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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 “cultural trappings” 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 at all to leave culture out of the message.
However, if by culture we mean "church culture," that is, the forms, practices, and deeply rooted assumptions of the "western church system," it’s another matter entirely.
Allow me to explain!
The message we bring to the nations is a truly unique and radical message that, 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, acceptable worship is not about participation in rituals, acceptable worship is about the response of the heart in spirit and truth. 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 one particular earthly culture, religious culture, or "church system," it’s bound to a unique culture all its own – kingdom culture!
When we stop to take an objective look at the forms, practices and mindset of our western church system what do we see? Is it more reflective of the unique and radical message that we hold so dear, or is it more reflective of the other “messages” that exist in the world today?
If you grew up for any length of time in America, you're probably well acquainted with the famous Sesame Street song for preschool kids that goes like this (sing it for old times sake):
"One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong. Can you tell which thing is not like the others, by the time we finish our song?"Catchy tune, for sure......now I can't get it out of my head - ugh!
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 is unquestionably unique but, if we subjected the forms, practices, and mindset of our western church system to the scrutiny of this simple children's song, how would we do?
Would the comparison be so obvious that, like the letter W in a group of numbers, people would know instantly that our message is wholly unlike any other message on the face of the earth?
Or, on the other hand, is it possible that we have so much in common with the forms, practices, and mindset of the other messages that it would be all but impossible to see any discernible difference in our message?
Sadly, I suspect it would be the latter!
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 his friends 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 several times during the 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 that was being 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?
In the final analysis, would he go away with even a rudimentary understanding of the unique and radical message that we hold so dear?
Would he somehow conclude by peering in on us through the observation window week after week, that our message truly was unique and had nothing whatsoever in common with the other messages around the world?
Sadly, it's rather doubtful!
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, well, how we go about “organizing” ourselves. After all, relationships are what really matter most to us."
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 our apparent inability to see the inherent conflict between the unique and radical message that we hold so dear and the "church system" that we've built around it.
We know these things are not the substance of our message yet, more often than not, we live, act, and think of them as if they were! Not explicitly, perhaps, but at least implicitly?
If relationships truly matter the most to us, why do we live and organize ourselves as if formal religious practices matter most?
Why don’t we live and organize ourselves according to the substance of our message instead of the other way around?
Furthermore, if Jesus walked among us in the flesh today, would He come to the defense of our existing church system? Would He find our forms and practices not only to be consistent with the message but indispensable? Seriously, would He?
If we hold the Gospel in high regard and there's even a small chance that we, as the people of God, are somehow hindering the very message we hold so dear, would it not be only prudent to at least take a closer look?
For the sake of the Gospel, can we do otherwise?
Next week, in Part 2, Assumptions and Absolutes, we'll take a closer look at deeply rooted assumptions.