Holistic Witness in Religiously Diverse Societies
We are all influenced by our history and culture. Who we are, how we think and act, are very much determined by our context. For this reason we need to initially understand from where we came. Then we will be able to diagnose our present situation and then finally suggest some possible directions for the future.
We are not called to be God’s lawyer but his witness. . . . We share what Christ has done for us and challenge people to consider Christianity as an option.
I will not discuss the Anabaptist history and heritage since that has been done at length in other sessions and publications. We only need to mention that historically Anabaptists were concerned with connecting Christian living with theological reflection. However, with the martyrdom of many early leaders of the movement, the reflective aspect suffered. In addition, long periods of colony life led to a more conservative stance that protected the community of faith but also tied it closely to tradition. If we understand these points of history we are able to reflect on them without a disproportionate reaction, which tends to lead us into unhealthy extremes.
Now, more generally, we need to mention the hostility that emerged between church and academy. Alister McGrath lists a few reasons for this hostility (McGrath 2007, 10–22):
- The influence of fundamentalism. Initial reaction against European liberalism was necessary, but it soon became more reactive than reflective. The divorce created between church and academy would be difficult to bridge in the next generations.
- Pragmatism and the emphasis on measurable results. Pragmatism questions the need for theological reflection for pastoral and evangelistic purposes. Whatever makes the church grow is right. This has led to a “feel good” gospel. People are attracted by their “felt needs.” If the church is growing, God is happy, so why bother with reflection? However, the academy is also to blame for this situation, since it was not able to convince the church of its relevance. A church that intentionally divorced itself from the academy was not looking for reconciliation. This should have been the task of theology. McGrath remarks that in history, no theology has produced revival. Theology arises from a community that reflects on its faith. It is the expression of revival, not the cause. Where pragmatism is the rule, reflection will phase out. Citing the words of a leader of the Assemblies of God in Curitiba: “Since we have theological training in our denomination, the church membership is declining. It would be better if we shut it down.” Church history shows us that where multitudes join the church, usually the gospel is on sale, commitment low, and transformation of society, absent.
- The academy needed to dialogue with the professional secular academy and thus lost connections with the life and concerns of the church. Again, the blame is on both sides. The church did not wish to lose time with irrelevant “philosophies” and the academy became an end in itself. However, theology serves the church, or it has lost its raison d’être. The theologian is not above the community of faith, he is part of it. He serves the church from the inside, never from above.
- Theology is elitist and thus in stark contrast to the popular character of evangelicalism. Whereas we do not advocate ivory tower theologians, the populist concerns tend to create a very shallow Christianity.
While these points relate to the North American context, they are strongly reflected in other parts of the world, not least of all in Latin America. Through the effort of missionaries and literature, some of these issues in North American theology became our concerns in the Two-Thirds World as well.
The reaction against liberalism was built on the Enlightenment emphasis on knowledge. The focus on truth against the lies of liberalism led us to adopt the defensive position of fundamentalism. We became more concerned with defending the authority than the content of Scripture. The Bible became a weapon against all the people who were “different.” This affected the way we looked at the gospel. The gospel was a deposit of truth exclusively in our possession. We love the Bible as an end in itself, when we are supposed to love God. In a theological conference in Brazil, a leader of one of the largest evangelical denominations in Brazil reacted against the Catholic Church saying that we had to be careful with them since they began singing “our” songs and had adopted “our” doctrine of tithing.
Christian life was based on affirming truth (our doctrine), many times disconnected from Christian living and from our historical roots. Thus, we were called to evangelize, affirming truth, and others would understand our truth and become like us. Evangelistic literature was based on apologetics. It was our weapon to bring people to join our side, the right side. There was little concern with the kingdom.
The historical development of the relationship between evangelism, church, and kingdom shows the struggle we have had to understand the gospel in context (Hiebert 1993). These struggles appear because theology is always done in context and the context is part of our worldview and thus filters the way in which we read and interpret the Bible, create or rearrange our structures, and develop our mission.
The development of the mission concept went from evangelism as center to the church as center. However, the discussion changed with the missio Dei concept, where the church is sent into the world. This gave rise to the idea formulated by William Temple that “the church is the only society in the world which exists for the sake of those who are not members of it” (Bosch, 375). Or in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The church is the church only when it exists for others. . . . The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary life, not dominating, but helping and serving” (Bosch, 375). This perspective helped us to see that the church is not inward- but outward-focused, a lesson that is not easily learned. Our culture emphasizes that we are the center of the world, and that everything must be fun, must bring us the adrenalin we deserve. We all have the right to be happy. What is not fun is outright wrong.
One of the approaches to the “church for others” was Liberation Theology. However, evangelicals reacted badly against Liberation Theology, since it came from the Catholic church and used Marxist tools to analyze society. But, evangelical leaders such as René Padilla and Samuel Escobar affirmed immediately the need for social involvement of the church. It took most churches in Brazil almost thirty years to understand the social implications of the gospel, and others still have not grasped it. The distance between theological thinkers and the pragmatic approach of the church still dominates the scene.
When the church began to see the implications of the gospel in the social sphere, the question was: “How can social involvement be evangelistic?” In other words, how effective would our social involvement be for church growth? Social work was not the gospel but a means to the gospel. Old patterns of thinking die hard.
Then we began seeing that we could not proclaim the gospel from the top-down but needed to develop relationships with people who did not demonstrate a vibrant relationship with Jesus. But again these relationships were seen as means to an end. We developed relationships in order to spread the gospel. If, however, we did not receive an almost immediate positive answer, this relationship was ended, since there were many more people to be evangelized and we could not possibly lose time with those people who did not want to become “one of us.” This could be called “lifestyle church growth” instead of lifestyle gospel.
However, not long thereafter the “church for others” was critiqued, emphasizing that the Western church always knows “too well” what others need and so the colonialist perspective, although changed through the outward focus, had not gone far enough, since it was still centered in the West. So Sundermeier proposed we should rather speak of “church with others” (Bosch, 375). This correction helps us to get away from colonialism.
However, the “church with others” also has its problems. It lacks the need and urgency of evangelism, with a tendency toward an unhealthy tolerance and relativism. Somehow we need to think about combining the “church for others” with the “church with others.”
Whereas this analysis is a bit negative, there is a growing awareness that change is needed. Even though these processes are far longer than we would like, it seems that we need this growing process so we understand from where we came and where we are headed. God created a new generation that entered the Promised Land, out of a generation that died in the desert. Whereas we look at the generation that died in the desert very negatively, somehow the way God dealt with them in the desert helped the next generation to have a different attitude and conquer the Promised Land.
Theological education and the church
Officially, theology has been relegated lately to professional theologians. This has disconnected the academy from the church. Whereas the church does not notice how strongly their tendency is to replicate the prevailing culture, the academy sees this tendency, criticizes the church, and eventually even suggests some ways in which the situation could be changed, but is hardly involved in the process of applying these ideas in the church.
Whether we like it or not, all Christians are theologians. The only question is, How good or bad a theologian will you and I be? Every testimony/witness demonstrates theologizing. If we listen carefully we see theological points being made all along. Paul Hiebert reminded us constantly that we are dealing with folk religion in the mission field. He was absolutely right. However, this folk religion is not only present in the mission field. The Church Growth Movement is built on capitalist foundations so strongly that we should consider it syncretistic. This does not mean that all aspects of the Church Growth Movement are wrong. When we contextualize theology critically, we search to place the gospel in prevailing cultures so it can be understood and grasped.
Literature reminds us constantly of a cliché: we live in a global village. While it is true, the cliché goes as far as the statement. Coming to grips with the affirmation is something else. What does it mean to live in a global village? What does it mean to be the global people of God? What does it mean to be the global church? What does it mean to engage in globalizing theology? How can we have a holistic ministry in religiously diverse societies?
Relationship between “us” and the “other.” Through history the “other” has taken different identities. In an excellent article Paul Hiebert shows us how the “other” was seen in history. In the Middle Ages, the “others” were monsters, infidels, heretics, descendants of Cain, etc. In the Age of Discoveries, they were considered savages, pagans, immature children. Then the Enlightenment thought of the “other” as primitive, unenlightened ancestors. Today they are considered native, inscrutable, etc. These characterizations of the “other” will not help us in our holistic mission. We were all created in God’s image. If there is the “other,” reconciliation will not occur. We are all brothers and sisters and need to learn from each other, even though we know that the cultural differences between us create barriers that take time to bridge (Hiebert 1995). I am not advocating relativism, where everything goes and we basically learn from the experiences of other people. But we also have to avoid looking at the other as an “object” to be evangelized, to have better statistics (Hiebert 1995). This relationship between us and the “other” also tends to occur between church and school, between denominations, between different schools. Worldly values tend to determine differences between us that hinder authentic sharing: academics, finances, status. These things need to be reconsidered. This can foster a healthy dialogue between church and school.
A different approach to apologetics. In the past we became captive to aggressive apologetics defending our faith against liberalism and the world. Without noticing we adopted their worldview and needed to prove that Christ was the only way. We thought of ourselves as superior to other people and religions, and this has closed the door for our witness. In our witness we cannot start from the top. We need to understand, like Stanley Jones, that we are not called to be God’s lawyer but his witness. This means we offer Christ as an alternative, not the only alternative, since this closes the door for further conversations and relationships. We share what Christ has done for us and challenge people to consider Christianity as an option. Alister McGrath illustrates this point with a story of Greek mythology. Homer mentions mermaids that sang so seductively that sailors would leave their duties and so their boats were destroyed. Ulysses protected his sailors by stuffing the ears of the sailors so they would not be seduced by their singing. However, Orpheus proposed another alternative. He played the lyre so well that his music was a stronger attraction than the mermaids’ singing (McGrath 1993, 178). We can present the gospel in such a manner that people will be attracted to it. This means we relate to them before we present truth. This creates an opening so others might listen to us.
Model holistic mission in our schools and churches. School and church need to do things together: reflect and act. We probably are closer than we imagine, but are doing the wrong thing. We sit far apart and the school discusses arguments against pragmatism. Then we hear this nice comment from the church: “I prefer my wrong way of doing things to your way of not doing anything.” Somewhere we need to talk less and live more. Dallas Willard reminds us that “we do not love our enemies because there is no one to show us how to do it.” An important German missiologist said in a lecture that knowing the problems some of his students were enduring became a burden for him and took him away from his work. I was sad to hear this, since I believe teaching is far more than delivering content. Involvement in real life needs to be part of the ballgame. Faculty and students need to participate together in a holistic mission project, where hierarchies are challenged, where titles don’t count, where love for the needy is the measuring rod. This again places the concept of dialogue on the table.
Get involved in church life. Theology is the servant of the church. Thus the active involvement of the faculty in church life is not optional. As faculty we need to find ways to cooperate humbly without threatening leaders. This is not easy. However, we need to become involved. Church leaders need to be involved in the school. They need continuing education so they are not threatened by new ideas brought from the school.
Involvement with the world. A theology that does not dialogue with the world and its questions is irrelevant. We tend to adopt a theology that was based on answering the questions of the past. Today the questions are different, but we continue using the answers of the past. In this sense theology has become irrelevant. “Being in the world, but not of the world” calls for discernment. Discernment can only happen between options. If we are not connected to the world, we are defending a church culture that exists for its own sake. The church is sent out into the world; it is not only a haven to protect us from the world.
Let young leaders make mistakes. Whether we like it or not, as we get older we tend to not like adventures as much and are more comfortable with the status quo. We need the balance between young leaders who will challenge our thinking, even in radical ways, and the discernment experience brings us. The Enlightenment wished to explain all the details so everything could be under control. However, the Spirit blows in mysterious ways. Control, especially absolute control, wishes to control the Spirit as well. The only work that will last is the transformation generated by the Spirit.
We desperately need a perspective of dialogue with others as partners. Without partnership, there is no dialogue. In the past, our approach to evangelism was only proclamation. Today this word has been substituted by presence. Norman Kraus defines this presence in an interesting way: “It is first of all a relationship before it is an activity—a relationship in which one is open to and respectful of the partner. It seeks to avoid all imposition” (Kraus, 44). This means we must be willing to humbly listen to each other. It does not mean to search for the lowest common denominator; it means incarnation. We cannot forget that the manner of our presence is part of our identity. “The medium is the message” (McLuhan). However, Kraus goes a bit further and asks, What kind of presence is indicated in our role, attitude and pattern of relationships? Is it a managerial presence? A presence of power and privilege? A serving presence? A sympathizing presence? An official presence? A patronizing presence? A learner’s presence? A teaching presence? (Kraus, 47).
We need presence as lifestyle and proclamation. It is not top-down but, as D.T. Niles said, “Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread” (Kraus, 58). So we avoid the presuppositions of colonialism, where we know too well what others need and act in arrogance. However, we cannot adopt an anti-colonialist approach which is characterized by reaction and relativism. As Paul Hiebert reminds us:
We must enter into dialogue with those of other faiths, with both humility and sensitivity, and critique and challenge (Stott 1985). The purpose of this dialogue is not a Hegelian search for a synthesis of our faiths. Nor is it even a way to make mutual understanding and communication possible. Ultimately, it is to point people to Christ, who stands not on our ground or the ground of any other culture. His ground defines the reality of all other grounds. Our desire is not to win arguments but to persuade people to follow Christ. Our witness must be incarnational in nature. We must go where people are, speak their language, and become one with them as far as our consciences allow and we are psychologically able. People need to hear the gospel in their heart language and see it lived in us. (Hiebert 1991, 273)
Bearing the burden of the cross is an essential part of our witness. “There must be no ‘triumphalism,’ no coercive manipulation. Where there is no ‘cross,’ the witness is distorted. As Kosuke Koyama in his book by the same title reminds us, there is ‘no handle on the cross’ ” (Kraus, 49). Chris Wright reminds us that only the cross can be the authority of our proclamation:
By what authority can we do so? On what basis dare we challenge the chains of Satan, in word and deed, in people’s spiritual, moral, physical, and social lives? Only the Cross. The Cross must be as central to our social engagement as it is to our evangelism. There is no other power, no other resource, no other name through which we can offer the whole gospel to the whole person and the whole world than Jesus Christ crucified and risen. (Wright, 46)
Alan Hirsch gives us a model for the church in society today that could help us to understand our mission. Based on John 1:14—“the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”—he suggests four aspects of our missional presence in the world (Hirsch, 132–34).
Presence. Jesus lived among his people for thirty years and they did not notice he was the Son of God. There is a time for confrontation but also a time simply to be there among the people. When we are among them people will notice that God loves them.
Proximity. Through incarnation, Jesus came to our level so we could understand him. Jesus was close and available. He was involved with the people and felt good with sinners. The master of divinity becomes like God.
Weakness. Jesus comes from a village in Galilee. He is quiet for thirty years. No coercion or manipulation, but service, humility, and love are the marks of the incarnation.
Proclamation. The proclamation is by word and deed. Jesus proclaims from the beginning, relating to the people and sharing in their weaknesses. Proclamation is done humbly and is contextualized, pointing to a relationship with Christ, not basically intellectual assent. Proclamation in the age we live in is much more being than doing.
Focusing on change, John Stott reminds us that we need blowflies and watchdogs to maintain balance: the blowflies to sting us and thus impel us toward change and watchdogs that will bark loud and long if we begin compromising biblical truth. None of them are easy to get along with. Neither do they think the other’s presence is compatible. However, the blowflies should not sting the watchdogs, nor should the watchdogs eat the blowflies. They need to learn to coexist in church and to fulfill their individual duties, since we desperately need both in our ministry (Stott 1995, 44).
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