As part of my seminary experience at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, we spent our whole first year visiting different churches in the Philadelphia area. These included urban and suburban, and many different denominations (Baptist, Lutheran Episcopal, Roman Catholic, AME, etc.).
Coming to Cotonou, the person we had the most contact with was Leopold- a pastor at an evangelical church- with whom we have spent many days and become close friends. He and his wife Leontine are great people- smart, generous, caring, and fun to be around. It has been a joy to know them! What has been a pleasant surprise on this trip is to experience the African evangelical church. We have had the chance to worship with them on several occasions, and even tagged along for an "evangelization" trip. All have been interesting learning experiences.
Let me start by stating the obvious that the style of worship is extremely different from the way many North American Lutherans worship. The "prayer service" held Thursday nights is over two hours long, with a 45 minute sermon. When people at the church pray, they stomp their feet, smack their fist into their hand, and flail their arms. They also shout their prayers- maybe they want to be sure God hears them, and that God knows they really mean it. In any case, you can imagine what a church full of people praying like this all at the same time must be like. They must think I am crazy because I pray by bowing my head and quietly or silently praying.
Sunday worship lasts a bit longer- about three hours. It starts with some singing- which in Africa, means that there is also dancing involved. This is my favorite part! After some healthy amount of time dedicated to individual prayer, its time for the sermon- an even longer message. Ushers walk around and tap people during the sermon that have fallen asleep- after all, they obviously are not praying! Last Sunday, there was even a second sermon that lasted about twenty minutes (it was mainly about marriage and was more practical than biblical- the reason for this second sermon was that a married couple had recently had a baby that was being presented to the church family for the first time. Oh, and the baptism will have to wait until there is a public profession of faith).
During worship, the children sit outside, singing, dancing, praying, and certainly playing, too. After the second sermon, we took an offering for the family and their new child. Then came the church offering, where every donor has to come to the front to drop their francs into the box. It makes it pretty apparent who is not giving that week. After a little more singing and a good amount of praying, the service ended. I still have not seen them do communion.
Our evangelization trip involved going to a neighboring area and inviting people to a prayer service. The prayer service was going as expected, just like the ones held at the church in Akpapkpa, Cotonou, until the very end. At this point, Leopold invited those with any problems to come forward for prayer, and asked me to help. Leopold got started with some exorcisms, and as people were falling over left and right, I was praying and doing pastoral care with a woman who came forward whose husband beats her and cheats on her (Karin translated- she does a good bit of that!). Luckily, no one came to me saying that they had an evil spirit inside of them. I prayed with several others who were sick while the screaming and exorcisms continued, and then we finished with a song. Not your typical North American Lutheran experience!