Bishop Martyn’s 2nd blog from Tanzania 2019 – Wildlife, Masai hospitality and new ways of telling the good news in Leicestershire
It’s not every day that I see elephants and giraffes on my way to visit a church. But that was my experience this week when visiting a new church in Tanzania. The elephants were grazing by the side of the dirt road, unphased by the passing 4x4s and the click of cameras. The giraffes were spotted in the distance as we approached the simple, corrugated-iron-roof church set in a small village. This is Masai territory and the people share it with wildlife and tourists on safari.
We were several hours late arriving at the church – the roads were made difficult by the recent rains. But we were greeted by crowds of local people singing and dancing in the traditional Masai way. They were genuinely pleased to see us and welcomed us without a murmur of complaint about their long wait. These are all newly baptised Christians – the church has only been in existence a few months and is one of around 250 new churches started by the Diocese of Mount Kilimanjaro in the last few years.
After words of welcome from the local village and church elders, I was invited to preach. It’s hard to know what to say when the culture is so far from ‘home’ and with the added complication that my English had to be translated into KiSwahili and then again into Masai. But it felt such a privilege simply to be able to offer greetings and a few words of encouragement and also to pray for them.
And then the most extraordinary thing happened. The village had slaughtered a goat and now they produced the cooked meat. An elder cut off chunks (with a seriously impressive hunting knife) and hand a piece to each one of us. This was followed by a bottle of juice. No words were spoken, but I found myself deeply touched by this act of ‘holy communion’. Even across our cultural and language barriers, this simple ritual communicated something of our shared thankfulness and shared worship of God.
I reflected later with my companions that the act of ‘translation’ isn’t just about words but also rituals and, at an even deeper, theological level about the ‘Word’ becoming flesh (John 1). God’s act of translation, appearing in human form, is then followed by multiple further acts of translation as the church communicates the good news of Jesus Christ in the languages and cultures of this world.
This is why I am such a believer in fresh expressions of church and church planting. In the Diocese of Leicester, we’ve seen around 75 new churches started in recent years (not quite the 250 of Mount Kilimanjaro, but still a cause for great celebration) and in their own way, they are translating the good news into different languages and cultures. They may not use chunks of goat meat and bottles of pop, but the Pioneers leading these new churches are having to think for themselves about how to enable the Word to become flesh in the different communities of Leicestershire.
So I will go on praying for the Masai people and the new churches being planted by local, Tanzanian evangelists. I will also go on praying for our other partner dioceses – interestingly the Diocese of Wyoming has just started a programme of fresh expressions of church, based in part on their learning from Leicester and Mount Kilimanjaro. And I will continue to give thanks for our own Pioneers and the new churches they are leading – even if I rarely see exotic wildlife when I visit them.