Suspended in a hammock: contextualizing the good news

Photo credit: SadieMaeGlutz (Creative Commons)

We have friends in India who are seeing large numbers of both high-caste Hindus and people from other religions become followers of Jesus. They use the sacred books of those religions to point to Christ. When they have clearly demonstrated Christ within those books, they can then point them to the Jesus of the Bible. They are contextualizing the Gospel in a way that makes it understandable to those they are trying to reach.

There are pointers to Jesus in every culture.

The book, Bruchko, describes the extraordinary story of 19 year-old Bruce Olson, who sought to bring the Gospel to a murderous tribe in the South American jungle. These people had no words in their language that could express some of the concepts of a belief in Jesus. Bruce used some remarkably creative ways to bring across these ideas.

For example, there was no word to express "faith" in the Motilone language. The Indians used to sleep on hammocks suspended from the rafters of their communal homes. The best word for faith that Bruce found was the word that meant to "tie in one's hammock." It beautifully expresses faith as suspending one's life from Christ and the people instinctively understood its meaning.

Some years ago we started a church in the low income housing projects. One day, a good friend from England, Norman Barnes, visited. He clearly demonstrated the efficacy of the blood of Christ in forgiving sins to our friends there. He had them each write down the things they had done that were bad, that they were ashamed of, or issues they dealt with like anger, onto a sheet of paper. When each one had completed their list, they put their papers into a pan. He covered it with a red cloth symbolizing the blood of Jesus. He took the pan outside, removed the cloth and set fire to the paper. Then he asked them to pull their sins out of the pan. Of course, they were just ash.

The kids talked about how the blood of Jesus dealt with their sins for weeks after that. Every time a person wore something red they would remind each other: "She's wearing red: do you remember how the blood of Jesus covers the things we've done wrong."

How can we contextualize the good news for the people we come across day by day? How can this be used to reach out to other cultures too?

Missions: the bad!

Stained glass
Photo credit: Felix Krohn (Creative Commons)

Tony and I were in Nepal training church planters:

"What should simple/organic church should look like?" someone asked me.

My answer surprised them: "It should look Nepalese!"

I have a photo in my possession that epitomizes the problem with much of what is seen on the mission field today. The picture, taken in a culture hostile to the gospel, is of a secret church meeting taking place where the authorities cannot find them. A group of new disciples,dressed in rags, squats on a riverbank. A man, clad in a suit and tie and holding a large black book, stands in front of them, obviously teaching them. He looks totally out of place. What have we done?

Western missionaries have exported their culture as well as Christ!

In Hindu culture, the sign of marriage is a red dot on the forehead. It has the same significance as our wedding ring. Missionaries asked their new converts to remove the dot because it is a Hindu symbol. Naturally, women do not wish to appear unmarried, so this is a big hindrance to the spread of the Gospel. The missionaries simply didn't understand the local culture. There are countless examples of this kind of cultural insensitivity.

We have exported a rulebook based on our culture, not Christ!

In the early 90s, there were 6 known Christians in Mongolia. Now there are around 100,000. Praise God for an amazing work of his Spirit. But there are also denominations, organizations, church hierarchies, and all the trappings of Western (and Asian) Christianity. We missed an opportunity to see the body of Christ grow without all the divisions we take for granted.

Christians exported denominationalism, as well as Jesus!

In many nations we have been to, the church resembles any traditional church in the West. The buildings look the same, the people dress in Western clothes for services; they sing translations of Western hymns or songs. Pictures of Jesus portray him as Anglo. The people love God with all their hearts, but Christianity is known as a foreign religion by those outside the church because it looks so different–so Western.

The history of missions shows much insensitivity to local culture. Missionaries, with the best of intentions, confused Christianity and Western culture. They are not one and the same.

The Good News of Jesus transcends culture; it can be contextualized within any culture. 

Please, in simple/organic missions, let's not make the same mistakes. Let's introduce people to a Jesus who is relevant to the local culture. I'm not talking about compomise or syncretism, but, like Paul did in Athens, demonstrating a Christ who is culturally relevant.