Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Poor Time Keeping at Christian Weddings in Africa

Conducting wedding last weekend by the side of a river
Let’s admit it; we Africans are very bad with timekeeping. I am often amazed at how many people are present for a meeting at the agreed starting time. Out of a congregation of one hundred, it would often be less than ten! If it is a meeting of two people, the one who arrives late even cracks a joke about his late coming instead of being embarrassed about it. There is no effort, even in this cellphone era, to ring the waiting person about any delays. We have even nicknamed this sad reality “African time.”
If that is true generally, it is even worse when it comes to weddings—and brides (and their matrons) are the chief culprits. Guests are kept waiting for many hours before the event commences and no apology is given for the lateness. It is assumed that the guests should understand…after all, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event—our wedding.
This is wrong. We African Christians ought to be "Christians who just happen to be Africans" rather than "Africans who just happen to be Christians." The Christian Faith must change everything about us—including our timekeeping. As Christians, we should emulate the example of God whose timekeeping is perfect. For instance, he said to Abraham, “Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son” (Genesis 18:14). Sure enough, at the appointed time—about that time the following year—Sarah had a son!
Similarly, God expects his people to keep their appointments with him. For instance, he told the Isrealites, “Let the people of Israel keep the Passover at its appointed time. On the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, you shall keep it at its appointed time” (Numbers 9:2). And, remember, these people had no watches—hence the use of twilight to tell the time. Yet, God expected them to keep their appointments with him like clockwork, and not to come to the place of worship as if they were strolling off for a beer at a local bar.
Add to this the perfect clockwork he has infused in the movement of the planets in the various solar systems in the universe, and you cannot doubt that time matters to God. Those of us who are Christians should ensure that one of the visible signs of our godliness is the price tag we put on the commodity called time. Punctuality is the way in which we prove this. Only then will others in our culture follow suit.
Therefore, being convinced of this, I made it a rule long ago that the weddings I conduct would end at an agreed time, whether they start late or not. I also tell the couple getting married that, depending on how late they are, certain items will begin to fall out of the program and only they would know since they attended the rehearsal. Their guests would not—unless, of course, the sermon also disappears. I tell them to warn their cameramen so that at the commencement of the wedding they take shots that exclude the pews, which are often quite empty. Then as the pews fill up, they can capture wider shots. That way, when they come to see the pictures of their wedding they will never know that they said their vows to an almost empty church building.
Finally, I tell the couple getting married that if they come late I will not be upset and so there is no need for them to apologize to me as if they have spilt coffee on my suit. (I tell them this because I have been at a wedding or two where the bride or groom has come very late and the officiating minister has visibly lost his temper. One could almost see fumes coming out of his ears!) Hence, when I am conducting a wedding, I take my station in front of the auditorium “at the appointed time”—and wait. If they do not show up by the time the wedding is supposed to end, I dismiss the congregation and go on to attend to my other pastoral duties. As simple as that!
I recall in the early 1990s when I made this resolution, despite my telling the couple getting married that this is what I would do, they still came after the time I said the wedding would end. Well, they found that I had already dismissed the congregation and was just preparing to cycle off (in those days my mode of transport was a bicycle). Out of sheer pity, I made them sign the legal documents in the parking lot.
Since then, in the last twenty years, I have had one or two weddings that have lasted thirty minutes, twenty minutes, or even ten minutes, instead of the normal one hour and fifteen minutes. However, I am glad to state that this has been the exception to the rule. I know that my fellow pastors in Africa will hardly believe me, but almost all the weddings I have conducted for the last twenty years have started and ended on time. In fact, during rehearsals, couples often tell me that their friends have already warned them about this—that they will be sorry if they come late for their wedding.
On one occasion, the couple getting married gave me a time for the start of their wedding that I discovered was an hour later than the time on their invitation cards. When I asked them about it, they said that it was deliberate so that their wedding would start when more people were present. I refused. The Bible is very clear. A Christian’s word must be his bond (see Matt 5:37, 2 Cor 1:17-20). If you tell people you will meet them at a particular time, you must keep that time—even if they come late.
What often happens now is that guests who are unfamiliar with this culture at Kabwata Baptist Church are the ones who come in time for the closing prayer. They are often shocked. “The wedding is already over? We were sure that it would start late like all weddings do; so we took our time to get here. What happened?” Nothing!
So, I have proved that Africans can be good timekeepers. “African time” is a myth. If we can be on time for weddings where we are the worst offenders, we can be on time for anything. With sufficient incentives, one can change the culture. Those of us who are leaders should set a good example. We must be on time for all our appointments—whether with God or man. We must then demand that God’s people follow our example. Let’s face it—sometimes we will be late. However, where it is obvious that we are running late, we must inform the other party (which is not a problem in this cellphone era) and apologize about it. Late coming is no laughing matter!
There have been two occasions when I have bent the rule. The first was last year. I took my position “at the appointed time” and the bridegroom arrived on time. However, the bride was late—very late. I could read the thoughts on the minds of the guests who knew my rule. They knew that this was going to be a very brief wedding—probably ten minutes long. To their surprise, the wedding took the usual length. The reason for bending the rule was because my sermon was on the subject of patience! I needed to teach the bridegroom that he was going to have to learn to be patient with his wife, especially with respect to timekeeping. I did not want to undermine the sermon by an apparent impatience on my part. I explained this to the congregation when I began my sermon, and everyone relaxed and enjoyed the full wedding ceremony.
The bride being brought by her father to the wedding!
The second time was last Saturday. I conducted a wedding that began one and a half hours late. I still conducted it full length. Why? It was because the couple had already forewarned me and the reasons I was given were understandable. To begin with, the wedding was taking place very far away from civilization, somewhere in the bushes of Africa. Almost all the invited guests were going to be making their way there for the first time and so being hard on time was not going to be fair on them. Secondly, the bride was being brought to the wedding in a canoe. And canoes have no speed gauge to enable paddlers determine the speed in order to arrive on time!
Your comments, please?


  1. Conrad, I agree whole heartedly that it is a serious issue in Africa and for the most part it isn't considered to be a big deal. I concur with you that it is, at the root a gospel issue and there will be no success in overcoming the lateness unless the sin is exposed there.
    I trust that your efforts will catch on and move rapidly north to that great country in the Horn.

  2. Thank you for such wise comments. I noticed this problem while in Africa a couple of years ago, and mentioned it to my fellow American Christians. I was disappointed to hear them defend the lateness as cultural, when truly it shows a lack of respect to those you are meeting with. Sadly, my American friends struggle with this same issue.

  3. Hello Pastor, I was sent to your article from Trevin Wax's site. (

    I really appreciate your comments as we all often make excuses about our lateness. If it is our goal to be like the lord and not like our culture, then lateness becomes sin.
    Thank you for speaking to a Canadian pastor as well to your African people... Great thoughts!


  4. "With sufficient incentives, one can change the culture. Those of us who are leaders should set a good example."

    I couldn't agree more - and not just about timekeeping. There is, I think, a general principle at work: most people tend to meet the standards that are set for them. I'm not sure if I could be as hard on time as you suggest, but certainly Christian leaders must challenge people to live in view of God's highest intention and not be satisfied with mediocrity.


  5. I really appreciate the article.However without sounding like Adam when he apportioned the blame on Eve on a different matter the issue of time keeping I realise may be very complex for women.I am the only male in my house and I speak from experience(at least from my personal experience) if I do not take the innitiative to encourage the ladies of my house be it Sunday Morning in order to ensure that we are not late for Church or other occassion we may end up late.I know at times that we brothers forget to help the women with Women's "traditional role" in the home, taking care of children, and keeping house clean such we men just want to selfishly prepare ourselves and do not assist in bathing the baby or cleaning the house etc before going to the occassion.I believe that time keeping needs to be worked at especially if you are the head of the house.That you have laid it plain encourages me to print it and to discuss it at home.

  6. thanks Pastor for the article on time keeping, this issue is serious. People should not delay others because they are late.
    One rule which i have in my home and my wife knows is that we should not go late for anything meeting as far as it depends on us. so on Sunday i wake up earlier than my wife clean the house and make breakfast for her, i do all the chores and then wake up my wife.
    Christian Men should set an example and show the family the importance of time keeping and, that it is sin not to keep time.


  7. This is very timely Pastor. It seems as Zambians we are so proud of the the term "Zambian time"! It is not only wrong but also a sinful practice as we cause many brethren to stumble. I vouch for your position on time keeping, in fact I would even go further and advocate that at a certain time, we should lock the church doors to drum a point to perpetual late comers to worship services on the Lord's Day.

  8. It frustrates me to no end when brides are late to their own weddings. There's no reason to be late (unless of course you are ill and there are medical treatments to be had).

    There's no reason the bride should be late. She and her bridesmaids should be at the church a good 30 minutes before she's due to walk down the aisle. (She can be in a back room or if the church has a room attached to the sanctuary where nursing mothers feed their children, she can be in there. If this room has tinted glass or blinds then she can watch the rest of the procession.)

    I as a wedding guest have come on my own time and may have other engagements after your wedding. If you're late, shame on you. And if you're late coming to your reception and I'm already gone? Too bad. You gave out invitations with start and end times and I stuck to it.

  9. Wow, that perspective is something I had not really thought of before. But you are absolutely correct. Punctuality is definitely a part of the character of God and we Christians should reflect that in the way we live.