Friday, November 30, 2012

Beware Syncretism

          As Christians, we have a strong desire to reach people where they are and share the gospel of Christ.  Yet Scripture warns time and again about practices that might lead to syncretism.  We find such warnings in Deuteronomy 16:21 – 17:1; 2 Kings 17:29-33; Zephaniah 1:5-6 and John 4:4.  God even commanded Israel to destroy nations because if they were allowed to survive the Israelites would adopt the practices of those nations in spite of His warnings not to (Exod. 23:23-33; Deut. 18:10-14).[1]
Since Scripture provides ample warning about this issue, it is important to understand what it is and how those who communicate the gospel avoid it.  In simplest terms, syncretism is the replacement of core or important truths of the gospel with non-Christian elements.[2]  Kraft explains syncretism as the mixing of Christian assumptions that are incompatible with Christianity resulting in something that is not biblical Christianity.[3] 
When converts to Christianity are permitted to attach their own worldview assumptions to Christian practices, syncretism exists.  When people practice Christian rituals with the understanding that those practices have some sort of magical properties, syncretism exists.  Considering Jesus Christ to be the manifestation of one of their pagan gods, syncretism exists.  However, syncretism is not simply limited to instances where native practices are applied to Christianity. 
When a receiving culture is so dominated by the missionaries or church planters among them that they adopt surface-level practices and deep-level assumptions then syncretism can creep in.  In such instances new believers adopt a different set of worldview assumptions that are applied in church situations yet are largely ignored in the rest of their lives.  Their existing worldview remains unchanged by biblical principles.  Ironically, it is fear of syncretism that drives missionaries and church planters towards this overcompensation.[4]
The problem of syncretism can be avoided and the first part of the solution has already been alluded to in the preceding section.  Missionaries and church planters must partner with the body of Christ working collaboratively to develop expressions of Christianity that are culturally responsive yet theologically responsible.[5]  Of course, it should go without saying that missionaries and church planters should be expert teachers of the Word of God.
The second part to assist in avoiding syncretism is to teach the gospel through the use of narrative rather than propositionally.  It is tempting for seminarians to use all of the tools they learned in school to try and share the gospel with a new people group.  Teaching through the use of narrative allows for the gospel to be understood holistically and provides for themes to be better understood in real life terms people can relate to and retain.[6]  It is easy to ignore doctrines as being from a foreign culture but the story of God’s actions in history cannot be so easily dismissed.
Finally, it is important to remember that just because missionaries and church planters seek to find common ground to better communicate the gospel does not mean that they should avoid contrasting the local culture with the Christian worldview all together.  The evangelist does not do anyone any favors by only seeking to use the local language and customs to better explain the Christian faith and never mentioning the differences.  It is to be expected that there is a time and place for doing so and well trained evangelists will see these opportunities.

[1] Moreau, A. Scott, R. Corwin Gary, and Gary B. McGee. Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 305.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Winter, Ralph D., and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader (4th ed.). (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1981, 1992, 1999, 2009), 405.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Pocock, Michael, Gailyn Van Rheenen, and Douglas McConnell. The Changing Face of World Missions: Engaging Contemporary Issues and Trends. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 100-01.
[6] Ibid.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Gospel Contextualized

          Clearly, culture plans a critical role in communicating the gospel whether that is in different parts of our own communities or country or abroad in a faraway land.  Despite thinking to the contrary, different people groups do not think in the same or even in a manner similar to our own way of thinking.  At the heart of any culture is the worldview the people in the culture share.  The truth claims of Christianity are something that can be easily proven.  In short, they are a matter of faith.  The heart of the gospel is the something for which there is no precedent – the Resurrection.[1]  Brown, Robinson, and Willimon rightly point out that while we desire to reach people where they are, we have a limited ability to adapt the gospel.[2]
          Stated simply, contextualization is the notion of taking the gospel to a new context and finding easily understood ways for people to understand it in their own context.  While doing so, we must understand that it is simply not possible to deliver the whole of the gospel message on any single occasion.  Some part must be selected; others omitted and saved for another time.[3]  Lest the author be accused of not supporting the proclaiming of the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), it should be noted that Jesus and the apostles did not always begin with the interests and concerns of their audience or communicate what today we consider the heart of the gospel.[4]  What Christ and the apostles did do was note the level of understanding of their audience and start communicating with them at that point while reserving deeper teaching for those more mature in the faith.  From those receiving this deeper teaching such as the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, Paul expected a more mature practice of their faith.
Figure 2: Contextualization in a Hindu Setting
Trinity International Baptist Mission
          The Jesuits of the Seventeenth century were pioneers in the practice of indigenization which accommodating the local culture and taking cues from the local customs.[5]  The first of these missionaries to employ this approach lived in Japan in Japanese-style houses adopting the local type of dress and many of the local customs.  Notable successes using this approach occurred at Madurai in South India and China.  Regrettably this early success was not widespread.  Rulings against the Jesuits prevented peoples from other cultures such as those in China from being both Chinese and Christian.[6]  How far this set back the cause of Christ in this part of the world is unknown but those decisions may be felt even to this day.
          This early understanding of how to reach local cultures is what would later come to be referred to as contextualization.  Today, the church widely understands and employs methods very similar to these.  Modern missionaries acknowledge the effectiveness of following the powerful example of the Apostle Paul in trying to become as the people group they are trying to reach (1 Cor. 9:22).  Today we universally recognize that the goal of our Christian witness is to see people come to saving faith in Jesus Christ and be formed into groups that are culturally appropriate and biblical in their structure.[7]  We call these groups churches. 
In these groups familiar terms are used to communicate the gospel.  Along the way, these terms are transformed in their usage.  We must keep in mind that Christ came into the world and worked through the existing culture.  As His ministry progressed, the worldview of those who came to follow Him began to change.  In the opinion of the author, this is by design.  As the gospel penetrates deeply into the culture, eventually it begins to change the worldview of those new Christians which leads to changes in their belief systems and thus values and behavior.  That is a process that takes time but it does and will occur.  That is not to say that the resulting church will bear close resemblance to Western churches. 
To properly contextualize Christianity does not mean missionaries or evangelists are presenting a sort of product.  Western Christianity is mistaken if it believes that the faith has once and for all been developed in a way that is perfect for all peoples across all cultures in all times.   Christians in Western nations may attempt to apply Western business practices to the spread of the gospel.  This may lead to being tempted to try and prepackage all aspects of the gospel much as a Fortune 500 company might package a product.  At best, this well-intentioned approach is misguided and should be avoided.
The gospel message is to be planted as a seed in the soil of the local culture where it is permitted to grow and flourish.  A church that is truly contextualized will preach essentially the same message since the doctrines of the Christian faith will be clearly in focus.  Yet the way the message is put together and delivered, the issues addressed, and the illustrations used will vary from one culture to the next.[8]  This is proper and as it should be. 
The missionary or church planter should work with the new congregation to assist in their understanding of Scripture.  It is right and proper to be certain that sound hermeneutics are being practiced in the new congregation.  As a priesthood of all believers, the new church is a hermeneutical community and in most instances will be in a better position to exegete the meanings of local cultural practices and linguistic expressions.[9]  Where the missionary or church planter is trained to help laypeople determine the meaning of the text, laypeople help the missionary or church planter understand the receiving culture to which the Scriptures apply.[10]  
This is an ongoing dialog at least for a time until the missionary is no longer needed and departs.  Also in keeping with the cycle modeled by the Apostle Paul, the missionary or church planter should have definitive plans on how long it will be necessary to remain among the target people.  It is important to train local leaders with the intention of assuming leadership as soon as possible.  Paul’s stays in each place where he planted a new church we limited in duration though he remained in contact with them.  This approach helps to avoid the new congregation becoming dependent upon the missionary or church planter. 

[1] Brown, Stephen W., Haddon W. Robinson, and William H. Willimon. A Voice in the Wilderness: Clear Preaching in a Complicated World. (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 1993) 65-66.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Hesselgrave, David J. Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: North America and Beyond (2nd ed.). (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 149.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Winter, Ralph D., and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader (4th ed.). (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1981, 1992, 1999, 2009), 230-31.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid, 404.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Hesselgrave, David J. Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: North America and Beyond (2nd ed.). (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 222.
[10] Ibid, 223.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving 2012

"It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God; to obey His will; to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly implore His protection." - George Washington

Wishing all of my family, friends, and faithful readers a blessed Thanksgiving holiday.  Your continued support these past years has been a tremendous blessing and inspiration as my blog has grown.  Thank you!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

How Worldview Informs Culture

            Much like the idea of culture itself, the concept of worldview would seem to be rather simple.  In passing conversation one might consider the concept of worldview as a way of looking at something or simply one’s point of view.[1]  However, such a simple explanation is wholly inadequate.  Worldview represents a wide array of assumptions about the world around us, how things fit together, and things happen or events unfold.[2]  
If culture were an onion, worldview would be the core.  Since culture is a universal feature of all human communities[3], it is essential to have a thorough understanding of what worldview is and how it shapes a given culture.  What is seen in a given culture is the outward expression, or behavior, that is shaped by a multitude of things.  When Christian missionaries visit a foreign land, it is important to understand that the people they encounter behave as they do for much the same reasons that people in the missionaries’ home countries do: they have a patterned way of doing things.[4]
Underlying the behavior that can be observed are values which Kwast defines as “pre-set” decisions that a culture makes between choices commonly faced which helps those who live within the culture to know what should or ought to be done in order to conform.[5]  That such a pattern for living has been accepted takes into account that there are subcultures within the larger context.  Here conformity is used in a broad sense.  Beyond the behavior found in a culture that can be observed and the values that guide those behaviors, is a deeper level of shared understanding known as cultural beliefs.
Beliefs in a culture seek to answer a seemingly simple question: what is true?  This is an interesting question that can seem to be at conflict with values and behaviors seen in the culture.  While is it possible to observe similar behaviors and expressed values by people in a given culture, some in the culture can and do express completely different beliefs about those values and behaviors.[6]  Kwast describes this as a difference between operating beliefs that actually affect values and thus behavior and theoretical beliefs which are stated creeds that have very little practical impact on values and behavior.[7]
At the very heart of culture is the worldview held by the people within the culture.  People generally do not think about their worldview and most actually mistakenly believe that the peoples of other cultures think and reason in much the same way as they do.[8]  While early missionaries may have held this mistaken notion, the modern missionary knows much better.  Worldview may best be described as the part of culture that answers the most basic questions of reality that are seldom asked such as what is real, where did we come from, is what we can see all there is, how does the past influence the future, can the future be known?[9]  And on and on!  Every culture assumes answers to these and other questions about reality which shape the other aspects of culture.  Interestingly, the confusion seen at times at the belief level is caused by conflicting worldviews.  At times aspects of worldview compete with other aspects leading to conflict. 
This simple explanation of worldview could be expanded upon greatly but is sufficient to drive home the point: Christians who share the gospel must understand the importance of the culture.  Worldview influences the belief system of a given people group which in turn inform the value system of those people.  Taken together, this is observable in the behavior of the people.  Communicating the gospel cross-culturally should then focus on the worldview of the people.  Simply introducing a new or competing system of beliefs will likely accomplish little as there will be no change in the values and behavior that is still held firmly in place by the existing worldview.[10]

[1] Hesselgrave, David J. Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: North America and Beyond (2nd ed.). (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 126.
[2] Moreau, A. Scott, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 1032-33.
[3] Tennent, Timothy C. Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2010), 168-75.
[4] Winter, Ralph D., and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader (4th ed.). (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1981, 1992, 1999, 2009), 398.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid, 398-99.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Moreau, A. Scott, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 1033.
[9] Winter, Ralph D., and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader (4th ed.). (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1981, 1992, 1999, 2009), 399.
[10] Ibid.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What is Culture?

            Early missionaries went out into the world with unbridled enthusiasm to reach the world for Jesus Christ.  However, so many arrived in distant lands and were met with very little success.  Centuries of missionary activity have taught the church the importance of understanding culture before attempting to communicate the gospel.  So what exactly is culture?
            Culture may point to a whole host of things such as entertainment, literature and the arts.  These things are certainly part of culture yet this is not entirely what is meant here.  Carson broadly defines culture as the set of values broadly shared by some subset of the human population.[1]  Carson’s definition is broad indeed!  Tennent quotes Eagleton’s remark that culture includes everything from pig-farming to Picasso, from tilling the soil to splitting the atom.[2]  With such a broad term, how can a missionary hope to understand it?  Expanding our understanding of culture is necessary.
            Cultures are largely patterns acquired in and shared by social groups.  Though not considered at times, generally speaking a culture is large enough to contain subcultures yet is shared by the society at large and in this social group people learn and live out their collective values.[3]  Of particular importance is the fact that cultures are not collections of isolated themes.  Rather, they are holistic, integrated patterns structured in such a way as to meet the basic, yet now necessarily all, needs of those in a particular society.[4]  There are three dimensions of culture around which all cultures shape their understanding of reality: the cognitive, the affective, and the evaluative.  All three dimensions vary from culture to culture.
            The cognitive dimension addresses the perception of time and space.  In terms of time, people in the West have a linear view of time with past, present, and an infinite future whereas African peoples have a more two-dimensional view of time.[5]  Another example of this is the perception of personal, public, social, and intimate space or zones of space.  Americans views of personal space are from actual physical contact to about three feet away.  People from Latin American consider personal space to be smaller.  When two people from these respective cultures engage each other, the American may see the person from Latin America as invading their personal space while the Latin American person might consider the American to be distant or cold when in fact neither intends to be disrespectful towards the other.
            The affective dimension addresses what we feel about a given thing.  Consider the notion of beauty.  For a person from Japan, a garden carefully arranged in such a way as to enhance the viewing experience is beautiful.  For the Western eye, the beauty is in the floral variety and explosion of color on display when the flowers are in bloom.[6]  Both are legitimate positions yet each culture places value on a different aspect of the garden.
            The evaluative dimension focuses on where the culture places allegiances and values.[7]  An excellent example in American news media recently is the idea of marriage.  Whom can a person marry?  In the West who a person can marry is an individual decision whereas in other cultures such as ancient Egypt marriages between brother and sister were common.  In other cultures arranged marriages were and to some extent are still common.  It is interesting to note that this presupposes that what is meant by marriage is a union between a man and woman.
            There are several things to remember when considering the notion of what makes up a culture.  First, culture is complex and ever changing.  In much of the West, there is an attempt to expand or redefine the term marriage.  Though there is a shift in Western culture by a significant number of people and marriage remains defined as being between a man and woman, the issue remains unsettled.  While there is little doubt in the mind of the author as to the correctness of the current definition, Western culture may indeed alter this view in the coming years.  The bottom line is this: culture is not static.[8]
            Next, it is important to grasp a biblical understanding of culture.  When the gospel is shared with diverse people groups, the expression of Christian practice in those people groups will and should look different than in other parts of the world.  The Apostle Paul understood that he could reach more people with the gospel of Jesus Christ if he became like those people (1 Cor. 9:19-22).  He clearly understood that he would not save all of those whom he came in contact with but he used all means at his disposal to save some.  In fact, Paul’s practice is still modeled by missionaries today.[9]
            Finally, while we strive to understand the receiving culture and even to become like those who we seek to reach with the gospel message, we must remember that the gospel challenges and changes every culture.[10]  However, this change is not to be confused with westernization or modernity.  Increasingly there are non-Western sending churches who are engaged in missions around the globe.  Their missionary work does not and should not result in the local culture being molded into the image of the sending culture and neither should the efforts of Western missionaries.  Saving faith in Jesus Christ changes lives and those changes lives lead to changed cultures.[11]  The job of the missionary is to allow the gospel to work in the lives of people.

[1] Carson, D. A. Christ & Culture Revisited. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 1-2.
[2] Tennent, Timothy C. Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2010), 168.
[3] Moreau, A. Scott, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 252-53.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ott, Craig, Stephen J. Strauss, and with Timothy C. Tennent. Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 127.
[9] Winter, Ralph D., and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader (4th ed.). (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1981, 1992, 1999, 2009), 146-48.
[10] Ott, Craig, Stephen J. Strauss, and with Timothy C. Tennent, (127).
[11] Ibid.