When we arrived in Ecuador, we were pleasantly surprised to find that some US brands had arrived before we did. One familiar sight on the grocery store shelves was the Nabisco label. I grew up across the street from a Nabisco salesman who was always passing along sample boxes and bags of their treats, so this seemed to be a welcome and delicious stroke of providence. The problem was that everything that the local Nabisco Company made tasted like ginger snaps. I suppose that would be great if you liked ginger snaps, but me… not so much. The company had arrived with the products, packaging, and marketing strategy, and then left the Ecuadorians on their own. I mean, how hard could it be?
The same thing has happened around the world with other products; automobiles, Coca-Cola, Doritos, mattresses, jeans, running shoes, etc. In fact, virtually every product found in the West and desired by the rest found itself knocked off in record time. Unfortunately, the quality control gurus must have been considered superfluous non-essentials.
I remember when my first mission trip to Ecuador was over and we were back in a nice hotel in the major coastal city the night before we flew home. I wandered down counter. I picked up the menu and began to peruse the offerings, painfully aware of my hunger and the fact that I could not read or speak Spanish. The great thing about this menu was that it had pictures. I pointed to the banana split and sat back in eager anticipation. The sad thing about this menu was that it had been merely copied from some menu in the States. No one knew how to make the “banana split” concoction I had just ordered. However, thanks to their ingenuity and desire to please, the waiter soon brought my dessert. While it resembled the picture in the menu, I was shocked and disappointed when I found out that the whipped cream had been replaced by sour cream. I mean, really. It looked the same, but I assure you it wasn’t. This story and others become humorous with the passage of time and we could multiply them by the thousands through the experiences of other international travelers.
Humorous or not, they are testimonies of human ingenuity, resourcefulness, and the desire to render a local version of the “real thing.” Sometimes, the imitation is out of pure necessity because the genuine article is not accessible or the quality is unattainable. Consumers may bewail their misfortune and complain about the local fare, but there is an even sadder truth behind this reality. Oftentimes, the products arrived with well-meaning salesmen who hoped to create a desire and demand for ongoing sales of the original. But, the nationals could not, or would not, afford to do that or they preferred a local variation of the original. The result is what we find there today.
So it is with many national churches. The missionaries arrived with a wonderful church that resembled their home churches. In the midst of bamboo huts or mud houses the missionaries built red brick church buildings with bricks brought in from the capital city. They had pews made of forest mahogany, imported stained glass windows, and even brought a piano or pump organ to accompany hymns translated from the home church hymnal. Sunday School began at 9:30 and the worship service at 11:00. A little sign behind the pulpit announced how many were in Sunday School and brought their Bible. The missionaries meant well. The problem is that they brought potted plants instead of the pure seed of the gospel to plant in the soil of the target culture.
Unable to attain such a level of church buildings, or the seminary trained missionary-pastors, and the Western-style organization and leadership, the nationals have made their own version. Local ingredients were added to replace more expensive imported components, and often, local tastes rather than quality control determined the resulting product. There was no biblically guided critical contextualization, merely indigenization without concern for content.
At first, missionaries were pleased to see the nationals developing their own forms of church that were not dependent on missionary outsiders. How pleasing it was to drive around the country and see the little Baptist Church signs on buildings in the villages. Even more encouraging was the fact that they seemed to be proliferating on their own. Finally, the missionaries thought, they had fulfilled their goal of introducing Evangelical Christianity to this area. As a parting gesture of encouragement and thanksgiving, they visited every church in the area as they prepared to return home.
How sad it was to find that although all the brand names were spelled correctly and all the components had the right form, everything tasted like ginger snaps. Left to their own devices, the nationals tried to copy the forms the missionaries brought, unintentionally replaced essential ingredients with locally available beliefs, and mixed it all together. They had imported their old traditional religion and customs to fill the gaps of what they had not yet been taught about Christianity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would exist alongside the local spirits and deities they already worshiped and appeased. Prayer would live side by side with magic and sorcery. The witchdoctor would serve as the pastor since he was already the spiritual leader in their culture. The missionaries reacted with shock and dismay and explained again what the Bible taught and what a church is. The nationals defended their local church with a shrug and proclaimed, “This is our version of it.”
The goal of missions is not to export brand names around the world (Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Methodist). Nor is it to create a desire for something with no intention to follow through—leaving them to their own devices to scratch the itch. Instead, we must desire and labor to see critically contextualized, local manifestations of the church that pass the quality control of the New Testament. We must spend the time and effort necessary to present the gospel in culturally appropriate ways and train the nationals until we have trained trainers. We must go forth to faithfully proclaim the gospel to the nations until they do too.
Dr. Sills is a A.P. and Faye Stone Professor of Christian Missions and Cultural Anthropology. He is the author of The Missionary Call and Reaching and Teaching