Cross-Cultural Communication

What difficulties in communication do cross-cultural workers face? How can these best be addressed in various settings?

Evaluating Hiebert’s Hunch - Is Lack of Phenomenological Knowledge the Weakest Link in “Critical Contextualization”?:  the Case of the Mende People of Sierra Leone, West Africa

Dave Datema is a Coordinator for Frontier Ventures and a doctoral student at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Dave Datema is a Coordinator for Frontier Ventures and a doctoral student at Fuller Theological Seminary.

WCIU Journal: Cross-Cultural Communications Topic

November 13, 2018

by Dave Datema 


            While the literature on contextualization is large, most of it is theoretical in nature. When it comes to the actual “how to” of contextual ministry, Hiebert’s “critical contextualization” seems to have been the most influential and has had the most staying power. One evidence of this is that one still finds the phrase “critical contextualization” in recent articles and books (Bangura 2016; Longgar and Meadowcroft 2016). In Hiebert’s last book, published posthumously, he summed up the contextualization process in three steps: 1) Phenomenology, 2) Ontology and 3) Missiology (Hiebert 2009, 47). Yet the most intriguing thing about these last two books is that they are almost exclusively devoted to the first step. Thus, I refer to it as “Hiebert’s hunch.” Clearly, Hiebert saw the ability to exegete a culture as the skill most lacking among cross-cultural workers and most needed to address “split-level Christianity,” in which believers retained old beliefs and practices.

            In this article I propose to counter Hiebert’s hunch that a better understanding of culture (on the part of the missionary) is the greatest deficit to the accomplishment of “critical contextualization.” I will do this by 1) describing the split-level Christianity that has developed among the Mende of Sierra Leone, 2) take phenomenology seriously by examining ethnographic studies that shed new light on Mende cosmology and cognition, and 3) investigate more contemporary attempts by Sierra Leonean Christians to contextualize. My thesis is that critical contextualization is not so much a knowledge problem as it is a control problem. Cross-cultural workers will never have enough local knowledge to be the best contextualizers. Until real control of contextualization is relinquished and given to nationals, critical contextualization will not take place.

Evidence of Split-Level Christianity among the Mende

            Among the Mende of Sierra Leone, the second largest tribal group in the country, African Traditional Religion (henceforth ATR) has incorporated foreign world religions and Western notions of moral law without compromising its basic tenets. This is true for both islam and Christianity which Darrell Reeck (1976) suggests have been domesticated by ATR among the Mende.

            In his treatment of Islam he distinguishes between “Stranger Islam” and “Mende Islam.” Stranger Islam came largely through non-Mende Muslim merchants from the north. This form of Islam prohibited membership in the men’s (Poro) or women’s (Sande) societies, and their number of followers was relatively small. Mende Islam, on the other hand, was established through the use of Muslim holy men from other tribes who were used by chiefs because of their supernatural abilities. In this way, the Mende simply added the Muslim holy men to their repertoire of specialists used to access power. In addition, adherents of Mende Islam continue to attend the different societies. Mende Islam has since multiplied greatly. The use of Islam in this manner “was entirely compatible with Mende notions of cause and effect” (Reeck 1976, 79). In fact, Reeck even suggests that Mende Islam can be considered a form of Mende traditional religion, where certain aspects have been appropriated for practical purposes.

            Reeck’s treatment of Christianity among the Mende comes to similar conclusions. Once again, he distinguishes between “town Christianity” and “village Christianity.” In both cases, Reeck suggests that Christianity did not materialize as planned. He summarizes,

Both townsmen and villagers selected aspects of missionary Christianity that were compatible with inherited patterns. As a result, the imported missionary model of Christianity was transformed and traditionalized, some Mende values were expressed through this transformed institution, and the African church that came into existence was a novel emergence in Mende-Sherbro social history” (Reeck 1976, 75).

            Hans Oster (1981) is not as tentative and takes Reeck’s thesis a step further. Instead of Reeck’s concepts of town and village Christianity, Oster prefers the headings “Mission Christianity” and “Mende Christianity,” thereby creating a Christian version of Stranger and Mende Islam. Oster sees both Stranger Islam and Mission Christianity as original and rigid approaches to the Mende that forbade local customs and were largely rejected. By contrast, Mende Islam and Mende Christianity represent approaches that were more flexible and willing to allow significant practice of traditional belief. 

The Enduring Power of the Sande

            This historical background of the interaction of three major religious forces helps to explain the continuing powerful role of the women’s Sande society among the Mende. The Sande is a traditional women’s group centered around initiating and socializing girls into womanhood, one of its main rites being female genital cutting (FGC). The Sande is a central institution within Mende culture, serving as a repository of tradition and culture. The Sande is held in high regard and its leaders achieve significant social status and wealth. Uninitiated girls are frowned upon and considered less marriageable than initiated ones. The Sande represents a formidable network since about ninety percent of the women in Sierra Leone are members, and due to its influence in state politics, politicians are hesitant to take a stand against FGC.  

            Mariane Ferme (1994) provides a remarkable case study in which she observed Sande ceremonies in a Mende Muslim village in 1985 and again in 1993. In 1985, certain elements of the traditional Sande initiation ceremony had been removed by the influence of the local imam who had just returned from pilgrimage to Mecca. In fact, Ferme distinguishes between “Mende Sande” and “Muslim Sande.” In the Muslim version, Arabic songs replace Mende ones and the use of the Qur’an is imposed, though after different beginnings the two join as one for the duration of the initiation period. The biggest prohibition was the Sande mask, a large black, wooden mask worn by a dancer and the center of dancing celebrations. However, in 1993, the Sande mask had returned the previous year. Sande leaders had insisted that the mask be retained and due to the senility of one of the senior Muslim leaders within the Sande, the mask reappeared. According to Ferme, in her conversations with Sande leaders, it was apparent that they had acquiesced to Muslim leaders in abandoning the mask, but that when they were in secret, they continued traditional practices that had been banned. (Ferme 1994: 38–39)

            Bosire and Ferme bring a helpful anthropological perspective to the realities of the Sande, showing that this central aspect of ATR among the Mende is indeed alive and well, enough so that even leading politicians fear its influence and socio-political power. It is a good case study of traditional religion that refuses to be eradicated by Western or modernist thinking and fights back, which it has now been doing for over one hundred and fifty years.

Taking a Phenomenological Approach: Understanding Mende Cosmology

            Anthropology can help to to expose hidden gems within Mende culture, to which most missionaries are blind. According to Hiebert, it is such blindness that most impedes successful contextualization.

            ATR among the Mende has many of the characteristics expected within animistic societies around the world. The high God, Ngewo, is distant but not out of touch. He is basically unassailable and can do no wrong. However, the distance requires the Mende to interact with the intermediary world of spirts and powers in order to deal with the circumstances and trials of life. This intermediary world is provided by Ngewo, and comes directly from him, yet people do not seek relationship with him.  

The original contribution of Anthony Gittins (1987) is the categorization of this intermediary world of the Mende. He finds three types of intermediary agency, each of which has a positive (social) and negative (non-social) side, meaning that they can be used for good or ill. The first type is the Spirit world. Ancestral spirits are generally looking out for the good of the people, while the non-ancestral spirits are malevolent and cannot be trusted. The second type of intermediary agency is simply termed “powers.” These are not spirits but everyday objects which can contain power from Ngewo for good or ill. These powers are accessed through the agency of human beings specializing in different types of power. Finally, there is a third category of intermediary agency that grants access to both spirts and powers for individual and communal use. Of special significance are the men’s (Poro) and women’s (Sande) “secret” societies, where both spirits and powers are accessed for group initiation and cohesion. Such societies have formed the backbone of Mende culture for centuries.

            This intermediary world serves a purpose among the Mende that is largely pragmatic. Ngewo has provided means for the Mende people to deal with life by granting them access to these spirits and powers. Thus, the Mende people are not doomed to the cruelties of fate but can take action in ways provided for them by Ngewo. Says Gittins, 

We come to the heart of Mende belief and practice, in which veneration of ancestors, relations with various other spirits, halei, socio-religious groups, diviners, prophets and dreams, form the integrated components of a complex machinery which serves to provide humanity with some access to the creator and some control over the vicissitudes of life, as well as a rationale for the common norms of behavior.  (1987, 110)

In other words, Gittins helps to see this intermediary world in a positive light. It is a remarkable characteristic of human nature that can create such a system. In fact, without revelation, this cosmology is a most reasonable approach to life given its ancient roots. What anthropology helps us see here is not the “demonic” or “Satanic” creation of a system of enslavement, but rather a view of the whole world (demons included) that allows people to be subjects of their lives and not mere objects. They have agency, choices to make, the ability to improve their lives – in short, help for a better life. This system has staying power not primarily because it has been there a long time, but because as far as the Mende are concerned, it works.

Taking a Phenomenological Approach: Understanding Mende Cognition

            The Mende have an amazing ability to simultaneously hold opposing ideas together, be it ATR and Islam/Christianity or anti-FGC activism and Sande initiation rites. Anthropological studies have further revealed that this ability is not a form of schizophrenia or indecisiveness but reflects an intentional and impressive navigation of private and public spaces.

            William Murphy (1990) applies discourse theory to an analysis of a public tribal meeting among the Mende (frontstage) followed by private interviews with participants after the meeting (backstage). The data from both settings were quite contradictory, which “identified the apparent consensus and unity as a skillfully managed illusion” (Murphy 1990, 25). He goes on to say that those with less status may feel compelled to feign the appearance of agreement while harboring private disagreement in an attempt to protect themselves or set themselves up for future possibilities. Being able to maneuver between “frontstage discourse” and “backstage commentary” allows social actors to order their private and public worlds. While this model likely fits most cultures and societies, Murphy suggests that it fits the Mende especially well, since the village is the locus of public life and the bush or forest is the center of secret or private life. Thus, the Sande go to the bush outside the village for their secret rites. In fact, the word for secret knowledge or spaces is bundu, a synonym for Sande. Among the Mende, then, “the simultaneity of contradictory values as professed group unity is invoked to conceal subgroup oppositional interests” (Murphy 1990, 29). Might this help explain the staying power of ATR among the Mende in spite of the intrusions of Islam and Christianity or anti-FGC activists?

            Other studies support these sentiments. Zetterstorm-Sharp (2017) recounts how Pentecostals in Sierra Leone working for a cultural center promoting traditional culture and religion are able to navigate their involvement in what their church condemns. Even though their theology gives no place for traditional religion, they are nonetheless able to protect themselves while handling what are for them demonic artifacts, showing that these Pentecostals have learned to survive on the “borderlands of seemingly oppositional ethical orientations” (Zetterstorm-Sharp 2017, 487).

            What Western cross-cultural worker is up to the task of navigating this kind of cognitive creativity? Anthropological studies such as these suggest that the Mende are uniquely poised to assimilate beliefs and practices of Islam and Christianity because of their ability to tolerate ambiguity and navigate tensions with a sense of ambivalence. The studies above provide insight into just how the Mende assimilate outside religions while preserving ATR simultaneously. According to Hiebert, such additional knowledge of Mende cosmology and cognition would presumably help fill the phenomenological hole and bridge the contextualization gap. However, we run into a reality check here, which is that this understanding, acquired after years of anthropological study, is already known inherently and a thousand times more deeply by any Mende boy or girl. That is to say, a deep chasm exists between deep knowledge of the culture by a missionary and deep knowledge of the culture by a Mende. To the extent that good contextualization is dependent on deep knowledge of culture, there is no contest. The Mende wins every time.

Examples of Critical Contextualization in Sierra Leone Today

            Let us review. I began by agreeing with Hiebert’s recognition of split-level Christianity around the world and showed what this has looked like historically among the Mende of Sierra Leone.    I then took Hiebert’s advice to fill the phenomenological hole and sought to understand Mende cosmology and cognition at deeper levels with the help of anthropology. But even with this additional knowledge, it is still shallow compared to that possessed by a Mende person. This leads to my thesis that critical contextualization is not so much a knowledge problem as it is a control problem. Cross-cultural workers will never have enough local knowledge to be the best contextualizers and until real control of contextualization is relinquished and given to nationals, critical contextualization will not take place.   

            In this last section, I attempt to strengthen this thesis by looking at how Sierra Leoneans themselves are effectively “doing” contextualization today. A caveat is in order here. I could not find research related to Mende people doing contextualization among their own people. What I did find were two articles about contextualization in Sierra Leone written by Sierra Leoneans. I trust that the similarities between tribes in Sierra Leone in these matters is greater than their differences, and that what is learned in one part of a small country can be applied to other parts.

            Irene John (2003) examined the “Evangelical Christian Movement” and its interactions with ATR, noting both conflict and continuity. According to John, “The relationship between the evangelical movement and the traditional religion leads both to a continuation and enrichment of traditional values, and also to discontinuity. The continuity and enrichment is due to the fact that they both deal with the same genuine concerns and preoccupations of the people” (John 2003, 36), such as deliverance ministry, witchcraft and evil spirits, healing ministry, patterns of worship, dreams and visions, children and young people, and marriage. In other words, Mende cosmology is in many ways unchanged. Christians “share the same concerns of access and distribution of power, prosperity, and protection against supernatural forces and their human agencies” (John 2003, 36). Spiritual forces are still seen as the main causes of material circumstance. Deliverance and healing are still necessary in a world of witchcraft and evil spirits. What has changed are the players in this supernatural drama. Instead of good and bad spirits and powers, all evil comes from Satan and demons and all good from the Trinity and angels. The Mende are playing the same cosmic game with new revelation about how the supernatural world functions.

This change in understanding regarding the supernatural world is what leads to conflict and discontinuity, which arises when certain aspects of traditional religion are rejected (such as involvement in secret societies and libation/sacrifice to ancestors) or replaced (as when evangelicals replace the intermediary efficacy of the ancestors with Jesus or replace ancestor worship with memorial services). John concludes with the assessment that “not only is the traditional religion being reinvented in evangelical Christianity, but evangelical Christianity is also one major route through which expressions of the traditional religion find their way into the lives of the people” (John 2003, 36).

Bangura (2016) also surveyed how independent charismatic movements, those that developed outside of classical Pentecostalism and were begun in Sierra Leone after 1980, have adopted critical contextualization in their nation (Bangura 2016, 2). Along with wholesale rejection of major aspects of traditional religion such as initiation ceremonies, polygamy, and ancestor rituals, there are also Christian alternatives such as marriage and family conferences to replace participation in men’s and women’s secret societies (Bangura 2016, 5). These Charismatic churches combine a high view of the Bible with a hard line toward ATR: there is zero tolerance for what is interpreted as unbiblical. At the same time, there are biblical functional substitutes offered to deal with the supernatural world.

John and Bangura offer an encouraging view of contemporary attempts at critical contextualization in Sierra Leone. It is hard to imagine a non-African handling such issues with the same boldness and creativity. It is my argument, strengthened by these studies, that in Sierra Leone, those best suited to practice critical contextualization are Sierra Leoneans. For them, the phenomenological hole is a mere divot. The churches identified by John and Bangura are prime examples of the advice given recently by DomNwachukwu (2018), “The role that the West has played in reconnecting Africa with the new and final revelation of God in Jesus will continue to be appreciated. However, the time has come when the West must allow Africans to represent our experiences of God and his revelation within our own history and culture” (DomNwachukwu 2018, 156).


My thesis has been proposed as a correction to Hiebert’s emphasis on filling the phenomenological hole as the greatest need of contextualization, countering that who controls the contextualization is more significant. Interestingly, in his early treatments Hiebert remained adamant that when it came to making contextualization decisions, “the people themselves must make the decision if the leaders wish to avoid becoming policemen” (Hiebert 1984, 291). Such sentiment concurs with that of Loewen (1975), upon whom Hiebert based the critical contextualization formula, who says “both the socialization of converts and the general control of church member behavior are the domain of the indigenous church” (Loewen 1975, 223). But Hiebert’s later writings emphasized much more the phenomenological problem and the advice on who made the decision changed to “Leaders … must allow the people to participate in the final decisions in evaluating their past customs” (Hiebert et al 1999, 26). Thus, Hiebert’s view of final decision seems to have changed over time. I prefer his earlier view and believe the studies of John and Bangura affirm the greater wisdom of that perspective.         

Sierra Leoneans themselves are proving to be the key interpreters of their traditions and Scripture. They are navigating tensions with biblical boldness and critical assessment, with an acute and advanced phenomenological understanding of their culture. They embody within themselves both the Word as Scripture and the Word as revealed in the truths of culture (Gilliland 1989, 10) and they are better equipped to grasp the “complex intercultural dialogue” (Burrows 2018, 28) gospel transmission necessitates. May their tribe increase.


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