Missions and Theology Chapter

Years ago, I started a book on Missions Theology— 2016, I think. But in 2017, I stopped. Then I worked on a couple of other books on missions, gutting some parts of this book. But then I started to work again on it during this pandemic. I am mostly done. Here is a rough draft of Chapter 11.

Note: I have not added footnotes yet. I don’t want to appear to be violating proper attribution. With that in mind, I would point people to Stephen Bevan’s book “Models of Contextualization,” Paul Hiebert’s article, “Critical Contextualization,” and David Tracy’s book, “Plurality and Ambiguity.” Pretty much everything else is from one of my books or from this website.

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Methods of Contextualizing Theology

Paul Hiebert, in his article “Critical Contextualization” <FN> speaks of three forms of contextualization— Non-Contextualization, Uncritical Contextualization, and Critical Contextualization. Critical Contextualization can be viewed as the healthy balance between the other two. Non-Contextualization essentially brings in the missionary’s own theology and beliefs without separating them— implicitly treating them equally as true. This leads to a foreignness to Christianity, and often simply pushes traditional beliefs under the thin veneer of Christian dogma. Uncritical Contextualization assimilates too well with the local beliefs, losing its prophetic characters. This leads to a form of syncretism. I would argue that Non-contextualization also leads to a form of syncretism, but being the uncritical mixing of God’s message with the missionary’s culture rather than the respondents’ culture.

Figure 11. Critical Contextualization

Figure 11 shows these three categories in terms of a pendulum that can swing to one extreme or another. Perhaps a failure in this figure is that it could be interpreted to suggest that the most likely place to end up is in the middle. However, it is probably that the most likely place to end up is at one of the extremes. In both of these extremes, the message may be seen as irrelevant. For Non-contextualization, it is irrelevant because it answers the concerns and ideas of the missionary’s culture, not that of the respondent culture. For Uncritical Contextualization, it may be culturally relevant in the sense that it connects to the beliefs and symbols of the culture, but is irrelevant since it fails to challenge or instruct.

In between is Critical Contextualization which seeks to combine

  • Taking the concerns of the respondent culture seriously
  • Looking at the respondent culture sympathetically
  • Studying the Bible carefully and thoughtfully

This sort of process can be quite helpful in general, but still leaves a lot of uncertainty when it comes to developing a localized theology. One question is, in fact, who does the localization? Is it the missionary? Is it the new believer’s in the respondent culture? In the next chapter, the tests for good contextual theology suggests that the ideal is that new congregations of the respondent culture should develop their own theology, but with critique from the outside. Such an ideal, however, does not always occur. Quite often the most rigorous defenders and transmitter’s of the missionary’s theology are new believers in the respondent culture. And often those who go against the grain and promote their own form of theology in the culture often are not drawing from the culture, but a conflicting external theology. Here in the Philippines, I know many pastor-theologians who have embraced a sort of “Youtube Theology.” By this I mean that they say, in effect, “I saw this thing on the internet, and it changed my life.” Is it good? Maybe. Is it bad? Probably. Is it local? Almost certainly not.

So how do theologies localize? Stephen Bevans has helped greatly in understanding contextualization of theology by describing 6 major categories of philosophies of contexualization.

Translation

Countercultural

Synthetic (Intertraditional)

Transcendental

Praxis

Anthropological

This book won’t try to describe in detail these categories. Partly, this is because one that I STRONGLY recommend you read Bevan’s book yourself, if you haven’t already.. <FN HERE> One may also find value in reading Moreau’s book that expands on Bevan’s ideas, but from a more Evangelical Christian perspective (Since Bevan’s is Roman Catholic). For me, the greatest value of Moreau’s book is not his model of contextualization, which seems a bit cluttered to me. Rather, the value is his recognition that the six models identified by Bevans should be seen as all having some value within Evangelical Christianity. In other words, instead of asking “Which one is correct” it is better to ask what strengths and weaknesses do each bring to the table for Evangelical Christians.

That’s important, as one of the models, Countercultural Model is sometimes described as “Biblical” or “Prophetic” Contextualization. These labels seek to suggest that it is “more Biblical” or more in line with God than other methods. I like to avoid that. The same thing happens in Pastoral Counseling where a number of different writers describe their own flavor of pastoral or spiritual counseling as “Biblical Counseling.” If a form of counseling or contextualization does not stand up on its own merits, it certainly isn’t improved by calling it Biblical. A better idea is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of different methods and see what can be gained from these methods.

One can picture a triangle with God’s Revelation being at one corner, Human Culture at a second corner, and Self at the third corner, we may see each of these categories as inhabiting a range (locus) on the triangle. This is because none of these categories are static or tightly defined. Each identifies a range of perspectives. However, on Figure 12, instead of trying to identify a range, a number is placed in an area that I feel comes close to where that range would be centered.

Translation Model is seen as the one that seeks to stay closest to God’s revelation. One seeks to translate God’s message as faithfully as possible to a new culture. This seems to make the most sense to Evangelical Christians. It just sounds like what one is supposed to do. It may be seen as the one that is most faithful to God’s revelation. But this may not be true. The book of Acts addressed multiple opportunities for theological contextualization. These include (1) expressing the nature of God and Jesus to philosophers in Athens, (2) the nature of Greeks joining the church, and (3) the question of eating food sacrificed to idols. In none of these cases, does it appear to me that a translation form of contextualization apply. Translation can be done well or poorly, but if done poorly, it is more likely to lead toward slipping to Non-contextualization in Figure 11.

The Anthropological Model approach takes more seriously the culture in which the theology must be utilized. Frankly, this also makes sense. As noted in Chapter 1, Still, looking at the three examples from the book of Acts, it doesn’t seem like this method was used either. Paul did not ignore the controversial topic of resurrection with the philosophers, the Jerusalem council did not overlook the problem of sexual sin so common in Greek culture, and Paul did not overlook the inappropriateness of Christians worshiping idols. Still, theology is a bridge between God’s revelation and Man’s culture, how can one contextualize to a culture unless one focuses on that particular culture? Done poorly, there is a tendency to fall into Uncritical Contextualization as shown in Figure 11.

In some ways, Translation and Anthropological categories can be seen as opposite, but ideally the differences are slight. Suppose one is seeking to contextualize the Gospel to Omani culture, then Translation seeks to make the message of God understandable to produce Christians who are Omanis. The Anthropological Model seeks essentially the same thing, but with greater emphasis on the culture, it could perhaps be thought of as creating Omanis who are Christian. In theory the two goals (Omani Christians and Christian Omanis) are the same but the switching of nouns and adjectives can be seen to suggest a difference in primary identification. For Translation, the people are, perhaps, Christian first and Omani second. For Anthropological, the people are, again perhaps, Omani first and Christian second. Done will, however, the differences should not be major.

So, if the Translation Model comes closest to focus on God’s Revelation, and the Anthropological Model comes closest on the recipient culture, then the Transcendental Model comes closest to the “Individual Reflection” corner.

Figure 12. Contextualization Models for Theology

Transcendental Model is more of a form of personal theological reflection. Chapter 3 speaks of theology as a reflective activity. However, individual or group theological reflection can be given greater or lesser focus from one tradition to another. Some seminaries, for example, encourage theological reflection, while others focus more on theological indoctrination. For Transcendental contextualization, one looks at Scripture or theology or religious practice in terms of how one reacts, emotionally, to it. One reflects on the reaction, whether positive or negative. This sort of reflection is similar to many other forms of individual theological reflection. It is iterative and process driven. The process is supposed to give opportunity to address theological issues through the lens of context. This for theological contextualization is essentially that broader application of David Tracy’s Transcendental Theological Reflection. <FN>

The Individual Reflection corner, seems to be more individualistic. That can be a bad thing. It can also be seen as potentially disconnected from God’s revelation AND respondent culture. Again, however, it depends on how it is put into practice. An advantage of this reflective process is that one does take time to address one’s own prejudices. Ignoring prejudices does not make them go away. It just makes them not dealt with. Further, it seems like it is quite beneficial both for a missionary in a new culture, and a young believer in a new reached culture.

The Praxis Model is also more towards the individual reflection corner. Like the transcendental model, it is iterative and reflective. The cycle is action and reflection. This is especially popularized in Liberation Theologies. In these theologies, the emphasis is on action prior to reflection (ignoring whether this is even possible). Many Liberation Theologies utilize a Marxist framework in terms of the reflection. That, however, is not universal. For an Evangelical, one can use God’s Word as the primary canon, rather than a historical materialism.

The Countercultural Model seems to have more than one flavor. Some see it as the most “conservative” being the closest to being prone to Non-contextualization (referring again to Figure 11). To me when one is going so far in that direction, one is actually moving more towards the Translation Model. Counterculture IS NOT the same as Anti-cultural,

To me, this model focuses more on the idea of “good scandal,” which will be covered in greater detail in the next chapter. Jesus was A contextual theology should feel natural and normal to the culture it serves, and yet should prophetically challenge that same culture in key ways. This seems the best understanding of countercultural. In most cases, what are considered countercultures are sub-cultures of a broader culture that fits into that culture in MOST ways, but diverges in a small number of key ways.

The Synthetic Model can be thought as referring to Intertraditionality. It honors different perspectives and allows them to interact dialogically to come up with a synthesis of perspectives. Truthfully, it is quite possible that it doesn’t really fit into the triangle chart at all. But if it did, it seems like putting it in the center would be accurate, at least to the extent that one takes different sources without focusing on any one over the other. A clear strength of this is that it does promote dialogue between different perspectives and different peoples.

Missions Theology

You may have noticed that this book is about Missions Theology, but in this chapter we are talking about the methodology of theology development, outside of Missions Theology. So where does Missions Theology fit in?

Missions Theology is a Practical Theology which means that it is always going to be iterative, relating experience actions and experience to God’s word and one’s own faith tradition. As such it aligns somewhat with the Praxis Model. However, the reflection is likely to be different than that of Liberation Theologies, for example. Very commonly, it seems to me, the reflection stage in the process for many in missions is almost strictly pragmatic. They use what I sometimes jokingly describe as “Engineering Ethics.” (I used to be a Mechanical Engineer, so it makes sense to me.) There is a real topic known as Engineering Ethics, but when I am using the term here, what I mean is, “That which works is good and that which doesn’t work is bad.”

But pure pragmatics doesn’t make good Missions Theology. If Missions is, first of all, the activity of God to which we are invited to join, then our theology and actions must be aligned to both the will and activity of God. There is a fairly popular form of churchplanting that actively discourages ministering to the physicaly, psychoemotional, economic, and social needs of people. (I might even argue that it discourages ministering to the spiritual needs as well.) The reason is that it slows down evangelism and church multiplication. In my mind, this is an excellent example of justifying a theology because “it works” even if it is in conflict to God’s work and will. Part of the reflection must be based on God’s revelation.

But Missions Theology must also explicitly deal with culture. I don’t believe one can honestly have a sound Missions Theology that does not address culture seriously. With that in mind, one must also reflect on the activity through the framework of culture. Perhaps a way to look at it is in terms of the Action-Reflection cycle in chapter 3, but with three points rather than two.

Figure 13. Missions Theology Process

Summary

Early on in this book, it was stated that all theology is contextual and contexts are dynamic. As such, theology can and should change. While change is necessary, not all change is good. Wise people do disagree as to the process by which theology should change. That being said, in general, one can say that good theology must be true to God’s Word, take seriously the context, and involve a process of intentional iterative reflection.

Missions Theology Book Update

I have decided to work more on my book on Missions Theology. I had started to work on it four years ago, but then stopped when working on my book on Interreligious Dialogue (See My Books above). But I decided to work again. A few updates:

—The working title has changed. Now, “‘Walking With’ as a Metaphor for Missions Theology“

—As the title suggests, I try to center most of the book at least loosely on this metaphor. Key topics in this area are:

Chapter 3. ‘Walking With’— As Metaphor of Missions. This looks at this term and variations of it as it is used in the Bible, and consider how it may relate to Christian missions.

Chapter 4. “Sent Ahead”— The Great Commissions. This looks at missions in terms of God sending out His people, focusing on several versions of the Great Commission in the Gospels and the Book of Acts.

Chapter 5. “Sent Ahead”— Missionaries in the Bible. This continues the idea of the previous chapter, but more specifically in terms of missionaries (apostles) in the Bible as Sent Out ones.

Chapter 6. “Following Behind”— The Missio Dei. This chapter looks at missions from the opposite perspective. while Chapters 4 and 5 see missions as God sending out His people before Him, this chapter sees missions in terms of God going out on missions, and preparing for His people to follow Him in missions.

Chapter 7. “Staying Behind”— The Theology of “Anti-Missions.” This chapter is a bit self-explanatory. Christianity has vascillated between promoting missions, denigrating missions, and being indifferent to missions. This chapter is on the theologies of those who have opposed Christian missions.

—The biggest topic I am covering outside of this metaphor is evaluating contextualized/local theologies. How might one identify a good contextualization as opposed to a bad one.

Good Theology Requires Good Anthropology

Just a few thoughts that were bumping around in my head today. I figured I better write them down before they fade away. I may edit this post, or replace it with a new post later.

Good Theology Requires Good Anthropology (as it says above). I believe this statement is true for several reasons.

  1. All theology is contextual. If that statement is true, as I believe it is, then the context in which a theology is designed for must be understood. This requires cultural or social anthropology. Since I have talked about this one so much in the past, I feel that I don’t need to dwell on it further here.
  2. Our understanding of God is commonly based on an understanding of ourselves. Much of our understanding of God is ex negativo. We understand God by what He is not. Most commonly, this draws on our understanding of ourselves. When we say that God is omnipotent, some people like to say, “That means God can do everything and anything.” But that is not really what that means. A better understanding is more like, “So, you know how everything and everyone we know are limited in terms of power? Well, God is not like that.” An awful lot of the attributes of God are really just contrasts to ourselves and our perspectives. But since mankind is created in God’s image (imago Dei), an understanding of ourselves also is suggestive of God (creativity, imagination, humor, love of variety, desire for attachment and socialization). Finally, we also use metaphors to understand God and many of these are tied to humans or human qualities (like Shepherd or Heavenly Father). Since metaphors for God inform by the tension of the logical disconnect between God and Man, we understand God more by understanding who we are, and who we are not.
  3. God’s special revelation of His Word was created within human interaction to be understandable by humans. Humanity is part of God’s general revelation (as part of His creation, and part of history). Therefore, to understand these revelations in developing a theology takes a solid understanding of what it means to be human.
  4. Theology is an attempt to understand God’s mission regarding mankind and His creation. Soteriology and Hamartiology don’t make a whole lot of sense if we don’t have a healthy understanding of mankind as being both loved by God, and separated from God. We can’t really come to terms with our responsibility as witnesses of Christ, stewards of His creation, and servants of God, if we don’t come to terms with some way the challenges of individual free will, social responsibility, and the will of God.

I think I will stop here for now. But I definitely feel I have seen some pretty toxic theologies out there. Some make an honest attempt to be Biblical— at least if “biblical” means picking certain verses that support the narrative of choice. I believe, however, a clear understanding of who humans are (individually and corporately) would greatly reduce some of the problems that come up in theology (systematic and practical).

Missions Theology Chapter 2

Years ago I started to write a book on Missions Theology. I was teaching a course on it, and as usual, I had mixed feelings about the books I had available to use. Therefore, I started writing.

But then I stopped. For one thing, I haven’t had to teach the course again, so I lost part of my motivation. Second, two courses came along that I had much greater motivation to work on books:

The first book I included a LOT of chapters that were going to being in my book on Missions Theology. The second book had less, but did have a fair bit on theological reflection and the case study method, which I consider important for Missions Theology.

So I am not sure if I will finish this book, repeating from my other books, or finish this book only with the topics that I haven’t covered elsewhere, or don’t finish the book.

So here is the first/rough draft of Chapter 2————

Relevant and Faithful Theology

A relevant question that could come up here is which is more difficult? Is it harder to to make theology relevant/resonant with a community, or faithful to God’s Word. At first glance, it may seem that it really depends on the person. For example, an untrained person who is fully enculturated (born into) culture “B” would be quite well-suited to providing a cutlurally relevant theology that sadly is not true to God’s Word. That may be true.

On the other hand, a seminary student enculturated and trained in culture “A” could be reasonably thought competent to provide a theology that is true to God’s word, but is not relevant/resonant in culture “B.” This also makes sense.

Before we delve into this further, this may be a good place to think about the differences between the terms relevant and resonant in the context of culture. According to Mike Aruaz:

Cultural relevance is achieved when the audience recognizes what you’ve created as something that reflects their culture.”

Cultural Resonance is achieved when your audience uses what you’ve created to talk to each other about something meaningful that they’ve been observing in their culture.”

Using cultural symbols may make a message relevant, but it may not strike a resonant chord with the deep interests and concerns of a people.

Now let’s consider Figure 7. It shows two Culture circles— Culture A and Culture B. Anything within those circles are culturally relevant and/or resonant. The figure is a bit false because certainly there are things that are relevant to both cultures at the same time, so certainly two cultures much overlap in some ways. For ease of visualization, however, they are shown as fully separate. Within each of thdse circles is a smaller circle of theologies that are relevant/resonant to the respective cultures. Therefore, there were be theologies that are seen as relevant to that culture, providing answers to their concerns— regardless of whether the theologies are true or not.

Overlapping God’s Revelation with it, creates smaller regions. God’s Word as canon, provides a standard or limiter of what is acceptable to God. If we accept that God’s Revelation has a message that is, ultimately, relevant to all cultures, there will be an overlap of God’s Revelation with every cultural circul, including Cultures “A” and “B.” And, likewise, if God’s Revelation is relevant to all cultures, then there should be the potential for culturally relevant theologies that are true to God’s Word for all cultures.

The overlapping circles creates several regions.

  • Region 1 is a contextual theology that is both comprehenisble to Culture “A” and is true to God’s message. (Region 4 corresponds to this but for Culture “B”.) This is in contrast to Region 5 which are culturally relevant theologies that are not true to God’s message for Culture “A” (with the corresponding Region 6 for Culture “B”).
  • Region 2 is how God’s message is relevant or resonant to Culture A, as Region 3 is for Culture “B.”
  • One could look at Regions 7, for Culture “A,” and 8, for Culture “B” as aspects of their respective cultures that are not affected by God’s revelation. For example, the food they eat, the solutions they come up to environmental needs, much of the music and customs they practice may be unaffected by God’s Word. God’s message does not call on eradicaton of all cultural variation between peoples. Thus, Christians within a culture can still be “at home” in their culture while being true to God’s Word.

Figure 7. Culture and Theology

Now, let’s return to the two scenarios at the beginning of this chapter. Consider John, a new believer raised up in predominantly non-Christian Region B. With limited understanding of God’s Word, it is more likely that his attempts to theologize God’s message to his own people will drift into Region 6 (culturally relevant theoligies that are not well-grounded on God’s Word). Additionally, John’s lack of experience with other cultures may hinder him as well in identifying what is culturally important and what is not. He may slide into ethnocentrism (Culture “B” must be right and good) or exoticism (we are messed up and must become like Culture “A’)

It in the second scenario, consider James, a Christian from Culture “A” who is seeking to serve as a missionary in Culture “B.” Without solid training long-term training in Culture “B” it is more likely that his theology is going to not be in Region 4, but in Region 1. He is likely to express God’s Message to Culture B in the theological construct relevant to Culture “A.”

James’s situation may even be worse than Thomas. He is not only inadequately trained in Culture “B,” he may also be inadequately trained in God’s revelation. Often in seminary, there is greater effort to teach the theology of the denominational sub-culture, than on teaching the God’s word. James may have a dual disadvantage.

But which limitation is greater for the seminary graduate? It is arguably the second one. Spending time in Culture “B” will gradually reveal the nuances of the culture… and subtleties that are beyond him can be filled in by host believers eventually. However, the expansion of one’s understanding of God’s Revelation to the point that it is clearly seen as it relates to a different culture is much harder. One might even suggest that without the Holy Spirit’s illumination, the task would be impossible.

Two Example from the Bible

A.  As the Israelites escaped from Egypt, they eventually arrived at Mt. Sinai. There, Moses went up to commune with God, while the Isrealites and the other non-Israelites who had escaped with them waited. When Moses failed to come down from the mountain after a long time, the people feared and asked Aaron to deal with the situation. In Exodus 32, Aaron makes an altar and a golden calf. Why would he do this?

In Egypt, the bull is sacred, and so he may have been drawing answers from the culture he was raised in (heterodox theology from culture A). On the other hand, knowing that they are heading to Canaan, where the bull is a symbol of Baal, “the local god,” this may have been a heterodox theology seeking relevance in culture B.

Before one get’s too critical, it must be noted that there are considerable similarities between orthodox Israelite Theology (as guided by the Mosaic Law) and Egyptian theology. According to Herodotus (The Horizon Book of Lost Worlds, by Leonard Cotrell, page 288ff), the Egyptians:

  • Practiced circumcision
  • Had a priesthood
  • Practice rites of cleanliness
  • Had rules regarding “clean” and “unclean” foods
  • Had animal sacrifice with requirements that the animals are unblemished.
  • Maintained rules of endogamy (prohibitions against marrying outside of one’s ethnicity)

In Egypt, the Bull was sacred to Apis, a god popularly worshiped in Memphis (Egypt) and often seen as a go-between of man and the higher gods. It is hardly surprising that Aaron might go in that direction. In Exodus 32:6, part of the worship was to “play,” suggesting the sexual activities associated with the Canaanite faith. This sympathetic magic was tied to fertility of families as well as the land. Apis, in Egypt, was also often seen as a god of fertility.

Aaron, with limited understanding of God’s will, made a pretty good attempt at guessing what God would want based on his understanding of Egyptian culture, and perhaps his limited understanding of Canaanite culture as well.

But he was still wrong. It took God’s Word, coming through Moses, to clarity what God expected of them. The result was something that would “make sense” to most of the people, while still deeply challenging them to change in some key ways.

Interestingly, God’s revelation to Moses actually was not simply to one culture, but to two. The revelation was to Israel, a nomadic people– but also to Israel of the future, a sedentary people.

B.  In the New Testament, we find the Apostles and church leaders struggling with the issue of how God’s revelation would apply to non-Jews. The Apostles and church leaders would be seen as well-versed in Scripture, as well as the words of Jesus. Yet, they truly struggled with this. The Jerusalem Council, in Acts 15, was where this was dealt with as a body. The action of the Holy Spirit helped to sway the body to the understanding that Greeks do not have to become Jews to become Christians. Even after the council, however, struggles remained, as seen in differences between Paul’s understanding and the council decision (there is no indication at least that Paul rejected the eating of blood for Gentiles). It is also seens in the Epistle to the Galatians (if one accepts that that letter was written after the Jerusalem Council), where people who were apparently well-versed in the Hebrew Bible differed considerably from Paul and the Apostles in its application to Greeks.

Summary

It is easy to use or create theologies that are not in line with Scripture when reaching out to a predominantly non-Christian culture. Young believers in the culture may lack the Biblical backing needed. Seminarians from another culture may lack cultural knowledge, AND may be better trained in the theology of their own culture or sub-culture than they are in God’s Word.

Discussion

1. John in this chapter has an “emic” (insider’s) perspective of the culture in which he is ministering. James in this chpater has an “etic” (outsider’s) perspective. Both can provide hindrances to effective ministry. How might James and John do to limit the problems with their own perspectives?

Christian Missions is Not “If it Works, Do it.” (Quote)

“Jesus at the outset of his ministry was forced to contend with three of the most powerful temptations Satan could offer— expediency, popularity and power (Mt 4:1-11). It would have been expedient, logical and even strategic for Jesus to have ended his forty-day fast by turning stones into bread. He could have attracted the attention, interest and admiration of an entire nation had he leaped from the top of the temple and landed on his feet. Most of all, he could have ruled over all of the earth if he had just bowed down to Satan.

Think of it— Satan offered Jesus the opportunity to complete all he came to earth to accomplish— in one stroke he would rule the world. Would something like this be a temptation to Mission, Inc.? At long last the Great Commission could be fulfilled in our generation by our efforts and ingenuity. Jesus had a very different agenda, however. His was to be a spiritual kingdom based on unwavering obedience to all that he had learned from his Father. He engaged in no sloganeering to “complete the task,” no triumphalistic Great Commission countdowns, no strategic plan and timetable other than the certainty that he would be forsaken by his followers and left to experience a traumatic, lonely death.

We suggest that those of us on this missions pilgrimage reexamine our rhetoric and publicity. Let us join in the sober recognition that the spiritual kingdom of Jesus is distinctly and irreversibly countercultural. It is all about communities witnessing to Christ’s kingdom without the convictions of worldly expediency, glamour and power. Yet without fanfare it transforms the world.

-James F. Engel and William A Dyrness, “Changing the Mind of Missions” (InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 180.

 

A Theology of Celebration (Part I)

There has been a move within the “Cell Church” movement to describe Sunday morning gathering as “Celebration.” I never really cared for the terminology, although I grant at least the somewhat clever alliteration of church involving Cell Groups (another term I don’t care for) and Celebration. It seems to me that “celebration” is a sub-biblical understanding of gathering as a church body. But then, I don’t think “Worship Service” does better by combining two inadequate terms.

That being said, one thing I do like about calling the morning gathering Celebration is that it embraces a positive Christian understanding of the term. With the popularization of Spiritual Disciplines among Protestants in the 20th century, the term celebration has been seen more positively with both Richard Foster (in “Celebration of Discipline”) and Dallas Willard (in “The Spirit of the Disciplines”) describing celebration as a discipline that leads to spiritual growth.

Some, however, struggle with this. A wonderful

Image result for babette's feast
Babette’s Feast (1997)

Danish film that came out in 1987 was titled “Babette’s Feast” (based on a story by Isak Dinesen). The setting was a Protestant group that embraced a certain ascetic frugality. It appears as if celebration and joy were seen as wrong.

 

A friend of mine, a missionary, visited a group of devout Christians in an Asian mountain village. Discovering that one of them was having a birthday, the missionary asked if there would be a birthday party. The answer was “No.” In fact, there would be no public recognition at all. “Everything is about God. Every day is God’s. Isn’t it hubris to say to take even one day a year and say that it is about me instead of God?” That missionary was rather impressed by their piety. He may have a point, but I am wondering whether this is a healthy belief system.

A friend of mine, admittedly Jehovah’s Witness, not Christian, was talking to me about the soul-searching he was having about taking a piece of cake at the office we worked at. His religion tells him that birthday celebrations are forbidden because these celebrations are “pagan.” However, at the office, there really is no party. The secretary simply brings out some cake for people to eat when it is someone’s birthday. As my friend would say, “It feel like it is not wrong to eat cake. It is not a party, and I am not part of a celebration.” His religious training, however, leads him to a lot of guilt.

Facebook (and to a lesser extent Youtube) has become the dumping ground for people to share why celebrations are “pagan,” “devilish,” or just plain wrong. A few months ago the issue was Halloween as demonic because of its loose connection with Samhain (an animistic Druidic festival), while ignoring its strong connection to All Hallows’ Day. A few weeks later no one complains about American Thanksgiving (strangely since a stronger case could be made for its pagan roots than the others), but then complaints start up again for Christmas (linking it to a pagan holiday that doesn’t even line up with it). Now it is Valentine’s Day and people on FB again are suggesting that it is also celebration of a pagan holiday. Soon, it will repeat for Easter/Resurrection Sunday (even though it is the weakest of any of the arguments).

Why do Christians seem so quick to be bothered about celebrations— actually searching for arguments why they should not participate in celebrations? Why do so many Protestants here in the Philippines believe that culturally significant local festivities are wrong, priding themselves with their disinvolvement, while often embracing celebrations from other cultures? Why is it that when my daughter’s classmates discover that she is Baptist they react with pity because of the presumption that Baptists are against anything that brings happiness?

Perhaps there is a need for a good theological understanding of celebrations.  I would like to start the ball rolling on this one in Part 2.  You can Click on it Here.

<As one who is not much of a celebrant or any sort, it feels strange that this is a topic I would take up. However, from a missions standpoint, it is quite relevant. One of the most crucial ways that Christianity remains foreign is to reject local festivities. And one of the ways that problematic aspects of festivities are passed on generation after generation is when Christians ignore them rather than seek to reimagine and redeem them.>

 

 

 

The Counterproductive Missionary?

So… let’s talk about some well-known expansions of Christianity. One of these was the growth of the church in the Roman Empire, and adjoining territories during the first 3 centuries. The church grew rapidly. If I remember right (and am quite prepared to be wrong), the church averaged growth of around 20% per year. That is pretty huge. Both Islam and Christianity is recently growing around 3%, more or less, per year. Some smaller religions are growing at a faster rate, but 20% is pretty huge for any group.

China has been an area of great growth of the church (both “underground” and “above ground”) in the 20th century. In recent years, people have been writing about the apparent growth of the underground church in Iran, mirroring in some ways the growth of Christianity in the Iranian diaspora. Perhaps a fourth one worth mentioning is the African Indigenous (or Initiated) Church (AIG) movement.

What do these movements have in common?  One is that there was persecution. That cannot be discounted. However, persecution is not a magic growth formula. In fact, the Chinese church has undergone several waves of persecution going back to the 9th century AD. Of those waves of persecution, it seems as if the only that last of these resulted in growth (Maoist persecution).

Persecution can lead to resiliency, but that certainly doesn’t guarantee growth— perhaps nothing guarantees growth. But a few more things seem worth noting for these growth movements.  There Christianity is

  1.  …a religion of (relative) poverty. In some cases, Christianity in these movements was the religion of the poor, and the poorest of the poor. In other cases, Christianity is impoverished in terms of structure. Religious structure, in this case, refers to some things like complex organization, physical religious buildings, and paid clerical class within the church.
  2. … a religion of the people. It is started, expanded and propagated by locals, rather than foreigners, and often by laity rather than clergy.
  3. … a religion in which missionaries are not active. Or… if they are active, they are taking on a background, supportive role rather than a leading or controlling role. In fact, the AIC movement often found itself in conflict with missionaries. In China, the Christian church really began to grow after missionaries left the country. Successful missionary work done by foreigners there is now more often in terms of assisting with training or other support roles rather than leadership or apostolic tasks. Much of the early church growth in the Roman Empire happened in the 2nd and 3rd centuries when Apostles/Missionaries as a group were slowly fading away. By the 3rd century, they were barely recognized as a group. I would also suggest that the Iran church have thrived in the absence of foreign missionaries planting and leading churches, while in Iraq, the access of foreign mission workers has NOT been a boon. (Again, open to correction in this area.)

So suppose these three things are true? What does this mean for foreign missions? I would suggest three things.

  • Missionaries today seem to be selected wrong. Many mission agencies, including the main one in my denomination, tend to select missionaries based on their “evangelistic spirit” and sense of calling to plant churches. Maybe, however, this is NOT what is needed. Maybe we need missionaries who support locals who are called to be evangelists, apostles, and churchplanters. Perhaps missionaries should be selected on their passion to serve locals rather than lead, and support locals rather than replace.
  • Be very careful as to where missional churches send short-term mission teams. In many places in the world they can easily do great damage. And in places where they can go, they are more likely to be useful in supportive tasks requested by the receiving Christians, not doing the stuff that their sending churches think is needed.
  • However, missionaries, in the broader sense of the term, should be everywhere. The church is universal and we tend to remember this when we learn and grow with and from each other. Perhaps this means having people who are less thought of as “missionaries” (leaders, evangelists, churchplanters) and more as cross-cultural workers, supporting local work, as requested by locals.

This last point may seem a bit odd, but it is pretty straightforward. When Christians come to the US to serve, they do so without much “hoopla.” Some may pastor churches or be involved in various ministries, but there is no presumption that as a foreigner that they must have a very specific role of leadership or task. Rather, the assumption is that there are needs, and if that person can meet that locally-determined need, then they can serve. What makes sense in the US, should perhaps be recognized as making sense elsewhere as well.

 

 

 

Can You Learn Something Good From “Playing God”?

We generally use the term “Playing God” to

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describe a bad thing. But let’s try to think of some ways that are a bit more positive. Being a parent (or a pet owner) and leading a government involves a bit of playing God— embracing some of the roles that God has, but on a smaller scale. In fact a couple of metaphors for God are “Heavenly Father” and “King.” However, I would look at being a Community Developer as also being an analog for many of the roles of God  A community developer seeks to take on a redemptive role among people, and to help and transform.

What are some things one learns as a community developer?

  1.  One generally learns that what people need and what they think they need are not the same. While a CD practitioner may start with paying attention to felt needs, staying with felt needs usually means working on fixing symptoms rather than curing the disease(s). Ultimately, that doesn’t bring long-term change.
  2.  Symptoms of a problem are less important than the underlying problems and one must really learn to seek the underlying problems and work on them.
  3.  Solving problems for people tends to backfire. Solving problems for people tends to make them more dependent… and that dependence often makes the underlying problems worse, not better.
  4.  CD practioners are generally seen as needing to live with and identify with the people they serve.
  5. Serving is the critical term. The goal is not to lead long-term, but to train, empower, and release people to lead themselves.

Let’s just stop at these five and consider how these may be analogous to some of the areas of theology that we struggle with.

  1.  God does not always give us what we want. God does not always answer our prayers as we wish and this does not always give us what we want. This is based on  His love for us, not His indifference or his anger.
  2.  God focuses more on our underlying problems (such as our moral brokenness and social disconnectedness) rather than the symptoms that we tend to talk about more, and more interested in having “fixed.” God may uses awesome signs to open the door… but seeks to move from there to more core issues soon. These core issues are not fixed by miraculous signs.
  3.  God doesn’t hand out “prosperity” because it is typically bad for us. As broken, selfish, disconnected people, the power associated with prosperity is likely to make our situation worse, not better.
  4.  God does not help us from a distance. God is not fully transcendent. God is very much immanent— in the temple, in the incarnation of Christ, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  The presence of God is not irrelevant but key to our transformation.
  5.  God chooses to work primarily through people. Dependence on God is tied to recognizing our need for God, but is NOT tied in God trying to keep us incompetent. God seeks our development and empowerment to serve. God serves us so we can serve Him, and others. We are blessed by God, not to live in a state of being blessed, but to be blessings for others.

 

 

Missions Theology— Problems of Reaction

Consider Quote from Corbett and Fikkert’s book When Helping Hurts:

As numerous scholars have noted, prior to the twentieth century, evangelical Christians played a large role in ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the poor. However, this all changed at the start of the twentieth century as evangelicals battled theological liberals over the fundamental tenets of Christianity. Evangelicals interpreting the rising social gospel movement, which seemed to equate all humanitarian efforts with bringing in Christ’s kingdom, as part of the overall theological drift of the nation. As evangelicals tried to distance themselves from the social gospel movement, they ended up in large-scale retreat from the front lines of poverty alleviation. This shift away from the poor was so dramatic that church historians refer to the 1900-1930 era as the “Great Reversal” in the evangelical church’s approach to social problems.

It is important to note that the Great Reversal preceded the rise of the welfare state in America. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty did not occur until the 1960s, and even FDR’s relatively modest New Deal policies were not launched until the 1930s. In short, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation was fundamentally due to shifts in theology and not— as many asserted— to government programs that drove the church away from ministry to the poor.    <Corbett and Fikkert, page 45>

In the 1960s another shift reaction occurred but this time in Missions. During this time, theological liberalism was having a growing impact on Western Protestant missions due to the growth of belief in pluralism among Protestants, and a unique interpretation of Missio Dei. The former reduced the feeling that non-Christians needed an allegiance shift to Christ. The latter saw Missio Dei, the understanding that God is working on mission everywhere at all times on earth, as making the role of Missio Ecclessiae doubtful. In fact, from a mission perspective, if God is working in other cultures, for a missionary to come in an challenge the beliefs and practices of a people, could it not be a working against God? As such Missions is seen as a ministry of Presence rather than Proclamation.

In reaction to this, there seemed to be a narrowing of mission work among Evangelicals to proclamation and church-planting. Exacerbating this was a focus on what I would call Apocalypticism. That is, Christ is returning any moment, so what should we work on right this minute to be ready for this return? While this focus may seem reasonable, the result was that anything that might be considered a “long-term investment” in terms of ministry (such as poverty alleviation, cultural transformation, community development) were seen as too slow and not a priority. Further, Kingdom of God over the decades tended to be associated more and more with Heaven so problems on earth (ecological and social injustice) were seen as lacking value.  We still find these problems. I was reading a recent mission CPM book that discouraged social ministry or even friendship evangelism as “slowing things down.”

I could go on. But let’s stop here a moment and think what’s been going on:

  • Evangelical Missions has often been reactionary. Rather than centered on God’s word, it tended all too often to react against theological liberals, or pluralists, or liberationists, Catholics or others. (Often these other groups were seen as “the enemy.”) As such, Evanglicals often were guilty of what they charge others (of not treating the Bible as authoritative and basis for faith and practice).
  • Relatedly, short-term marketing choices were often given formal “blessing” regardless of whether they were based on solid principles.

There has been success in Evangelical Missions over the last 6 to 7 decades, but there has been a cost. It has lost relevance in many sectors not because of opposition but intentionally pulling out of those sectors. Failures in social justice and poverty alleviation, and focusing on Heaven only, have resulted in reinforcing the charges of Marxists that religion is about serving as an opiate for the masses. Failures to transform (or even try to transform) societies and cultures has led many to see as a failure of Christ and Christianity, rather than simply a failure of Missions theology. Focusing on UPGs (and an abusive use of Matthew 24:11) led to poorly considered and invasive tactics.

This post is long enough. But we can clearly do better.

Theology in Terms of Locality and Catholicity

I have had several conversations in recent weeks with different people on this issue. Should theology by honored in terms of being cultural or supracultural. Stephen Bevans likes to say that all theology is contextual. However, as one of my dialogue partners noted, it could be taken to mean that their is norm… or nothing that is distinctly Christian in Christian theology.

On the other hand, those that embrace a more supracultural view of theology, are commonly doing no such thing. Rather they are granting divine favor on theology that has been custom-fitted to their own culture.

We see this controversy recently in terms of honor-shame theology versus guilt-innocence theology. Some from the guilt-innocence side of things (read penal substitutionary atonement if one prefers) feel like the other side is creating its own theology to fit honor-shame cultures. Is that correct? Yes and No. But Yes and No also applies to the guilt-innocence cultures as well.

The Bible uses many metaphors to explain the relationship of God to Mankind, and His activity to restore us to Him. The Bible has so many metaphors— some of them resonate with guilt-innocence folks, while some resonate with with honor-shame cultures. Penal substitutionary atonement as a theological construct draws from the metaphor of justification and the courtroom. To a lesser extent it draws from metaphor behind propitiation— the image of God as having wrath that must be appeased through sacrifice. However, there are metaphors that resonate more with honor-shame cultures. One of these is adoption. One could even argue that redemption is closer to patronage in honor-shame cultures (although redemption could be forced into the the justification model I suppose). Ultimately, these metaphors are equally valid and Biblical. all of them are supracultural in the sense that they are canonical. However, they are also cultural in the sense that they may connect in especially important ways to certain cultures (and less so with other cultures).

So when a group claims that their preferred Biblical metaphors or concepts are supracultural (and thus “good theology”) unlike the Biblical metaphors or concepts that those from another culture prefers, they are simply embracing a different form of localization of theology.

Theology, at its essence, bridges the gap between God’s revelation and Man’s condition. God’s revelation is unchanging, while Man’s condition is both varied and changing. As such, theology should be constantly changing, connected to the changing state of mankind, and connected to the unchanging revelation of God.

I tend to like “strange attractors” from Chaos Theory. In some non-linear systems the condition at any point of time is changing and non-repetitive, but still appears to be controlled by some points that provide limits to the motion. Theology seems to fit this as well since theology is constantly changing and non-repetitive, but I would suggest that it has (at least) two strange attractors.

  • The revealing of God. Theology must3D Lorenz Attractor reveal God, since it is based on God who seeks to reveal Himself to mankind.
  • The relevance to Man. Theology is meant to benefit mankind.

Theology that fails to reveal God, and/or fails to be relevant to mankind, is flawed.

So what does this have to do with the church. The church is where theology is lived out. It is lived out most obviously in terms of practical theology, but ultimately it is bound to all aspects of its theology. As much as some church bodies express the belief that “theology is not important” it truly is. Ignoring it doesn’t make it cease to exist or cease to be relevant… it just is moved into the church’s “blind spot”— affecting the church without the church aware of it.

So let’s move this forward. Suppose a local church has a local theology. To what extent is it bound to be responsible to churches of other cultures? I would say— Quite a Bit. First of all, our theologies are linked by common revelation from God. To replace that is to drift from being Christian. However, additionally, the local church may be tied to its local culture, but it is also tied to the universal church— that mystical bond of all churches often called “the body of Christ.” This catholicity should never replace its locality, nor should its locality replace its catholicity.

Consider a bit of practical theology in terms of sacrament/ordinance. What should the elements of the Eucharist be? Tradition has it to be unleavened bread, and wine. Some groups have change things by using leavened bread or using grape juice (“new wine” if you prefer). Here in the Cordillera Mountains of the Philippines, I have often thought that many of the groups here would do well to use kamote (yams) and coffee instead. The logic of this is that bread and wine were the staples of the Jews in Palestine, while kamote and coffee are the equivalent in the Cordilleras. As such, the latter better point to Christ as one who sustains us. The bread and wine point not only to Christ as sacrifice, but to the passover and God’s sustaining of His people. Kamote and Coffee may express this better for people around where I live.

But there is another take. The Eucharist is among the oldest traditions of the church. It has been practiced for nearly 2000 years and in all parts of the world. This 4-D aspect of the church is not irrelevant. When a local church holds Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion), we are also connecting ourselves to the the practice of the local churches across time and space. Perhaps bread and wine is more appropriate because it reminds us of our mystical union with the Body of Christ.

In one of my conversations, I think we sort of agreed that while one can say that “all theology is contextual,” it may be more useful to say, “All good theology must address context.” To ignore culture simply means that one syncretizes with culture unknowingly.

Addressing context doesn’t always mean localizing. Addressing context can also mean embracing the fact that the local is part of the universal.