Making disciples

Learning From Those Who Pray All Night

I lived in Tanzania for almost two decades. When I came back to America, I kept part of Tanzania with me.

One Sunday morning in Tanzania, I slid down the polished wooden bench in the airy sanctuary at the church we attended. The long room sat in the shadow of an enormous banyan tree, roots dangling from formidable branches. The open windows let in the ocean breeze, the sounds of the busy street and the occasional bird or cat.

How can two cultures prioritize the means of spiritual growth so differently?

On the pew, I found a paper left behind from the Friday night vigil that weekend. It listed a structured schedule of prayer, singing, Scripture reading, testimonies and discussion. Start time: 10:00 p.m. End time: 5:00 a.m. My American eyes examined this with horrified fascination. Attending church for 7 hours in the middle of the night was beyond my comprehension.

Yet, to be a Christian in Tanzania is to attend all-night prayer vigils. Some churches hold them every weekend. For others, it’s once a quarter. It’s such a part of church culture that the church leaders at our Bible school expressed shock when they heard that American evangelical churches generally don’t practice this.

“How can they even call themselves Christian?” they gaped.

A different point of view

In contrast, American Christians might say the same thing about Tanzanians when they find out that, in general, Tanzanian churches don’t prioritize personal daily devotions. American Sunday school kids grew up singing, Read your Bible, pray every day and you will grow, grow, grow!  Search “devotional books” on Amazon and you’ll find hundreds of choices. Every January, the blogosphere is littered with Bible-reading plans.  In American evangelicalism, the quintessential mark of spirituality is the discipline of daily Bible reading. 

How can two cultures prioritize the means of spiritual growth so differently?

We may find a clue in understanding that the United States is one of the most individualistic societies in the world (if not the most) and Tanzania one of the most collectivist. Hofstede Insights describes it this way: “In Individualist societies, people look after themselves and their direct family only. In Collectivist societies, people belong to groups that take care of them in exchange for loyalty.”

In Cross-Cultural Connections, Duane Elmer writes, “Whereas independence is an important value to Americans and westerners in general, interdependence is the way of most societies of the world.” 

In America, we celebrate independence in a myriad of ways: Unique names for our children. Self-designed tattoos. We ask tiny children what they want to be when they grow up (because it’s their choice, of course). We wear T-Shirts that say, “You be You.” We customize our burritos and frozen yogurt. In its extreme form, society encourages individuals to cast off tradition, church and even family in pursuit of self-expression. 

Perhaps asking who’s right or wrong is the wrong question entirely.

In our culture, it makes sense that the mark of spirituality is the individual pursuit of personal prayer and Bible study. We emphasize Scripture that teaches prayer and giving should be private (Matt 6:1-6) and that salvation is an individual decision. Gathering together is important, but only for an hour or two a week. 

Individualism is such a part of the air we breathe that we may not realize that much of the world uses a different lens. Elmer writes that in collectivist cultures, “One’s own desires are subordinated to those of the group. One draws one’s identity from the community and fulfills its expectations.” 

A young person wouldn’t dream of making a big decision without the blessing of their elders, and they rejoice in success because of the honor it brings their community, not themself. Sameness is prioritized, and life is lived in interdependence. An African Proverb teaches, “If you want to travel fast, go alone. If you want to travel far, go together.”  

Christians in collectivist cultures emphasize Scriptures that speak of entire families choosing Christ together (Acts 16:34). They look to the early church (Acts 2:44) as an example of living life communally and generously. Gathering together is essential – sometimes several times a week. Or even all night. 

So who is right?

Perhaps asking who’s right or wrong is the wrong question entirely. Since we worship a God who created culture and loves diversity, He surely is delighted when we learn from each other. In America, individualism has risen to the point of a frenzied pitch; the autonomous self reigns king. Perhaps we could look to Christian collectivist cultures for insight? 

Must personal Bible study be elevated as the pinnacle of spiritual disciplines? Why not look to revive corporate Bible reading, Scripture memorization and prayer? We might not manage all-night prayer vigils, but we could consider prioritizing more extended gatherings. In a culture where garage doors shut out the world and neighbors don’t even know each others’ names, we might have something to learn from cultures that know what interdependence looks like. 

[W]hen I consider how many commands in Scripture include “one another,” I’m convinced to keep trying.

After living in Tanzania for almost two decades, resuming life in America three years ago was a shock to my family. The biggest hole in our lives was the community we left behind; we wondered if could recreate the kind of connections we made in Tanzania.

Our church in California didn’t have a home group that would include our teenagers, so we started one ourselves, bringing together a few other families who also wanted their kids to be a part of a multi-generational community. We ensure that having meals together is a monthly part of our shared life. We read Scripture aloud, and we spent a good portion of every meeting sharing our burdens and praying for each other. We’re planning a mom-daughter “Ask Us Anything” evening as well as a hike and picnic day. We’ve enfolded a single man into our group too—because community shouldn’t just be about families. Our meeting times may be loud—sometimes it’s hard to hear each other over the cacophony of kids in the next room—but when my 17-year-old tells me how much she enjoys the 6-year-olds who are a part of our group, I know it’s always worth it. 

We’ve found it’s not easy to build community in the United States: Americans are so busy, but also accustomed to being independent—and technology has intensified that. Why bring a new mom a meal when you can just send a DoorDash gift card? Why call a friend for a plumber recommendation when you can use Yelp? Shaping interdependence in an individualistic society takes deliberate intentionality and creativity. Yet when I consider how many commands in Scripture include “one another,” I’m convinced to keep trying. 

In the Tanzanian Bible School where my husband taught, Bible Study Methods was the first required course for students. Learning to personally understand, interpret and apply the Word of God was a priority, and much of the content was brand new—even for experienced pastors. These men and women eagerly devoured this training, ready and willing to apply the principles lacking in their culture. 

Might we display this same attitude? 

Amy Medina

Amy Medina spent almost half her life on the continent of Africa, first as an MK in Liberia and then sixteen years in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania as a ReachGlobal missionary. Amy (and family) relocated to Southern California in 2020, and she now serves with the ReachGlobal Engage team as a pre-deployed missionary coach and placement specialist. Amy blogs at Not Home Yet.

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