Powerful Preaching: A Guest Post By Abram Kidd*

 

A few years ago, I discovered that when some Tanzanians say someone “really preached” (Swahili – alihubiri sana), they refer more to the preacher’s profuse sweating, theatrics, and authoritative roar than the sermon content.  This illustrated to me the important point that cultural understandings affect the delivery of Christian messages as well as the content.  This needs more discussion in the African Church today.  In the African context, it appears to me that there are important cultural or even psychological links between power, and a person’s energetic movement, loud voice, and social position.  If what people like Yusuf Turaki[1] say about the prominence of power and its acquisition in African Traditional Religion (ATR) is true, it is significant for Christian ministers in areas where ATR informs local cultural understandings.  Against this background, I would like to throw a rock into the bush about potential understandings of preachers’ movement, voice, and social position and then briefly contrast with Biblical teaching.

First, a preacher’s physical vigor may be perceived as demonstrating a kind of power in two related ways.  One, the physical constitution and virility of the preacher may show he/she is the recipient of divine favor.  Good health is a blessing.  Two, a more animated preacher may be regarded as one more filled or possessed by the Spirit.  In either case, liveliness is an attractive power.[2]  A preacher’s sweaty brow may be interpreted as a sign of godly work.

Second, with respect to vocal communication, many seem to believe that powerful preaching is demonstrated solely by thunderous volume and unwavering, authoritative tone.  In ATR, a spiritual leader may communicate spiritual power by accentuating and repeating magical ‘power’ words.  It is conceivable that a listener from this background may judge a preacher’s sermon delivery more efficacious than the understanding the sermon content itself.  They may also gain a sense of security that they are under the leadership and protection of a powerful person when they hear his commanding, confident voice.

Third, a preacher is often perceived as being in a position of superior spiritual power.  I have observed this mainly in two areas.  One, a preacher’s prayer is felt to be more powerful than a ‘regular’ Christian, especially in matters of healing and confronting demons.  Two, some believe that preachers are so filled with the Holy Spirit when preaching that no false word can pass their lips.  From an ATR perspective, a preacher in some ways occupies the role of a traditional healer, medium, or expert in spiritual affairs.[3]

Let us now examine these three main areas briefly in light of the Bible’s teaching.

With respect to a preacher’s movement, I see no clear examples or direct teachings from scripture on the subject, so would assume that a variety of movements is acceptable.  However, physical health and vigor are not reliable indicators of spiritual maturity or power.  The righteous Job, and the apostle Paul experienced physical suffering and matured spiritually through it.  They gained a sort of spiritual power over others in terms of gaining respect and credibility amongst Christians, but this does not necessarily qualify them for greater access to God’s power.  In fact, God often chooses the weak to demonstrate His power (1Co 1:26-2:5).

I cannot find anywhere in the Bible that a loud voice is a requirement for good preaching.  God may speak in a thunderous voice (Dt 5:22) or in a “gentle whisper” (1Ki 19:11-13).  Jesus, the apostles and prophets must have raised their voices to address crowds, but this was to be heard rather than to add power to their messages.  Furthermore, I see no indication that Jesus had to shout to drive out demons or to be heard by his Father.[4]  Christians must realize that a preacher’s real power comes from truthfulness not volume.  Liars can be loud too.  Furthermore, emphasizing a point is a different thing than believing that people will only understand if they are shouted at.  Biblical instruction should be marked by gentleness and love (Heb 5:2, 1Pe 3:15).

Finally, in terms of a preacher’s position, Christians differ on whether or not some have more access to God’s power or not.  My own position is that access to spiritual power has more to do with personal relationship to God than socially recognized position.  Remembering Balaam (Num 22-24) and Moses, both recognized spiritual experts, one may see that God cannot be manipulated but may be persuaded based on relationship.  This means that a preacher’s prayer is not necessarily more powerful than another Christian’s, nor should a sermon assumed to be faultless (cf. Ac 17:11).  Furthermore, whereas some religious leaders in ATR are secretive with their knowledge and use it for personal profit, Christian leaders are called to be servants and shepherds unhindered by selfish gain and who empower their people with the truth (1Pe 5:1-3).  It should be obvious they love people more than money.

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*Abram Kidd is a Canadian who has served with Africa Inland Mission as a Bible teacher at Nassa Theological College, Tanzania for seven years. He has a heart for the growth of the Church in Africa. Currently, Abram is in his second year of doctoral studies at Africa International University in the Intercultural Studies program, Missions track. 


References:

[1] Yusuf Turaki, Foundations of African Traditional Religion and Worldview (Nairobi: WorldAlive Publishers Limited, 2006)

[2] For purposes of comparison and specific example, consider the similar attractiveness of Africa Inland Church (AIC) choirs in Tanzania to many Sukuma people.  According to some Sukuma friends, special village dancing groups used to be an important part of Sukuma culture.  They were mainly comprised of young men and women, and would periodically hold dance competitions.  These functioned, among other things, as forums for those eligible for marriage to show off their physical fitness.  Although these Sukuma friends did not mention it, association with ancestral spirits in the traditional dances seems fairly likely as well.  Church choirs are ready substitutes for these groups, and likely have retained some of the traditional Sukuma roles and meanings.

[3] On a related note, it is my understanding that those in spiritually powerful positions in ATR do not command much moral authority.  If this is the case, it may also contribute to the increasing popular criticism of the moral failings of Christian preachers as portrayed in some African movies.

[4] In 1Ki 18:26-29 it is the prophets of Baal, rather than Elijah, the prophet of God, who shout in prayer.

 

 

Are you in doubt with the miraculous?

Dr. Jonathan Armstrong & Babatomiwa Moses Owojaiye

If your answer to the question above is yes, then I encourage you to read the testimony of a friend. Dr. Jonathan Armstrong visited Nigeria for the first time in August 2011. We were in Nigeria to facilitate a week seminar at ECWA Theological Seminary, Igbaja. Jonathan’s visit to Nigeria left an indelible mark on his life. Enjoy your reading!

Miracles in Nigeria[1]

By Dr. Jonathan Armstrong

“Do you have a visa? You’d better check on that…”

Three days before I was schedule to board the plane for my flight to Nigeria, my wife Linda brought up the visa question. Up to this point, the only African countries I had visited were Kenya and Tanzania, and for those countries the process is as simple as purchasing a visa at the airport upon entry.

Unsure, Linda did a quick search on her computer and pulled up a website that specifically stated that Nigerian visas cannot be purchased at the airport.

Everything seems so obvious when you’re looking back on it.

Growing anxious, I stayed up that night until the American embassy in Nigeria opened to ask how to apply for a visa. “Even if you were somehow permitted to board the plane,” the woman at the other end of the phone told me frankly, “you’d be arrested upon deplaning here in Nigeria.”

That wasn’t the news I was hoping to hear.

After a lot of panic and prayers and an astonishing series of “God things” that resulted in someone at the Nigerian embassy in Washington DC taking a personal interest in resolving my problem, I boarded a flight to Nigeria only two days later than planned and arrived the night before the seminar was scheduled to begin.

God is good.

My co-leader Moses Owojaiye met me at the airport, and we had the first of many wonderful conversations. Moses is a native Nigerian who recently completed his M.Phil in Nairobi, and the paper he submitted to fulfill that requirement is currently being considered for an award given to the most significant thesis in any discipline submitted at an African University. To share leadership duties with Moses was a great privilege, and his deep insight into the African church was an education in itself for me.

One of the themes of our conversations, however, was the different way miracles are perceived in Africa and in the United States. Here in the West, we tend to think of miracles as “God breaking the laws of nature.” But according to this definition, we can never actually witness a miracle. No matter what phenomenon we experience, it can only inform our understanding of natural laws. A law whose definition encompasses everything that’s observable can never, of course, be broken.

Instead, we hedge our bets. We call them “God things,” those moments when we believe God orchestrated a series of circumstances for a specific purpose. Africans, however, are more willing to take that leap of faith and risk a raised eyebrow. Africans call them “miracles.”

I put the question to Moses. “So, the fact that I was able to get a visa in 48 hours was a miracle?”

“Yes,” he said, smiling, “a big miracle!”

The seminar went even better than we hoped. The group of students and faculty was the largest we’ve ever had, and they were a very timely and disciplined group. After enjoying the president’s hospitality for breakfast, Moses and I would begin lectures at 7:30 every morning. Lectures ran for 5 hours with Moses taking the final hour. The highlight for me was often the group discussion Moses facilitated at the end of the day, focusing on the way the theology of the church fathers spoke to the specific issues facing Africa and African evangelicalism today.

When it came time to return to the USA, I experienced another of those God things I’m learning to call miracles. The journey was scheduled to be the longest single trip of my life—40 hours of travel from Igbaja to my home in Spokane, Washington, by plane and car combined.

The hospitality in Africa was generous and unfailingly kind, but I admit that by the time I boarded my first flight I was already looking forward to a hot shower after the limited electricity and sponge baths of the seminary. When I reached the airport in Lagos, my heart sank as I noticed the long queue of suitcases in front of me stretching all the way to the check-in counter. The flight from the day before had been overbooked and many people had not been able to board, meaning that today’s flight was likely to share a similar fate. Discouraged and growing anxious at the back of the line, an airport official approached me out of the blue and asked a strange question.

“Are you a Christian?”

Surprised, I said, “Yes.”

“Something in my spirit told me you were a Christian,” he said. He then proceeded to tell me that he would like to upgrade my ticket to business class on the flight from Lagos to Frankfurt. Not only would I be able to make my flight, this meant I would be able to recline to sleep on the flight and—best of all—take a hot shower at the first class lounge when I arrived in Germany. It’s funny how grateful you can feel for a few hours of sleep and a shower.

Calling these things miracles may cause some believers to get uncomfortable. The events seem so small and are easily explained away as the generous impulse of a stranger or the random happenstance of life. Some people worry that if we see start seeing God in everything, we’ll lose our sense of responsibility and succumb to a lazy fatalism. Certainly we need to exercise wisdom as well as faith when we interpret the world around us, but let’s not be afraid of claiming an act of unexpected goodness for a God we know to be good.

If these miracles still seem small, let me share with you one last event that truly spoke to my heart. On the last day of the seminar, Dr. J.B. Lawal (the President of ECWA Theological Seminary, Igbaja) rose to address the group and say a few words about the events of the week. After speaking about the historically poor relationship between Africa and the West, he gestured to me and said with incredible grace: “You are one of us… you have seen Christ in us, and we have seen Christ in you.”

Love is always the greatest miracle.

This trip changed me and changed the way I view acts of God. Let’s start calling “God things” what they really are. Let’s start calling them miracles.


[1] Please note that this article has been used with the author’s permission.