Years ago in Burkina Faso, I wanted to travel to a certain area to meet with pastors about Bible translation. I learned that an Apostolic missionary was traveling to the area and got a ride with him. We set off at 6AM on a Sunday morning, arriving at the place at 9 AM. A church service had already started, so we joined it. After some enthusiastic worship, I listened to a sermon in Kassem, a language I do not understand. It was a longish sermon. Then the pastor introduced the 20 or so people to be baptized. The simple church had no baptismal. So the whole congregation set off on a 20 minute walk, well, more like a 20 minute worship procession, to a local pond which was full of cows. The pastor dispatched a child to drive them out of the water, and the baptisms began. People came out from the nearby village to watch. Then we formed a procession and worshiped our way back to the church. There we heard longish testimonies from all those baptized, more worship and another sermon. All of this took place in the Kassem language. The service lasted 6 ½ hours. Then we were then given a meal, met with the people we wanted to see, and set off for the three-hour drive back to Ouagadougou. (More photos below.)
Then last month in the Ghanaian city of Ho, I attended a church service that ran 6 ½ hours with many choirs and several offerings. The offerings alone took almost an hour. It was so long that I heard a Ghanaian complain about it! It would have been longer, but the man presiding cut several items shorter than the congregation wanted. I had the impression that most would have been quite happy if the service had lasted 8 hours. To be fair, it was a special occasion – the induction of a new Moderator. Many stayed long afterwards for photos and to talk.
Of course, neither of these church services could rival the one where a Florida preacher preached for 53 hours and 18 minutes.
Long church services are typical in Africa. One of the issues I dealt with as a young director for Bible translation work in Burkina Faso was Western missionaries, especially families, who found it difficult to adapt to the long, sometimes boring and not infrequently irrelevant church services. I don’t mean that the services were irrelevant to the people, but they often were irrelevant to the missionary whose spiritual needs and issues can be quite different. Few missionaries, for example, derive much benefit from a sermon on the dangers of polygamy. I found myself ill-equipped to help my fellow missionaries find a way forward.
An unanticipated change of focus in my ministry was about to change things.
I had come to Africa to do Bible translation. Then I was assisting other missionaries to do translation. But God was pointing me toward helping Africans and their churches engage in translation. As I was becoming convinced that this was God’s direction, I found myself in one of those long and tedious church services. Sitting there hoping it would end soon, I looked around. The Africans in the service were paying close attention. None of them looked like they wanted the service to end. I had never heard one of them complain about the length of the service. A question popped into my head: “Could I engage effectively with African Christians about Bible translation (or anything else) while it is obvious that I don’t enjoy the way they express their faith in church?” I thought not.
I thought quite a bit about that question and its obvious answer. In the end I prayed. Well, it was more of a demand than a typical prayer. I told the Lord, “You are going to give me this! You are going to give me a deep love and appreciation for all things African and Christian!” It felt strange, making that demand . I did not intend it. It just came out that way. There was no great emotion, just a feeling that it was the right thing to want and the right way to say it.
I cannot claim to have an overwhelming preference for long African church services. I did find parts of that 6 ½-hour church service in Ho tedious and I looked at the time more than once. But, for the most part I enjoyed it. I would definitely do it again, and I almost certainly will.
Here are more photos of that long baptismal service in Burkina Faso.