By Ryan Shaw
The Bible teaches us much about God’s passion to move toward the literal fulfillment of the Great Commission. We find the What, Why, Who and How to move toward this end. The “how” is what we want to take a look at more closely.
The body of Christ has had over 2,000 years of activity related to the Great Commission. Yet, in many parts of the world, there are still large numbers of people outside of a relevant hearing of the gospel. Has something gone wrong?
I propose that, generally, we have not taken on the strategies the early church walked in. We have added forms and rituals to what it means to follow Jesus that Jesus never talked about and the New Testament is silent on.
The two biggest areas we find divergence is first the idea of “contextualization” of the gospel within a culture and worldview and second how we gather believers together in fellowships of churches. We will look at these two in this post and the next.
The book of Acts reveals the very first debate about “contextualization.” This refers to the concept of how we make the gospel relevant culturally to the people we are seeking to reach.
In Acts, Jewish believers were seeking to require Gentile believers to fit into their form of what it meant to be a disciple of Christ. The Jerusalem council in Acts 15 resolved that Gentile believers did not need to adhere to any Jewish cultural forms of following Christ other than “abstaining from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality and from blood.”
Message Bearers have a difficult task. We are called to be the light of Christ among peoples who already perceive “Christianity” as a foreign entity and nothing they could culturally adhere to. It is seen as being outside the worldview of how their culture behaves and functions.
We have compounded the problem through a “mission history” which has solidified this misrepresentation among these peoples. We have often come with the gospel but expected their cultural expression of following Christ to look like ours. This has alienated the Truth we are seeking to bear.
The Gentile believers in Acts overcame this problem and did not perceive following Christ as a “foreign” thing. Why was this? Because they were not being asked to stop being Gentiles in order to follow Jesus!
Culturally they were still what they were. Jesus became a Gentile for them. He was revealed to them by the Spirit as one of them. They continued with their cultural norms, yet changed allegiances at a heart level in making Jesus King and Lord of their lives.
This is a crucial issue in the world today. If we will reach the unreached and unengaged people groups and see large numbers coming to saving faith, it will be because they regard Jesus as being one of them, not a foreign god.
How does this happen? The key (as it was for the Jerusalem council in Acts 15) is to decide not to require believers from various backgrounds to become like “us” in their cultural forms and rituals.
They are followers of Jesus who live according to the cultural customs and forms they are used to, unless these are in opposition to the teachings of the New Testament. They do not need to become something they are not (which is foreign to them).
To rightly grasp this we need to understand that the world’s great religions possess both cultural and religious qualities. A Muslim believes certain things (religion) but also has cultural identity (culture) which does not change once they become a follower of Jesus. It is the latter we do not seek to change. Doing so, in turn, makes them “foreign” or completely misunderstood among their own people and the gospel does not spread.
Instead, they follow Jesus as an Arab, Turk or Somali and we do not ask them to do otherwise. They may pray in a similar fashion as they previously did, but the object of their prayers has shifted to Jesus. They may meet with others in the same places as before, but the Person they are worshiping and talking about is completely different.
To ask them to do otherwise is to fall into the same trap the Jewish believers were tempted to do among the Gentile believers. This makes it difficult for individual believers and impossible for the gospel to spread through every cultural context as it is meant to.