Being Christians in an African Plural Context

Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, and another religion is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we may find ourselves treading on men’s dreams. More serious still, we may forget that God was here before our arrival. We have to try to sit where they sit, to enter sympathetically into the pains and griefs and joys of their history and see how those pains and griefs and joys have determined the premises of their argument. We have, in a word, to be “present” with them. – Max Warren

The article “Thinking with the New Testament about Other Religions” points to the reality that mission is always articulated, carried out, and often shaped in response to the context in which religious communities live side by side. My own experience of growing up as a young boy in a rural part of Mumias, Western Kenya, where traditional African religion was practiced as a daily routine alongside Islam and Christianity resonates with the Gupta’s “initial religious experiences.”

Mumias had one of the earliest contacts with Islam during the 20th century as a result of trade between Nabongo Mumia (a traditional monarch) and the Arab traders. I grew up among Muslims neighbors, friends, and relatives. I still remember vividly one of my childhood friends, Abdullah, who I played with at about the age of nine. I watched closely as Abdullah excused himself from play to go and conduct the ritual act of ablution before salah (prayer). Abdullah invited me to his home on many occasions where we shared meals and went hunting for birds in the wild. I, in turn, invited him to our home for all sorts of games. My present engagements working with Muslims and Christians at the Centre for Christian Muslim Relations (CCMRE) of St Paul’s University, in Eastleigh, Kenya, has widened my appreciation of religious diversity, and the challenges and opportunities it provides for mission.

In response to the article, I would like to offer some further reflections on two aspects: the first is the question of how we Christians are influenced and in turn influence our contexts of faith within our communities. Second, I focus my reflections on the question of witness to Christian faith in a plural context.

Nurturing Faiths in a Plural Community

Being a Christian is about being in relationships with others, a real relationship among real fellow human beings in concrete situations. If, as I believe, Christians are to reject religious pluralism and uphold the conviction that Jesus Christ is the unique and decisive revelation of God for salvation of the world, we must do so with a proper attitude towards believers of other religions in our midst.

In my community three religious influences impacted me: the practices of Luhya traditional religion, Christianity, and Islam. A traditional shrine where the gods dwelt and sacrifices were offered was not unusual in rural Mumias. As a young child in Khabukoshe Primary School, I vividly remember some pupils, especially girls, shaking in frenzy for several hours while producing a disturbing sound. I was told they had been possessed by spirits (emisambwa) and that the spirits needed to be appeased in order for the pupils to receive healing. Second, as indicated above, I was influenced by Islam at an early age through childhood friendships and later through my work with Muslims in a community project.

Third, I was nurtured under the strict evangelical ethos of the Church Missionary Society (CMS). The CMS, established in 1799, originated in the evangelical revival movement of eighteenth-century England. The revival movement was part of “a pan-European eighteenth-century Protestant revival of piety.”1 This movement began in the German Pietist and Moravian initiatives of Halle and Herrnhut, associated with Francke and Count Zinzendorf.2

The evangelicals emphasized the importance of the individual encounter with the divine. They also focused on conversion as the epiphany in the life of an individual. The conversion motif was unmistakable in missionary work in East Africa. According to Odhiambo, citing Warren, these were the priorities of CMS evangelicals:

proclaiming the “word of God” in a sinful world and “this is the market place rather than the sanctuary”; secondly the emphasis on conversion as the direct encounter between God and Man as an individual, leading to the doctrine of assurance or the certainty of being “in grace”; thirdly the trusting to the Holy Spirit which will make the convert a new man able to stand up for himself: fourthly the priesthood of all believers.3

The evangelicals demanded that every practicing Christian separate good from evil, the convert from the nonconvert, the pagan from the Christian.4 The establishment of CMS was a response to the perceived moral decadence in church and state. Justification by faith was a central doctrine in the CMS conception and practice of mission. This form of articulation was accompanied by the claim that the Christian tradition had an obligation to assist others in both their spiritual and material context. This approach was also partly based on the supposed inherent superiority of Western culture.5 Such culture was promoted through schools and churches, among other institutions. In such a binary approach to the other, there was little room to meaningfully seek engagement with other religious traditions, especially Muslims, to understand and learn from them. Nothing good could come from the “other.”

Therefore, although I had an upbringing that exposed me to both African traditional religion and Islam, the evangelical form of Christianity with which I had a longer exposure through a lengthy period of formal schooling and subsequently theological education, had the most influence on me in the construction of my Christian identity and practice. This inevitably left me torn between the demands of my Christian identity and the plural religious context under which I was nurtured.

Despite my strong exclusivist evangelical ethos, my pluralistic religious context constantly demanded building positive and respectful relationships. These religious others were, and still are, my neighbors, coworkers, and sometimes relatives with whom I share a common social space.

Reflecting on these questions with the New Testament, I am convinced that unconditional love of neighbor and hospitality towards the stranger are essential features of Christianity (Mark 12:29–31). Christians must at all times understand God’s invitation to us to be good neighbors. Christian self-understanding and articulation of faith is often shaped in response to the context in which communities live and interact. Indeed, mission stems from a profound recognition of the mutuality of our common life.

A common definition of theology is “faith seeking understanding,” a phrase associated with the writings of St. Anselm of Canterbury and St. Augustine of Hippo. It implies that the knowledge of God presupposes faith; and faith continuously seeks deeper understanding of God and his relationship to the world.

Respectful Witness in a Plural Context: Building on the Wisdom of Others

It is CMS General Secretary Max Warren who stated in relation to members of other religious traditions that when you approach a member of a different tradition, remove your shoes because the ground upon which you stand is sacred. Throughout my Christian life, and especially upon theological training, I have been deeply aware of my identity as an African Christian with a deep loyalty to my Christian values as well as those in indigenous African religions, especially values for life and community. Until today, I still fall back on the narrative wisdom of my traditional religious upbringing; for example, I try to weave into my pastoral and theological work the proverbs and wise sayings that have such rich meaning.

My encounter and experience with Islam and Muslims, initially in my village in Mumias and later during my pastoral work, has been a part of my existential experience of continued mutual respect and learning. Although this experience has not been without its difficult moments, holding my traditional African and Christian identities in creative tension has helped me and others find fulfillment in plural communities. For example, some of the questions Muslim neighbors, friends, and colleagues have posed to me have helped me think more about my faith as an African Christian and how better to relate and clarify both to myself and to them what it is that I believe (1 Pet 3:15).

The challenge of witnessing to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ within such a plural context cannot be underestimated. St. Paul teaches us that it is unnecessary for a missionary to condemn the cultural and religious heritage of a community in order to convert them (Acts 17:16–34). The experience of Paul in Acts 17:16–34 offers many lessons to present-day Christians in Africa in their engagements with other religious traditions. Paul walked around, observing their “pagan” religion, engaging in friendly conversations, and responding to their invitation to speak. We, too, learn about Muslim beliefs and practices, including their variations, and we also inquire for clarification about their faith and practice. This process also involves looking for common ground, as Paul did, for example, when he saw they were “religious” and worshipped “an unknown god.” He also quoted from their poets. We, too, share patiently what Muslims and members of other religions consider seriously at this time. Paul helped those who decided and believed in Jesus by teaching and helping them form a church. Christians should similarly assist new Muslim converts to Christianity with training, fellowship, and contextualized worship while being sensitive to the pressures they face.

Gupta’s article demonstrates the respect that the Gospel of Matthew shows towards the “pagan” (e.g., Matt 16:17; 8:10; 15:28). The point being made here is the imperative that Christians expect surprises of God as the “other” responds to God’s grace. Such an attitude must inevitably be accompanied by respectful language in the framing of the other. I come from a background where earlier missionaries and scholars’ attitude to African traditional religion and Islam was reflected in their language. Consequently, such Christendom terms as “pagan,” “fetish,” “heathen,” and “primitive,” among others, were used to frame the other, hence making it particularly difficult for Christians to expect surprises. Underneath the issues of worldview and values lay a struggle for power and control of territories. True to the colonial antecedents of missionary work, their interest in mission also extended to “territory.” Later this approach shaped the missionary strategies employed.

Genuine witness in a religiously plural context is impossible where one side denigrates the other because of an inexcusable superiority complex enhanced by imperialist motives. According to Jesse Mugambi, “generally both the mainstream and sectarian Christian missionary attitudes towards African cultural and religious heritage have been at best condescending and at worst condemning.”6 Regretfully, mission language and activity linked with colonization and empire has often denigrated cultures and failed to recognize and draw from the wisdom of the local people, not to mention the amazing ways in which God is working among other religious traditions. Coming from an African context that has suffered from the challenges of slavery, colonialism, and now neo-colonialism, the language we employ can create, destroy, or build bridges of witness. Certain terms as employed by scholars and missionaries can be quite alienating if not put in context. Use of respectful language is very necessary as it demonstrates respect and acknowledgment of the sacred story of the other and prepares them to listen to the saving grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


Mission in the third millennium calls for renewed concerns for cross-cultural and interreligious sensitivity. Although Christianity is a missionary religion with a clear eschatological vision, claims for absolute truth and universality and a commitment to the missio Dei should not surrender our missionary calling and vocation to neighbor love within the contexts of our religiously diverse communities. Indeed, living together as religious communities is a human necessity that presupposes and imposes mutuality. Only through this process can the gospel become fully internalized cross-culturally.


[1]Rowan Strong, Anglicanism and the British Empire, c. 1700–1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 11.

[2]Andrew Walls, “The Eighteenth-Century Protestant Missionary Awakening in Its European Context,” in Christian Missions and the Enlightenment, ed. Brian Stanley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 34. However, the relationship between Anglicanism, missions, and empire began about a century before the founding of CMS. In “1701 a royal charter inaugurated a new society for the maintenance and spread of the Church of England in ‘foreign parts’…. Thus from 1702 the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) a tradition of providing annual sermons preached on the anniversary of the society’s foundation…. These were printed and distributed, along with the society’s annual reports, which increasingly contained extracts and précis from reports of the society’s missionaries” (Strong, Anglicanism and the British Empire, 10).

[3]E. S. Atieno Odhiambo, The Paradox of Collaboration and Other Essays (Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1974), 104.


[5]Jonathan Ingleby, Beyond Empire: Postcolonialism & Mission in a Global Context (Central Milton Keynes: Authorhouse, 2010), xix.

[6]Jesse Mugambi, “Introduction” to God and Revelation in an African Context, by Samuel G. Kibicho (Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 2006), 1.