My class of Sudanese Episcopalians last Saturday considered the rapid conversion of many Dinka to Christianity in the 1980s and 1990s. For the teacher, this raises an interesting conundrum: how to teach about something which the students experienced firsthand. The solution? Prompt them to talk about their experience and try to provide some concepts to frame the experience in terms of mission and how and why people convert.
What is so fascinating about the conversion of the Dinka is that for many decades European missionaries tried—to no avail—to convert the Dinka. What happened when the missionaries left, however, is that the Dinka were able to encounter Christianity on their own terms and in a way that was coherent with their culture.
I got a lesson in this in my class on Saturday when one student told me about how he converted. Singing has long been important to Dinka culture; indeed, in many ways, it is the chief artistic expression. Before war decimated the Dinka homeland, young men would tend cattle in camps. They’d wrestle, talk about women, tend their prize bull, and, in the evenings, write songs about all of it. If it was a good song, it would be sung by others and passed around.
When the Sudanese civil war sent many of these young men into exile, they did the same thing: composed songs about their experience. Only this time, the experience of displacement had (for a variety of reasons we can talk about in another post) introduced Christianity to their mix. In one refugee camp of tens of thousands in Ethiopia, there were two Sudanese pastors. These pastors held services under the trees and taught the boys songs about Jesus. The boys would learn the songs and go back to their shelters and teach others. As they learned more, they began to compose new songs about Jesus. The good ones began to spread. The Gospel was being transmitted to the culture in the most culturally-appropriated medium. As the student said on Saturday, “You converted because of the songs.” The message they were transmitting was appealing and it was unencumbered of the culture of the European missionaries.
This, for me, is a textbook example of the way in which Gospel and culture can come together and lead to the mass conversion of a people. It’s one thing to preach the Gospel. It’s entirely another thing to preach it in a way that people can interpret in light of markers they already know.
So Saturday’s class got me thinking: what’s the equivalent in American culture? North Atlantic culture, we are often told, is moving away from Christianity. In some places, it is outrightly hostile to the faith. This part of the world is now a chief “mission field.” So how do we speak to non-Christians in this part of the world in a way that will be understood?
One challenge, of course, is the fracturing of culture and media. There are now so many sub-cultures (in a way there weren’t necessarily in Dinka culture) that to think about hitting on one method is probably foolish. Still, the reason I’m so fascinated by mission history is that I think it has lessons for us today.
So… in our own time, what’s the equivalent of converting people by song?