Monday, February 20, 2006

Foreign Trappings

H. Richard Niebuhr, in his classic book Christ and Culture, makes the following observations:

"Ancient Roman civilization, says Gibbon, was bound to reject Christianity just because Rome was tolerant. This culture, with its great diversity of customs and religions, could exist only if reverence and assent were granted to the many confused traditions and ceremonies of its constituent nationes. Hence it was to be 'expected that they would unite with indignation against any sect of people which should separate itself from the communion of mankind and claiming the exclusive possession of divine knowledge, should disdain every form of worship except its own as impious and idolatrous.' Toward Jews, who held the same convictions as Christians about the gods and idols, Romans could be somewhat tolerant, because they were a separate nation with ancient traditions, and because they were content for the most part to live withdrawn from the social life. Christians, however, were members of Roman society, and in the midst of that society explicitly and implicitly expressed their scorn for the religions of the people. Hence they appeared to be traitors who dissolved the sacred ties of custom and education, violated the religious institutions of their country, and presumptuously despised what their fathers had believed true and reverenced as sacred."

On occasions, we may get a more polite hearing of the Gospel message we present, when we couch that message in foreign cultural trappings. Does that mean we are making any headway in our attempts to see the people from the people group we are trying to win to Christ come to Christ? Not necessarily. In order for the Gospel to truly penetrate a people group and Christian disciples be made, it must be understood and received within the same cultural context of that people group.

The practical implications of this? I believe we need to seek to involve national, indigenous believers in our evangelistic efforts as much as possible from the very beginning. When they are rejected and treated as outcasts within their own society, we need to be there to support and encourage them. In our evangelistic approach, we need to continuously ask ourselves: "Will what we are doing and how we are doing it contribute more in the long run towards helping our people embrace Christ in their own cultural context, or will it further cement in their minds the idea that the message we are proclaiming is essentially a foreign one, only valid for those who choose to live in a different culture?"

1 comment:

Scott said...

Welcome to the "new world", David! I appreciate your first post. You remind us that we are not facing new problems, but rather, issues with which Christians have contended from the beginning. While it is true we are "called out", we should not seek to separate ourselves from the culture in which we live. Nor ought we try to put window dressing on a message that by its own nature is offensive to those who refuse to listen. Too often do we try to do the work of the Holy Spirit and make people listen to God. Your suggestion of support sounds to me like a good paraphrasing of what it means to live in community... one of the fundamental elements of being "Church."