I’ve seen this many times. An American on a short tour walks through our church doors in Iraq. Bright-eyed, full of enthusiasm for cross-cultural service. Maybe he’s read a book or two about missions. Maybe this is a book I wrote about short-term missionaries—because I love their ministry!
But then comes the criticism: “Your church is too Western.” I know I shouldn’t, but at that moment I always get defensive. I wonder how you could look at a church of over 20 nationalities and call it Western. Our urban church may seem globalized, but I don’t think it’s Western.
I suspect that the short-term missionaries thought we should sit on dirt floors and play sitar in a circle. They probably mean that our church service doesn’t look all that different from our hometown church service.
In my better moments, I don’t make assumptions. Instead, say, “So tell me, how does our church look Western?” “Well,” they’ll say, “you preach in English. You sing Getty songs and hymns and you have a drum band.” Or they might say, “You have a PowerPoint and everybody sits in a row of chairs.”
At my worst, I’ll say, “You know, it’s an arrogant Westerner to decide that what looks like a Westerner shouldn’t be done by others.” That’s when my wife Leeann kicked me under the table. Being snippy is useless to me. But I admit that his words were deeply moved. anyway i hate PowerPoint with a holy hatred. We use it because non-Westerns want it.
If I’m going to be fair to my accusers, it’s worth accepting some basic assumptions that are increasingly common in missions today:
- Colonialism in missions is bad.
- Our unwitting presence is advancing Western imperialism, and that is bad.
- Therefore, in the missionary work, we need to contextualize our church so that it resembles the local culture. Missionaries should stay in the background in church leadership.
- Paul said that everyone should be everything (1 Cor. 9:19–23), so we should adapt to this culture rather than impose our worship practices on others.
Yes, colonial missions were bad. Failure to distinguish between the Gospel and the Union Jack created many problems. But that was hundreds of years ago. No missionary I know any longer wants to further their country’s political or industrial aims. Colonial missions largely died out with colonialism and thoughtful mission writers more than half a century ago put a stake in the heart of colonial missions. Modern missionaries—at least those I know—desire to be disciples of Jesus, not America.
Of course, we can unwittingly advance our own culture. Some missionaries try to avoid this by giving the locals a Bible and jumping on the next bus out of town, trusting the Holy Spirit to do the rest. Unfortunately, this is in direct contradiction to Jesus’ command. teach (Matthew 28:20).
In doing so, we must work hard to make ourselves culturally sensitive. But in 1 Corinthians Paul was talking about an effort to contextualize himself, not the assembled church. Indeed, the Bible warns strangers not to appear insane, but as John Stott said, the vast majority of commandments given to the Christian community instruct us. immortality to be like those around us.
I propose a better way – and I think a more biblical one. I call it “just the church”.
It took me years to achieve this, but in my experience the most important thing to do in the mandate is avoiding cultural imposition and imperialism, the most reproducible, the most interesting, the least culturally offensive and the most effective. long term – making sure the church is just the church.
To strip it down to the essentials. To meticulously make the Christian assembly sound like the Bible spelled out for the church. In my opinion, missionaries should spend less energy on the cultural outlook of the church and more on aligning the church with the explicit norms of the Bible.
Missionaries should spend less energy on the cultural outlook of the church and more on aligning the church with the explicit norms of the Bible.
I’m not saying that cultural sensitivity is unimportant. But when missionaries focus on context first, they make a huge, subconscious, cross-cultural mistake. They say culture is more important than the authority of the Bible. Worse, they erode the courage to speak the hard truths of the gospel in a hostile environment, because the gospel will never, ever be culturally sensitive.
As I have often said to our church in Iraq, we do not want our church to reflect American culture, Arab culture, Kurdish culture, African culture or Asian culture. Instead, we want a church with true biblical culture.
Therefore, missionaries should apply the biblical principles found in 1 Corinthians 3-4, the principles of planting and watering, wise building, humble service, and faithful ministry of the gospel. This is our manifesto for church cultivation. And church services should resemble Paul’s prescriptions at 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 and 1 Corinthians 14, including the celebration of the congregation and the application of spiritual gifts in fellowship to uplift the body. This is our manifesto for a church service.
Because we serve in an international church (a globalized, international city) rather than focusing on local culture, we wanted our church service to be tailored to make sense for any true believer. We wanted a church where people could come from any culture or any time in history and basically understand what was going on in the liturgy. Did we do this perfectly? Of course not. But at least we were going in the right direction.
To go in the right direction, we have to start from the right place. For churches in any context, that starting place is the Scriptures. We focus the church on the Word of God. We ensure that church membership is made up of truly born-again believers, and we hold them accountable for living according to the Bible. We work for love and unity, and then we work on biblical principles for a healthy church. These simple concepts take time and tremendous effort, and they are the main reason why I did not give an Arabian fig on drums during our worship.
One practical way we tried to avoid Western imperialism was to strive for large numbers of elders who could represent the cultures of our church and who met the biblical requirements for pastors. I was grateful to Emmanuel of Jamaica, who challenged my nearsighted cultural perspective; Samuel from Eritrea, who will quietly and kindly help me understand the mentality of the large local population from Ethiopia; and Alexander, who speaks both Arabic and Kurdish and can explain to us the local political situation in Iraq.
And take this, these old folks I loved Getty songs. Them He chose these hymns because of their biblical words. But they also chose other non-Western aspects of our worship. If you focus on being biblical, over time you will acquire a variety of cultural flavors in your worship. Of course, there are numerous other ways in which just the church can take shape, but these are just a few of the ways it happens in our context.
What if you started with a different perspective? Directly following a contextualized church service that appears to be local culture is fraught with challenges. This is especially true if a Westerner is trying to do that. Do you know how silly it looks when an old person tries to act cool? This is how a contextualized service usually looks to a local.
Worse still, if you’re trying to make a church service look like local culture, you always include the sins of that culture because all cultures have been destroyed. And in a multiracial, multicultural urban context like ours in Iraq, how do you choose which culture or practice to choose in the first place? Starting with culture or context is the wrong place to start.
When developing churches around the world, whether international or local, the weekly meeting should focus on the biblical directions. Reformers call itregulatory policy“In the context of a mission, the organizing principle only gives us a vision for the church, protecting against making cross-cultural mistakes.
When developing churches around the world, whether international or local, the weekly meeting should focus on the biblical directions.
At a Christian meeting we read the Bible (1 Tim. 4:13), we preach the Bible (2 Tim. 4:2), we sing the Bible (Ephesians 5:19; Col 3:16), we go to the Bible pray (Matthew 21:13), we see the Gospel at the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38–39; 1 Cor. 11:23–26; Col. 2: 11–12). Sometimes there are vows and thanksgivings that have their roots in the Bible. This much.
Of course, there is much more to consider in these discussions. Should the congregation kneel and pray silently, or should all pray aloud together, standing with arms raised? Fortunately, while the organizing principle guides Christian worship according to the Scriptures, it also explains the different elements, forms, and conditions of worship.
For example, it is ordered to sing (element), but the specific songs (forms) we choose to sing are not tuned. They can be chosen by godly people who want to speak the truths of the Scriptures. Whether you say this sitting on the floor in an earthen hut or sitting on cushioned chairs (cases), it’s less important though. However, we must make such decisions taking into account practical considerations.
So it is with all the essential elements of Christian worship. It can be done in a house or church building, under trees, on benches, on earth, while playing tembur or drums in Kurdish. Whatever the case, however, as we consider the best forms and conditions in a given cultural situation, the Bible should be at the center of everything we do and provide us with essential elements of Christian worship.
The Intercultural Bible
A few years ago I had an experience that showed me that cultural differences are not that important in urban centers and in our globalized world. In fact, these cultural differences can often be eliminated by an open proclamation of the truth.
In 1988, Saddam Hussein dropped bombs on houses in the Kurdish city of Halabja. In a matter of hours, more than 5,000 people died from a cocktail of poisonous gases, including sarin and mustard gas. Thirty years later, in 2018, I was invited to a memorial service organized by the Kurdish government.
When Leeann and I arrived, there were 4,000 Kurds in the room, but no other Americans. We sat in rows of chairs. They used a PowerPoint projector. The speeches came from what looked like a lectern. We had headphones that translated conversations into English. We sang songs like pop songs with drums and orchestra. To any foreigner, it probably looked “Western”.
But as the ritual continued, the room filled with an ever-increasing, oppressive, raw hatred for the perpetrators—the kind of bitterness that leads to endless cycles of revenge and violence.
Then something happened that I can’t forget. The moderator invited a brave Arab from Baghdad to the microphone as the representative of the Iraqi government. The Kurds saw him as an enemy. He took a deep breath, thanked the officials and said, “You must stop repeating these wrongs done to you and move on. This memorial service hurts you.”
I don’t know the man’s motivation. But he said what needed to be said, not what was culturally appropriate. He spoke the truth when it was difficult to speak. And I thought to myself, Trapped in hate, these abused people desperately need to know the way to the gospel. In difficult places they need churches that tell them the hard truths of the Bible, it’s hard to do..
We live in a complex world with complex cultural realities going on around us. But this diverse world desperately needs the cross-cultural gospel of forgiveness and hope in Christ. And whatever the context, God needs the church as he commanded.
#Mere #Church #Missions