Imitation in Cross-Cultural Mission: Discussions in an African Context

Learning can occur either by hearing and following instructions, or by imitation. For example, to peel an orange, first take the unpeeled orange into your left hand with the lump facing up. Pick up a knife and, clasping the handle in the palm of your hand, have your pointer finger along the back of the blade. Press the blade forcefully against the skin (outside) of the orange, near the lump, while making a back-and-forth motion.

Or I could say “Do this” and demonstrate. Demonstration is, in fact, how most people learn most of the time.

Learning by Imitating
“Learning by imitating” is very effective. Learning by following instructions in a manual requires a pre-existing detailed knowledge of language, which must itself have been acquired through imitation. It requires learning every eventuality. For example, telling someone to turn the key to start a car engine will not help a novice driver (who has not seen an example to imitate) unless you tell him or her to put it into the hole first, which hole it is, which way to put it, how far in to push it, which way to turn it, how much pressure to apply in turning, not to be surprised by the engine starting, etc.

Westerners attempting to share the good news of Jesus with African people must imitate Africans in terms of language, as far as possible, in day-to-day life.

Careful consideration of human learning will help us realise the vital and dominant role of imitation: watching someone ride a bike, then riding it; toddlers observing adults walking on two feet before trying it themselves; etc. “The meaning of a word is its use in the language,” says Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.1 Surely, then, observation and imitation set the foundation for all subsequent education. Even in the African Church I have seen children kneel, sob, and cry in repentance for their sins—not only because their hearts are strongly convicted (they may or may not be), but also because they have seen adults do so. Even African spirituality, at least to a degree, is learned through imitation.

If learning is rooted as strongly in imitation as indicated above, then we can assume that what is available to imitate will have a determining effect on people’s comprehension, education, and worldview. A worldview is a platform on which subsequent learning occurs. Such a platform, I suggest, resembles a language and is integrally linked to a language. Someone who has received elementary schooling in German is ready to be taught in German at a university. Yet that particular platform is also built on a specific set of imitation experiences that determines the potential for further learning. 

How can we help people who have such a foundation for ongoing learning? Specifically, how are we going to introduce them, or further enlighten them, to God’s truth? There are two options: either continue the established learning process, or provide translation to enable further learning from a different foundation.

So, using our example above, someone familiar with German studying in the United Kingdom will either need to continue to be taught in German, or learn English. Therefore, in cross-cultural mission, someone rooted in a non-Western imitational platform will either have to go through a process of translation to transfer onto an unfamiliar (to them) platform, or be taught according to their existing platform.

Yet, conventional wisdom seems to ignore the gap between “imitational platforms.” This is like saying that a German-speaking person travelling to study in the UK will succeed without any English instruction. Or that someone qualified in mining engineering can, without difficulty, be enrolled in a masters degree sociology programme. In other words, someone with a foreign imitational platform is expected to be able to build on what he or she has without taking into account his or her particular platform. That is, differences in basic understanding arising from diverse foundations of imitation are ignored in ongoing personal development when, for example, theological education originating from one platform(s) (i.e. “the West”) is dispensed globally without interpretation or translation.

Western leaders are increasingly those with competence in some Western field which allows them to be “understood” by and therefore come to be “rewarded” by westerners who hold the purse strings.

There are two levels of knowledge. One is like language, such as English, German, or Kiswahili. Another is the imitational foundation that underlies the use of language. The latter is not carried by words. Translating bread (English) to brot (German) does not tell my reader about the differences in behaviour between Germans and Brits in relation to bread. Presuppositions underlying what we say are contained in the background and not in the words that we use. Mere translation of language is not adequate for achieving intercultural transfer of knowledge with any profundity, unless there is a parallel translation occurring at the pre-suppositional level.

Learning in Mission
Instruction seems to be a dominant model in Christian mission from the West to the non-West. Hence, there is a widespread emphasis on theological education that comes with the export of books and educational programmes. Students from outside of the West pour into European and American universities to learn a multitude of disciplines, including theology. Learning English is more and more desired to aid such processes. Literature production, radio programming, websites, television preaching, CDs, etc., are the growing methodology of mission.

These methodologies are perpetuated by the “rewards” given to their followers. Non-Western leaders are increasingly those with competence in some Western field which allows them to be “understood” by and therefore come to be “rewarded” by westerners who hold the purse strings. This spreading of theological (and other) knowledge ignores the fact that the foundation of learning is in imitation. 

Western missionaries do not always realise that others are watching them with the intent to imitate what they are doing. When a missionary drives (instead of walks) to a meeting, nationals take note. If a foreigner uses an intercom system, nationals have another behaviour to imitate. Using a foreign language is associated with “true” (Western) spiritual power. Giving clothes or blankets or providing a church roof are noted as components of effective gospel witnessing. The African person may think that Western missionaries would not give this example if they knew Africans could not imitate it. The African, in seeking to imitate the missionary, would then need a vehicle, the English language and an intercom system in order to be effective.

Minimising the “Foreignness”
The gospel of Christ can be known by its foreignness or unfamiliarity. What is foreign can be the most visible. When your paperboy arrives by bicycle and delivers the newspaper, your child tells you, “The newspaper has come.” But what if the newspaper boy lands by helicopter, then drops the newspaper through the door. Will your child say, “The newspaper has come”? Of course not! He will say, “This is amazing! A helicopter has landed outside!” The coming of the newspaper is no longer the news.

If a foreigner brings the good news of Jesus, the foreignness can be the first thing noticed. Consistent association of foreignness with the gospel will result in association between the gospel and foreignness. If the gospel is foreign, and if the missionary is a wealthy westerner, then we have the prosperity gospel. Facets of Western life consistently exported to Africa with the gospel come to be known as part of the gospel and are, in fact, syncretism.

This issue can be resolved by minimising the cultural gap between the preacher and those being preached to—between evangelist and congregation. Many westerners are experts at this within their home shores. Hence, Western churches have young peoples’ programmes run by youth, women’s programmes led by women and so on.

Why is the same wisdom not applied to Africa? Why are African libraries filled with books written by those in the West? Why is formal theological education in Africa almost invariably in English? Why are short-term missionaries, who have little chance to avoid being “foreign,” crowding the continent? Why do other areas of the world (e.g. China) keep westerners out?

The peculiar humility and abject poverty of the African people plays a part. A poor person’s answer to a proposal from a wealthy person is usually “yes.” But does that make a wrong into a right? 

Many African people resist the efforts of foreigners to gain an understanding of their languages and cultures. This is for many reasons:

  1. The African culture is one in which knowledge on the whole is not shared freely.2

  2. The details of African lifestyles often grate “unpleasantly” with Western values, resulting in criticism.
  3. Being ignorant does not stop foreigners’ material generosity, so those interested in financial advance may prefer donors to remain ignorant.
  4. From colonialism through today, there has been a demonisation of all that is “African.”3

More reasons could no doubt be added; however, these barriers must be overcome to render mission work effective.

“Appropriate” Western knowledge (“appropriate” being defined as an African understanding of Western words) is often the only alternative to an African wanting to advance in today’s world. Certainly, this applies to theological education. But is meeting unfamiliar educational targets provided from abroad the wisest option for the long-term benefit of a church or community? It is hard to know, because this option is subsidised and alternatives are often excluded. For example, free education in Kenya is offered to all children—provided it is in English and follows a foreign curriculum. In the Church, books, trips abroad, lucrative salaries, support for orphan children, gifts, scholarships, grants, and loans can be conditional on the recipients (overtly) accepting westernisation.

In reality, the foundation set by imitation continues to provide the basic direction for African thinking. Whatever happens subsequently to help the person develop should build on that foundation.

Drawing a Conclusion
Being responsible requires understanding. The basis of understanding, we have discovered, is imitation. Westerners attempting to share the good news of Jesus with African people must imitate Africans in terms of language, as far as possible, in day-to-day life. Only then will the missionary begin to be in a position to communicate a gospel that is not “foreign.” 

“Going native” has, in the past, been seen as spurious. Yet because it is only to the degree that a missionary goes native that an African can be given an achievable example to imitate, the failure to go native is a failure to communicate. Its outcome is evident in the African Church; in many settings, it is a lop-sided dependent Church that is addicted to material prosperity and is unable to draw clear boundaries between what is Christian and what is Western.

For a foreigner to fall in line with the culture of his or her host people is only natural, if strenuous at times. There is a desperate need for Western missionaries who can be accurately persuaded to be vulnerable enough to imitate African people, so as to acquire something of their presuppositional foundation, and in turn, be able to present the true gospel.


1. Hanfling, Oswald. 1989. Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan Press, 42.

2. Maranz, David. 2001. African Friends and Money Matters: Observations from Africa. Dallas, Texas, USA: SIL International, 30.

3. Douglas, Mary. 1999. “Sorcery Accusations Unleashed: The Lele Revisited, 1987.” 177-193 In Africa: Journal of the International Africa Institute. 69(2):177-193. Accessed 21 October 2005.

Dr. Jim Harries is chair of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission, which seeks to encourage mission using the language of people being reached through non-subsidised ministries. He is also a missionary to the Luo people of Western Kenya.