The Western Recognition Of The Need For Indigenization

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At the dawn of the twentieth century, Protestantism was at best a minority presence outside the West, sustained largely by Western missionaries. The great Edinburgh mission conference of 1910 had set an agenda that was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. Once the war was over, Western Protestants turned their attention to renewing and reinvigorating the missionary enterprise.2 Yet it soon became clear that things were changing. The war—which had seen death and devastation on an unprecedented scale—created serious difficulties for the entire missionary enterprise. How could Christianity be commended to the world when Christian nations had caused and participated in so scandalous a war?

From about 1920, a new mind-set began to emerge. Christianity had to be divested of its unhelpful associations with Western culture. This pragmatic response to the scandal of the war cleared the ground for more serious reflection on the theology of indigenization—that is, how the Christian faith might take root in new cultural contexts in ways that were sensitive and adapted to those situations.3 Rather than impose Western models of church order, it was necessary to discern what forms of Christian thought and life were appropriate to the local culture. This new theme, developed in works such as Daniel Fleming's Whither Bound in Missions (1925), involved drawing a sharp distinction between Christ and Western culture.

This trend was assisted by the theology of mission championed by the Edinburgh Conference of 1910. Some conservative Protestants had adopted a "theory of degeneration," which held that a primordial global monotheism had been corrupted and distorted in non-Christian contexts. Their more liberal counterparts often adopted a more Darwinian approach, which held that Christianity was the supreme religion, and Western civilization its greatest achievement. The inferiority of other religions was demonstrated by their social inadequacy. Though very different, both these theologies encouraged a triumphalist and negative attitude on the part of Christian missionaries toward native cultures.

In marked contrast to both these approaches, Edinburgh adopted a fulfillment theology of mission that saw Jesus Christ as the "fulfillment of other religions." Holding that "all religions await their fulfillment in Christ," the Edinburgh Conference gave its missionaries a mandate to respect and engage with native cultures, seeing these as capable of being fulfilled in and through Christ.4 This led to a new interest in finding "points of contact" between indigenous cultures and the gospel.5

The term "indigenization" proved unpopular. In Africa it was quickly replaced by terms such as "adaptionism," which gave intellectual legitimacy to the use of African thought forms in Christian theology and of African rituals in the liturgy. Those of a more Catholic persuasion came to adopt "incarnationism," some missiologists preferred "translation," and the World Council of Churches adopted the preferred terminology of the Taiwanese theologian Shoki Coe (Chang Hui Hwang, 1914-88)—"contextualization."6 Yet the same basic theme can be discerned throughout—the need to express and embody the gospel in a manner appropriate to a local culture rather than imposing a certain vision of the gospel upon that culture.7

Although this trend was not without importance in the period between the two world wars, the scholarly consensus is that the history of global Christianity began to move in significant new directions after the Second World War. Some of the most prominent activists for political independence in both sub-Saharan Africa and India were Christian; they saw the achievement of a proper national identity as essential for the establishment of a viable local theology instead of the culturally implausible Western impositions.

Some sociologists argued that Christianity in non-Western contexts, especially Africa, was sustained by the presence of the Western colonial power, and therefore, they predicted, the demise of Christianity would follow the withdrawal of this political support. Not for the first time, a theory proved misguided: the removal of Western power actually removed Western constraints that had been preventing the emergence of more culturally adapted forms of Christianity. The withdrawal of colonial powers—such as Britain and France—from their former territories allowed local churches to develop theologies, ministries, and styles of worship that were adaptations to their contexts rather than poor copies of the churches found in the colonial homelands. In most cases, the departure of the colonial power was followed by renewal as the cultural restraints on indigenous variants of Christianity were finally removed. Political independence rapidly led to ecclesiastical independence and the ending of the paternalist suppression of indigenous theologies and worship patterns.

Unsurprisingly, much of the emerging theology of Africa and Asia has reacted against Western Christian models. A revolt against the "colonization of the mind" demands self-definition and affirmation of identity over and against the colonizing "other." With the end of the colonial era, therefore, we may say that a new understanding of Protestant identity and a new style of Protestant theology began to emerge. No longer, for example, did Singaporean Anglicanism look like that of Surbiton incongruously transplanted to the tropics; it developed its own ethos and identity—and began to grow.

Throughout these declarations of intellectual, ecclesiastical, and political independence, the churches of the global South maintained the fundamental Protestant principle of constant reexamination, reassessment, and restatement, thus allowing the Bible and the historical Protestant tradition to be brought to bear on their situation. Instead of importing ready-made theologies, liturgies, and handbooks of evangelism from the West, its increasingly confident indigenous practitioners were now prepared to create their own. Western influence on churches in the global South remains: many of its leaders have studied at British or American universities and seminaries and have been shaped at least to some extent by the Western ethos. Yet this influence now seems ministerial, not magisterial—a relation of committed partners, not of master and servant.

Before considering the impact of the new dynamics of Protestantism in the global South on Protestantism as a whole, we consider some individual cases as well as some more general trends to illustrate what is happening on the ground, giving an account that is often overlooked by the Western media and intelligentsia alike. In what follows, we present a survey of developments, not in order to provide a detailed analysis of the situation, but to show how Protestantism has been transformed in the twentieth century—in ways that would have been unpredictable at the beginning of that era.

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