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Bruce Theron on Decolonizing Worship in South Africa

Imagine singing “In the Bleak Midwinter” during the long hot days of Christmas in South Africa. The Bible is rich enough to include themes and symbols more relevant to living out Christian faith in the Global South.

Bruce Theron pastors a bilingual English-Afrikaans church in Kuilsriver near Stellenbosch, South Africa. He serves as program manager of Ekklesia, an ecumenical organization affiliated with the University of Stellenbosch. He is also moderator-elect of the International Congregational Fellowship. In this edited conversation, Theron talks about decolonizing Christian theology and worship in South Africa.

Many people don’t know much about South Africa other than apartheid, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and excellent wine. What are pressing issues in South Africa today? 

Two big ones are drought and student protests. The drought that began across most of southern Africa in 2015 has cut farm yields, killed livestock and wildlife, ended jobs and raised prices of food and water. Some areas of South Africa have less than 100 days of drinking water left in reservoirs. We also may only water our gardens—by hand with a bucket—on Tuesdays and Thursdays before 6 a.m.  A student-led movement called Fees Must Fall also began in 2015. Students whose parents were left behind under apartheid know they need education to get ahead. But they can’t pay fees and are crippled by tuition debt. Recently students rampaged and burned down buildings at several universities. Some people got killed. Stellenbosch University is about 15 miles outside of the city, and we were the least affected by violence. But our students still had to ride to school under armed guard. 

How would you describe college or seminary opportunities for black and colored ministers?

The Bible has been translated into all 11 of South Africa’s official languages, as well as some non-official languages. About 94 percent of South Africans aged 15 and above can read and write. Among Anglican, Presbyterian, Reformed and UCC churches, 70 to 80 percent of recognized clergy are ordained. The rest, especially in rural areas, have not had theological training. But among 150,000 black and colored spiritual leaders, about 140,000 are poorly educated.  Required university fees are prohibitive for many ministers. At Ekklesia, we arranged Old Testament and New Testament classes for pastors in the Cape Town area. This training whetted their appetite to get an official acknowledgement. We are trying to do fundraising on a big scale and are negotiating to create a theological diploma for people who don’t have a college degree but have reached a certain age and amount of experience.  We also publish Word and Worship, an annual sermon outline and worship resource based on the Revised Common Lectionary. The majority of those who buy it do not have internet access or theological training in exegesis. They have welcomed it with open arms.

Who started the churches in South Africa?

Many were started by American, British and European missionaries. The London Missionary Society established schools and churches in my denomination, the United Congregational Church of South Africa. Most missionaries suppressed African cultures and encouraged a sense of dependency. Many churches have uncritically adopted the liturgical and celebration patterns of the Global North. 

There are two main groups of African Independent Churches (AIC). They bring elements of African culture into church worship and life. Most celebrate only Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, since they think of the church year as a Western thing. Their membership runs into the millions, and they are extremely wealthy. All dress in white or blue for church.

What African elements did missionaries suppress and the AIC reclaim? 

Communal actions are very important in traditional African culture, so, rather than watch three or four liturgical dancers in worship, a whole congregation would dance together. When missionaries suppressed drums in worship, indigenous Christians developed a tradition of bringing beanbags to worship to slap on their hymnals. In many traditional African religions, worship happens outdoors, often next to water or a big tree, like a baobab tree. They marked out the earth in circles for worship gatherings. But worship spaces in many denominational churches in South Africa look just like you’d find in the West or Global North. 

What’s the problem with following Christian traditions from elsewhere?   

The Northern Hemisphere has held sway over the accepted tradition, culture and worship images—more than can be realized or imagined. This is not strange, considering that most of the African continent was colonized by Western powers. Words create a world. But our world in South Africa is very different from Europe or America. Our country and denominations include black, colored and white members. Living conditions here vary from first world to third world.  Much of our theology and culture must be decolonized, allowing us to unpeel the colonization layered on over the decades. We need to take out what the missionaries brought from their own cultures—and find biblical symbols and rituals that resonate with our context in South Africa. John Mbiti, a Kenyan-born Anglican canon, has been a leader in challenging the idea that nothing in traditional African spirituality belongs in Christian worship.

Can you give examples of worship and cultural mismatches?

We celebrate Christmas in summer. Yet every good mall here must have a Santa in a beard and thick red clothes. People who have never seen such plants in real life display artificial holly and ivy, mistletoe and Christmas trees with fake snow. People sing about Jesus being born in a stable, even though, in South Africa, the word stable is associated with what people in America would call an outhouse [outdoor toilet].

Easter comes when everything is dying in nature all around us. Pentecost arrives as winter cold sets in. Turkey has become very popular in holiday meals, even though it is not indigenous to South Africa. Of late, we even have Halloween Day.

What would you like to see instead?

The candles that mean so much in Northern Christmas worship services don’t work as well here to proclaim a Savior born for our generation. The pilgrimage themes in the Christmas story—Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem, looking for a hospitable place to prepare for Jesus’ birth, fleeing to Egypt—better fit our context.

Christmas comes during the annual break when factories, businesses and schools close for six weeks. Besides serving Ebenezer UCC, I also serve a black congregation a few kilometers outside Cape Town. For all of December, they move to what used to be called “the black homelands” to tend their kraals [cattle pens]. They slaughter cows and cook them in big cast iron pots to share with people who live all year in the ancestral village. 

For me that is very biblical. Christmas is about hospitality and sharing meals with family and friends. It’s also about welcoming strangers and visitors at our worship services.

We could be learning more from the AIC. If we develop more contextualized traditions, we can enrich the Global North. In the Northern spring, it makes sense at Easter to say that God comes to us with new life. But if resurrection doesn’t just mimic the natural world around us, then it goes against the grain and reminds us that the Bible offers a countercultural story. It’s to our own detriment that we haven’t explored this further.

How else might you contextualize worship and the church year to your setting in South Africa?

Your constellation is the Big Dipper. Ours is the Southern Cross. South African Anglicans are developing a new prayer book that has a decoration designed around the Southern Cross. Scripture refers to the stars a lot, so we don’t have to import green wreaths to celebrate Christmas. Daniel says saints are called to shine like stars. John describes Jesus as a light in the darkness.

Some people use the gifts of our land in creating Christmas symbols, such as hanging angels made of cornhusks on dried cotton trees [aka kapok trees, ceiba trees]. Others light outdoor baobab trees or buy baobab trees made of wire by local artisans.


Read the Africa Bible Commentary. Watch a short video on how worship can be trans-cultural, contextual, countercultural and cross-cultural. Join the International Council of Ethnodoxologists to learn more about helping Christians in every culture express their faith through their own heart music and other arts.