Paul Orjala and Indigenization

Missionaries who shaped today's global outreach efforts

Who was Paul Orjala?

Paul Orjala (1925-2005) was, together with his wife Mary, a pioneer Nazarene missionary for the Church of the Nazarene in Haiti. A gifted piano player, he was also a linguistic scholar of the regional dialects of Haitian Creole. After 14 years in Haiti, he became the missions professor at Nazarene Theological Seminary (Kansas City), a position he held for 21 years. He then taught at Point Loma Nazarene University for seven years. He authored several books on missionary work.

Photo of missioary Paul Orjala

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What is Paul Orjala's legacy to us?

"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 little critical reflection on whether those things could be sustained locally. What Murthi wanted was for churches in India to flourish in homegrown ways.

Murthi's picturesque statement reflected a desire for both contextualization and indigenization in churches in India. Contextualization relates to how forms may be altered to accomplish the same desired function in different cultures. Indigenization in a church, in community development or even in the world of commerce means local people having decision-making authority to the point of feeling authentic ownership of something. Both words refer to the process of people making something "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 expatriate (foreign) missionaries can effectively foster indigenization.

The Orjalas went from the U.S.A. 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 shouldered responsibilities that 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 did not dictate things. He did not set himself up as the gatekeeper 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, MO., believed the church in Haiti could and should be both fully 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 seven 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 almost 1,000 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.

This article was originally published in Engage,, an online monthly world missions publication of the Church of the Nazarene.

For more, get the book Paul Orjala: The Man, the Mission, a biography by Franklin Cook

Another missionary pioneer like Paul Orjala was Herman Gschwandtner who helped start Nazarene Gospel outreach in Russia, Eastern Europe, and South Asia

"Indigenizing" ministries

Contextualization / Indigenization

Testing our level of contextualization and indigenization

"The ultimate goal in contextualization is to help a . . . group (of people) learn how God can be a real part of their everyday life as they practice Biblical faith." -- Dean Gilliland

  1. What have we as a local church or as a missions organization changed because we take "culture" seriously?
  2. Will the people whom the church is trying to serve feel "comfortable" in its gatherings, in its worship events, and in what it wants to do in terms of ministry in the community? (In social situations, peoples' comfort matters to them more than it "ought" to!)
  3. Do people in the church seem to identify with one another and with what is going on?
  4. Do the people whom the church is trying to serve feel a sense of ownership in the mission and priorities of the church?
  5. Do worship forms, leadership styles, and church life feel natural to the people?
  6. Is the core meaning of the gospel being understood?
  7. Is revelation taking place in people's hearts?
  8. Are new disciples being made?
  9. Is outreach and invitation to involvement taking place through natural social networks?

Based on material in To Spread the Power: Church Growth in the Wesleyan Spirit by George Hunter III

Discussion questions

  1. Who was Paul Orjala and what was his contribution to the Church of the Nazarene in Haiti?
  2. What is the concept of indigenization, and how did Paul Orjala implement it in his ministry in Haiti?
  3. What is the importance of contextualization and indigenization in church planting movements, and how do they differ from and relate to each other?
  4. How did Paul Orjala's approach to ministry differ from many other Western missionaries of his time?
  5. Why is it important to empower local leaders in the process of indigenization?
  6. How can churches and missions organizations test their level of contextualization and indigenization to ensure they are fruitfully serving the people they are trying to reach?


Missionary Paul Orjala embraced the principle of indigenization long before it came into vogue among Western missionaries. He focused on empowering local leaders and fostering ownership within the Haitian church. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Paul saw himself as an advisor and consultant, not as the leader. His approach to ministry led to consistent, well-above-average growth in the Haitian Nazarene church. In 2023, the Nazarene General Secretary's office reported that Haiti's 755 Nazarene churches had a total of 102,131 members.

Paul Orjala's legacy underscores the importance of contextualization and indigenization in church planting movements, two processes that encourage the Gospel to take root and flourish in culturally relevant and meaningful ways.

    -- Howard Culbertson,

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