Language and Local Church Leaders as Key to Contextualisation in Theological Institutions

By Jim Harries, Interim Academic Dean, Kima International School of Theology, PO Box 75, Maseno, Kenya. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

That academic degrees and diplomas are not a necessity to serve God, is something often vocally expressed in locally originated and run churches in Kenya. Bible colleges and theological seminaries frequently come under attack for producing graduates who, while very knowledgeable, can be ineffective 'on the ground' in the African church context. Even one's fellow missionaries who see graduates in action can be critical of their lack of practical usefulness.

 "Yes, we are now greatly appreciating your graduates" has of late come to my ears - from missionaries and from national church leaders. What has brought about this improved valuation of our students?

 I strongly suspect that a re-orientation of our curriculum, since the late 90s but especially since 2001, must be at least in part responsible. This has been a small step towards valuing and appropriating local wisdom, people and language into the heart of our programme.

 It is very tempting for theological educators to orient all their teaching to foreign contexts, despite the church in this area being almost 100 years old. Most of the books in our library are written by Brits or Americans. But - this is failing to tap the source of contextualised theology that is THE COMMUNITY AROUND US.

 One curriculum innovation has been a course for our senior students that we call 'elders' counsel'. This course gives those students approaching graduation opportunity to engage in qualitative research on key topical issues. In the West, such may be done through reading. In Western Kenya, where writing is still somewhat foreign as a means of communication, our primary resource has been church leaders from our surrounding community.

 These church leaders become our experts whom we invite to answer questions that our students have carefully prepared in advance on predetermined key topics. Topics have included 'customary law and the church', 'healing and holiness', 'how to run a funeral', and more. A key to this process is that our visitors are asked and expected to answer questions in their own mother tongue. This gives them the freedom to express themselves clearly and relieves them of the embarrassment of making errors in English in front of students. It also enables us to investigate the nuances of local language usage. Students of the same ethnicity translate while their colleagues take notes. This primary material forms the basis of long and valuable discussion and then writing up by the students. Our visitors invariably feel encouraged at having made a contribution to the education of rising leaders of today.

 Another final year course that is helping students to value their own people and the churches in their communities is that in linguistics of African languages in relation to church and theology. This is taught in Kiswahili, a language widely used in churches almost throughout the East African region, but with much reference also to mother-tongue languages and their interaction with English and Biblical languages.

 Such implicit valuing of what is deeply African by a degree-offering institution such as ours has had an incredible effect on our students. Explanations into linguistics and especially pragmatics prove to be a great eye-opener, making students aware of their own heritage, and encouraging them to engage their newly acquired theological competence in African languages and within the African context.

 Success in this area has encouraged us to take further steps to enable learning from the local churches around us. While all students are expected to interact with local churches and ministries in this area on a weekly basis, some have not had a sufficient grasp of Kiswahili to do this effectively. Particularly those students from outside of Kenya and Tanzania have been limited to the use of English which has severely hampered their integration into the community.


Hence we have most recently decided to make the learning of a working knowledge of Kiswahili a part of our curriculum. We anticipate that this will result in better relationships with local churches, students who are better able to communicate God's truth who are better equipped in translation skills and more confident of the pertinence of what they are taught to their own people, community, and culture. The reverse should also happen - that increased exposure of both our official and our hidden curriculum to local conditions will result in us being more and more in tune with the stresses and joys of our African Christian colleagues and churches.


We strongly recommend using local church leaders asked to come into share in their own language, plus the inclusion into the curriculum of theological institutions on this continent of studies that demonstrate a high valuation of African languages and hence thought processes.