in January 2005 I went to what is possibly the best church on earth. It wasn’t big, the worship time was led by two guys with out of tune guitars, and the bulk of the congregation were uneducated. But here was a faith community in every sense of those words.
The church is located in a slum community on the outskirts of Arusha, Tanzania. Congregation members live in tiny timber and tin shacks; during the rainy season water and raw sewage course through their homes; entire families share an old decrepit mattress; hunger, violence and disease strike with monotonous regularity. This should be a place of hopelessness and despair, yet among the congregation drawn from this slum community faith, hope and love bubble to the surface. Yes, there is suffering and anguish, but a faith inspired resilience alongside it.
I meet with the church during a week long period of prayer and fasting. The beautiful harmonies of traditional African worship that I had heard elsewhere had given way to the out-of-tune twangs of guitarists trying the latest Hillsong hits. It’s painful to my ears but no doubt pleasing to God’s, for these poverty mired human beings are pouring out their hearts to their God, expressing thanks for the blessings he has brought into their lives, declaring his goodness and majesty, and seeking to know him better.
The pastor, a man of wisdom and generosity of spirit, could have left the slum in which he grew up long ago, but this was his home, his community, and his calling. He had asked a friend and I to share on wealth creation. He wanted the congregation to be encouraged by their faith to capitalize on the livelihood opportunities that they could. My friend was an entrepreneurial type with a business degree, so he shared some basic principles to think about when starting a business, while I shared some biblical themes around God’s desire that the earth and it’s resources be utilized for everyone’s benefit, including theirs. We were inadequate to the task, but somehow the people found encouragement in our words.
At the end of the meeting there was a period of time spent praying for AIDS widows, perhaps the most vulnerable of all the members of the slum community. I discovered that day-in, day-out members of the church visited these widows, shared their resources with them, and defended their interests against those who would otherwise exploit them.
I also learned that the Church ran a tutorial centre for the kids in the community. They were committed to doing what they could to help the next generation get out from the vice-like grip of poverty.
Here was a faith community being the hands and feet of Jesus to their community.
So was it heaven on earth? No. As with any community people committed adultery, got angry, spoke bitter words, experienced doubt, failed to follow up on each other. Yet bubbling up alongside this was a faith that gave meaning, hope that God was helping shape their futures, and incredible, daily acts of love. So despite the out-of-tune guitars, decrepit building, and often poor theology by academic standards, without doubt this was the most inspiring church I have ever visited.
And it left me thinking that where these three are present – faith, hope and love – bubbling up alongside our faithlessness, doubt and selfishness, then we find the greatest churches on earth. I have been privileged to find these in the little church that is my home church. It too is the best church on earth. I have seen it in some of the largest and best equipped churches in the world. Where faith, hope and love are finding flawed expression there is always the best church on earth.