Decades before the call of the Lord to ministry was placed on this seminarian’s life, the notion of how to reach diverse people groups around the world was being studied and discussed by those who came before us. Today this discussion continues yet we would be remiss if we failed to acknowledge that we stand of the shoulders of those who work we study today. Were it not for their faithfulness in crossing cultures to reach the other sheep not of this fold (John 10:16), countless souls would not know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
The scholarship that went into the Lausanne Occasional Paper 2: The Willowbank Report: Consultation on Gospel and Culture is invaluable. The report commended to Christians throughout the world to study and consider how best to act on the information therein rightly makes the conclusion about the pervasiveness of culture in evangelization. This report, divided into nine sections dealing with culture, the Gospel, and how the two interact with and influence each other. This review will interact with the ideas expressed and offer the author’s reflections and about those ideas.
The report begins with the biblical basis for culture and acknowledges that because man is a creation of God, some of his culture is rich in beauty and goodness (p. 2). That said, all of man’s culture is tainted with sin due to our fallen position. The Lausanne Committee clearly understood the difficulty of defining culture yet they do not shy away from offering a definition. Put simply, they state that culture is the patterned way in which people do things together (p. 2). Of equal importance is the fact that culture does not remain static though change should be gradual. Sudden change often causes unwanted disruption. After discussion some of the related aspects of culture, the committee offers a more integrated definition:
“Culture is an integrated system of beliefs (about God or reality or ultimate meaning), of values (about what is true, good, beautiful and normative), of customs (how to behave, relate to others, talk, pray, dress, work, play, trade, farm, eat, etc.), and of institutions which express these beliefs, values and customs (government, law courts, temples or churches, family, schools, hospitals, factories, shops, unions, clubs, etc.), which binds a society together and gives it a sense of identity, dignity, security, and continuity (p. 3).”
It is from this integrated view of culture that the rest of this review will rest. It is also this integrated definition that the committee builds the balance of their report.
It is important to remember that God revealed Himself to creation in terms of the hearer’s culture. In other words, God did not come to the United States and reveal Himself. Rather, He chose those points in history to interact with His creation and over a long period of time make Himself known to man. It is this reason that underscores the need to understand that culture. It also informs the way in which people today understand God’s word. There are a number of approaches to this including simply studying the Word without regard to the differences in the writer’s culture and that of the reader, the historical cultural context approach, and the more balanced contextual approach (p. 5 - 6). Section four closes out with a reminder that it is the responsibility of the entire Christian community to study and understand the Scriptures and not simply individuals. There is also the warning of topics which Scripture does not directly deal (p. 6 – 7).
Moving on to the communication of the gospel and our responsibility to communicate it, we arrive at the point where the committee addresses what it believes it at the heart of the gospel. While we must contextualize the gospel message, we must never shy away from all of the elements of the gospel. We are responsible for proclaiming the gospel, not editing it (p. 7). But the cultural factors involved in communicating the gospel cannot be ignored. Though the gospel indeed challenges some of the social mores found in each culture, not all of these mores are incompatible with Christianity and should not be dismissed or discarded (p. 8). Additionally, efforts to communicate the gospel will fail if those seeking to share the gospel do so in a way that fails to consider the world-views of the receiving culture. The committee also notes the need to expect results.
In section six the committee discussed the need for a humble witness and points to the incarnation of Christ as the model to be emulated (p. 10 – 11). Jesus emptied Himself of the power of God by setting aside His glory for a time and then made Himself available to mankind. This includes being dependent on others and susceptible to temptation, hunger, pain, and perhaps even fear. It is reassuring that at the time of their report, the committee freely admitted that there was controversy surrounding the extent to which missionaries must identify with those they seek to reach. The path modeled by Christ is one of identifying completely with creation without losing His own identity. He became man but never ceased to be God.
When one comes to saving faith in Christ, there is an obvious change in the life of the convert. This is not exactly a private experience as there are also public and social responsibilities that accompany the conversion (p. 12). Conversion involves the death of the old and the birth of the new. Conversion strikes at the heart of the world-view of the convert causing a complete rethinking of the views at the heart of the decision-making process. Social mores must be reexamined and, if necessary, adjusted or abandoned all together. The committee rightly identifies this as a process that occurs over time. Conversion does not unmake. Rather, conversion remakes the individual into the image of Christ (p. 13).
In section eight, the committee deals with the topic of church and receiving culture. Central to this section is the local church developing into a culturally relevant, or more to the point, being permitted to do so. Each church worships the living God of cultural diversity (p. 18) and we should not only give thanks for our own culture but the cultures of other believers as well. The committee warns of the danger of syncretism. While there are certainly elements of culture that are compatible with Christianity, there are other elements of culture that are not. As we attempt to contextualize the gospel, there is a danger of those incompatible elements being incorporated into the local expression of Christianity. Care must be taken to safeguard the church against heresy.
In the final section of their report, the committee addresses culture, Christian Ethics, and lifestyle. It is in this section that we are reminded of the need for Christians to demonstrate Christlikeness in their lives first and foremost (p. 20). We are to combat evil where we find it including in our own Western culture where too often we lose sight of this need. Cultural change is a process and the church ought to seek to be part of this process. People change when they see the benefit of doing so perceiving there is something in the chance for them. We must also remember that some things in a receiving culture are underpinned by theology and will only change with the theology changes (p. 22).
Sharing the gospel accurately, in a way that honors local culture, and yet makes no attempt to change the biblical truth is challenging. Though there are points at which the age of the Lausanne Occasional Paper 2: The Willowbank Report: Consultation on Gospel and Culture is evident, the information contained in this document stands the test of time and provides an excellent overview of the challenges faced by missionaries. The information is also relevant for the domestic church planter who seeks to reach a locality that is underserved by the church. America is still in need of those willing to go into the abandoned communities across our nation and share the good news of Christ.