South Africa has more official languages than any other country: English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, Tswana, Sotho, Pedi, Venda, Tsonga and Swazi. These languages represent a slice of the various people-groups in South Africa, to say nothing of the Malay and Chinese populations, the various European groups, and the mixed populations that have developed their own identity over the centuries. If you want to study multiculturalism and missions, South Africa’s a good place.
In 1857, Robert Moffat, pioneer missionary in South Africa, printed a hymn-book in Sechuana (Tswana). It is speculation to consider why he did this, but it is not a leap to suggest that he did so because he believed learning to worship was as much a part of discipleship as learning Christian doctrine. He probably believed that as a Christian who had received a wealth of tradition, he was obligated to pass this on to a culture where no such tradition existed. He gave these people a hymnal in Sechuana, not in English or Latin. Nevertheless, he gave them a hymnal.
Today, some missionaries arrive believing such approaches smack of paternalism. They believe that true contextualization requires co-opting the forms of music existing in the target culture for Christian worship. I can’t help smiling to myself when another American missionary arrives, attends a church in a rural area and remarks that the hand-drum used in that black church was not what he was used to, but he is glad to see a “truly indigenous expression of Christianity”. A warm sense of having grasped ‘contextualization’ sweeps over the man.
Little does he know that the presence of an isighubu in one rural church hardly represents the spectrum of worship amongst African believers in South Africa. Multiculturalism is not always what you’d expect.
Not many missionaries are aware of some of the Methodist churches in the black townships that practise exclusive psalmody (translated into one of the indigenous languages), sung without instrumentation.
Not many English-speaking missionaries know that you can switch on the radio on a Sunday morning and hear hymns in Xhosa, Zulu or Sotho being sung and enjoyed by literally hundreds of thousands of black believers. Most of these are translations of well-known Western hymns; some are indigenous creations. The melodies of these hymns are not always the ones used in American churches, but the emotional expression is largely equivalent.
Not many missionaries know that some of the Zulu or Sotho songs sung repetitively (and enthusiastically endorsed by some missionaries as evidence of planting a truly indigenous church) are criticized by other black believers as being trite, banal, and largely vacuous.
Not many missionaries know that amongst black Christians in South Africa, the very same worship wars prevail. Many call for dance to express what they see as the livelier, energetic African culture, and many Africans respond by calling such expressions sensual, out of order, and more akin to the rituals of ancestor worship.
In other words, contra the claims of some, one does not find people in other cultures universally and unanimously clamouring for indigenous music to be used in Christian worship. Nor are the ones who call for hymnody thoroughly “westernised” or brainwashed into identifying Western Christianity as the only authentic kind. It is a strange kind of patronising of black believers to insist that they do not have the mental, historical or cultural awareness to know when their expression of Christianity is a ‘colonial’ form. Frankly, many black believers in South Africa are far more aware of the nuances of the debate regarding cultural expressions of Christianity than a student who has just completed MIS102 Cross-Cultural Missions.
The fact is, the scene is far more mixed than people writing about contextualization often seem to realise. Although differences of custom and attitude are still pronounced, the situation that faces a modern missionary to a country like South Africa is quite different to what Livingstone or Moffat faced, and not merely because Western technology is ubiquitous. Contextualization is a lot more complex than some seem to think. It’s to that topic that we turn next.