Story and Song in Kpele-Dafo: An Innovative Church Planting Model Among an Oral Culture of Togo

Sharing the gospel through story is powerful.

The Harmattan winds have hovered over desert Africa for weeks picking up the sands of the Sahara and filling the sky of sub-Saharan Kpele-Dafo with a brown haze. In this sand-gray dusk, the hushed, unnatural silence of the windswept village is spellbinding and disconcerting. Only a subtle breeze invades the soundless, palm-lined footpaths and the swept earth patios. But the silence of this Togolese town is about to end. THE STORYTELLER IS COMING! And into the quiet hamlet the clear, resonant voice of his recitation will emerge, startling and powerful, heralded by the drums.

And when the departing flamingo sun finally sets…shirtless men leave their game of adí, the baguette sellers disburse, the tailors close up their makeshift stands, cranky bicycles are abandoned hastily and yawning children resting on outdoor cots under coconut trees are wrestled from sleep. As the pulse of the drums intensifies and the storyteller takes his place on the low carved bench, the village is mobilized and excitement permeates the air. The elders arrive in regal togas made of the wild, leaping colors of African cloth. Antoine, the animated storyteller/church planter exchanges ritual, formalized greetings with his audience. The fetish priestess clothed in white and waving her horse-hair amulet acknowledges Antoine with penetrating eyes that speak of a past immersed in juju and prayer to fetish gods. Night falls, the burning log crackles. They are ready for the story.

God the Creator in Story, Song and Dance
The listeners are electrified as the biblical story of creation begins; “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”… the poetic, melodious pattern of the story flows from Antoine's lips. When he reaches the repeating phrase, “And God saw that it was good,” he sings a song composed by Timothee Ayivi in call and response style. The song is designed to reinforce the story; the words of the song are: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth. It was empty and darkness was over the surface of the deep.” The call and response is choreographed by the composer in a traditional style that glorifies God the creator. As the villagers quickly memorize the song response and join Antoine, their voices become a chorus of blissful harmony. Then dancing intercepts the story. The headman dances as well, thus placing his approval upon the story and the event. The drum language continues. Amidst the steaming Equatorial heat sitting stiffly upon the air, the pulsating rhythm of the drum reaches to the stars and sounds deep into the tropical night. The storytelling and singing continue in this way. As the fire dims, the story ends. There is not one villager that wishes to leave that place. The story in this setting has connected them to the word and to their history. It has involved and inspired them as they interact with the story through song and dance.

God of the Bible in Story, Song and Dance
As the weeks unfold, story upon story is told. Antoine returns with narration after narration followed by dynamic and involving dialogue with the listeners. The foundations of God's story are laid before the people. There are stories of Abraham and his sons, stories of the prophets, stories of Jesus, stories of God's community and the apostles, stories that address the felt needs of the community and stories that change and reshape the listeners’ worldview. Extended family conversions will take place. In surrender to Christ, a fetish priest will destroy by fire his amulets, his talismans and his jujus of protection. A house church will be established. The story will become a vehicle of the Holy Spirit for conversion, for worldview change, for surrender of strongholds and for discipleship because it is the word of God brought to life in the African context.

Transformed Communities in Africa
We are witnessing a cycle that is taking place throughout countless villages of the Volta Region of Togo, Benin and Ghana where a church planting movement has emerged in the last few years under the leadership of Senyo Mawufemor Cudjoe. Senyo has faithfully executed everything he has learned about communication bridges to oral cultures. These bridges include scripture storytelling, recitation, oratory, drama and song. Senyo is an oral Bible champion, because as he himself says, “It is the African way.” The oral arts are relevant and compelling and for too long the Western-taught evangelism methods of campaigns, literature distribution and door- to-door outreach have been rejected in the difficult Muslim and Animist environments of the region.

Not only has Senyo implemented everything he has learned about the oral Bible, he has also trained church planters throughout the Volta Region to do the same. He has taught them the integration of the oral arts, a strategy in which the story becomes a focal point and then story and song meet in a rhythm of speech, harmony and movement. The holistic, integrated approach to story-tell the story, sing the story, dance the story, drum the story and dramatize the story has allowed the story to be owned by the native people. It enters into the collective memory of an entire community; it becomes a permanent part of the lives of the people.

It is in this art of living—of rhythm, of sustaining joy amidst pain, this choreography of life, the going about of an integrated existence—that creativity seems to rise from deep within the very African soil. 

Senyo has taught the grassroots church planters to follow a God-given cycle of evangelism and discipleship, clearing the stones by establishing rapport and respect with elders, headmen and chiefs through humility and an attitude of serving. He has established guidelines for sowing through selecting the right story needed for each community. He has taught them that evangelism is a process and harvest may come not necessarily when an individual is willing to be extracted from his community, but when the entire family or even community is ready for conversion. He has taught the church planters not to be negligent with discipleship but to use story, dialogue and memorization to give the new believers their own foundation in the word of God even though they cannot read and write. He has taught the church planters to establish leaders among those of oral cultures, empowering them with ownership of the stories of the apostles, each story of Acts presenting a model of appropriate leadership behavior.

How can we help but rejoice to see such a church planting movement come to West Africa, a movement so in tune with the collective past of the culture and to the African way. In a place where the very rhythm of the earth lives inside the villager, where everything about him or her is art: his or her clothing and the very cadence of his or her walk. It is in this art of living—of rhythm, of sustaining joy amidst pain, this choreography of life, the going about of an integrated existence—that creativity seems to rise from deep within the very African soil. And when he or she rises to dance, the artist in every African emerges.

Carla Bowman and her husband, Jim, are founders of Scriptures in Use. SIU currently holds nearly ninety training events each year in over fifty countries. The Bowmans served as missionaries in Latin America, and subsequently extended their training courses worldwide.