Monday, March 03, 2008


This Sunday I led two services. This isn't unusual, but it doesn't happen every week. The first was at Hlalanathi, the church in an informal settlement that we are nurturing along. The congregation was 12 adults and 4 children old enough to listen. That is so encouraging. It is not long ago that I used to arrive to find only one or two people there for church. Or to find that our venue had been appropriated by another church group. This Sunday I heard the singing from the road. It was very cool! And the painted building looks clean and bright inside.

I am very frustrated with my preaching however. I struggle to make contact with the people. It is partly language - they say that they understand English well enough, but I don't think that they do. They also avoid eye contact - I haven't really noticed that before in an African congregation. Is it a cultural thing? I have preached in several other African contexts and have rarely felt such a lack of connection. Last time I was at Hlalanathi I brought 'props'. I was talking about the vine and the branches and pruning and I took along some bits of rose bush - dead and alive. The people showed sparks of life as I explained using the objects. But that doesn't seem like preaching. It seems to belittle the people.

I am preaching there again next Sunday. I must do better. Pray harder perhaps? Because it is God who does the work in the end. But if I'm not the right person, then we must rather find the right person.


Unknown said...

Hi Jenny, What can I say but to share some of my own experiences and to encourage you. We are always critical of ourselves and we expect a bigger response from the informal area congregations. They on the other hand are reseved when it comes to responding. I always use a translator if there is one person that cannot understand English and I choose one from amongst them. They do not always make eye contact and one has to get to understand their culture. Do not sell yourself short, your involvement in their services and place of worship speaks to them and they do understand. Allow them to do the reading in their language and do one of the prayers.Stories to the children is important and use them to help you with it. I am just sharing what I do, you may already be doing it. We are called into this work and it bring Glory to God. Blessings, Herman.

Steven Jones said...

Hi Jenny

I have had similar experience in preaching in vernacular services, so don't be so hard on yourself - you just need to adapt to their culture, and you'll be fine.

The following have worked for me:

1. Your dress is critical if you want to gain their respect up front - this means preaching in a "Model T" suit (i.e. any colour you like, as long as it is black). For our lady preachers, this means black skirt (knee-length or slightly longer), black jacket, white long-sleeved blouse, and plain black tie. Don't worry about persoiration when preaching in 40-degree heat - one of the Manyano ladies is bound to "bail you out" with a glass of water and some tissues (although you may want to take your own if preaching in an informal settlement).

2. Get a Xhosa-speaking friend to help you with the pronunciation of the liturgy (if you are not Xhosa-speaking), and try to follow it as far as possible. The "Sakudumisa" is an absolute must, as is the Xhosa Lord's Prayer. No matter how badly you butcher the words, the congregation WILL appreciate the effort - trust me on this one!

3. Try to slot in anecdotes that will resonate with the congregation. This may mean that you need to be up to date with the score in the latest Chiefs / Pirates game (as long as you don't show TOO strong a bias to either team). However, be careful with politics - avoid if possible unless it has a direct bearing on your message.

4. For Scripture readings, I always do them in English, and then invite one of the members of the congregation to do the same reading in Xhosa (as well as Sesotho / Setswana, if applicable). I usually do OT first, then allow interpretation, then NT, and so on. Most of the time, it is their custom to stand during the reading of the Gospel, so respect this.

5. Interpretation is useful if there is someone available (and also shows respect), and given that the liturgy, etc. is fairly lengthy, this means that the 10-12 minute "sermonette" works best as it soon becomes 25-30 with interpretation. Short, simple sentences work best when being interpreted, but find the right balance. These are intelligent people who speak about 5 languages - English may just happen to be number 3 or 4 - so while simple makes for easier interpretation, don't fall into the trap of "speaking down" to them (us "whiteys" have been guilty of this for generations, so if we fall into this trap, it WILL be picked up and offence will be taken).

6. Finally, be lavish in your thanks, praise of the choir, etc. Remember, it is an absolute privilege to share in worship with this community, and a little appreciation goes a LONG way!

May God bless you as you prepare for your upcoming trial service. It WILL be in a cross-cultural setting, so it's good that you are getting exposure now.


Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi Herman
You have reminded me that the unlocking word is 'stories'. I need to engrave that in my brain. Stories for both premodern and postmodern cultures! I spoke on Psalm 23 and I somehow persuaded myself that it is a story. But of course although it is an image, it is not a story and the message is not in a story. I do get them to do the readings, in both isiXhosa and seTswana or seSotho. I usually involve the children in the sermon itself, but again I didn't this time.
Thanks for the reminders!

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi Steven

Thanks for the comment! Informal settlements are a little different to African church services in a more formal setting - in many ways they are more accepting of western ways and I like to encourage that where possible. Because sometimes culture gets in the way of the gospel (to my mind, for instance, in the matter of dress). So I don't wear the 'black and white' and that is not a problem. They also come comfortably dressed.
But thank you for sharing from your experience!

John van de Laar said...

Hi Jenny,

Again, I wonder if you're being too hard on yourself. Your "stories" comment is a good one - I'd go with that. But it also sounds like just one of those days when you don't "feel" the effect of your ministry - and, of course feelings are an unreliable measure at best!

A lot of the ministry of the sermon is the care and understanding that is communicated, and I sense that your very concern about connecting with the people indicates that you had that in spades! My experience is that what God is doing is often hidden, and what outward affirmation we receive during preaching (eye contact, a feeling of connection, laughing at the right places etc.) can sometimes be misleading.

Preaching is, by its very nature, an act of faith - that God will take our very human words and transform them in to the word of God - a life transforming word at that! How ridiculous from a rational perspective, but how amazing from a spiritual one (if I may be permitted that dualism for a moment!). But, the whole point is that we can't do this - God must. So, the faith comes in careful preparation - which you had - caring delivery - which you had - and then trusting God to keep God's part of the bargain - which I can guarantee God did!

For what it's worth.
Sacredise - Seeking to be Fully Alive

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Thanks John. It's that bit about trusting God to do his bit of the bargain that I need to work on! I went through similar angst with the evening service, thinking of all the things I did wrong. Pathetic! That's not what Jesus is all about.
I really appreciate the reminder. And for myself - I need to find someone that will pull me out of that state of mind when it happens (my poor husband I guess).
Thanks again for the encouragement!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jenny

Have you considered 1 Tim 2:12?


Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi Frosty Girl

Yes, I have wrestled with those verses big time - and I think I will keep asking those questions. But I can't think that God does not approve of women university lecturers or women senior managers or women church leaders. I think those passages must be taken in Paul's specific context - and in the context of the rest of Scripture.