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The adjective "indigenous" is derived from the Latin compound in + de + gena (within + from + to beget) and means "produced, growing, or living naturally in a particular region or environment." It refers to that which is native or born from within, in contrast to that which is foreign or alien. The term indigenization is widely used in Christian missions where it refers to making the Gospel understood in the language and thought forms of the local people and to efforts to make the church autonomous in its organization.

The idea that Christianity must, in some sense, adapt to the culture in which it finds itself is not new. Leaders in the early church disagreed over the extent to which the church should adopt Hellenistic practices. Some argued that the gospel challenges existing cultures because they are the creations of sinful humans, others believed that Christianity must accommodate to cultures in order to win people to the church. The picture changed radically when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire late in the 4th century. Church leaders acquired sociopolitical power, and often turned to the sword rather than to the cross to spread Christianity. The result was often a superficial conversion of the tribes on the frontiers of the empire. The Eastern Orthodox churches translated the liturgy into local vernacular languages in its extensive missionary outreach in Eastern Europe so that the people could worship in their own languages. In contrast, in western Europe the vernacular language initially was Latin and the liturgy needed no translating; eventually Latin developed into various Romance languages and the languages of worship, ecclesiastical Latin, slowly became largely unintelligible to the uneducated. This was even more true when Christianity spread outside the old borders of the Roman Empire to Germanic peoples of northern Europe.

In the 16th century the modern Roman Catholic missionary movement was born. The Jesuits spoke of the need for accommodating Christianity to the Chinese and Indian cultures, while the Franciscans and Dominicans called for the total rejection of customs such as caste, ancestor veneration, and polygamy.

The Protestant Reformation came at a time of rising levels of literacy, which stimulated the translation of the Bible into western European languages by Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Luther. Protestants proclaimed the right of all Christians to read and interpret the gospel in their own cultural settings. Luther went further and insisted on the Germanization of Christianity. The reformers felt, however, the need for an ongoing partnership of sacred and secular powers.

The Anabaptists were more radical. They taught the priesthood of all believers within hermeneutical communities, thereby opening the door for local congregations to choose appropriate ways to express their faith. They also called for the separation of church and state, and held that the kingdom of God, not earthly norms, is the standard by which all human orders, including the church, must be judged. The gospel must be proclaimed in ways the people understand; but it remains prophetic, judging some parts of their culture to be good (for as humans they are created in the image of God), and some to be bad (for as sinners they create sinful cultures).

The early Protestant missionaries emphasized the need for establishing indigenous churches. In the 19th centuries, however. Protestant missionaries, including Mennonites, became increasingly identified with European colonialism, and a Western sense of superiority justified by the theory of cultural evolution. The result was young churches that were dependent on missions, and estranged from their cultural surroundings. Disturbed by the foreignness of the young churches, and their prolonged dependence on mission agencies, two mission leaders, Rufus Anderson and Henry Venn, urged missionaries to turn control of new churches over to native leadership as soon as possible. The goal of missions, they said, is the planting of self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating churches. When this is achieved the missionaries should disband or move on.

Despite this plea, the transfer of power from missions agencies to the newly planted churches was slow. Few national leaders were ordained as pastors and bishops, and finances for the Western-styled educational and medical institutions came largely from outside. This was true of most Mennonite missions, which were deeply influenced by the dominant missionary practices of the day. In the end, the emergence of nationalism and the collapse of colonialism led to the autonomy of most churches around the world.

The call for indigenization of the church raised another question: how should churches in other lands be organized and what types of leadership did they need? Most missionaries introduced the polity of their sending churches. Anglicans appointed priests and bishops, Mennonites introduced elections and paid ministers. In most cases, however, these organizational forms were foreign to the new Christians. Few attempts were made to use local patterns of organization based on kinship, elders, and lay ministries.

Since the 1970s there has been a growing awareness of the need not only to indigenize the church as an organization, but also the gospel and its message. Mennonite missionaries have played important roles in Bible translation. However, influenced by other protestant missions, and fearful of syncretism (mixing of Christian and non-Christian practices and beliefs) they often resisted the use of local worship forms and practices. Western hymns were translated and sung to Western tunes and little emphasis was placed on the development of local hymnologies. Western styles of prayer, preaching, dress, and church architecture were introduced, and drums, dramas, dances, and bardic orations were generally rejected as pagan. Traditional wedding and funeral rites were replaced with ceremonies patterned after Western customs. Polygamy, initiation rites, ancestor veneration, and other customs were condemned, often with little understanding of the social problems created by their elimination. Only in recent years have non-Western Mennonite churches begun to reevaluate their rites and practices in the light of Scriptures and their own cultures.

In the late 1980s there was a growing concern with culturally appropriate methods of evangelism. in the past, most missions, including those sponsored by Mennonites, placed great emphasis on literacy as a means of church planting. Consequently extensive school systems were built. While recognizing the need for a literate church, many are beginning to use other, more indigenous methods for proclaiming the gospel such as oral communication in rural areas, and rallies and media in the cities.

The question of theological autonomy is also becoming more critical. Do young churches have the right to interpret the Scriptures within their own historical and cultural contexts (theologies from impoverished peoples)? Does not a positive response to this question open the door to theological relativism and syncretism? Many Protestant churches have opposed the development of indigenous theologies because they view theology as a fixed creed. They have tended to equate their own theology with biblical truth, and to hold it above culture and history. Consequently, to change it is threatening. Non-Western churches, however, face questions that Western theologies do not answer, and Western theologies are molded not only by the Bible, but also by the worldviews of Western cultures.

Given their radical view of the priesthood of all believers, and of discipleship as living daily in obedience to Scripture, Mennonites view theologies as confessions -- as human understandings of the Bible within different cultural contexts. They hold their theologies with deep conviction, but do not equate these with the whole of biblical truth itself . They also recognize the need for theologies to change as new questions arise, and as each generation discovers what God is saying to it. They believe, however, that the theological task ultimately belongs to the church, not individuals.

Because of their view of theology as confession, not creed, and of the church as a hermeneutical community, Mennonite missionaries have been more open to, and, in some cases, have encouraged, the development of indigenous theologies. They have also been more willing to work with native churches that have sprung up on the edges of the Western missionary movement. An example of this is the pioneering work of Edwin and Irene Weaver, and the work of the African Inter-Mennonite Mission and other Mennonite missions with African Independent Churches.

The concept of indigenization itself was the product of a particular period in mission history when missionaries went from the West to other lands. Now the church exists around the world, and the usefulness of the term is in question because it is tied to a unidirectional view of missions, and to the goal of independent churches.

Since 1972 missionary leaders have begun to use the term contextualization to move beyond the concept of indigenization. The new term carries the basic meanings of the old, but recognizes that the goal for churches, young and old, is interdependence and partnership, and that the gospel belongs to no one culture but judges them all in the light of the kingdom of God. Indigenization is achieved when every society has a church native to its cultural setting. Contextualization is the ongoing process of a church seeking to live as Christ's body within its own cultural and historical setting.


Malagar, P. J. The Mennonite Church in India. Nagpur: National Council of Churches in India, 1981: 40-52.

Author(s) Paul G Hiebert
Date Published 1989

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Hiebert, Paul G. "Indigenization." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 19 Aug 2022.

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Hiebert, Paul G. (1989). Indigenization. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 August 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 434-436. All rights reserved.

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