Next month I’ve been asked to lead a session for a church group preparing to go to Malawi for 2 weeks on a mission trip. Part of their time will be spent teaching the Bible, so I’ve been asked to give them some cultural pointers.

I certainly don’t know all the answers, so I’m planning to have an interactive session, where we first of all identify as many cultural differences as we can between “Africa” and “the West”, and then explore what these differences mean for the way that Africans see Christianity and the Bible differently from people in the West.

I’m not sure in what direction the discussion is going to go, but I’ve written down some of my thoughts so that at least I have some idea of what I think before we start. But I’d appreciate any feedback you might have.

What other broad cultural differences would you say there are between Africa and the West? What do you agree with below, and what would you disagree with? What else is important for a British group of mainly young people to be aware of before they go to Africa to teach the Bible?

Difference (Africa / the West)

How does this affect the way Africans view Christianity?

How does this affect the way Africans view the Bible?

Community outlook / Individual outlook

Christianity is a community thing, rather than individual. Conversion to Christ is much more likely for people when respected individuals within the community have committed to Christ.

Passages are read for their application to the community, rather than on an individual level. Interestingly, many of the books of the Bible were originally written to or for a community.

Respect for elders, conventional wisdom / Respect for youth, new ideas

Look to older members of family, community for guidance about life, more than to peers and new ideas brought from outside.

Respect stories of long ago. Take notice of genealogies – these make the stories real. The fact that the Bible is 2000+ years old makes it very important.

Low life expectancy / High life expectancy

Life expectancy in many parts of Africa is about 40. This means death is a constant part of life. If the gospel is accepted as a life and death matter, it becomes very urgent, as many adults can only expect to live for another 5-10 years, maybe less if they have AIDS. You don’t have to tell an African that he is mortal – people know only too well the reality of death.

In many parts of Africa half of the population is age 15 or under. These things make what the Bible has to say about children very relevant. Issues with widows and orphans are not just interesting, but are a matter of life and death for those involved.

Spiritual aspect of life very real / More focused on physical

In general, Africans know that there is a spiritual side to life – they’ve lived with witch doctors and traditional religion for centuries, and know that these things have power. In Africa, the question is not “Is there any kind of God?”, but “Who is this God and how powerful is he?”

Passages about evil spirits and witchcraft are very relevant and are not just symbolic, but speak about literal realities in people’s lives.

Poor / Rich

People are poor, and are looking for anything that can make their life less difficult. In these situations, the prosperity gospel can be very attractive.

The Bible says a huge amount about the poor being lifted up and the rich being humbled. These passages are often overlooked in the west, but are key to the way Africans read the Bible. It gives them hope for the present – that God will sustain and bless them – and for the future – that they will be rich in the Kingdom of God.

Fear of drought, famine / Abundance of food

Rain to water crops is a necessity for survival. Christianity will be seen to be true if it can help meet everyday needs for survival.

Passages about God blessing the land with rain if the people obey him resonate with Africans – they know how much they depend on God for survival. They can identify with Israel in the OT – depending on God to send rain.

Close to the land, agriculture / Most people work in towns, offices

People are aware of creation, of their dependence on an unseen creator God / gods who makes crops grow and sustains the earth.

People understand many of Jesus’ parables, as they live in similar situations. Many of the illustrations in both the Old and New Testament are to do with the land and agriculture, and these are directly relevant to everyday life.

Death is part of everyday life / Death is a taboo

Death and what happens afterwards are not philosophical questions to Africans, but real everyday concerns. What Christianity has to say about these issues is an important issue for today.

People can particularly empathise with people in the Bible who lose family members – eg the widow whose son died, Ruth and Naomi.

Low education / High education

People are not concerned with understanding deep theological matters. They simply want to know how Christianity affects them in their daily life. Anything that depends on high education (even basic literacy) may put them off.

People identify with the poor common people of the Bible, rather than the scholars. Whereas people in the West would identify with Paul as a well educated Jew, Africans would be more likely to feel at home studying the disciples – many of whom were Galilean fisherman.

Oral society / Literate society

Christianity is most attractive when presented in the form of stories. People are used to having traditional wisdom passed on orally through the generations. Christianity can take the same status, if passed orally from elders to the rest of the community (in the same way that books pass on wisdom in a literate society). Even oral recordings can perform this function, in many cases better than written scriptures.

Parts of the Bible when the community comes together to hear God’s word (in Ezra, at the temple etc) resonate with Africans. They are used to wisdom being passed on orally and collectively, rather than individually through reading.

Functional way of thinking / Analytical way of thinking

For Africans, the key question about Christianity is not “is it true?”, but “does it work?”. Whether something is functional is much more important to Africans than abstract concepts like absolute truth. Africans are more likely to judge Christianity on whether it is more powerful than evil spirits than whether it is true (in the abstract, western sense of truth).

Africans identify much more with the gospels where Jesus is healing the sick and meeting people’s needs, than with Paul’s more abstract approach to proclaiming the truth in parts of the book of Romans.

Proverbs, wisdom, stories valued / Science, analytical thinking valued

The things that resonate with people, are wisdom and proverbs. These are what have always been passed on through the generations, so it is only a small jump to replace traditional wisdom and proverbs from ancestors with (even more ancient) wisdom and proverbs from the Bible.

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes etc are highly revered by African Christians, and resonate with their culture. The important thing is not “What exactly is the truth?”, but “How should we live?”

Idols part of life / No physical idols

Christianity must be seen to offer more than the traditional worship of idols – it must be seen to have more power.

Parts where God tells Israel to get rid of idols, and even ridicules idols can be very real to Africans. Idols in the Bible are not taken as metaphors as they are in the West, but are seen as genuine alternatives to Christianity.

Blood sacrifices understood / No sacrificial system

People understand the power of blood sacrificed, normally to appease spirits, whether it’s for wrong they’ve done or because the spirits are upset. People completely understand that a just God would demand a blood sacrifice for sins committed.

People understand blood sacrifices made in the Old Testament, and the New Testament explanations (eg Hebrews) that Jesus was the ultimate blood sacrifice to atone for sins.

New nations – recent colonial history / Old nations

People are aware that the nations are a drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15). Collectively, as well as individually, they are aware that they rely on God and his mercy to survive. The West (particularly Europe) can find it difficult to identify with God’s warnings to the Israelites that the nation would be humbled. Africans, with a recent memory of colonialisation and often difficult struggles for and since independence know that the entire nation is at God’s mercy.

Prophecies to the nation of Israel are read as a prophecy to the whole nation, whereas in the West they are often interpreted on an individual level. Can also find it difficult to read about Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, where their memories of colonial powers mean that they may identify more with the conquered Canaanites than the victorious Israelites.

Few generations of Christianity / Hundreds of years of Christianity

The African church doesn’t have generations of traditions to form its view of Christianity. Most traditions have been taken on from Western missionaries. The church is much more free to read the Bible and interpret it in the way it sees fit.

Whereas in the West there is much interest in supposed “new revelations” (gospel of Thomas, Da Vinci code etc), in Africa the whole Bible is new and exciting in its revelations.

Business between friends, acquaintances / Business with anonymous companies

The analogies of debt in the Bible are much more personal than for Christians in the West. If a Western Christian goes into debt, he may go bankrupt and lose his possessions. If an African can’t pay a debt his life could be in danger. Africans can identify much more with the serious concept of debt and payment (and redemption) in the Bible than Western Christians who are used to debt as a normal part of life.

Little healthcare / Good healthcare

An important issue is whether Christianity is able to provide healing. When people have little or no access to conventional healthcare, the promise of a healing God is much more immediate and real.

Accounts of Jesus healing people are very powerful, as they give hope where there is little or no hope from conventional healthcare.

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