Do you want to come to church with us in Togo this Sunday? Say yes! Say yes! Even if you can’t actually be here, at least let me show you what it would be like, and maybe someday you can be here in person.
What should you wear?
I know it is tempting to dress down. You see the dirt and dust here. You are probably wilting in the humidity, and tempted to pull out something grubby. Resist! It’s a bit tacky to come grubby.
Togolese people, and in fact, West Africans in general, dress up for church. This isn’t a casual affair! No shorts. No tank-tops or jeans. You can wear dressier western clothes if you want, or you might choose to wear a traditional outfit- explosions of batik color or wax-print pattern in handmade garments. Personally, I feel like I fit in better when I wear traditional clothing, and they are delighted when you wear their clothes.
We will warn you– the church will not be air-conditioned, although there may be a fan that occasionally condescends to blow in your direction. Keep that in mind when you choose. (Hint: cotton fabrics breathe. Synthetics don’t.)
What will the building be like?
There isn’t one typical building, just like there isn’t one typical church building in America. In an urban setting like Lomé, there will likely be a permanent structure of some sort. (As opposed to a small village, where it may as easily be a thatched-roof lean-to.) Churches in Lomé seem to be always under construction, so it will most likely be in some phase of building. It may have dirt floors or a poured concrete floor with a roof over it. It may have walls made of dried reeds, or brick. They may be completed or only partially completed. The roof is most likely corrugated tin. A few churches have multiple stories. You may be offered a seat in a handmade chair, a plastic deck chair, or on a bench. Rest assured that as a guest, you will be given the best seat in the house.
Whatever state the building is in, look around and be impressed! Construction is expensive, land even more so. It is difficult to borrow money to build, so they are putting this building up a few dollars at a time.
What time will the service start?
It varies from church to church, but most of them start around 8 AM, with a Sunday school hour at 7. Some start earlier to beat the heat.
Keep in mind that this culture runs on a different timetable than American culture. If service starts at 8 AM, most people will arrive by 8:30 AM, with more trickling in until at least 9. It’s not carelessness or inattention. It’s an accepted cultural reality. Be careful not to project your own cultural bias about time onto it. Just enjoy the music while we wait for the service to get going.
How long will the service last?
Only God knows and He isn’t telling! In this culture, church service is not a blip on the weekly to-do list. It is an event. It will last at least two and a half hours, and perhaps more than four. Nobody is watching the clock.
What will the service be like?
It will be exuberant! It’s joyful and expressive! People dance at their seats, moving their hips, their shoulders, their hands, their knees. They clap and sing and sway and pray aloud. They dance in the aisles. Different groups of people take turns coming to the front and dancing in a circle, waving handkerchiefs- the ladies, the men, sometimes the children.
The sound system, if they have one, will only have two volumes. Loud enough for the entire neighborhood to hear, or off. Nothing in between. We will try to find a place that isn’t right in front of a speaker, but sometimes those are the seats reserved for honored guests. If that happens, just smile and enjoy it. You can take a couple of Advil in advance of the headache.
Praise music usually begins on time and will likely continue until enough people have arrived for the service to move on. Expect a lot of percussion instruments- djembes, tam tams, and other traditional drums, rhythm instruments made with a net of shells over a dried gourd, and even police whistles. You are also likely to see instruments you are familiar with- keyboards, stringed instruments and possibly some brass instruments.
At some point during the music, the ushers will signal an offering. Or maybe several different offerings. You’ll have to take cues from those around you about what you are supposed to do. In most churches, an offering box is placed at the front and the ushers dismiss one row at a time beginning at the back to pass down the aisle, in front of the offering box, and back up the other aisle back to your seat. It’s like a big parade! Everyone is expected to go, and everyone is expected to at least make a pretense of giving. As for you, give what is in your heart to give, but if you have nothing, at least dip your hand into the box as if you were dropping in a coin. To do otherwise would be a little rude.
After the offering, or possibly during, the choir may perform. Sometimes they shuffle in from the back, their feet shushing on the concrete in rhythm to the music. Other times they are already in place. Here in Lomé, the lyrics will be in a mix of Ewe (Ay-vay), French, and possibly some English sung in a rich blend of harmonies. And don’t forget the drums! The drums always have a voice.
Sometimes announcements are before the sermon. Sometimes they are at the close of the service. There are no printed church bulletins. No projectors or PowerPoints. No other way to share church announcements other than to, well, announce them, so they may last a while.
Eventually, they will arrive at the message. It is normal for the pastor to preach in one language and an interpreter to interpret into another, so there are likely to be two people at the podium. Here in Lomé, most often the pastor preaches in French and an interpreter interprets into Ewe.
With English-speaking countries in the region, there are some Anglophones here too and sometimes the service will also be translated into English. Don’t be surprised, though, if you have trouble understanding the accent. It’s quite different than what we are used to.
Before the service is dismissed, there will be a closing prayer. Throughout the service, you will have heard a lot of prayer. West African Christians are serious about prayer, and God responds to them. Don’t be surprised if someone hands you a microphone and asks you to pray. Don’t worry about the language barrier. Pray in English if you want. They will listen and they will agree with you, even if they don’t understand what you are saying.
What happens after the service?
After the service, you’ll find people behave much like they would after church in the US, except perhaps they are a bit more social. You’ll shake a lot of hands, say hello to a lot of strangers. Make eye contact and smile. You may even get pulled into a more physical greeting- the cheek-to-cheek hello or the forehead-to-forehead hello. Just go with it. This is a very people-oriented culture and relationships matter a lot more than whether they are on time for their Sunday dinner.
We may be invited to the pastor’s office following the service. They will bring us water, and probably offer a coke and some cookies or a pastry. It’s just a way of welcoming you and thanking you for coming. They do not do it for all visitors, but visiting foreigners are considered honored guests.
Finally, at some point, we will politely ask “for the road,” and be on our way. There is no evening service. Spend the rest of the day resting. It’s what the Togolese people are doing—visiting family, sharing meals, staying home. Tomorrow, work starts again, but today is a Sabbath.