Evangelising in Africa: From Inculturation to Contextualisation

“Our first task in approaching another people, another culture … is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy.” ~ Max Warren

Starting off as a student in African Studies I pretty much knew that witchcraft was wrong. I believed that the power of prayer could overcome witchcraft. As an African, I knew that there were wise men [westerners refer to them as diviners or witch-doctors (as in those who know how to deal with witches)] in our community that people revered and held with a sense of awe. Did I think they were evil? I actually do not know. People talk about them. They are the antidote to evil, they are the prophets and they are wise people. However, when in the classroom we were asked to talk about African culture as a reality I would still prefer using the past tense. I had so many prejudices about African culture and if I was to be objective, I had to set them aside. This was facilitated by the non-judgemental approach that seeks to understand African religion in its own terms by appreciating the profound value behind it.

I have had some intellectual fun doing my fieldwork and have learnt amazing things from the people I least expected. I am a proud African too. The point is, I understand where people are coming from and if I were to be an evangelist, I would be effective in engaging the people I work with in a respectful manner, knowing that they probably know about morality and God more than I do.

So what about inculturation? Perhaps the problem is with the word inculturation itself which means i.e. the gradual acquisition of the characteristics and norms of a culture or group by a person, another culture (1). Therefore, the focus is not in understanding the essence of African culture and contextualizing the Gospel but picking certain elements and infusing them in Christianity. There has been a study of African culture but it seems for picking what seems pleasing and incorporating it into the Judeo-Christian religion. This kind of approach is visible in the Catholic mass i.e. incorporating aspects of African culture such as dancing during liturgy, the use of African instruments or the adoption of universal African values in some religious communities. Is this an effective method of transmitting the faith? My answer would be no, this is because we are borrowing elements whose symbolism we hope will help Africans to understand the Christian ideal. This is what Aylward Shorter has referred to as a pick and mix approach (2).

The problem with the pick and mix approach is that it assumes African people are clean slates with no ideas of morality and are ready to be filled with the Good News. There must have been something before the Good News and that is where contextualisation comes in. We must understand the African worldview before we take out our Bibles to preach the Gospel. How can we hope to evangelise a people by picking certain elements rather than purifying their culture with Christianity? Many have observed that Christianity is on the rise in Africa, however, if any good is to come from those conversions then contextualisation of the Gospel is a must otherwise we will continue to have Christians by name only. Ardent churchgoers whose only business with Christianity is on Sundays or another kind that is easily duped by unscrupulous preachers. How can we build up an Afro-Christianity whose followers are active participants? It is by building upon that which is essentially African. That way, evangelisation will not seek to do away with African culture and start teaching about morality from ground zero. African culture and religion is just as concerned with morality as Christianity is and the two can be reconciled. Maybe then, we will be truly effective in evangelising.

(1)See http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/inculturation

(2) See Inculturation of African Traditional Religious Values in Christianity - How Far? By Aylward Shorter at: http://www.afrikaworld.net/afrel/shorter.htm