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How Should the Gospel Relate to Culture?

Feb. 25, 2016By: Philemon YongAuthor Bio

The question of how to relate the gospel to culture is a question about how to express the gospel message in genuinely cultural and authentic terms while at the same time maintaining the purity of the gospel. Speaking of gospel and culture in the African context, Kato says,

Culture as a way of life must be maintained. It is God’s will that Africans, on accepting Christ as their Savior, become Christian Africans. Africans who become Christians should, therefore, remain Africans wherever their culture does not conflict with the Bible. It is the Bible that must judge the culture. Where a conflict results, the cultural element must give way.”[1]

In relating the gospel to any culture, it is good for the preacher to have an objective, which in this case is to make the gospel relevant without compromising the purity of the gospel.

In the history of missions in West Africa, different approaches have been taken in relating the gospel to culture.[2] One approach believes that there is nothing redeemable in the culture andScreen_Shot_2016-02-24_at_9.22.31_AM thus seeks to destroy the cultural practices of the people before establishing Christianity. This is what Pobee calls Tabula rasa. With this approach, Christians were more or less called out of society instead of being redeemed in society. One very different approach is what was called accommodation but now is called adaptation, localization, or indigenization. This view acknowledges that there is “a whole heritage in the non-Christian culture and consciously attempts to come to terms with that heritage” (Pobee 59). Here the missionary makes use of he belief system of the people and builds on what they already know. Yet, everything in the culture cannot be accepted en masse. Wisdom and discernment should be used. Some elements will have to be modified but others will be rejected. Again, Kato notes,

In the African evangelicals’ effort to express Christianity in the context of the African, the Bible must remain the absolute source. The Bible is God’s written Word addressed to Africans —and to all peoples—within their cultural background (Kato, 148).

This second approach has to do with couching the gospel message in genuinely African terms and categories, while at the same time not compromising the truth of the gospel. The point here is that while the gospel remains the same, its truth should be communicated in a culturally relevant manner.

Paying attention to how the gospel is communicated in a culture avoids the concept of working misunderstanding where “a missionary preaches the gospel in very foreign terms and the natives appear to receive it. That is, they may attend church services, obey church regulations, and so on, without any real understanding of what is going on” (Pobee, 59).

The importance of making the gospel relevant in a culture cannot be overstated. Once the gospel is stated in culturally meaningful ways, the people will embrace and own it and no longer see it as a foreign concept. They will embrace Jesus as Savior and Lord of their lives. Bediako writes of this point for Africans;

Once we discover that there is no valid alternative to Jesus Christ, the question is no longer: why should we relate to Jesus of Nazareth who does not belong to our clan, family, tribe and nation? But, how may we understand more fully this Jesus Christ who relates to us most meaningfully and most profoundly in our clan, family, tribe and nation?[3]

It is therefore the duty of the missionary or anyone preaching the gospel in another culture to be able to make the gospel message culturally relevant. How should this be done? While one finds many articles and books on methods of contextualization, I do believe that the preacher needs to be one who knows the gospel message well, knows the cultural context of his ministry, and prays for wisdom to make the message clear without losing an iota of it. I commend Paul’s principle on how to do this as seen in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. 23 I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

This passage shows Paul’s pattern of ministry to people of different cultures, Jews and Gentiles. Paul made himself a servant (slave) to all with the objective of winning more to Christ (v. 19). He adapted himself to Jewish customs as to win Jews to Christ (cf. Acts 16:3; 18:18; 21:23-24, 26). To those under the law he lived as one under the law (note his qualification of this statement in v. 20) to win those under the law (v. 20). To those without the law, he lived as though without the law (again note qualification of the statement in v. 21) to win those without the law (v. 21). He is weak among the weak in order to win the weak (v. 22a).

He concludes,  “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (v. 22b). Paul’s goal is specific, the salvation of some people. He will do whatever it takes (becoming all things to all men) and he will use whatever means or method (“by all means”) for the purpose of saving some people.

Why would Paul want to become all things to all people with all the risk that might come with this practice? One answer already given is that he does it in order to save some. Another way to look at this answer is stated in verse 23, “I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.” Paul does what he does because of the gospel, for the purpose of partaking of the benefits of the gospel with those who are saved through his ministry.

It would appear that Paul has a gospel to preach to different kinds of people in different cultures, and he becomes what those people are and uses whatever means necessary in each culture to preach the gospel so as to save some. We could say that while Paul’s gospel does not change, his means of presenting the gospel changes. However, he takes care not to compromise the purity of the gospel itself.

Following Paul’s example, the preacher of the gospel should be willing to make himself a member of the culture in which he is working, so that he can effectively communicate the gospel and save those who believe. He should adapt himself to his cultural setting for the sake of the gospel. There is one unchanging thing in this approach; the gospel. The gospel message will not change but the means of presenting and applying it will change according to the cultural context.

Constant study of the Word of God, culture, and prayer is needed to do this effectively.


[1] Byang H. Kato, “Theological Issues in Africa,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 133 (1976): 530.

[2] See the discussion in John S. Pobee, Toward an Africa Theology, (Nashville, TN: Parthenon Press, 1979), 53-80.

[3] Kwame Bediako, Jesus and the Gospel in Africa: History and Experience, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 32.

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10,000 People Are Coming to Christ

Feb. 24, 2016By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

Screen_Shot_2016-02-24_at_9.17.10_AM

What should one do when they hear a report of thousands of people trusting Christ on a short-term missions trip? We love numbers. They encourage us. They show progress. But do the accurately portray what is happening around the world?

Every summer a church from the United States sends out a team to do evangelism in the same area of Tanzania.  Every summer they come back with almost the same testimony - 5,000-10,000 people have come to Christ. This has been happening for a number of years.

But if you asked them about the churches, they would have a hard time identifying very many. And here is really the crux of the matter.   So if you hear of 50,000 people that have come to Christ and there are very few churches, there are probably very few conversions happening.

If you talk to missionaries on the field, they will tell you that if Muslim evangelists came through the same village the week after the Americans, the same people would raise their hands to convert to Islam.  

Numbers don't always accurately portray reality and when we inflate numbers we misrepresent what God truly is doing in the world.

We love numbers.  They encourage us.  They show progress. 
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Adoniram Judson’s Advice to Missionary Candidates (part 2)

Feb. 2, 2016By: Evan Burns

Continued from the previous post, these are the remaining five words of advice from Adoniram Judson for missionary candidates:

Sixthly.  Beware of the greater reaction which will take place after you have acquired the language, and become fatigued and worn out with preaching the gospel to a disobedient and gainsaying people.  You will sometimes long for a quiet retreat, where you can find a respite from the tug of toiling at native work—the incessant, intolerable friction of the missionary grindstone.  And Satan will sympathize with you in this matter; and he willScreen_Shot_2016-01-29_at_2.31.22_PM present some chapel of ease, in which to officiate in your native tongue, some government situation, some professorship or editorship, some literary or scientific pursuit, some supernumerary translation or, at least, some system of schools; anything, in a word, that will help you, without much surrender of character, to slip out of real missionary work.  Such a temptation will form the crisis of your disease.  If your spiritual constitution can sustain it, you recover; if not, you die.

Seventhly.  Beware of pride; not the pride of proud men, but the pride of humble men—that secret pride which is apt to grow out of the consciousness that we are esteemed by the great and good.  This pride sometimes eats out the vitals of religion before its existence is suspected.  In order to check its operations, it may be well to remember how we appear in the sight of God, and how we should appear in the sight of our fellow men, if all were known.[1]  Endeavor to let all be known.  Confess your faults freely, and as publicly as circumstances will require or admit.  When you have done something of which you are ashamed, and by which, perhaps, some person has been injured (and what man is exempt?), be glad not only to make reparation, but improve the opportunity for subduing your pride.

Eighthly.  Never lay up money for yourselves or your families.  Trust in God from day to day, and verily you shall be fed.

Ninthly.  Beware of that indolence which leads to a neglect of bodily exercise.  The poor health and premature death of most Europeans in the East must be eminently ascribed to the most wanton neglect of bodily exercise.  

Tenthly.  Beware of genteel living.  Maintain as little intercourse as possible with fashionable European society.  The mode of living adopted by many missionaries in the East is quite inconsistent with that familiar intercourse with the natives which is essential to a missionary.  There are many points of self-denial that I should like to touch upon; but a consciousness of my own deficiency constrains me to be silent.  I have also left untouched several topics of vital importance, it having been my aim to select such only as appear to me to have been not much noticed or enforced.  I hope you will excuse the monitorial style that I have accidentally adopted.  I assure you, I mean no harm.  In regard to your inquiries concerning studies, qualifications, etc., nothing occurs that I think would be particularly useful, except the simple remark, that I fear too much stress begins to be laid on what is termed a thorough classical education.  Praying that you may be guided in all your deliberations, and that I may yet have the pleasure of welcoming some of you to these heathen shores, I remain

Your affectionate brother,

A. Judson[2]



[1]Italics are original. 

[2] Edward Judson, The Life of Adoniram Judson (New York: Anson D. F. Randolf & Company, 1883), 578-579;  Francis Wayland, A Memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, D.D. (Boston: Phillips, Samson, and Company, 1853), 2:39-41.

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Using Your Poor Kid to Teach My Rich Kid a Lesson

Nov. 12, 2015By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

Jamie Wright writes:

 

If a short-term mission has any value at all, it is undeniably found in its ability to educate the participant. It will stretch your kid's physical and spiritual boundaries by making them truly uncomfortable. It will teach them about a new culture. It will force them to engage with the world in a new way. It will make them appreciate the hot shower, cushy mattress, and abundantly full fridge they enjoy at home. This new found appreciation will last for at least one week. Sometimes more.
But.
As we send throngs of suburban teenagers on short-term missions every year to “learn a lesson”, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves; What are the poor kids learning from all of this?

 

You can read the whole article here.

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Face Painting in Western Africa

Nov. 11, 2015By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

There are always pitfalls to cross-cultural engagement.  Well-meaning people, wishing to serve Christ, travel on short-term trips every year hoping God will use them to serve believers around the world. However, without a lot of thought to how other cultures view certain activities, some trips can harm the local churches we desire to serve.

Fanciful-Faces-Chicago-Face-Painter-FP-Web-BBTake for example a recent trip to West Africa where one of the tasks was the face-painting of children. Go to any fair in the US and you will see children begging their parents to have someone paint their face.  However, in the region of the country this short-term team was visiting, face painting was associated with witchcraft.  The team could not figure out why the children were crying while they painted their face.  Later that night the children were beat by their parents.  

How would a short-term team avoid such a situation? It is simple.  Instead of telling missionaries what you intend to do when you go to partner with them, ask them what would be best.  

Show Comments   |   Leave a Comment  |  Tags:  short-term missions, missiology, contextualization
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