two within your church community. That is so needed and necessary!

  4. Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Geez Chip. I just wanted to stand up and cheer with your closing paragraph. Powerfully stated and great sermon material. That will preach! I really enjoy your personal perspective in your post and your heart for building unity in God’s community. I bet your church just loves you. Thanks for your inspiring post.

  5. Lynda Gittens says:

    Chip thank you for sharing your experience in leading your members. Learning the culture is important in establishing a trusting relationship.
    The stereotype map is priceless.

  6. Kristin Hamilton says:

    ‘I can’t sign up because I don’t know. If I wake up and have time to make rice or chicken, I will do that. If not, someone else will. It will all work out.’
    This makes me so happy! I hate sign-up sheets (and I apparently live on African/Hawaiian/Native American/Brazil time).
    I really appreciate your insights as to how your community navigates these tensions between cultures. The idea that you put Christ in the center as unifier and then sort out the differences as they come up is simply beautiful to me.

  7. Katy Drage Lines says:

    Yes to all of this.

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