The following chart discusses the various viewpoints of syncretism vs indigenization. While some believe that syncretism is a result of excessive indigenization, they are in fact opposites.

Western Forms Indigenous Forms
Christ-centered Meaning 1. Western Christianity 4. Indigenous Followers
Pagan Meaning 2. Syncretism 3. Traditional Non-Christian Religion

This combination of the two axes, Form and Meaning, gives us four different outcomes as follows:

Quadrant 1

When Western forms are combined with Christian meanings in other parts of the world we have Western Christianity, which is frequently perceived to be foreign in that context. This was one of the consequences of mission in the age of colonialism, and we find expressions of Western Christianity all over the world today.

For example, in many churches in Africa much of the organizational structure and worship patterns look just like the missionary’s church back home in England or America. Unfortunately, this Westernized form of Christianity is more prone to becoming syncretistic or nominal over time because of the difficulty people in that culture have in adapting to imported foreign Western forms. And, in fact, many examples of Western Christianity itself exhibit characteristics of syncretism.

Quadrant 2

When Western forms are combined with pagan or non-Christian meanings, we have syncretism, which is the combination of Christian and non-Christian beliefs and practices. The resultant form is distinct from both Christianity and the pagan religion. It is neither Christianity nor traditional religion. It is something entirely new and different, as I (Darrell) have explained elsewhere:

Religious syncretism is essentially a response to the problem of meaning. In the interaction between Christianity and animism, if the newly introduced Christian forms are given pagan meaning, then syncretism results—the new belief system is neither Christian nor is it traditional primal religion; it is a mixing of both, and thus the product is qualitatively new.1

An example of syncretism is the “folk Catholicism” we find throughout Latin America, where it looks “Christian” on the outside but is tied up with many pagan beliefs. Another example of syncretism is the “health and wealth gospel” in the U.S.A. where we have “Christian” forms but they are combined with sub-Christian meanings.

Quadrant 3

When indigenous forms are combined with pagan meanings, we have no change at all and so the traditional non-Christian religion continues.

But how does one encounter traditional religion with the claims of Christ? Our standard approach has often been to introduce Western Christianity, perhaps because we felt confident that if potential converts adopted our forms they would also follow our Christian meaning. Yet, this approach is more likely to lead to syncretism, because syncretism comes from a striving after meaning. So, if the introduced foreign forms do not make sense to new believers, it will be easy to revert to traditional non-Christian meanings to fill the void left by foreign forms.

Quadrant 4

When indigenous forms are combined with Christian meanings, we have indigenous followers of Christ, living their faith in forms that are appropriate to the context.2 An example of indigenous followers of Jesus is in the Methodist Church in Fiji, where traditional Fijian cultural forms such as their music that were once used in warfare have been redeemed and are now used to follow Jesus and to worship God. In India we find the example of E. Stanley Jones who served as a missionary for over 60 years. In his Hindu context Jones applied the concept of the Ashram (a type of retreat center with an emphasis on listening) to Christian meanings, and the result was an indigenous form of following Jesus. And, closer to home, we find the appeal of “emergent” churches gathering in non-traditional meeting places or “seeker sensitive” models popularized by Bill Hybels and others as examples of indigenized forms of faith movements that appeal to some strata of our own culture.

Christ-centered communities such as Insider Movements among Muslims are good examples of those found in this fourth quadrant as well, where the forms are appropriate to the context but they are used to communicate biblical meanings. Contextualization that produces indigenous followers of Jesus is the best hedge against syncretism. It is not the slippery slope that so many neo-colonial missionaries fear will lead to syncretism. In fact, it is the opposite.

  1. D. L. Whiteman, Melanesians and Missionaries: An Ethnohistorical Study of Social and Religious Change in the Southwest Pacific (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1983), 414. [return]
  2. See C. H. Kraft, ed. Appropriate Christianity (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2005). [return]