God's Word for today

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Advice for conducting services in African languages (other than English or Afrikaans)

I recently read a post on fellow ministry candidate Jenny Hillebrand's blog, in which she related her experiences of preaching to a congregation in a cross-cultural context. I got the impression that she felt a little out of her depth - much as I did when I first had the privilege of leading worship in a language other than in English.

That's not to say that I speak one of the 9 official languages that exists alongside English and Afrikaans, much to my own loss. However, learning to speak one of these languages is on my list of "things to do" by the end of 2009, and with my Phase One year likely to be in a cross-cultural context, I hope to finish next year at least being able to hold a rudimentary conversation in either Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, or Setswana (the language will depend on where the Church chooses to send me, since particular languages predominate in particular areas).

But getting back to Jenny. She was looking for some advice (and probably some encouragement as well) on how to conduct such services, and like Herman G who commented on her post, I can only speak from my own experiences.

Before I realised it, I had listed six points in my reply, so I felt that I just HAD to share these here as well (modified slightly to take us guys into account as well):

  1. Your dress is critical if you want to gain their respect up front - this means preaching in a "Model T" suit (i.e. any colour you like, as long as it is black). For our lady preachers, this means black skirt (knee-length or slightly longer), black jacket, white long-sleeved blouse, and plain black tie, while for us guys, a black suit and tie, white shirt, and black shoes with a shine that makes one think of Jesus' Second Coming are in order. Don't worry about perspiration when preaching in 40-degree heat - one of the Manyano ladies is bound to "bail you out" with a glass of water and some tissues (although you may want to take your own tissues or handkerchief if preaching in an informal settlement, since these are expensive commodities).

  2. Get a Xhosa-speaking friend to help you with the pronunciation of the liturgy (if you are not Xhosa-speaking), and try to follow it as far as possible. The "Sakudumisa" is an absolute must, as is the Xhosa Lord's Prayer. No matter how badly you butcher the words, the congregation WILL appreciate the effort - trust me on this one!

  3. Try to slot in anecdotes that will resonate with the congregation. This may mean that you need to be up to date with the score in the latest Chiefs / Pirates game (as long as you don't show TOO strong a bias to either team). However, be careful with politics - avoid if possible unless it has a direct bearing on your message.

  4. For Scripture readings, I always do them in English, and then invite one of the members of the congregation to do the same reading in Xhosa (as well as Sesotho / Setswana, if applicable). I usually do OT first, then allow interpretation, then NT, and so on. Most of the time, it is their custom to stand during the reading of the Gospel, so respect this.

  5. Interpretation is useful if there is someone available (and also shows respect), and given that the liturgy, etc. is fairly lengthy, this means that the 10-12 minute "sermonette" works best as it soon becomes 25-30 with interpretation. Short, simple sentences work best when being interpreted, but find the right balance. These are intelligent people who speak about 5 languages - English may just happen to be number 3 or 4 - so while simple makes for easier interpretation, don't fall into the trap of "speaking down" to them (us "whiteys" have been guilty of this for generations, so if we fall into this trap, it WILL be picked up and offence will be taken).

  6. Finally, be lavish in your thanks, praise of the choir, etc. Remember, it is an absolute privilege to share in worship with this community, and a little appreciation goes a LONG way!
Please remember that I too am a novice in this area, and am of course speaking from a "pale male" perspective, so if any of the above are wide of the mark or there are other suggestions for Jenny and I to take into account, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE drop us a line!


Gus said...

Good tips...

Here at Paarl we're working on being a bit more multi cultural - I usually wear my regular preaching gear to church.

"My greatest difference to you is my greatest gift to you."

Last time I preached at Mbekweni many of the Manyano women came without their uniforms in order to make me feel more at home! This works because we have a good relationship.

I don't think white ministers should try to act 'black' and I don't think black ministers should try to act 'white' in so doing we lose out on who we can be to each other.

Building a relationship with the congregations where you preach is the key I think - although its not always that possible, or easy.

I hope they station you somewhere great!

Phase 1's are in my prayers.

Steven Jones said...

Hi Gus

Fair comment concerning "multi-cultural", and thanks for the tips. However, in our Circuit we still unfortunately tend to operate in our "racial silos", so my "conformity" to the established style of worship, dress, etc. is me trying to say to these congregations, "I respect you".

What IS encouraging is that a number of services are starting to become quite a "fruit salad" in terms of different races, although we are some way off from embracing different styles of worship within a particular service.

My prayer is that I can pave the way for other white preachers to "cross the divide", so to speak, and for black preachers to do the same, so that we can truly reflect the "Rainbow Nation" not only in the composition of our congregations, but also in the way in which we worship the One Who is, after all, the same God to all of us.