Contextualization in Kenyan Contexts

“Driving in Kenya is organic,” said Rev. Francis Omundi as we entered one of the numberless crowded roundabouts of Nairobi. Indeed, the lines of travel on a Kenyan road bear more resemblance to the growth of trees, due to epidemic potholes, than to the routes taken by Western drivers on their well-paved roads. Regardless of your background, if you want to drive in Kenya, you must learn to drive organically; whatever your destination, whatever your vehicle, you must drive as a Kenyan.
The same principle, when applied in the field of missions, is known to scholars as contextualization. The presentation of a culturally-relevant and faithful gospel is the task of missions. In this paper I will consider the task of missiology with respect to cultural adaptation as well as
reflect on the practice of contextualization in three Kenyan contexts which I was privileged to experience on my most recent visit.

The Task of Missions
Lesslie Newbigin’s introduction to missiology, The Open Secret, approaches the task of missions theologically, beginning with a series of questions which the missionary is likely to face.[1] The first question, “What right do you have to preach to us?” he meets with “By the authority of the name of Jesus,” which is to invite the counter-question, “Who is Jesus?” Answering this question, Newbigin says, is the work of Christian witness as it has been at all times and is today in all cultures.[2]
Along side of the task of declaring who Jesus is, Newbigin formulates the objective as such: “The Christian mission is thus to act out in the whole life of the whole world the confession that Jesus is Lord of all” (emphasis mine).[3] It is with these dual tasks in mind that he moves on to wrestle with the debate regarding whether missions ought be strictly a matter of “saving souls” through evangelization or if it also ought to involve such things as education, health and food assistance. Attention can not be given to this debate here other than to say with Newbigin Jesus’ “mission was not only a matter of words, and neither is ours.”[4] Jesus proclaimed the nearness of God’s kingdom, his very presence constituted that nearness, and his life was a demonstration of it. Our mission is to be modeled after his.
Mission, according to Newbigin, must be understood in Trinitarian terms as proclamation, presence and prevenience. The first two are easily understood and have already been mentioned. “Prevenience” refers to the missionary posture acknowledging that the Holy Spirit precedes the missionary. “Mission is…done by the Spirit…who always goes before the church in its missionary journey.”[5]
Newbigin spends considerable time addressing the doctrine of election, something not typically considered a missiological doctrine, but here gives it new emphasis. Election is God’s act of choosing some to be bearers of God’s blessing which is for all. “Bearers—not exclusive beneficiaries.”[6] The tendency, most clear in the life of Israel, of the elect is to view God’s blessing as exclusively for them, when in fact their uniqueness lies not in the blessing but sharing in the suffering and tribulation of God’s people.
This humble stance on the part of the mission worker is prerequisite for Newbigin’s model for mission, which I will call three-cornered missions. In any work of missions there are three independent contributors to the appropriate expression of Christianity. These three are the local culture, the Christianity of the missionary and the Bible. We will begin with the second. A missionary may, and should, go through pains to strip from the message presented that which is an alien cultural formation and superfluous to the gospel, but he will never be completely successful.[7] The message he presents will bring with it some of the trappings of his own culture, and if we hold an ecumenical view this is not altogether a bad thing; each culture has something to offer to each other, and hence the cultured Christianity of the missionary may provide helpful insight which would not be gained from a ‘pure’ gospel.[8]
The recipient culture will inevitably impact the expression of Christianity in that context. Even translation into the native language is allowing the gospel to be shaped by the available vocabulary and thought-patterns of this language. For example, each language has a word for “Supreme Being” which carries connotations specific to the culture, and this is the one which will be used for God. Hence the local concept of God is the starting place from which the gospel must begin. Though Western Christians often believe the categories available in their languages are the ones which accurately express the gospel, this is a gross misunderstanding.
Scripture, in Newbigin’s model, though interpreted through cultural grids, maintains its ability to independently critique not only the recipient culture, but also the Christianity of missionary. Thus Christianity is born in a new context out of the unpredictable evolution of these three contributors: local culture, the Christianity of the missionary and Scripture.
Newbigin relies heavily on Roland Allen, a missionary in China until 1903, for his understanding of the missionary task. After the establishment of a local Christian community through preaching, responsibility is to be entrusted to local leadership, and the missionary is to move on, not set up a permanent residence. This approach will seem radically, even perhaps irresponsibly, hands-off to some, but Newbigin advocates with Allen that it is not the work of missionaries to “impose on younger churches ethical standards laid down by the sending churches.”[9] To do for locals, what is their task of cultural application is not missions, it is merely church extension.[10]
What Newbigin says about ethical standards I believe is also the case with forms of worship and liturgy. Mission is risky business, it must risk the gospel in the hands of another Christian community, in another culture, though it will inevitably bring a cultured-Christianity into the mix. The task of mission is to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom, to live in a way that demonstrates this nearness and to enter every place with the awareness that God’s spirit is already involved in mission work there. The assumption of God’s preparatory work in each culture is the grounds for contextualization in mission.
The task of contextualization in mission has several phases. The first is for the missionary to become aware of the ways in which her own culture has formed her Christianity. This will become clearer through humble encounters with Christians of other cultures.
The second phase of contextualization is for the missionary to try to engage in mission (proclamation and presence) in a way which is as unencumbered by the missionary culture as possible and which is understandable to the recipients. This phase is what has generally been considered the whole of contextualization. It includes translation of the gospel linguistically as well as cautious explanations about what the gospel means for the culture. Thorough knowledge of the culture is the prerequisite to translation and of any application of the gospel. This cultural orientation is the bulk of the missionary task of contextualization. As the missionary absorbs the culture, the Spirit, through them, is now able to speak to the culture from the inside.
The third, and most important phase, of contextualization belongs primarily to the locals; it is the task of establishing ethical standards, liturgy and church structure which are faithful to the gospel but organic to the receiving culture. The missionary is permitted to cautiously contribute to this process but only as a peer, leaving responsibility in the hands of locals.
When contextualization has reached its goal there exists a new Christian community lead by local leaders which is the organic product of the gospel-seed grown in cultural soil. At this point a Christian community begins to have peer relationships with other communities, including those in other cultures. In these relations both communities allow their own cultured Christianities to be critiqued by one another and by Scripture.
The Maasai Context
The Maasai are perhaps the best-known traditional people of East Africa. In my visit to two Maasai communities experiencing Western-influenced development and the reading of stories of two missionaries to the Masai, I have been offered two quite divergent approaches to mission and contextualization in the Masai Context.
In 1968 Denny and Jeanne Grindall, while in Kenya as tourists began a relationship with another Western couple ministering among the Masai. This relationship turned into years spent in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya, with most time in Oloisho-oibor. From the testimony of Wallace Ohrt’s telling in The Accidental Missionaries, the Grindall’s work was almost strictly development, mostly focused on water, agriculture and basic health services.[11]
Ohrt’s book, clearly the result of lengthy discussions with the Grindalls, seems to be the product of a Western individual with little sensitivity to cultural issues. He records the perspective on the Masai situation in the words of the Grindall’s predecessors and partners:
It’s not lack of opportunity that threatens them. It’s culture. Their own culture. They cling stubbornly to a way of life that is doomed by the changes that are taking place around them.[12]
It is unfortunate that Orht portrays the work of the Grindall’s as a battle between development and the deadly way of Masai culture.[13] This compassionate assistance of the Grindall’s as a ministry of presence was certainly a blessing to Oloisho-oibor, even if it happened without much cultural sensitivity.
As a guest in Oloisho-oibor, the talk of the Christian elders made it clear that Denny Grindall had won a very positive reception both as an individual and for the gospel. As we visited among them they were most eager to show us the lake which was the evidence of Denny’s work among them. They told of how some had been resistant to Denny, but when they saw the good things he brought to the community they warmed up.
While the lake was certainly prized, the Masai elders were equally eager to tell us that Denny had been a gift from God, and as members of his church we were received as such. Additionally, two of the elders present introduced themselves as evangelists trained by Denny. How this was done I am unable to say, for Ohrt’s book included very limited discussion of the work of proclamation.
It is important to note that according to the elders, much of what Denny had done fell into disrepair and that it was only by the new, indigenous organization Simba Maasai Outreach Organization (SIMOO) that the projects were revived. I am unsure how to evaluate these series of events. The Grindall’s development projects were certainly successful in gaining a hearing and reception for the gospel in Oloisho-oibor. It is equally certain that a Christian community led by Masai leaders now seeks to “improve the living standards of the poor in Oloisho-oibor.[14] The Masai elders also seem to be engaging in the ethical and liturgical work of gospel interpretation in their context. What is unclear is whether the work of the Grindall’s directly accomplished this.
Empura is a Masai community outside of Narok being aided toward development, by World Concern, a Christian development agency. While work in Empura is more recent and less progressed it seems to bear resemblance to the work of the Grindall’s, though with more cultural sensitivity due to Kenyan staff. This model of development-first missions seems in at least one community to have yielded an interpretive Christian community among the Masai.
Vincent Donovan, a missionary for 17 years in Tanzania, would not approve. Donovan represents a divergent methodology best expressed in his own words to his bishop in 1966:
I suddenly feel the urgent need to cast aside all efforts at strategy—and simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa. I would propose cutting myself off from the schools and the hospital…and just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message…I know what most people will say…You cannot bring the gospel to them without going through several preparatory, preliminary stages. But I would like to try.[15]
Surprising though it is, this is precisely what Donovan did. He safaried to remote communities, called together the elders, told them he was offering nothing, and asked only for a weekly audience to present the Christian message. He was received in each community with the question “If that is why you [Europeans] came here, why did you wait so long to tell us about this?”[16]
As Donovan prepared weekly presentations he struggled to refine his message down to the essential Christianity, unencumbered by his own cultural heritage. As such he was engaged in the first stages of contextualization. While he sought a pristine Christianity he also ended up laying some perhaps unintentional emphasis on the reconciliatory nature of Christ and the universality of God; he called the Masai communities to recognize that God, Engai, was the God not only of the Masai, but of all people, and therefore they must love those of different clans, different tribes. This, I believe was indeed a central part of the contextual gospel to the Masai, and was thus appropriate application of the gospel to the local culture, stage two of contextualization.
In Donovan’s book, Christianity Rediscovered,[17] he comes to many of the same conclusions as Newbigin: all Christianity is cultured, mission work means allowing Christ to take on the flesh of that culture, the application of the gospel must grow organically from the locals, God is already at work before the missionary arrives and missionaries are not to become permanent residents. But on several items they differ.
Development work as Christian mission for Donovan represents not the result of the “logic of the gospel” as for Newbigin, but evidence that missionary work is in “shambles”.[18] He accuses Christian development efforts as striving “to bring freedom or knowledge or health or prosperity to a people in order that they may become Christians” calling this a “perversion of missionary work.” Donovan shares equal concern about “progress and development for their own sake.” [19] It is clear that Donovan finds relief work not as a needed expression of the gospel, but as something too often leveraged for salvation, or elevated beyond its place of importance.
A more subtle difference is the way in which Donovan approaches Scripture. While Newbigin considers it an independent leg of the tripod of mission, Donovan seems to consider Scripture’s cultural particularity within Palestine as so conditioned as to make it permissible to essentially re-write Scripture as if it had happened within Masai culture. The Genesis creation narrative is exchanged with Masai creation myths infused with new meaning in light of the gospel core. Jesus’ death and resurrection no longer bear as a symbol the empty tomb, but instead herald that “the hyenas did not touch him.”[20] Some might applaud these as excellent contextualization of the gospel. True, the message is intact. But what has been lost is the objectivity of the third leg of the tripod. Donovan seems to suppose that there are only two ingredients for a Christian community in a new culture: the pristine core of the gospel as delivered by the missionary and the traditional culture of the recipients. It has already been confessed that no missionary is able to de-culturize the gospel to its pristine core, but the problem with Donovan’s model is deeper.
This erroneous view bears strong resemblance to that of many Western Christians who view Christianity as only a matter between the individual and God. There is no Christianity in isolation, not as individuals, and not as cultures. Even remote peoples such as the Masai have been, through Scripture, welcomed into dialog with brothers and sisters who differ in culture.
Despite these shortcomings, if Donovan’s record is accurate it seems quite certain that he established numerous Masai Christian communities equipped to establish ethics and liturgy as organically Masai responses to the gospel. This was precisely his intent, and he concludes that mission work is
…that work undertaken by a gospel oriented community, of transcultural vision, with a special mandate, charism, and responsibility for spreading and carrying that gospel to the nations of the world, with a view of establishing the church of Christ.[21]
If Donovan’s approach lacked for failing to introduce the Masai to the larger many-cultured body of Christ, the unavailability of the Scriptures in Ma, the Masai language, and their remoteness make this offense pardonable. Though it is impossible to know how or if these communities persisted, Donovan’s approach, absent though it was of social services, seems to have effectively given the gospel into Masai hands, creating a Christian community and entrusting them into God’s hands.
Though the methodologies of the Grindall’s and Donovan are widely different, they both engaged in successful, though not complete, contextualization. The Grindall’s contextualization was primarily incarnational, or what Newbigin would call “presence.” Strong in showing the kingdom, it seems they were weaker in proclaiming it and in discerning where God was already at work. Donovan’s contextualization included healthy doses of proclamation and knowledge of the Spirit’s prevenience, but lacked a demonstration. If the success of these mission efforts is any measure it seems that even less than fully orbed contextualization is ample material from which the Holy Spirit can fashion a new expression of the one Church.
The Muslim Context
Garissa is a Kenyan town four hours west of Nairobi. Its population is 80-90% Somali, of whom nearly all are Muslim. My experience of mission and contextualization in Garissa were at the invitation of Rev. Francis Omundi, a local Anglican priest and his wife Anne, headmistress at a start-up school. It is important to understand that while Islam is a religion it is one unabashedly and by doctrine a mono-cultural one. Somali culture and Islam cannot here be clearly separated.
Mission for the Omundi’s is most immediately apparent through the establishment of the school at which Anne serves as headmistress. This is not a Christian school, but the intent for which it was established was to gain a credible presence in the community as well as a positive rapport for the Omundi’s. Education, though often depreciated, is much needed in Garissa, and thus this school serves the community, meanwhile demonstrating the goodwill of Christians with the hope of earning an audience for the gospel.
Rev. Omundi’s passion concerning mission is that it should be an African business; Africans as missionaries to Africans. This passion prompted him to create a training center for Africans, Sheepfold Ministries preparing them to reach out to unreached African peoples. The logic of this is very much in keeping with our understanding of contextualization. Whereas Westerners have much work to do in stripping their Christianity of the trappings of Western culture and attempting to visualize the gospel’s relevance in the local culture, Africans have much less of this work to do. What trappings they bring with Christianity are likely to be similar to those contextually appropriate for the recipients.
This, of course, assumes that the African missionary holds a truly African Christianity as opposed to one who has been converted to Western Christianity. According to Pastor Oscar Muriu, of Nairobi Chapel, many first generation African Christians have bought into Christianity with its Western garb. Missionaries of this group would require significant education regarding the cultural variety welcome within Christianity. Regardless of the brand of Christianity the African missionary brings, the African-missions-to-African-peoples approach often sidesteps some of the resistance due to the ill-affects of colonialism, which Western missionaries inevitably face.
The worship service is one of the most ready venues for viewing contextualization. At Anglican worship with the Omundi’s it was clear that the cultural context had affected worship in at least a few ways. Most obviously, worship and preaching were in Swahili. More telling, the women were sitting on the left and the men on the right side of the church. This certainly reflects dialog of Christianity with the local culture, for this practice is neither commanded within Scripture or Anglican doctrine. Despite these obvious marks of the local culture the structure of worship seems to have been heavily influenced by the (European) brand of Christianity brought by the original Anglican missionaries.
The missionary work of Rev. Omundi presents for me a disconnect. While stress is put on sending Africans to Africans, so as not to create a cultural hierarchy, it seems clear in the community in which he leads worship that in the negotiation of Newbigin’s triad--Scripture, traditional culture and the missionaries Christianity--the missionary’s Christianity was the prime influence. At the present there seems to have been no Somali-cultured Christian community in Garissa. This may reflect the difficulty of the work as much as the level of contextualization.
The Urban Context
The majority of my time in Kenya was spent in Nairobi, the capitol. While the other contexts discussed are mono-cultural and fairly homogenous, the African city is, according to Aylward Shorter, a “stew” of cultures, rather than a melting pot. For in African cities urban dwellers retain greater rural links, and consequently, as in a stew retain their own flavors rather than losing them in the melting pot.
In Shorter’s 1991 book, The Church in the African City,[22] he surveys the phenomena of African urbanization before offering suggestions to the Church as to its appropriate response. One of the most important realities of African cities is the huge youth population[23], weighted heavily with males. This is largely the result of migration from rural areas, particularly attractive to young men wishing freedom from social constraint or seeking education or the means to send money back home. Hence while the city has a culture of its own, there remain for most city-dwellers strong ties to rural areas.
Shorter’s plan of action for contextualization includes a prerequisite correction for what he calls “anti-urban bias”. Missionaries must trade this unpleasant view to the city for a more optimistic and biblical perspective. Eric Jacobsen’s book on the theology of the city traces its genesis in Babel to its eschaton fulfillment in the New Jerusalem, noting that the city, and not the garden, is the Christian’s ultimate destiny.[24]
The bulk of gospel incarnation, from Shorter’s perspective, involves social involvement. Primary among these he advocates for
a physical existence, not merely in the shape of a handsome place of worship, but in facilities for the community: a hall, a set of rooms, a community centre, a multi-purpose building.[25]
This community-building building is to help provide one of the missing elements of urban society, a sense of community. This priority is similar to that of Theologian Professor Jesse Mugambi who, when asked what Christians ought to do in response to the needs of the African city, urged that the Church become the place where the needs of the community can be discussed.
In keeping with this methodology, the first task of missions is to address the morbid factors of the city and help improve material and social quality of life. The community center addresses in part the social need. Materially “the Church in the city fights against disease, insanitary conditions, illiteracy, violent crime, drunkenness, drug-taking and prostitution.”[26] In addition to confronting these secondary consequences, the Church is commissioned to tackle structural injustice and administrative powers.
Also notable is Shorter’s stress on unity. The Church is to pioneer in turning cultural pluralism into multiculturalism[27] as well as engage in social action ecumenically. This need is particular to the city because while rural areas are most often dominated by one tribe and only a few denominations, the city holds many of each. This causes social dislocation but also creates the unique opportunity for unified witness and unified action.
Though bound to the limitations of Catholic structures, Shorter stresses the need for “basic Christian communities.”[28] These communities constitute a “way of being Church”[29] and attempt to make use of the gifts of each individual. While these must maintain relationships with other ecclesial communities, they provide a sense of family for the socially dislocated.
Shorter’s suggestions for urban contextualization are primarily suggestions about urban incarnation, with nothing said about urban proclamation. While at points he seems to be struggling to make Catholic models fit inorganically, he is, in the concluding chapter able to say, “It is altogether too easy to give up the struggle for African authenticity, and to adopt Western liturgical forms and Western parish movements and structures as a solution to urban pluralism and modernity.”[30]
The majority of ministries I visited in Nairobi effectively embody contextualization through social action, but the mega-churches are in danger of failing to meet the critical need for urban community among socially dislocated urbanites.
Homeless Children International is a youth home on the edge of one of Nairobi’s informal settlements. It provides housing, school help and food for youth who lack parental support. Urban Ministries Serving God (UMSG) seeks to keep the African Church informed about urban phenomena and opportunities for urban ministry. Training and seminars are offered to pastors and theological schools. Daystar University hosted UMSG representative Mike Koski for several days as he instructed ministry students regarding urban ministry in Africa. UMSG has also done research among the Samburu watchmen in the city, giving attention again to the need for urban ministry with sensitivity to the rural origins of many inhabitants.
The churches I visited in Nairobi fit the mega-church model. While such churches have the unique abilities, due to size, to advocate for justice and to enact larger scale social projects, they are also tend toward the individualistic mentality of modernism. They tend to find no need for connection with other churches and can sometimes offer little more than a crowd to those seeking true community. By contrast, the preponderance of African Instituted Churches, testified to by unceasing signs on the edges of the informal settlements, are small but may provide greater social cohesion, though these also are often isolated from one another. Perhaps the need is for large churches to become conglomerations of Shorter-type basic communities, therefore maintaining the advantages of size, while affording the benefits of intimate communities as well as thus drawing out the gifts of more members. Some Western churches, disillusioned with the mega-church model, are seeking to get all members in small groups for the same reasons.
Mission in the African city is an enormously complex task. The urban culture of modernization is everywhere in conversation with rural cultures. Rural cultures are in dialog with on another in the city. The material needs are great and the social connections are unstable. The task of contextualization in a stew of contexts requires social action on a large scale that transcends cultural particularity as well as focus ministries to meet put flesh on the gospel for specific sectors of society, while not allowing them to remain isolated from one another.
The Maasai, Muslim and urban contexts are ripe for the gospel. While missions was once performed primarily in mono-cultural settings it is ever more-so being required in diverse contexts. The city is home to both the Maasai and the Muslim, to the Luo and Kikuyu. Within the city there are numberless sub-cultures, numberless communities in need of the gospel.
As the world has shrunken, and we have become increasingly aware of differing cultures, the need to critique our own has dawned on the missionary task. No longer can we simply preach the gospel, we must first rediscover the gospel as it appears in another context. This discovery, this discerning of God at work already before us, must humble us as we proclaim Christ in word and deed.
Jesus spoke about a seed thrown upon good soil, which produced a harvest of 30, 60 and even 100 times what was sown. As bearers of the seed we must seek the good soil in each culture and each person we come to, planting it humbly and faithfully and waiting prayerfully for the gospel to a Christian community organic to culture.
Contextualization is the incarnational work of Jesus. Newbigin lingers on the scandal of the particularity of God that Jesus should come to one people at only one time; Jesus took on Jewish flesh. When he departed he told his disciples it was better that he go, in order that the Holy Spirit might come. And, of course, he was right. One man could not incarnate everywhere. But by God’s Spirit the Church is the body of Christ, and as such it is called to exist in all flesh, being Jesus in Masai flesh, Jesus in Somali flesh, Jesus in Kikuyu flesh. May God empower his Church to rightly discern the task of incarnating the gospel in every culture, that we may indeed make disciples of all nations, and look forward to that day on which men and women of every tongue and tribe and nation will praise God in a way authentic to their own cultural identities.

[1] Newbigin, Leslie. The Open Secret. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns Publishing Company, 1995.
[2] Newbigin , 15.
[3] Newbigin, 17.
[4] Newbigin, 40.
[5] Newbigin, 56.
[6] Newbigin, 32.
[7] Newbigin, 138.
[8] A ‘pure’ gospel is neither possible nor desirable. Jesus’ gospel came in culture. Without a culture, there is no soil for the gospel.
[9] Newbigin, 131.
[10] Newbigin, 137.
[11] Orht, Wallace. The Accidental Missionaries: How a Vacation Turned into a Vocation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990. [out of print].
[12] Orht, 56.
[13] Orht, 88.
[14] From the SIMOO mission statement as included on a flier.
[15] Donovan, 13, 14.
[16] Donovan, 18.
[17] Donovan, Vincent. Christianity Rediscovered. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1978.
[18] Donovan, 11.
[19] Donovan, 10.
[20] Donovan, 148.
[21] Donovan, 144.
[22] Shorter, Aylward. The Church in the African City. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis books, 1991.
[23] According to Shorter, the typical African city population is 85% under the age of 30. Nairobi at present is somewhere near 70% according to Mike Koski of Urban Ministries Serving God.
[24] Jacobsen, Eric. Sidewalks in the Kingdom.
[25] Shorter, 76.
[26] Shorter, 78.
[27] Shorter, 81.
[28] Shorter, 98-109.
[29] Shorter, 105.
[30] Shorter, 141.

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