Attentiveness: Presbyterian Worship in Ewe - Gordon Conwell

Attentiveness: Presbyterian Worship in Ewe

I have been in Africa this week, and during my stay in Ghana I was invited to church. I gladly accepted. When I got there, I found that there were about 500-600 Presbyterians in worship with me.

There were also three weddings during the service.

We sang a German hymn, accompanied by Kongo drums and translated into Ewe (the language spoken by portions of the Ghanian population).

We danced five or six times and walked forward to give four offerings.

And we sang, and we danced, and we sang some more and danced again and again.

We recited the words of institution for the Lord’s Supper, and we recited the Apostles’ Creed together.

A dynamic sermon exhorted us about the importance of purity in marriage and how important it is to love your wives and to put away our cell phones and laptops and iPads to talk to each other and listen to each other to build strong families.

All this took place in less than four hours.

I felt honored to be part of this joyous worship service. I was welcomed and one of our Gordon-Conwell students (really!) greeted me at the church and offered to be my translator—quite a daunting task!

It was hard for me at times, as a church historian and missiologist, to apprehend what I was seeing. My mind went from being lost in praise and worship to being overwhelmed by the beautiful melding of Presbyterianism from the West (in this case Reformed German) with indigenous practices of praise and joy. The words to the songs, translated in English, also transported me from being the analytical professor to becoming a humble servant lifting up praise to the God of all cultures and languages and climes.

In the best moments of the service, I found myself lost in praise and wonderment. I was one of the fortunate ones to be invited into worship to experience the truth of what we often study about: the growth and vitality of Christianity in Africa. I pondered: Since this congregation was rooted in Reformed German Presbyterianism, does that mean this expression of worship was not African indigenous Christianity? Or was it?

In my field of missiology, I have studied and written about how Christianity has been spread by various groups through the centuries. At times this mission has been undertaken with integrity and humility. At other times, it has taken on an air of cultural superiority, as if real Christianity must be expressed in Western apparel. Much ink has been spilt talking about the imperialistic impulses of the mission movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

What I witnessed in Ghana that Sunday was something less dichotomist and more illustrative of what really happens. Much of the drive for independence from Western empires in Africa (and elsewhere) was also expressed in the Christian need for ownership of the Christianity Africans were receiving. They were ready to receive it on their own terms. And they did, and they have.

My experience was seeing a conservative Presbyterian church, connected with the Great Tradition through the Eucharist and Apostles’ Creed, and yet expressing their worship in uniquely Ghanian Ewe ways. The early missionaries who planted the seeds of the gospel here probably would not have planned or dreamed of such a Presbyterian expression. However, to borrow an expression from renowned British historian of missions, Andrew Walls, BOTH the incarnational and pilgrim nature of Christianity were on full display in Ghana.

In all humility, we need to listen, learn, and revise our understandings of how God’s Spirit operates and the way His great work lifts up Jesus in each ethne. It moves us to praise and thanksgiving. For me, awe is the better word.

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.


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