One of the greatest challenges Christians have is to give the Bible’s answers to the questions people are asking, in language they can understand, with arguments they can feel the weight of (Tim Keller, Center Church, 89). In order to faithfully answer the questions our friends and loved ones are asking, we must learn about our context and how to express the beauty of the gospel in relevant ways.
It might be surprising that we can learn principles for how to do this from someone who is sharing the good news of Jesus in another country. Bethany Tennent is one of our church’s world partners. That means we have supported her as a church through finances and prayer as she has ventured out on mission to the Alagwa people in Tanzania. Melissa Lowther, our Ministry Associate, recently had the chance to interview Bethany while she is back in the States for a few months. What she shared not only broadens our perspective about this segment of African culture, but opens our eyes to how we can begin to connect our faith with the everyday life of those on the North Shore. Check out this summary of the conversation.
Bethany, what is your role in Tanzania and how long have you been there?
I’ve lived in Tanzania among the Alagwa tribe since 2010. I went there to serve with Africa Inland Mission on a small church planting team. We also partner with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Our day-to-day life involves a lot of relational networking, language and culture learning, Bible translation, and sharing Christ through a chronological Bible storying set that we have developed.
What do you appreciate most about the culture where you serve?
The Alagwa are welcoming and hospitable. They are generous and they have taught us a lot about how to have strong friendships.
What are some of the primary barriers to the gospel in that context?
There are many layers of barriers to the Christian faith. The tribe identifies as 100% Muslim. However, this is not as much about a commitment to Islam as it is about a commitment to community and their tribe. It is difficult for someone in the tribe to choose a faith that no one else has chosen before. There is much social and family pressure and an individual may be cut off from the provision of their family and friends if they turn away from the Muslim religion.
But, even deeper than this is a commitment to their traditional ways. For example, the Alagwa practice various traditional sacrifices. Islam does not condone these practices, but it also doesn’t prevent them from performing them. It is difficult for someone in this culture to stop a practice that is such a deep part of their tribal tradition.
How have you and your team attempted to overcome these barriers?
We work hard to engage these friends on the deepest level of their worldview. So, if you were to talk about sin to an Alagwa person, he might say that he’s Muslim, so he’s fine. But, if you talk about being cursed, he will seek to find out how to be freed from that curse. Curses are very real and serious in this culture and there is a traditional understanding of covenant that leads them to recognize a curse as only being lifted with a blood sacrifice. This is one way where we can enter with the message that Jesus Christ lifted our curse through his sacrifice on the cross. The language we use is significant for connecting with their worldview.
Do you have any tips for how we can better relate the gospel to our own culture here on the North Shore of Boston?
Again, it’s important to engage our friends on the deepest level of their worldview. The Alagwa have a better understanding of covenant than we do, because it is such a core part of their worldview of sacrifice. The people live in a lot of fear of curses, so when they come to grasp that Jesus bears the curse and fulfills the sacrifice, it is transformational. God has put certain things in their culture to help them understand. What things has God put in the culture of those on the North Shore that will help them grasp an aspect of the gospel?
Thank you so much for your time, Bethany. How can we be praying for you and your ministry?
Please pray for the Alagwa people, that they would grasp that Jesus fulfills their deepest concerns – he is the ultimate sacrifice. And pray that they would have the courage to stake everything on that.
For our team, please pray that we would be encouraged to persevere in this work to which God has called us.