Since the Tambaran meeting of the International Missionary Council, a difficult word has become popular. Wherever one moves in Africa and Asia or takes up a book on missions, the word “indigenization” crops up.

Since Tambaran there has been a growing stress that the Christian church, especially in Africa and Asia, must become indigenous, must become more fully rooted in the local soil and fit into each country’s or area’s specific cultural milieu. Somehow the Church is to reflect more fully than hitherto the human heritage of those among whom it has appeared, although basically it can be rooted only in Christ.

It was felt at the time of the council and is still felt that in most cases the Gospel was unnecessarily “foreign” not primarily because of its inherent foreignness but because it was presented in completely Western cultural garb to the peoples of Africa and Asia. Realization that the Church was often unnecessarily foreign and had too little understanding of or contact with the everyday life and heritage of specific peoples was long overdue. The Church’s liturgy, hymns and music, and sometimes even its language were strange. It was patterned after some Western mother church in Europe or the United States. The genius and the heritage of the people concerned had no opportunity for expression in the rigid form of a Church transplanted from Europe or America. Most missionary leaders agree that this state of affairs must change if the Church in Africa and Asia is to have a future. The change is especially necessary in an age when many African and Asian countries are experiencing a rising national conciousness. Too often we have failed to let these peoples share their “riches” with us; we have prescribed all the patterns in church life. Writing on the Church’s problems in Africa, T. S. Trimingham makes the following pointed observations: “Protestant Christianity has carried with it opposition to the basic elements of African religious expression. Its antipathy to emotionalism, its divorce from art, its lack of true understanding of ritual through which the African apprehends religious truths … are only a few of the things which have led to the arrest and sterility of the African religious genius. In consequence local churches are introverted in their life and deaf to the call of missionary encounter and outreach, hence, too, the birth of pathological forms of African religions.” He then asks how this type of Christianity can possibly counteract Islam, for example, which is expressed as a laymen’s religion, and also the African Separatist movements which, as the existing socio-religious structures break up, will flourish more than ever in rural Africa.

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The history of the Church indicates at least five classical reactions to culture:

1. That of men like Tertullian and Kierkegaard can be described as Christ against culture.

2. That of Abelard and some early European and present-day American missionaries expounds the Christ of culture.

3. That of Aquinas is Christ above culture or the merging of culture with the Word Incarnate.

4. That of Augustine, Calvin, and Wesley declares Christ changes culture: he is its Saviour.

The accusation is sometimes made that in Africa we have followed the view of Abelard and the early Europeans; that is, we have made the Western way of life synonymous with Christianity but have viewed indigenous culture as did Tertullian the Montanist: being against Christ, it had to be destroyed. Because of this negative approach we failed to comprehend the relationships of those to whom we tried to bring Christ.

Indigenous forms of song, music, and liturgy must be welcomed into the life of the Church in Africa or Asia. But they cannot be forced from the outside. They must grow spontaneously out of the local Christian community. Only the native Christians can decide which of their customs are useful or to be incorporated into the Church without detriment to the Christian truth. They alone know how closely some particular, seemingly innocuous custom may be linked to paganism in general or to some specific pagan system. Where a close relationship exists between any social custom and paganism, it would be extremely dangerous to allow such a custom in the Church. But as J. H. Bavinck has said, and properly so, there are some things in the life of indigenous peoples of which we can take possession for Christ. He prefers the term possession to accommodation because it excludes any idea of compromise.

In the process of indigenization we must be very careful, however, not to accept indigenous cultures too readily, thereby gravitating to another extreme no less radical than Tertullian’s approach. We can become so “open” to indigenous cultures that we may fail to evaluate them in the light of and by the standards of the eternal Gospel. We must guard against what could be called the anthropological approach to indigenous cultures. This approach is legitimate enough within the limits of its subject matter. For the anthropologist every factor of an indigenous culture has supreme value, but he is primarily interested in what is and not in what should be. How different is the missionary’s approach. He is not and should not be interested primarily in what is, but in what should be according to the standards of the Gospel. While he must know and understand the culture of those he serves or tries to win to Christ, he can never “accept” a pagan culture but must judge and challenge it.

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By our present reaction to a too-negative approach to indigenous cultures we may open the door to syncretism. Our too-negative attitude in Africa, for instance, encouraged the Christian church there to create various reactionary sects. We now have such groups as the Zionists, the Ethiopians, and the Millennialists. Usually these people use the vernacular, explain the Bible in indigenous cultural contexts, sing indigenous hymns, and so on. They have reacted to the “foreignness” of the usual church pattern. The urge to express their faith in terms of their own cultural heritage is very obvious. Unfortunately, witchcraft or ancestor worship plays a significant role in almost every one of these sects which, in truth, constitute a bridge back to paganism. We must undercut this development.

As has been indicated, we must not accommodate ourselves too easily to indigenous cultures, thereby risking syncretism. Always we must fight the insidious philosophy which says: “Every people has its Father Jacob, who left them a well.”

In a day of surging national spirit among many peoples, missionaries must examine as never before their approach to the indigenous church. No longer dare we to equate Christianity with a given way of life. On the other hand, a given way of life dare not compromise the uniqueness of the Gospel.

Professor of History of Christianity

University of Pretoria

South Africa

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