Quote on Indigenization of Faith

Quote of Reverand James Johnson (1836-1917). Quoted by Lamin Sanneh in “the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture,” chapter 5. Johnson (aka “Holy Johnson”) was an African assistant Anglican bishop of Western Equatorial Africa during the time of British colonization of the region.


Bishop Samuel Adjai Crowther (1809-1891). Colleague of “Holy Johnson

“Christianity is a Religion intended for and is suitable for every Race and Tribe of people on the face of the Globe. Acceptance of it was never intended by its Founder to denationalize any people and it is indeed its glory that every race of people may profess and practice it and imprint upon it its own native characteristics, giving it a peculiar type among themselves without its losing anything of its virtue. And why should not there be an African Christianity as there has been a European and an Asiatic Christianity?”

Recognizing that God (the God of Abraham) is not Jewish or Arabic or American or any other race– neither in culture nor preference– is difficult for people to accept. Most prefer to think in terms of “Our God” (God with us and not with them) or “Their (foreign) God.” But if we can get beyond our own ethnocentrism, then  the quote above makes sense and we are called to localize our faith… throughout the world.

Cross-cultural Missions Diagram

Just been working on a drawing for showing work in a different culture.  In this case, the missionary is from Culture A, and is seeking to minister to Culture B. It works for me at least. Maybe I will be able to improve it later.

Question 1:  What should happen culturally for someone in Culture B to become a follower of Christ?  Options:

  • Become Culture A? Lose their original culture. Frankly, it is doubtful that Culture A is especially close to God. But even if it was closer… someone from Culture B will always be a second-rate citizen of Culture A… not because of status, necessarily, but adaptation.
  • Stay Culture B? Ultimately missions is about conversion… not “fire insurance.” Conversion changes things so Culture B would not to change, not simply e affirmed.
  • Grow in Counterculture (CB)? I believe this is the goal. The Old Testament patriarachs stayed essentially Semitic. Even with the Mosaic Law, followers of Yahweh were recognizably Semitic and distinctly not other cultures. Greek and Roman Christians were also distinctly Greek and Roman rather than other cultures… although distinct in certain ways. That is what counter-culture means. Counter-cultures are distinctly part of the dominant culture, while still challenging that culture.

Missional WorkQuestion #2. If counter-culture (CB) is the goal for followers of Christ in dominant culture B, then who is the best witness to culture B? That one is easy. The best witness is a follower of Christ in CB. As a member of the dominant culture, he (or she) can connect with the people while understanding how to challenge that culture with God’s truth.

Question #3. How does such a witness (CB) develop in the culture B?

  1. God is always at work in all cultures. In Culture B, God has been at work, is at work, and will continue being at work. We can call this His Missional Plan (MP)
  2. God’s message needs to be available in a form that is understandable and relevant to Culture B. We can call this the Translated Message (TM).
  3. God’s messenger is needed. If there is no such messenger in that culture, than one must come from a different culture (Culture A) As a messanger, he (again, or she) will:  (1) assist in making the message understandable and relevant (TM), (2) help people in Culture B to see what God has been doing, is doing, and will be doing in the culture (MP), and (3) work to develop an indigenous witness (from CB). To be effective in these areas… all requiring a fairly subtle understanding of Culture B, the missionary needs to be involved in “incarnational ministry.” That is, the missionary must follow the model of Christ learning and growing within the culture of ministry (Culture B).

Four “L”s from Missions History

Successful missionaries, mission programs, and mission movements in Christian history seem to have four characteristics. They don’t always have all three, there is a priority to them. Now some that have been numerically successful (such as the invasion and subsequent colonization and “Christianization” of South America) fail to meet the criteria of sound Christian missions, in my opinion. So maybe there is some bias up front. Decide for yourself.

1.  Letting Go of the Ministry.

  • The missionary is not focused on consolidating power, property, or people. He maintains a “light touch on the reins” as well as light touch on the reign.
  • The missionary is willing to share power, and let go of power.
  • The missionary prepares his people and organization for his temporary or permanent absence

2.  Localizing God’s Work.

  • Translate Scripture, songs, and liturgy into the local vernacular
  • Create an indigenous (3 or 4 self) church
  • Christians should be part of the culture (perhaps counter-culturally, but still part), not part of a different/foreign culture.

3.  Loving God’s Lost and Found

  • The missionary loves the people more than himself, and demonstrates more concern about their well-being than the well-being of his “own people.”
  • The love the missionary has for the people overflows the small cup of eternal destiny to all aspects of their lives as individuals and as a community.
  • The people understand, in some small way, the depth of God’s love for them through the love demonstrated by the missionary.

4.  Linking Up Partners for God’s Work

  • Training up local partners in the field
  • Developing and organizing organizations for training and mobilizing missionary partners.
  • Building and encouraging support back home for mission work.

I don’t find these to be equally weighted. Of these four the least important (although still important) is Letting Go. Power is intoxicating, and even good missionaries become addicted. It takes strength of godly character to be weak, to be vulnerable, to maintain limited control, to empower others.

The middle two are Localization and Linking Partners.  I am not sure which is more important. Both really are needed. These seems to be more important and there appear to me to be fewer exceptions— fewer examples of successful missions where there was not localization or where there is no development of people in the field or agency or home.

The most important appears to be Love. A lot of “sins” and failures appear to be overlooked by the people being ministered to where the love of God is identified in the self-sacrificial love that the missionary shows the people he works with.

For me, at least, these seem to be important aspects for training and evaluating new missionaries.