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.

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