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This article was originally published in Missionalia, the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society. If you would like to see some other articles from Missionalia, have a look at the list of Missionalia articles on the Web



by Madge Karecki1

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Both Catholics and Protestants, under the influence of the Enlightenment, have tended to reduce the presentation of the gospel to a rational or didactic event, thus underestimating the power of ritual and its profound effect on identity formation. Ritual is endemic to community life. In the Christian context it initiates people into the mystery of God since it works on the trans-rational level to generate wholeness. Ritual is repetitive and regular, allowing worshippers to play at (or rehearse) what it means to be the body of Christ in daily life. Ritual embodies and enacts myth through symbolic actions. It becomes a threshold experience which creates communitas. If missionaries and missiologists take ritual more seriously, our mission will be more holistic as the faith we proclaim and celebrate becomes the faith we live every day.


The topic of this paper was generated by my interest in the relationship between ritual and mission. It is meant to be the starting point for a dialogue, a conversation, that will attract missiologists, liturgists, anthropologists, ritual theorists, sociologists, missionaries and all those who worship together as church.

Missiologists have long been interested in the rituals of people from what we have come to call the two-thirds world. Mary Douglas (1970), Victor Turner (1969), Clifford Geertz (1980), Mircea Eliade (1961) are only a few of the scholars who have documented the ritual life of people of ancient cultures. They have uncovered the role of ritual in identity formation, socialisation and the building up of a sense of belonging. The ritual life of each group of people also reveals their understanding of the origins of the cosmos, the sacred, the root metaphors of particular societies, birth, death and other significant moments of passage or transition.

Louis-Marie Chauvet (1995) has stressed that the power of ritual cannot be underestimated. It has a profound effect on identity formation and the ability to relate to the world in a meaningful way. Chauvet ( 1995:340) wrote: "Ritual erects a barrier against the forces of death which relentlessly threaten to destroy a group's identity and the significance of the world."

If indeed human ritual is so powerful in shaping the lives of people why, for the most part, have missiologists and missionaries ignored the significance of religious ritual in the evangelisation of peoples and their continuing conversion to a fuller life in Christ? My conviction is that a didactic presentation of the Christian faith is not enough to provide people with a holistic formation for mission. I hope to demonstrate the importance of religious ritual as a key to wholeness in mission.

The late Mark Searle, writing about riutal, observed that Catholics and Protestants alike have ignored ritual, but for different reasons. Roman Catholics, shaped by the theology of the Council of Trent dichotomised religious ritual by distinguishing the theological kernel of a sacramental rite from the rest of the liturgy which it regarded as mere ceremony (Searle 1992:52). Religious ritual became the concern of rubricists who viewed liturgical acts not in terms of meaning, but in terms of the law of the church. As Catholic missionaries travelled to all parts of the globe this same pre occupation marked the local churches they helped to plant.

Protestants, shaped by the thinking of the Reformation, judged concern for religious ritual as a preoccupation with externals and a reminder of the abuses of medieval Christianity: "Concern for ritual was adjudged at best a distraction to religious seriousness, at worst a relapse into paganism" (Searle 1992:53). This attitude reached deep into the Protestant psyche and could not help but affect missionaries. Hence, they carried with them the worship services of their European and North American sponsors which were, for the most part, devoid of ritual and symbolism (Taber 1990-91:21).

As a result evangelisation by both Protestants and Catholics took the form of didactic, objective presentations of the faith. The Enlightenment paradigm of mission so well described by David Bosch (1991:343) influenced the missionary endeavours of all the churches. The matrix of the Enlightenment theological thinking was woven together with the threads of individualism, self-righteousness, rationalism, and neo-pelagianism (Bosch 1991:335). Mis sionaries and missiologists were blind to the need for a holistic approach to mission that would include the good use of ritual. The ritual embodiment of the faith was neglected. An interest in ritual, therefore, became the prerogative of cultural anthropologists and sociologists. Their interest has been focused on the tribal rituals of peoples in so-called mission countries. We cannot afford to perpetuate this approach. If conversion to Christianity is to mean anything more than the acceptance of doctrines and dogmas then the role of ritual cannot be ignored in Christian formation. What might we do to foster a more holistic approach to mission that makes good use of religious

ritual? What shape would Christian formation for mission take that integrates faith and life and does not cause estrangement from one's culture?

Robert Schreiter, in his well known book, Constructing Local Theologies, advocates what he calls listening to a culture as a first step in developing local theologies (Schreiter 1985:40). Though his insights are directed at developing theologies that are organic to a local church, they can also be helpful in developing an appreciation of the role of religious ritual in mission. The tabula rasa approach to people of other cultures by Western missionaries has resulted in serious damage to their sense of cultural identity and their under standing of Christian life and has greatly diminished the credibility of Christian mission (Waruta 1994:94). Listening to a culture, though difficult, is necessary if faith in Christ is to flourish among people of every race, language and nation (Rv 5:9).

Among his observations Schreiter (1985:43) makes the point that any credible approach to culture must be holistic. It cannot afford to simply concentrate on one aspect and ignore others. When considering the religious dimension of culture, attention must be given not only to cultic acts, but also those of popular piety. The ritual life of a people includes both of these dimensions.

A second area of concern is the forces that shape identity in a culture. For Schreiter (1985:43-44), identity formation and the integration of a wholesome world-view are central for the healthy development of an individual and a cultural group as a whole. These two aspects of culture are vital in fashioning an individual's sense of confidence in relating to the world and for reinforcing the individual's commitment to his/her culture. Formation in terms of a culture's world-view equips the individual to understand the world in the context of common values and meanings. Here in South Africa, sensitivity to how world-views are changing since the country's first democratic elections is growing. Political, economic, labour and gender justice issues are raising their heads and demanding attention as they vie for power to change the world-view of the diverse cultural groups in the country.

The third aspect that Schreiter (1985:44) considers essential is the way a culture navigates its way through social change. This element is critical to the dynamic growth of a culture. The rapid social change brought about by urbanisation of African life is a striking example of how social change calls upon cultures to restructure themselves to meet new challenges of identity, and social relationships. Without deeply rooted cultural values people can experience cultural disorientation which can only be addressed by demon strating how cultural values can be transposed from a predominantly rural way of life to an urban environment (Shorter 1991:26).

Further, Schreiter advocates a semiotic approach to culture. He endorses this approach because "It sees a culture as a vast communication network, whereby both verbal and nonverbal messages are circulated along elaborate, interconnected pathways, which, together, create the systems of meaning" (Schreiter 1985:49)

These insights have a direct bearing on the need to give serious attention to religious ritual if mission is going to promote wholeness in the development of Christian persons and communities. To neglect ritual is to ignore a holistic way of deepening people's faith in Christ. It also ignores the fact that the human person is a ritual being (Eliade 1961:187). Ritual brings order to communication; builds a sense of security and belonging, and opens people to a sense of the sacred (Chauvet 1995:334). To appreciate the value of religious ritual we must know how it works in the formation of people for mission.


Ritual is endemic to both individual and community life. It is the storehouse of a community's central values, or root metaphors of a community or culture. Luzbetak (1988:269) explains the significance by defining them as:

...Basic value-laden analogies used to describe the world view. They pervade the whole culture and are expressed in social institutions, myths and above all, in rituals that deeply influence the beliefs, emotions, and actions of a society.

In ritual, root metaphors cause a fusion of two separated realms of ex perience or two different understandings of an event or even a symbol into one illuminating, iconic encapsulating image (Turner 1974:25). Ritual has the power to open the participants to the meaning conveyed through the ritual actions language, and symbols. It also challenges a community to evaluate its behaviour and presence in the larger society in relation to its basic religious identity.

Ritual does its transformative work as people participate in them. Frederick Barth (in Stringer 1989:515) maintains that rituals are experienced in their very performance, not as observable actions done by others or as texts printed in ritual books. One can only understand the power of rituals by participating in ritual acts. Ritual works to nurture identity by bringing persons to thresholds of liminality2 where they experience life in a new way. Persons experiencing liminality have a sense of being betwixt and between defined states of culture or society (Turner 1969:107). Candidates preparing for baptism would have this sense during the time leading up to the celebration of the rite. They participate in some aspects of the church's life, but not yet as full members. Young Xhosa men would also have some sense of this during the time leading up to their circumcision when their courage and perse verance are being put to the test in order to assess their readiness to take up their responsibilities as full members of their family and tribe.

Performance in a ritual context does not imply that ritual is an action done for someone else and is merely to be observed. Performance is a particular kind of doing (Driver 1991:81). It is an enactment that requires engagement of the whole person at the physical, mental, emotional levels. In ritual there are no spectators.

Ritual does not operate on the discursive level. In fact, wordy explanations hinder the power of ritual from being unleashed. Too much verbalisation (a characteristic of much of Roman Catholic liturgy directly after Vatican II) threatens to extinguish ritual's evocative capability. Chauvet (1995:323) calls symbolic action the fundamental law of ritual. He writes:

Rites do not countenance either didacticism or moralism. Wordy explanations or sermons by which one purports to save rites in reality hinder them from operating on their proper level.... The basic law of liturgy is, "Do not say what you are doing; do what you are saying (Chauvet 1995:326).

Since ritual works on the trans-rational level it generates wholeness because it engages the whole person and in that active engagement through myth and symbol, gesture and movement transformation occurs. Fabien Eboussi Boulaga has grasped how religious ritual works in the context of sacramental rites. He noted that:

They have espoused the essential moments and rhythms of life. They indicate the manner – ever to be rediscovered ... as it were – of ascribing value to these moments and rhythms without wafting above them, by making them into knots of relationship, of exchange and communion of human beings with one another. They create a cosmos of meaning; they actualize a life in the form of word and love. This is the sense in which the sacraments arise from aesthetic praxis (Eboussi Boulaga 1984:201).

In the Christian context ritual deeds initiate members of the worshipping assembly into the mystery of God who invites them to participate in that life of love and meaning. Within religious ritual:

We confess in act that our identity is due to our adherence to Christ, that the Church exists only by receiving itself from Christ. We confess in act what we say with language in the creed: Jesus, the Crucified One, is our Lord...It is not a matter of explaining it theologically, but living it out symbolically even in our bodies (Chauvet 1995:341).

There is a profound union between what is done in ritual and how faith is lived outside the ritual context, but in the ritual context identity and mission are given content and form.

The work of ritual is done slowly, gradually. It is the nature of ritual that it is repetitive and regular. It is ordered to give a sense of security and stability. In religious terms participants are learning through the performance of ritual, they are playing at what it really means to be members of the body of Christ. "What we do over and over, do by heart, is a rehearsal of life, the em bodiment in sound and gesture and all our arts of who we mean to be" (Huck 1989:27). It has less to do with emotions than with meanings. Luzbetak cautions that even while we attempt to contextualise religious ritual we must be aware that ritual is rooted in the primordial, the archaic, the traditional.

Contextualization must never overlook the fact that ritual, although imaginative and constantly aware of the need to keep pace with culture, is nevertheless by its very nature repetitive and traditional. Ritual is, after all, the memory of a faith community" (Luzbetak 1988:383).

Turner (1972:391) concurs and simply states that: "the archaic is not the obsolete." Then he adds:

In other words, always and everywhere ritual ought to have a pervasive archaic, repetitive, formal quality if it is to be a vehicle for values and experiences which transcend the solely utilitarian and transitory (Turner 1972:392).

Ritual embodies and celebrates myth. In the context of ritual, myth is not a fairytale or a legend, but a narrative that relates to the very life force of the community. It reinforces the basic beliefs of a community. As the creation story recorded in the Book of Genesis is read in our churches we are being taught about the basic goodness of the created world and humanity. Myth within the context of a religious ritual provides the bedrock upon which identity is planted. Ritual enacts myth through prescribed, repetitive symbolic actions (Luzbetak 1988:269) and ritual guides the hermeneutics by putting it in a particular context (Driver 1991:142). As members of the Christian community surrender to the truth of its fundamental myth they are shaped by it into a pilgrim, missionary church. Ritual always calls for surrender, for participation. It does not work without our consent even if we are not totally aware that we are giving ourselves to it, but is not magical. It will not do its transformative work without our consent. Neither is it sentimental or romantic.

Ritual is strong, bold, challenging. It builds up in the community a sense of longing for what is celebrated, but not yet realised in its fullness. This is what ideally should happen during the eucharistic rituals of our various churches when people receive communion. The whole ritual should be so structured to facilitate a sense of liminality during which members of the worshipping assembly are led to experience the eucharist in a deeper way. The ritual moments of separation, liminality and reaggregation need to be built-in to our ritual forms.

This process is all the more pregnant in that it works below the level of consciousness, at a pre-reflective level of the symbolic and is not the object of discourse (as indis pensable as this may be in an analytical review conducted at another time), but of an action (Chauvet 1995:341-342).

Our catechesis or theology comes after the experience of the rite, not before. Each grows out of the ritual; the ritual is the foundation of how the church speaks about the eucharist and how we are transformed so that we become eucharist for others.

Religious ritual bids participants to stay alert, to be vigilant, to hold them selves in readiness to welcome the Other and to be open to whatever the Other will bestow. It calls for a radical and disciplined life and "presents the world as something one may not use in an arbitrary manner: it demands that one make of the universe a world for all, not just for the privileged" (Chauvet 1995:358).

Ritual challenges the participants to reach beyond the ritualising com munity in a sense of solidarity with all people. Turner has called this an experience of communitas.3 By this he means a natural bonding which springs up among people in the liminal state. Bonds are formed which would not ordinarily occur because of divisions and distinctions in society which are absent while people are in a liminal state (Turner: 1969:139).

Flanagan (1991) prefers to define this same notion of communitas as what happens when one engages in ritual play. Within the context of ritual people are engaged in actions that have the capacity to bring them into contact with their transcendent selves. Flanagan offers this insight into the meaning of communitas:

Communitas refers to a communion of equal individuals operating within a ritual. There is a quality of the holy and the sacred involved in its capacity to strip and to level institutions and structures. It signifies the power of the marginal to reverse worldly orders and forms of knowing. Communitas conveys the notion of the self standing against a structural order, but at the same time transcending it (Flanagan 1991:241).

This sense of transcendence allows us to see ourselves as we are. In a religious context ritual creates an empty space where God may enter in. There is a profound sense of letting go, but in this letting go one has a sense of experiencing one's life in a deeper way. Religious ritual becomes a threshold experience in which the community experiences life from a faith perspective. This is especially true when Christian initiatory rites are celebrated. Anselm Sanon sees Jesus as leading candidates for initiation into the pattern of his life and death.

On this score, to say that Jesus is Chief of initiation is to recognise in him, in our particular cultural tonality, the eldest sibling who guides to perfection those who have undergone initiation - that is, those who, with him, have started down the road to the experience of the invisible through what is visible, to the encounter with God through the human being, to touch eternity through the symbol of the present life (Sanon 1991:93).

Participants begin to drink deeply from the prime reservoir of the collective memory of the faith community (Chauvet 1995:340). In the metonymic elision of time that can occur in religious ritual the mystery of the reign of God is made present and the community is readied to share in the mission of Jesus.


Mission, in simple terms, means announcing the Good News of the reign of God so that all peoples and nations may come to experience the love of God for them (Redemptoris Missio, 31). If Christians are going to make Christ known in this way they themselves need to have an on-going means for formation for mission. Religious ritual can be a source of formation and transformation if we do it well. If this is to happen we have to create the space for ritual to do its work, then it will be a key to wholeness in mission.

Sound ritual needs to reflect the ritual process first outlined by van Gennep and developed by Turner. First, we need to evaluate the shape of our rituals and the way they are celebrated to see if they invite participation by members of the worshipping assembly. Second, we need to listen to the people of various cultures to discover how the dominant symbols of religious ritual are interpreted by them. Third, we need to make use of the dominant symbols of the culture within Christian ritual if they are compatible with the Gospel. Fourth catechesis and preaching need to mirror the ritual experience so that it leads people to practise in their daily life what they have experienced in ritual.

If we, as missiologists and missionaries, begin to take religious ritual seriously we will find that the faith we proclaim and the faith that is celebrated becomes the faith that is lived so that Christ becomes the light of the nations in a way that reflects wholeness in our missiological approach to people.


CHAUVET, Louis-Marie. 1995. Symbol and Sacrament, translated by P. Madigan, SJ & M. Beaumont. Collegeville: Liturgical Press.

BOSCH, David J. 1991. Transforming Mission. Maryknoll: Orbis.

DRIVER, Tom. 1991. The Magic of Ritual. New York: Harper Collins.

EBOUSSI BOULAGA, F. 1984. Christianity without Fetishes, translated by R. Barr. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

ELIADE, Mircea. 1961. The Sacred and the Profane, translated by W. Trask. New York: Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row.

FLANAGAN, Kieran. 1991. Sociology and Liturgy: Representations of the Holy. New York: St. Martin's Press.

HUCK, Gabe. 1989. How can I keep from singing?. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications.

LUZBETAK, Louis, SVD. 1988. The Church and Cultures. Maryknoll: Orbis.

SANON, Anselme T. 1991. Jesus, Master of Initiation, in Faces of Jesus in Africa, edited by R. Schreiter, Maryknoll: Orbis: 85-102.

SCHREITER, Robert J. 1985. Constructing Local Theologies. Maryknoll: Orbis.

SEARLE, Mark. 1993. Ritual, in The Study of the Liturgy, edited by C. Jones, G. Wainwright, E. Yarnold & P. Bradshaw, London: SPCK:51-58.

SHORTER, Aylward. 1991. The Church in the African City. London: Geoffrey Chapman.

STRINGER, Martin D. 1989. Liturgy and Anthropology: The history of a relationship. Worship 63(6):503-521.

TABER, Charles R. 1990-91. The Missionary Movement and the Anthropologists. Bulletin of the Scottish Institute of Mission Studies 6-7:16-32.

TURNER, Victor. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Aldine Publishing Company.

TURNER, Victor. 1972. Passages, mMargins, and poverty: Religious symbols of communitas, Part One. Worship 46(7): 390-412.

TURNER, Victor. 1974. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

WARUTA, Douglas. 1994. Religion as a source of oppression or resistance: An analysis of the Kenyan situation, in Culture, Religion and Liberation, edited by S. Maimela, Pretoria:77-96.


1 Dr Madge Karecki, SSJ-TOSF is a Franciscan sister who teaches liturgy and missiology at the St John Vianney Seminary, P.O. Box 17128, Groenkloof, Pretoria 0027. She is the chairperson of the SAMS executive committee and until recently she was one of the abstractors for this journal.

2 During a period of liminality the ritual subject passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attibutes of the past of coming state (Turner 1969:94).

3 Turner distinguishes communitas from community. He see community as rational and predictable. Communitas is an experience of an 'essential and generic human bond in social relationships' (Turner 1969:96-97).

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