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Fall 1993 · Vol. 22 No. 2 · pp. 39–50 

Zairian Theology in Four-Part Harmony

Mary Anne Isaak

Sometime around 9:00 o’clock Sunday morning, someone bangs the old tire rim with a stone. Soon after the signal, people start trickling into the Mbandu Mennonite Brethren Church in Kikwit, Zaire. The animation, the lively congregational singing, begins as more people arrive. The song leader sings out the many verses of a song while everyone joins in on the refrain. One song flows directly into the next. The mamas distribute home-made rattles and shake a complicated rhythm. Feet move to the beat; hands can’t keep from clapping and everyone is smiling. Later in the service, an eight-year-old directs the children’s choir in a song of four-part harmony. When the men’s choir begins to sing, the congregation cheers. Soon many are humming and singing along. Then, after the offering is collected, the mood changes. The congregation sings the hymn of praise, Pesa Matondo--“Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow"--, imported from the West and translated into the Kikongo language. The clapping, swaying, and smiling fade immediately as the solemn moment is marked by a tempo that drags into tedium.

Self-theologizing by Zairians includes writing songs about tribalism, church leadership, and suffering.

Music marks the life of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Zaire (La Communauté des Églises des Frères Mennonites au Zaïre, hereafter CEFMZ). When CEFMZ churches were first {40} established in Zaire, the musical diet consisted solely of Western hymns translated into the local languages. In the mid-80s, originally due to the lack of printed hymn books, the congregations introduced Zairian music into their worship services. Music of their own culture touched hearts, souls and bodies in a way that imported hymns never could. Worship took on a new dimension.

The development of the theology of the CEFMZ resembles the development of church music. Christianity came to Zaire cloaked in a Western worldview. Now as African believers claim Christianity as their own, they are setting aside the Western worldview in which the gospel came to them and are beginning the process of self-theologizing. They are interpreting the Bible and developing an understanding of God and Christianity from the perspective of their own culture.

Theology is encoded in a church’s music. In any culture, “the vast majority of Christians actually put their faith into words only when they sing hymns.” 1 Especially in a traditionally oral culture like Zaire, music records the theology of the church.

Music is an integral part of life in Zaire. In 1977, former Mennonite Brethren missionary Ruby Wiebe wrote, “So essential to [Zaire] is its music that an attempt to understand its people without knowing their music leaves out one of the vital elements of their being.” 2 The Christians of Zaire find it natural to explore and celebrate the essentials of their faith in the music they write and sing. In fact, within the CEFMZ songs are greatly respected for their power to teach and communicate. Using this principle Nzash Lumeya, a CEFMZ leader at the national level, proposed to communicate the findings of his doctoral dissertation “on tapes and songs for dialogue with both Christians and non-Christian Mbala people [a tribe in Zaire].” 3

One way to explore and begin to describe the theology of the CEFMZ is to study the music of the congregations. For this study, I have collected a sample of twenty-two choir songs recently written by three members of the CEFMZ. 4 One composer, Pastor Malwano Robert, son of the late well-known Pastor Malwano James, is currently pursuing graduate-level theological studies at the Faculté Protestante in Kinshasa. He has previously functioned as pastor, high school chaplain and choir conductor within the CEFMZ. Kimbau Khoy Edgard has served as the secretary for the CEFMZ Department of Evangelism and is currently teaching at the CEFMZ high school in Kikwit. Malumalu Lungungu Florent has graduated from secondary school and has become quite active in the choir of the CEFMZ Ville Basse Church in Kikwit.

When examining the lyrics of the CEFMZ songs, I asked three questions: 1) What are the methods of doing theology? 2) What are the {41} main themes of the songs? and 3) What responses do they offer to the deep questions of the Zairian culture?


“Each time someone gives me a theme [for a song], my first question is what I should say or teach to the people,” says Malumalu of his song writing. 5 There is a definite didactic tone to the lyrics of these CEFMZ songs; they are filled with counsel and instruction and are an important medium for discipleship in the Zairian church.

The songs demonstrate that the hermeneutical principles of the CEFMZ appear to influence the theology in at least three ways. First, in the believers church tradition there is a strong sense of the authority of the Bible. Over half the songs are directly inspired by a particular Bible story or passage, the stories of the Old Testament and the Gospels being the most favoured sources. Secondly, the method of correlation is often used to clarify biblical passages—a passage is explained by relating it to another passage or to a current situation or person. Thirdly, the immediate application of a Bible passage suggests that the Bible functions to affect life here and now.

The cultural communication techniques of story-telling and question-and-answer are also clearly evident in the songs. They imply that to communicate biblical beliefs, the church employs methods that are culturally appropriate for conveying truth.


After looking at how a church does theology, the next consideration is the content of that theology. One way to describe this theology is to discover what people experience as most important in their faith. Issues that are meaningful become the ones which are dealt with most intentionally. In terms of music, these issues become the main themes of the songs. Thus in order to describe the theology within these songs, I have organized them according to six main themes:

  • Evangelism
  •     (5 songs)
  • The Hereafter
  • (5 songs)
  • The Story of Jesus
  • (4 songs)
  • Church Leadership
  • (3 songs)
  • Husband and Wife Relationships
  • (3 songs)
  • The Christian Life
  • (2 songs)

    What follows is a very brief discussion of the how the songs deal with each of these six categories. {42}


    Of the five songs dealing with evangelism, one is an invitation to non-Christians to come and follow Jesus, while the other four are directed to Christians, urging them to go out and bring the gospel to others. “Send Me” by Kimbau is a good example of the songs in this category.

    Send Me

    It was the year that the king Uzziah died.

    I lifted my eyes to heaven and I saw angels

    Singing, “Holy, holy, holy.

    You, God, are in heaven,

    Creator of the earth which is full of your glory” (repeat).

    I was surprised to notice that my mouth couldn’t

    glorify God with the angels of heaven.

    Solo: Angel


    All: angel

    Solo: of God

    All: of God who approaches me.

    Solo: The voice

    All: the voice

    Solo: of God

    All: of God came and said,
    “Whom can I send?
    Who can go announce this word?”

    All: I answered

    Solo: Yes Lord (3x)

    All: Here I am, send me (3x) to announce the word, to all the nations, oh, oh, hum (repeat).


    Bass: If you agree to announce my word to all the nations,
    Preach to every one, white, black,
    But don’t make distinctions (several times).

    1) SAT: 6    

    When you agree to serve your Lord God eh, today

    Go to all the nations, preach his word.

    But watch out for temptation. eh eh (repeat).


    I agree to serve the Lord

    In all the nations of the earth (repeat).

    2) SAT:

    Announce to the world that it will hear

    But will not understand at all.

    In times of misfortune or of joy,

    Pray to God and He will help you. {43}


    I will go to preach the good news.

    I accept the difficulties,

    To preach until the end of the world.

    In summary, the treatment of the theme of evangelism in the CEFMZ songs leads to three conclusions: 1) Evangelism is understood to be a very important part of the Christian life, 2) Evangelism seems to consist more of a duty than a joy, and 3) Tribalism is a great barrier to evangelism.

    The Hereafter

    In the five songs classified under the theme of the Hereafter, the central concerns are divine judgment and the heaven-or-hell destiny of the individual. These concerns contrast sharply with the traditional African worldview in which life after death continues in much the same way as life on earth. The following excerpts from “Go, Go” by Malwano make it overwhelmingly clear that for the CEFMZ, after death comes the final judgment when God will no longer forgive.

    God if you love me, save me. I am:


    Your child.

    God, if you love, deliver me from there:

    In hell.

    God, if you love me, save me with:

    Your children.

    God, if you love me, make me enter:

    Into heaven.

    No, No, No! No. Leave! No, No, No, Get going (2x).

    Leave Leave Leave! Leave here! Leave Leave Leave. Go away (2x). . . .

    Today my brother/sister, get going:

    To hell (2x).

    Go burn in the fire there:

    In hell (2x).

    Hell is the village that you chose:

    In hell (2x).

    Because the traditional religion does not entertain the concept of judgment and eternal destinies, it does not provide any solution for these problems. The songs point out that the significance of Christianity for many Zairians is its ability to assure an eternal destiny in heaven.

    The Story of Jesus

    The main goal of four of the songs in this section is to tell the story of Jesus--two of the songs focus on his birth and two on his death. In addition to these four, many other songs also refer to Jesus. This excerpt from the song, “Judas,” by Malwano vividly retells part of the passion narrative. {44}

    Because of the promise (of salvation):


    Of God.

    Jesus suffered:

    Extremely much.

    They arrested him and brought him:

    To Caiaphas, chief priest

    They beat him:

    Oh, Jesus.

    On his head a crown of thorns:

    Oh, Jesus.

    They crucified him:

    On the cross, death for the sake of sinners.

    The songs suggest a high emphasis on a kerygmatic approach to Christology in the CEFMZ. This approach understands Christ’s main role to be a solution to the desperate situation of humanity separated from God for eternity. Thus Jesus is understood first as divine and secondly as human: his death is understood as the most important part of his work. This view of Christology does not exclude, but neither does it emphasize, the work of Jesus in improving the present human condition, nor his participation in an ongoing cosmic battle between God and the forces of evil.

    The Responsibility of Church Leadership

    As is the case for many Zairian songs, in this study the three songs which focus on church leadership are occasional songs. One was written for the ordination of several pastors and two were composed for the installation services of other leadership teams in the CEFMZ.

    “Let’s Rise Up to Build” was commissioned for the opening of the CEFMZ Health and Development Office in Kikwit in 1992. Malumalu explains how his song applies to Pakisa Tshimika, the newly installed head of this office.

    Here, Brother Pakisa is considered to be Nehemiah. When he was building, the enemies insulted him in order to discourage him, but he had confidence in God. Therefore Brother Pakisa must expect all this but he must put all his confidence in God and he will succeed. 7

    Let’s Rise Up to Build


    Solo: All together:

    Solo: The church of:

    Solo: May each one:


    All: Let’s rise up to build

    All: of Jesus which is collapsing.

    All: begin his work.


    Solo: The men : the men

    Solo: Rise up : to build.

    Solo: The women : the women {45}

    Solo: Let’s rise up : to build.
    The youth, let’s rise up to build this great church which is collapsing.


    Solo: Nehemiah : felt a burden in his heart

    Solo: Because Jeru : salem was destroyed.

    Solo: He asked : permission of the king to build Jerusalem.


    Solo: When he was building the wall

    Solo: The enemies insulted the Jews,

    Solo: But Nehemiah relied on God to protect this work.

    In general, the songs indicate that the role of church leadership involves providing others with spiritual guidance and practical demonstrations of love. For the pastor, there is also a sense of being set apart for a difficult task. It is interesting that in twenty-two songs, the only reference to the Holy Spirit is in a description of a pastor as “the servant of God in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

    Husband and Wife Relationships

    In the three songs that speak directly about the husband and wife relationship, two are written to celebrate weddings. The three songs provide a commentary on the Christian marriage, claiming that being married “in Jesus” is “different than the worldly.”

    Kimbau explains one difference Christ makes in a marriage in this excerpt from his song, “Love.”


    Watch out for marriages these days,

    They are based on money.

    When there isn’t money the misery comes,

    This is destroying many marriages (repeat).


    Brother X and Sister Y, love each other all the time

    And get along with each other.

    If there are problems between you, rely on God;

    He will come to your aid.

    The three songs all contain a significant message about love between a Christian husband and wife. In Africa, love between spouses is not {46} assumed to be necessary. Mary Lou Cummings, who spent a year with Mennonite Central Committee interviewing women in Africa, states that the African woman “does not expect to talk about her own needs to her husband; that is the role of a friend. She does not expect to be ‘in love’ with the man chosen for her to marry.” 8 These songs suggest that in the CEFMZ, a relationship to Christ affects marriage. The implication is that Christian marriages should be characterized by love.

    Living the Christian Life

    The two songs which address issues of the Christian life consider the problems of pride and persecution, and provide a Christian response. Malwano explains that the song, “Pride Kills,” was used as a forum to discuss a problem that involved the choir he was directing.

    The choir, Les Angelos, was in conflict with all the old choirs of the city, especially in the CEFMZ at Kimpwanze. Then I composed this song in order to respond to everyone and even the leadership of the Church. 9

    The refrain of his song repeats the line, “Pride kills wisdom,” from a Zairian proverb which means that someone who is wise can become foolish because of pride.


    Pride kills wisdom.


    You see pride, human pride! Brother/sister Christian,


    Brother/Sister, abandon it.


    Pride kills wisdom.


    You see pride, human pride! Today


    God forbids it


    Pride kills wisdom.


    You see pride, human pride! Brother/sister Christian


    Brother/Sister, abandon it.


    Pride kills true love.


    You see pride, human pride! Always, hostility.


    Eternal death.


    Each society has its own set of deep questions, dilemmas and fears. Some of the more prominent of these problems in Zaire include tribalism, the fear of the spirit world, and the present experience of suffering. What do the CEFMZ songs have to say to these three cultural issues? When searching for an answer, it is important to note that these three cultural questions are framed by an observer and therefore do not emerge out of the songs, but instead are imposed on them. {47}


    The songs in this study recognize tribalism as a major problem for the church. Of the four songs which refer to tribalism specifically, two warn against it, one gives heaven and death as examples where tribalism no longer occurs, and one suggests a solution.

    “Lift Your Eyes and Look” by Malumalu first shows how Jesus triumphed over the Jewish/Samaritan tribalism of his time and then asserts that Jesus can also reconcile the present-day tribal conflicts within the church. Reconciliation is closely tied to building the church.

    Lift Your Eyes and Look



    Lift your eyes and look,

    The field is ready for the harvest.

    The field is ready for the work.

    Lift your eyes and look, the field is ready for the harvest.


    Lift your eyes and look, the field is ready for the work.

    Lift your eyes and look, the field is ready for the harvest (2x).


    Passing by the well of Jacob,

    The Lord Jesus met a woman of

    Samaria and asked her for some water.

    But the woman refused

    Because there was a big conflict

    Between the Jews and the Samaritans.


    The Lord Jesus came to reconcile

    All the nations in conflict

    Like the Samaritans and the Jews as well.

    May we all be one (united).

    If we want to build this church

    We must first be reconciled ourselves.

    Renounce the distinctions between tribes.

    If only we could all have the same thoughts.

    The Spirit World

    The reality of the power of the supernatural continues to be very present for all members of the CEFMZ. Munganga Samba, secretary for the Department of Women and the Family in the CEFMZ and chaplain to {48} the students at ISTK (Kinshasa Theological College), confirms a continuing influence of the witch doctor’s power even within the church.

    Many Christians go secretly to the witch doctor for help. . . . Even preachers sometimes keep silent about these subjects, either because they are afraid of provoking hostility from the sorcerers, or because they themselves accept these practices. 10

    It appears that the CEFMZ tends to separate into two concepts, cultural and biblical, the way it talks about the spirit world. It is significant that the songs in this study do not contain a single allusion to sorcery. There are, however, numerous references to the biblical Satan. In the seven songs that refer to him, Satan is portrayed as the chief of evil who can be resisted and repelled, but need not necessarily be feared as sorcery is feared. God and Satan are seen as two big chiefs who oppose each other and who are especially influential in the Hereafter. Sorcery is more powerful in the present world. Other research suggests that while prayer and individual testimonies of deliverance are given as answers for the fear of sorcery, the church, it seems, has generally avoided much direct discussion of the issue. This avoidance raises the question of whether the CEFMZ has established a theological response to the issue of sorcery.


    The theme of suffering is repeated over and over in the songs of this study. The lyrics tell of two kinds of suffering—suffering in hell, and suffering here on earth. The suffering in hell is stressed; five songs provide graphic descriptions of what that suffering will be like.

    When speaking of the pain here on earth, the songs also offer counsel on how to cope with suffering. They suggest three things. First, look to Jesus as an example; he also suffered on the cross. Secondly, rejoice because this suffering will end when we get to heaven. Thirdly, the most repeated counsel is to pray to God. He will help. The promise in Kimbau’s song, “Obedience,” is that “if you want to conquer . . . persevere in prayer.”


    According to missionary anthropologist Paul Hiebert, two or three generations after Christianity has been accepted within a culture, leaders emerge who have been raised with Christian teachings. These leaders are the ones who usually raise the difficult theological questions of how the gospel speaks to their culture. They engage in the process of self-theologizing. 11 However, it is only fifty years since Zaire, then the Belgian Congo, was adopted as a Mennonite Brethren mission field. 12 For the most {49} part in the CEFMZ, church authority still belongs to first-generation national leaders who tend to preserve the gospel message in the form which they heard it from the missionaries. It is only in the last few years that these church positions are being transferred to second-generation leaders. In this light, the self-theologizing that is already occurring in the CEFMZ is encouraging. Moreover, one can expect that in the future, the shape of the CEFMZ theology will continue to change as church members carry on the dialogue between Christianity and their Zairian culture.

    The six main themes in the songs show how a blend of received theology and self-theology form the theological tapestry of the CEFMZ. These main themes may be divided into two categories--those which are more future-oriented and those which are more oriented to the present day.


    The Hereafter

    The Story of Jesus


    Church Leadership

    Husband and Wife Relationships

    The Christian Life


    The themes of evangelism, the Hereafter, and the story of Jesus place most of their emphasis on preparing for life after death and can therefore be classified as future-oriented. The fact that these three themes comprise more than two-thirds of the songs suggest that in the CEFMZ, the future orientation of Christianity takes precedence over its present day implications. Furthermore, the three themes which emphasize the future also reflect aspects of Christianity which were completely unfamiliar in African traditional religions. These themes, an integral part of Christianity, are preserved from the received theology brought to Zaire by missionaries.

    On the other hand, the self-theologizing of the CEFMZ is most evident in the themes that deal with the present life on earth the themes of church leadership, marriage and living the Christian life. It is not that these three represent issues in Christianity that missionaries failed to address or that other cultures ignore. Rather, the self-theologizing occurs because the Christians of the CEFMZ have identified and developed these concerns as prominent messages of Christianity. In their songs, they encourage and exhort each other because they know a relationship with the Christian God can and must touch their culture in these areas.

    In terms of significant problems within the Zairian culture, the songs illustrate that the church is struggling to find relevant Christian responses to the issues of tribalism, the spirit world and the experience of suffering. {50} The problem of tribalism is recognized and addressed. However, the response to the fear of the spirit world and the condition of suffering often seems to be so spiritualized that it doesn’t touch the practical reality of the problems. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the challenge to formulate relevant responses is arising from within the CEFMZ itself.

    Zairian theology is encoded in four-part harmony. These songs record how the gospel impacts the faith and life of our brothers and sisters in Zaire.


    1. Marcus Paul Bach Felde, “Local Theologies—License to Sing,” The Hymn 40 (July 1989): 18.
    2. Ruby Wiebe, “Songs and Instruments in Congo Life: A Field Study,” M.A. thesis, University of Kansas, 1977, p. 19-20.
    3. Nzash Lumeya, “The Curse on Ham’s Descendants: Its Missiological Impact on Zairian Mbala Mennonite Brethren,” Ph.D. dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1988, p. 193.
    4. The present essay is an abridged version of my M.A. thesis, “A Description of the Theology Expressed in Song of the Mennonite Brethren Church of Zaire,” Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1993.
    5. Malumalu Lungungu Florent, letter to author, 1992.
    6. Soprano, Alto, Tenor.
    7. Malumalu Lungungu Florent, letter to author, 1992.
    8. Mary Lou Cummings, Living Without Romance: African Women Tell Their Stories (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1991), p. 9.
    9. Robert Malwano, letter to author, 1992.
    10. Munganga Samba, “Supernatural Combat in Zaire,” Witness: Mennonite Brethren in World Mission 4 (November/December 1990): 2.
    11. Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), p. 196.
    12. Aaron and Ernestina Janzen came to the Belgian Congo in 1913, with the Congo Inland Mission. From the beginning their hope was to minister under the auspices of the Mennonite Brethren Conference. After eight years in Africa, Janzens asked for a release from their obligation to Congo Inland Mission and searched for a new area to establish a ministry. Now supporting themselves from the land, Janzens eventually settled in Kafumba. In 1926, 38 people were baptized at Kafumba, forming the nucleus of the first African Mennonite Brethren Church. On May 27, 1943, the North American Mennonite Brethren Conference took over full responsibility for the work at Kafumba. The fuller story is told in J.B. Toews, The Mennonite Brethren Church in Zaire (Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature, 1978).
    Mary Anne Isaak is a senior student at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, working on a MA in Theology. This article is an abridged version of her thesis (1993), “A Description of the Theology Expressed in Song of the Mennonite Brethren Church of Zaire.”

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