The term indigenization is one of those buzzwords in missions that people like to talk about. But what exactly do we mean when we say that our goal is the indigenization of our missionary work on the field? The word indigenous is a botanical term which signifies “native to the soil.” So, for example, orange trees are native to the sandy soil of Florida, but not to the red clay of South Carolina. Ideally, when we talk about indigenous ministry, we are saying that we aspire to establish churches which function in ways that are native to the “soil” of the region where we have invested our missionary labor.
Do we really aspire to that though? Are we eager to develop ministry which can prosper because it is not “a foreign religion” and is not fraught with American concepts of what Christianity should look like? I fear that, more often than not, we simply want the “natives” to pay their own way and provide their own leadership, but we specifically do not want them to develop their own definitions of worldliness, dress standards, or worship style. Those things they must learn from us, because, after all, we have imported the correct biblical pattern for each of these areas. What we fail to recognize with this attitude, however, is that our practices have developed specifically because we have taken the Word of God seriously and applied it to the “soil” of our society and culture. That is to say, our concepts of modesty, appropriate entertainment, and style of worship are never formed in a direct line of adherence to biblical statements. Nowhere does the Bible address hemlines, movies or praise and worship bands, but it certainly does address modesty, holiness and reverence for the Almighty. We have indigenized the Bible’s teaching on those issues for the American church and I wholly subscribe to our fundamentalist perspective in each area. But we shouldn’t want to export to the mission field our experience of indigenization. We should seek to help local people establish their own indigenous Christianity. We should avoid what a close friend who is the director of a missionary agency focusing on advancing the Gospel in the world’s difficult places describes as “franchising” the American church.
If we truly want indigenous churches, we must focus the attention of the target people on Jesus and the Gospel, not on our patterns of church life. Teach them to understand Scripture and to appropriately apply it in their culture and society so that the Christianity that develops there is, in fact, “native to their soil.” This takes time, but it can be done, and is being done around the world. The alternative is to provide financial support for an American missionary who perennially remains as pastor of a church on the field. While he will always claim that he wants the work to become indigenous, he is constantly fearful that if he were to leave, the local people might practice their Christianity in ways that are different than what he envisioned. His problem is that he doesn’t really understand indigenization; he fails to recognize that what he is importing is itself an indigenous version of Christianity and not the ultimate standard for the entire globe.
When I was a kid in Illinois, I planted some orange seeds in a pot and was thrilled when they started to grow. The problem, of course, was that even though I could transplant the fledgling tree into larger and larger pots, I could never transplant it into the ground outside. It might grow for a few months in the summer, but it could never survive the native winter. It was not indigenous. I’m afraid that much of our missionary work is like that. We can get something to grow, but it is stifled because it will never be able to thrive without our supervision. We can delight in and defend our experience of Christianity in America, but let’s be careful to conduct our missionary efforts in a way that produces indigenous Christianity elsewhere rather than a mere transplant of what is indigenous to us.