When crossing cultures with the Gospel just how difficult of a task is it to bring “the message” to a particular people without entangling that message in the “culture” of the messenger? Does it even matter?
If by “culture” we mean eating with silverware instead of chopsticks or shaking hands instead of bowing it’s probably not very difficult to leave our culture out of the message. However, if by culture we mean the forms, practices, and mindset of the western church system it’s another matter entirely.
The message we bring to the nations is a truly radical message and, in every respect, is wholly unlike any other message on the face of the earth. Unlike the other messages, God does not respond to what we do, we respond to what God does. Unlike the other messages, the focus is not on the outward, the focus is on the inward. Unlike the other messages, God does not dwell in a building, He dwells in human hearts. And unlike the other messages, this message is not bound to a particular earthly culture or religious system, it’s bound to a unique culture all its own – kingdom culture!
But wait a minute! When we stop to take an objective look at our forms, practices and mindset what do we see? Are they more reflective of the truly unique and radical message that we hold so dear, or are they more reflective of the other “messages” that exist in the world today?
No matter how we spin it, an objective look reveals the simple fact that the other messages have special houses of worship and we have special houses of worship. The other messages have specially trained professionals and we have specially trained professionals. The other messages have sacred days and we have sacred days. The other messages have formal religious practices and we have formal religious practices. The other messages have……and we have……and the list goes on and on and on.
Our message might be unique, but to the outsider looking in our forms, practices, and mindset do not necessarily reveal anything unique at all. In fact, it can reveal just the opposite. Sure, we can spin it a thousand different ways, but when all is said and done, the outsider often sees our forms, practices, and mindset as having much more in common with the practices of other religions than with the unique and radical message that we hold so dear.
Several years ago a missionary colleague of mine was reading the Bible with a Japanese friend over lunch. The Japanese man felt badly that more Japanese didn’t go to my colleague’s church (including this particular man) and he offered a suggestion. As he put it, “We Japanese don’t feel comfortable going into a church because we don’t know what to do, but perhaps if you place a big window in the back of your church so that we Japanese can look in and watch what goes on we might feel more comfortable joining you at some point in the future.”
Interesting idea (to say the least) but let’s just say that my colleague actually took him up on his suggestion and built an observation deck outside his church. Let’s further say that this man and others like him actually came to peer in through the observation window at each gathering. After weeks of viewing our forms and practices from the observation deck, what conclusions might this Japanese man reach about our message? Would he go away with even a rudimentary understanding of the unique and radical message that we hold so dear? What exactly would he see after weeks of observation?
Well, amongst other things, he would probably see people stand up, sit down, and bow their heads on cue and in unison many times during a gathering. He would see people up front playing musical instruments and people in the general seating area singing. He would see individuals placing money into a basket as it was passed ceremoniously from person to person and row to row. He would see a professional looking person standing behind a lectern giving a very long talk, followed by more singing, followed by a mass exodus. He might even see smiling faces and genuine warmth displayed, but after weeks of observation, what might he conclude about our message and our views on “formal religious practices"? Would he be able to understand anything at all about the unique and radical message that we hold so dear from the many hours he spent peering in on us through the observation window?
Ah, but we’re forgetting something important you might say. Observation alone isn’t enough. He also needs to hear the message in order to understand and believe. Furthermore, what he might see as formal religious practices is not at all the substance of our message it’s just how we go about “organizing” ourselves. After all, relationships are what matter most.
Yes, that’s certainly true, but that’s precisely the point. The problem isn’t necessarily in what we say, or in what we profess to believe, and it’s definitely not in the message we hold so dear. The problem lies in the centuries-old system that we've built up around the message, particularly the "forms" we deem to be indispensable to every "legitimate" body of believers.
Simply put, if those things are not the substance of our message, why in the world do we organize ourselves as if they are the substance of our message? If relationships matter the most to us, why do we organize ourselves as if formal religious practices matter most? Why don’t we organize ourselves according to the substance of our message or at least be willing to allow the new believers in other nations/cultures the freedom to do so?
Furthermore, if Jesus walked among us in the flesh today, would He come to the defense of our existing forms, practices, and mindset? Would He consider the "system" we have built as indispensable to the message? What insights can we glean from the Scriptures about these crucial issues? What can we learn about the tension between the Gospel, culture, and our prevailing mindset as we go to the nations?
If you have any thoughts fire away ... stay tuned for Part 2 next week!