C-17°|F1°Are We Keeping The Gospel Relevant In Modern Times? Is the gospel cultural? Have we made it so? Do we bind Christianity into a cultural form? We could say that during early missionary efforts to the East and the New World we saw a Westernisation of cultures rather than a "Christianisation" of people. In more recent times, the mode of modern missions to unreached people groups have increasingly adapted towards contextualised Christianity in order to remain relevant to diverse cultures. I am not much of an academic and this is certainly not an academic entry but I am prompted by a basic appreciation of how Christianity is being contextualised to 'think aloud' about the relevance of Christianity in our modern world. The gospel is being contextualised to be relevant to the cultures of unreached people groups and a similar evolution is happening at our home fronts, should we oppose it? I'd like to look at this in simple terms to share a basic appreciation about one small aspect of "church" that is evolving. Let's begin by looking at two real world examples of contextualisation. Real World Examples of Gospel Contextualisation Fireplaces I've met a frontier missionary who is among the first to reach out to certain tribes in Indonesian Papua. He shared about their experience of teaching to a particular tribe as they were translating the Bible for them. When they tried to teach about the many mansions in the Father's house (John 14:2), they just couldn't get the understanding of a "mansion" across to a people who only knew life in the jungle. They eventually found a suitable analogy to teach that passage in a way that was relevant. That passage in the bible for this people group has been translated to say that the Father has many "fire-places" in Heaven. You see, for them, the fire-place is the centre of a family's place of gathering; where they cook and sleep. Wherever the fireplace was, that was their home and to be invited to be seated around someone's fireplace and share food was perceived to be an honour. The entire tribe was eventually converted with some of them becoming evangelists. Apparently they still say, when someone goes home to the Lord; that the dearly departed has gone to sit at the Father's fireplace... And I don't think they have "churches", just fireplaces. In John 14:2, a more literal translation should be "dwellings" and not "mansions". A Western construct has invariably entered into certain bible translations (KJV, NKJV, ASV). Coconuts In India, where missions work is long established and being continued by local evangelists (often with foreign support) I've heard of an Indian pastor in South India who would dress in saffron coloured robes. Such robes are commonly worn by "holy men". This pastor would walk from village to village without announcing himself as Christian. Thinking he was a Hindu holy man, the villagers would gather around him seeking a prayer blessing as they would normally do. When the people gathered around him, the pastor would begin a common Hindu ritual of splitting coconuts as an offering. He would pick up an old coconut and ceremoniously split it. Then holding out the two halves he would show the people the insides of the coconut and say, "This is very white isn't it? Do you know that Jesus offered His life so that all our sins can be cleansed as white as this coconut?" (Isaiah 1:18). It doesn't snow in South India. Moving Away From Western Religion The above examples are a stark contrast to the earlier methods of missionary work and evangelism. Early missionaries (and settlers) to East Asia and the New World pushed Christianity in a Western cultural form. They perceived local cultures as hedonistic and evil and consequently sought to change those cultures into stereotypical mindsets. They built church buildings, often with steeples and bells and many such buildings remain as legacies of that time. They even changed the way people dressed, ate and spoke. This brought about a perception binding Christianity to Western culture and subsequently caused the alienation of early converts and turned many others away from Christianity. It effectively alienated Christians and this flies in the face of the very purpose of the Gospel and our Christian Commission. If we push a religion with our own cultural construct we are actually reducing the Creator of the Universe to simply a god of our culture - and no one else's. In fact, much of the Eastern world today still perceives Christianity as a Western religion but thankfully this is rapidly being corrected. The gospel should never be culture specific and we should shed our stereotypical thinking of the "Western" gospel. I like what Charles Kraft has to say about this: "Biblically, the contextualization of Christianity is not simply to be the passing on of a product that has been developed once for all in Europe or America. It is, rather, the imitating of the process that the early apostles went through...Christianity is not supposed to be like a tree that was nourished and grew in one society and then was transplanted to a new cultural environment, with leaves, branches and fruit that mark it indelibly as a product of the sending society. The gospel is to be planted as a seed that will sprout within and be nourished by the rain and nutrients in the cultural soil of the receiving peoples." Charles H. Kraft And Charles Taber has this to say about contextualisation: "Contextualization is the effort to understand and take seriously the specific context of each human group and person on its own terms and in all its dimensions-cultural, religious, social, political, economic and to discern what the gospel says to people in that context. This requires a profound empirical analysis of the context in place of flip or a priori judgments. Contextualization tries to discover in the scriptures what God is saying to these people. In other words, contextualization takes very seriously the example of Jesus in the sensitive and careful way he offered each person a gospel tailored to his own context." Charles Taber (1979) What About Sub-Cultures Within Our Own Cultures? After considering the outer-reaches of Gospel sharing, we should perhaps stop for a moment and look at our own cultures and practice of Christianity. Even within our own culture there are differing sub-cultures. Shouldn't Christianity be relevant to sub-cultures 'different' from our own? For instance, the present culture of teenagers today is not the same as when some of us were teens. It is perhaps even a seemingly alien culture to some of us. Is it so wrong to adapt and contextualise our efforts to reach out to the generation who will replace us? Is it so wrong to consider contextualising the gospel and being sensitive to the modern culture of teenagers today? Is it wrong to speak with biblical lyrics through modern musical arrangements? Are we trying to cause the conformation of teens to our worldview - our culture - rather than to encourage the transformation of teens according to Christ's plan? Does the insistence on traditional forms of doing church alienate teens in the same way early missionaries alienated people from Christianity? The common argument against adaptations or change starts with the premise that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. Well, of course Jesus doesn't change. He doesn't need to because He is already perfect. We on the other hand are not and we do need to change! Music, for example, is cultural - it is not the Gospel and so it can change along with many other things that are just tradition and "churchianity". While there are limits to change of course, being bound to tradition may not be beneficial. Christians in other cultures have long written their own worship songs; sometimes they are even played with the musical instruments of their culture. They don't sing hymns. Drawing the Strings Together I am not talking about changing the Gospel message. The Spirit of the message has to be the same just as Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. And the same Jesus is still relevant but only if we are prepared to drop the prejudices of what we are only comfortable with and present the Gospel with sensitivity to its relevance within a culture. We are quick to say that we should preach the truth and not a watered down gospel yet we are slow to recognise that we may not actually be supporting the true gospel of Jesus but rather a gospel burdened with the constructs of tradition and culture. The Gospel should transcend culture rather than be trapped by it. We should be bringing people to Jesus and not to "our church". We must not let "religiousness" and "churchianity" limit the truth. We need to return to the truth of the gospel and the basic teachings of Jesus - which are non-cultural. We should vigilantly review whether a notion we believe as Christian is actually just tradition or culture; and we ought to keep such notions separated from the message. If we are secure on the tenets of our faith, we need not fear nor oppose contextualisation. Christianity is not meant to be preached in Western cultural forms (or any cultural form for that matter). We can make the gospel relevant to any culture responsibly without losing the truth so long as we readily differentiate the Gospel from culture, tradition and church. Every time we want to oppose a new way of outreach or a different way of "doing church" we should first stop to consider if we are actually defending the truth of the gospel or simply resisting change and being intolerant of something that differs from our own religious mindsets. Are we intolerant of relevance? Some Final Words for Balance I acknowledge that there are grey areas where some things may not be clear and where caution towards change is still to be urged. It is also my stand that where a cultural practice is actually religious or occultic, it needs to be eliminated. I am not advocating the extreme liberalisation of all things Christian but I am arguing against the extreme of religiousness and lock-downs against change. Neither extreme is beneficial and balance would yield far better results for the Kingdom. I am simply expressing that we should not fall into bigotry and we must always stop and think first about what God wants us to do in all circumstances so that we can find the path He is directing us on. (Proverbs 3:5-6) For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. The Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 (rather flexible wasn't he?)
Thank you for a very thought invoking presentation. There is much eye opening revelation in your message. Well thought out, researched, and I believe Holy Spirit inspired.
Once again, thank you.
Blessings from NC
Outstanding post my brother!! You have hit many issues squarely on the head and those with eyes to see need to pause and ponder about what you have brought up. Structured church services have drilled into people's minds that the only way to receive the Word of God is to sit in a pew and listen to someone preach or teach it. What has been lost is the ability to make the Word of God live in each individual person's heart in such a way they can rise up to the actual written Word as we read it in the Bible.
The incidents you shared from India and Indonesia perfectly show why their is little true evangelism left in Western culture. There are groups which have done as you described in the inner cities of America. They have managed to make the central truths of God's Word a living reality for people whose lives revolve around gangs, guns and drugs and are succeeding in actually pulling kids out of that culture and into a godly one. It sure wouldn't happen standing on a street corner in the ghetto with a Bible in hand screaming about everyone going to hell.
When one looks at how Jesus called his disciples and how he worked with INDIVIDUAL people, it was far different than how He taught the multitudes. When Jesus was "witnessing" to a person, He made His message pertinent to their situation, which is exactly what you so wonderfully presented in this post.
Thank you for a very organized and inspired message which desperately needs to be understood by anyone who has a genuine desire to reach out with the truth to others. Thank you.
Certainly thought provoking.
I am certainly for finding an intermediary metaphor or example to translate the gospel from one culture to another. And I am certainly for not adhering to any western cultural churchianity.
Part of our problem is the real lack of study and understanding of the context of the scriptures themselves. The west has a logical, systematic approach to bible study -- reference systems, etc. But the bible isn't written in such a way. It is written as historical accounts of jewish history. It is written as different, distinct letters to churches that had some problems. The whole context of history and culture in the scriptures is lost to the non-jewish mind.
My only concern is contextualization is a term often used in the emergent church movement. Its hard to encapsulate that movement into one generalized description, but contextualization is certainly appropriate.
And when one starts on that path towards contextualizatiion we need to know when to stop. As can be seen in the emergent church movement, the gospel can and is often watered down to the point of being completely irrelevant.
There is a lot of much needed teaching in this posting. I can't imagine how much time it must have taken to gather all the information and place it in logical format. Good job my brother, very good job.
Thank You so much.
My dear brother, what a wonderful post and most certainly inspired of the Holy Spirit within!
Thank you for taking such a relevant topic and presenting it in such a fashion for all of us to be able to understand and digest.
Oh, and AMEN! Jesus doesn't change, but we have to.