Doing Missions Well: Paul Orjala and Indigenization

Howard Culbertson
Monday, October 14, 2013
Image“Do not bring us the Gospel as a potted plant,” Murthi told missionaries working in India, “Bring us the seed of the Gospel and plant it in our soil.” 
 
Murthi had watched missionaries import “standard operating procedures” and programs (which they themselves often headed up) with seemingly little thought to whether those things could be sustained locally. What he wanted was for churches in India to flourish in homegrown ways.
 
Murthi’s picturesque statement reflected a desire for “indigenization.” Indigenization in a church, in community development or even in the world of commerce means local people taking something from outside their culture and making it truly their own.
 
Healthy church planting movements always have a high degree of indigenization. The 14 years of ministry in Haiti by Paul and Mary Orjala exemplify how foreign missionaries can effectively foster indigenization. 
 
The Orjalas went from the USA to Haiti in 1950.  Western missionaries of that time often started a congregation or a ministry and led it for years and years.  Eventually, with much trepidation the missionaries would step aside and turn their “baby” over to a local person.  Paul Orjala’s modus operandi stood in stark contrast to that.  Though he fostered the planting of scores of Nazarene churches in Haiti, Paul Orjala never pastored a single one of them. 
 
Overflowing with energy and creativity, Paul saw himself as an advisor and consultant to the Haitian church, rather than its leader. He never thought of the Haitian Nazarene movement as his “baby.”  From the start, he empowered local leaders who emerged naturally.  Indeed, he purposefully never did anything which a Haitian could do. 
 
Paul Orjala looked up to Haitian leaders.  He deferred to their judgment.  He participated with them in developing strategies and planning programs, but he did not dictate things.  He did not set himself up as the gate-keeper for decisions. He showed no reluctance to trust the Holy Spirit to guide the Haitian church.  
 
To be sure, indigenization for Orjala did not mean being walled off from denominational associations.  Paul, who went on to become professor of missiology at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.., believed the church in Haiti could and should be both Nazarene and authentically Haitian.
 
At a time when groups of missionaries tended to cluster in one place, Paul Orjala wanted only a limited number of Nazarene missionaries in Haiti.  One reason was to make sure programs and structures could be supported locally.
 
For more than six decades, the Haitian Nazarene church has seen consistent, well-above-average growth.  Haiti’s total population is just under the number of people living in the greater Chicago metro area.  Today, in that Caribbean island country, there are more than 500 Nazarene churches.  That is because of, at least in part, Paul Orjala’s insistence that indigenization be a key characteristic of the Church of the Nazarene in Haiti.