by Jim Lo
Lessons learned by a new missionary yield valuable insights on ethnotheology.
A culturally appropriate theology is critical for establishing the church in different areas of the world. The simple lessons I learned when I was a new missionary in a Zimbabwe village have helped put the ethnotheology issue into focus for me. Maybe they will aid you too.
1. Theology needs to identify with the culture it is in. With a growing congregation on our hands, we knew we needed to construct a church building. When we announced our plans for a new building, the people joyously clapped their hands. One man stood up and, speaking for the group, said, "We are so happy because now we will have an identity!" A theology that does not find identity in the culture will be irrelevant to the people.
2. Ethnotheology helps the people of a particular culture feel as though they own it. When we started the project, we missionaries were doing all the work and planning. One day an old villager said, "You should include us in the building program so that when the building is finished, the people will not see it as the missionary’s church. We will see it as our church." Only when people feel as though they "own" a theology will they care for it, proclaim it, and even defend it.
3. Theology does not proceed from just a single perspective, but many. We began to include local people, but I proposed building a church similar to one I attended back in the States. The locals vetoed my suggestion and proposed a structure more appropriate to the area. In the same way, ethnotheology is not only valid, it is an unavoidable requirement if we ever expect the people of other cultures to fully understand the word of God.
4. Ethnotheology allows theology to face new problems and issues arising in the local culture. Having never built in a village setting, 1 kept facing problems for which my owe experience yielded no answers. For example, how was I going to get water to the building site? With each new challenge, I was forced to seek out the other men for suggestions.
5. Ethnotheology takes into consideration the human, cultural, and divine elements. Each morning before we began the work, the people assembled and prayed to God for help. This is an excellent picture of all of these elements-human, cultural, and divine-coming together.
CHARACTERISTICS AND CRITERIA OF A VALID INDIGENOUS THEOLOGY
Before we can start building an ethnotheology, however, we have to decide what its characteristics must be. I propose five.
1. An indigenous theology will be biblical. In other words, theology must find its source in the Bible. A pastor friend made this clear to me in Zimbabwe. One night, while I was visiting Pastor Kalenge, I noticed him usher his grandson into the church sanctuary, and both sat down near a kerosene lamp. Before long I could hear the grandson reading verses from the Bible. As I peeked into the sanctuary I could see that Pastor Kalenge was absorbing every word. When my friend finally emerged from the church, I drew him aside and asked, "Mvangeli, what were you doing?"
Pastor Kalenge replied, "I cannot read. When I first began preaching, I mostly preached about believing in Jesus Christ and repentance. But before long, people began asking me some very difficult questions. They wanted to know what God wanted them to do in certain situations. I did not have the answers. It was then that I realized that I needed to know the Bible. That is why I have my grandchildren read it to me. Just because ! cannot read does not give me an excuse for not using God’s word. I want to hear God’s word so I can explain it to the people who live around me. I don’t want them to just hear my words…. I want them to understand God’s word. The Bible has been given to us to be our guide."
2. An indigenous theology will include the eternal (absolute) truths recorded in the Bible. It must affirm the transcendence of God and have a proper, biblical understanding of Jesus Christ, including his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and the salvation he offers to all men. In his descriptive way of speaking, Pastor Kalenge told me, "Preaching the Bible without its eternal truths is like a wagon without wheels … or a car without its steering wheel. It becomes useless!"
3. An indigenous theology will be prophetic. It will address a culture’s sinful areas and at the same time proclaim the hope that these areas can be transformed by the power of God. It will be prophetic in that it will speak out against whatever is sinful, demonic, or dehumanizing.
When I first arrived in Africa I noticed that some of the people who professed Jesus Christ as their Savior were still worshiping their ancestors. Fearing that I would drive them away from the church, I hesitated to say anything. An African pastor friend "set me straight," saying, "Mfundisi Lo, if the Bible states that it is all right for Africans to worship their dead ancestors, then you must not say anything against it. But if it says that we must give it up, then you must be faithful to teach that truth to my people."
At the same time, of course, a truly indigenous theology will affirm the positive values of a culture. For example, African culture has many positive elements we can promote, such as concern for the members of the community, the generosity of its people, and respect for age, just to name a few.
4. An indigenous theology will touch every facet of life. It is not a theology useful only inside the church. It most also be useful outside the church. An indigenous theology must address issues the local culture considers important.
Pastor Kalenge, again, set an example for me. After two weeks of both of us teaching evangelism through class lectures to the members of his church, we decided to send them out to practice what they had been learning. Before they left, Pastor Kalenge gave them some last-minute instructions: "Take time to talk to the people. Get to know them. Find out what they are thinking. Discover what things are troubling them. Find out what the issues in their lives are." Later, when I asked him about these instructions, he replied, "If we are to ever minister to the people out there we must begin to learn what they are asking, feeling, and thinking. Once we discover what the issues are, we can then sit down and find biblical answers for them." Only when theology speaks to the current questions, issues, and problems of a given culture will people begin to relate to it positively.
5. An indigenous theology will never become dogmatic in areas calling for flexibility. One African woman shared with me how a missionary had turned the people in her village off to Christianity with her dogmatic preaching that women should not cut their hair. "It seemed that this missionary lady was so concerned with the length of our hair that she forgot to tell us about the salvation of Jesus," she said. "What really bothered the people was that a few years later this same missionary returned to our village with her hair cut very short."
MY ROLE AS A MISSIONARY
What should be our role in the ethnotheology process? As a young missionary, I learned a few things not to do. When I first entered Africa I was immediately confronted with a church leader who needed to be "disciplined." Other leaders of the church advised me to be patient and allow them to deal with the "problem." But after two weeks of waiting, I became "antsy" and wanted an immediate confrontation. When none of the other church leaders volunteered to go with me, I went alone-and made the situation much worse.
By skirting the local customs and leadership, I had conveyed that I did not value the African culture nor trust national leadership. So the next time I approached the elders for help I got the cold shoulder treatment. When I asked why, one pastor explained, "We are not giving you any advice because it seems that you will not really listen to us anyhow. We have observed that you will just go and do your own thing."
As a missionary I must continually search my heart for paternalism, pride, impatience, and lack of trust, attitudes which can discourage the national church from developing its own ethnotheology. My bypassing the leadership demonstrated a wrong attitude, and it made them feel unimportant. Thus, they concluded that their thoughts were also of little consequence, and they decided to remain silent.
I had to ask these church leaders for forgiveness, which they graciously gave. If only I will be patient and listen to my national brothers and sisters, in most cases they will deal with problems in a culturally appropriate, thoroughly Christian manner that brings healing and restoration, not bitterness and division. Now I want to approach the process of developing an ethnotheology not as an all-knowing teacher but as a student-helper. Part of the reason I got into trouble was my mistaken belief that I had all the answers. But I am continually realizing how much I have to learn from my African brothers and sisters. They understand their own culture and issues much better than I ever will. It would be wrong to believe that I could do all their "theologizing" for them.
But we missionaries can still help. One of our roles is to encourage local believers to begin thinking about ethnotheology, to get out into their world and discover what their Christian and non-Christian neighbors are grappling with. We can also suggest resources and expertise that may not be available in their country. Another way to contribute is to be one of many "editors" who can help ensure that the "created" theology is still within the realm of orthodoxy. The key, of course, is to approach the task as a servant of both God and the national Christians involved in developing their own theologies.
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