There is a nervy moment before every conference when the attendance pattern begins to look like knitwear with gaping holes opening in it. A cannot come. B has a broken axle. C is all at sea. No matter. Things happen and there are still 23 letters left in the alphabet and 23 pastors left in The Gospel Confederation of Zimbabwe Preacher's Conference. But if things happen, they seem to happen at least twice as often in Africa.
A Lesson in Culture
Missionary friends of mine have a disturbing, yet reassuring phrase: 'Africa Wins Every Time'.
There is a lot to object to in this phrase, unless you are talking about middle distance races at the Olympics. There it makes immediate sense. Africa wins every time? You could argue that history says the opposite. But it is worth hearing what my friends meant. They talked from many years experience, and meant that if you have replaced all the tyres on your 4WD, including the spare, and have added an extra spare for measure, Africa will somehow work together to still leave you one tyre short of functional by the end of your trip. 'Africa wins every time.' If you pay all your electricity bills, there will be a power outage anyway, but if the power is reliably on for a stretch, your bill payment won't have been processed and you will stil be in the dark. 'Africa wins every time.' If you organise a conference from Australia, It will get scrambled while you are in mid-flight, and ever more intensely the closer you get. 'A.W.E.T!'.
Of course, this is an unfair way to speak. As if some thing called 'Africa' somehow works all things together to frustrate those who love it. (Actually, some Zimbabweans would say this sums it up pretty well!) Of course, Africa is not some kind of Continental-Reverse-Romans 8:28. If we admit all the evidence, 'Africa' can also turn on a sunset to break your heart, raise up a new morning that makes you sing, and put some form of brilliant animal in your path that makes you not even mind that you now can't get past it. Africa is a place that makes some people thrill with delight the moment they land in Joburg. Still, it can feel like Africa Wins Every Time.
What is at work in particular in these pre-conference jitters is the cultural complexity around the word 'Yes'. Another new friend of mine calls it 'Shades of Yes'. This is very pejorative, and not very culturally sensitive. But it is descriptive.
It is worth digging deeper. In Zimbabwe, a yes is sincere, but provisional. If someone of greater authority demands something - then a new 'yes' lights up, and the old 'yes' is as powerless as a Harare light-switch. This is not unadmirable, it is just differently admirable. In Zimbabwe, authority trumps consistency. Both are good values, we just play them the other way around in Australia. In Australia, no authority is going to change my plans. It looks biblical to let your 'yes be your yes', but when that is played off against 'respect your elders' (as it is in Zim), which bible verse must come first? You see, life is full of clashes, and the spirit of our culture determines which passage we resort too first at least as often as the Spirit of God.
This does, however, mean that organising events in Zimbabwe demands a particular resilience. You shrug your shoulders, reassign tasks, and get on with it. God has his own plans.
A Lesson in Ministry Culture
So how will this conference keep gathering steam over time against such effective scrambling? I am wondering about the importance of shared rhythms that build over time and become a powerful ally for consistency. Sunday is a rhythm. Despite the massive inconsistency developing in our churches, the rhythm of Sunday is still an ally for consistency. This is obvious. But what about irregular but critical events? Like, for example, a key conference. Shared rhythms are the explicit or implicit 'calendar' of our ministry cultures.
Here is an example, each December in Australia some 1600 Christian university students get together in Canberra for the National Training Event. It is a key conference. However, when I was at uni 20 years ago, such a thing barely existed. It moved between cities, and changed names, and was tiny by comparison. I never went. It simply wasn't an institutional reality. So how did it get to its' present glory? Answer: someone made a decision to put it at a consistent time and place, with a specific character (ie. training) and then just stuck at it. Eventually, the sheer repetitive consistency (and quality) of it made it culture. It is now assumed. It is in everyone's calendar before they even send out the funky theme and graphic design. It is in their habits. It became a matter of simple rhythm....eventually.
It makes me wonder what rhythms work for us in the church I serve? Christmas and Easter are not candidates - they are a very mixed bag of ministry effectiveness. Our commitments to family and rest at these times far outweigh our commitment to shared ministry. Our annual Kids Club is one that works. We know it's on. We know it's going to hurt a little. We know it is good and worth any pain. We keep doing it. Other good things fall away. They are like good melodies that lack a beat. They lack the shared rhythm that makes things work, and work again.
Here is one of the key points for review for the week to come at this conference in Zimbabwe. Did we place the conference at a point of natural rhythm for its attendees, and especially its key stakeholders? Does it have the potential to become part of their deep calendar, their assumed rhythm? What else is required to make it an event which blown tyres, power outages and calls from significant authorities will not stop? What puts wind in its' sails, and a spring in its step?
For now D is still due to attend. E is enthusiastic. Press on, faint-hearted. F is for flexibility. Go with the flow or get sucked under. But G is for God. Even if something should crumble: God Wins Every Time.