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Module 4.1 Understanding Contextualization

Source: Keller, Tim. Gospel Ministry: Model and Practice. Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2006.

What is Culture?

1. "The shaping of the natural environment ....

Culture creates a 'secondary environment' with the raw material of nature (nature itself being the 'primary environment'). It includes language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, technical processes, etc. When we compose and playa piece of music on a flute we are taking the natural primary elements (the metal of the flute; the sound in the air) and shaping it into something else. "A river is nature, a canal culture; a raw quartz is nature, an arrowhead culture; a moan is nature, a word

culture. " (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 32)

2. .. . .in the service of something."

Culture creates this environment to bring the natural order into the service of certain core "commanding truths". Every culture assumes an answer to the big questions -'why are we here? what are (therefore) the most important things in life? what is wrong with the world? what will put things right?' No culture is neutral on these matters, and all cultural work is covenantal-done with a view to bring nature into the service of something valued as ultimate. "Culture .. .is any and all human effort and labor expended on the cosmos, to unearth its treasures and riches and bring them

into ... service ... to something. 1/ (H. Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture 32, 33).

"Culture is ... a normative order by which we comprehend ourselves, others, and the larger world and through which we order our experience. At the heart of culture is a system of norms and values ... but these norms and values are better understood as commanding truths so deeply embedded in our consciousness and in the habits of our lives that to question them is to question reality itself. /I (James D.Hunter, Before the Shooting Begins, p. 200)

This view of culture sees culture itself (and thus each particular culture) as essentially religious at its core. Culture is the creation of a secondary environment in the service of ultimate concerns. Culture thus arises out of the only ultimate human "need"-to worship something-and out of our capacity as image-bearers to take dominion over nature to bring into the service of that which we worship. ("Worshiped and served created things, rather than the Creetor" Rom.l :25)

The 'mixed nature' of culture

All cultures are 'mixed'-that is, all cultures are complex and they interweave godly and ungodly elements together very closely.

1. Cultures are mixed because a) all human beings are both radically fallen yet made in the image and likeness of God, and because b) there are varying degrees of natural and special revelation present within them. Even in cultures where the Bible is influential, the depravity of human nature creates idols which reign within. And on the other hand, cultures with little or no influence from the Bible may still (depending on the level of God's common grace) contain many strong elements, for God gives people a knowledge of moral truth in their consciences (Romans 2).

2. Therefore, every culture to some degree will reflect the knowledge of God that every person possesses, even if it is suppressed (Romans 1). Yet every culture to some degree will be distorted by sin, namely the elevation of finite values to the position of the absolute (idolatry). Therefore we can't simply evaluate more traditional, conservative cultures as being more 'Biblical' and liberal, secular cultures as being more immoral and evil. Conservative cultures often elevate the family or one's race to an absolute value-leading to the idolatries of racism, tribalism, patriarchy and other forms of moralism and oppression. Liberal cultures elevate the individual and human freedom to an absolute value-leading to the erosion of family, community, of integrity in both business and sexual practices. Yet both the importance of the family and the worth and freedom of the individual are rooted in a Biblical world-view. So both the 'collectivist' traditional culture and the 'individualist' liberal culture are mixtures of darkness and light.

3. This is quite important for Christians to realize. Most Christians' reaction to culture is too simplistic and doesn't do analysis that goes beneath the behavioral level. They simply see contemporary culture as 'bad' and the more traditional U.S. culture of the early 20th century as better. But-

a. First, this comes from a theologically 'thin' view of sin, which sees sin as a series of discrete acts of non-compliance to God's regulations. Christian growth is seen mainly as seeking environments where you are less likely to do these sinful actions. Sin is something that can be essentially removed from the person. But a theologically 'thick' view of sin sees it as a compulsive drive of the heart to produce or discover idols.

If we have a 'thin' view of sin, we will remove from our view anything that could tempt us to do overt actions of sexual immorality, profanity, violence. By withdrawing such cultural 'texts' from our view we may feel less sinful, but that is not the case. The complex organic nature of our sin will still be at work making idols out of things that are not overt forms of law-breakinglike our moral goodness, or financial security, or our family, or doctrinal purity, or pride in our own traditional culture, and so on. In fact, too much emphasis on 'withdrawal' makes the likelihood of slipping into 'respectable' idolatries greater.

If, instead, we have the 'thick' view of sin-as idolatry that pervades all we do-this should lead not to withdrawal or to uncritical consumption, but


rather to 'humble, critical engagement.' We should identify cultural idolatries in popular culture as ways of repenting for the seeds of the same in our own hearts and avoiding them. (There is certainly room for specific withdrawal form some texts of popular-or 'high'!-culture, especially when we are younger. We are talking here of blanket withdrawal or uncritical consumption.

b. Second, this comes from a theologically 'thin' view of "common grace" or what is sometimes called 'general' or 'natural' revelation. Christians have long recognized that all people have 'knowledge' of God that they suppress, according to Romans 1-2. But many conceive of this knowledge mainly (or strictly) as cognitive information that can be retrieved somehow as we argue with people about the existence of God, the truth of Christianity, and so on. In other words, innate know/edge of Cod is thought of in intellectual terms.

But the language of Rom 1 :18-25 gives us a much more comprehensive and dynamic picture of how 'general revelation' or 'common grace' works. The 'truth' is being 'suppressed' (v. 1 8) but it continues to bear down on us. The NIV translation of verse 20: "Since the creation of the world Cod's invisible quaJities ... have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so men are without excuse." But the verbs nosumena ("are being understood") and kathopatai (lJare being seen") are in the form of present passive participles. That is, the reality of God's nature and OUf obligations to him are continuously present to us. It should not be thought of as static, innate ideas or information, but as a continually fresh, insistent pressure on the consciousness of every human being. In short, every artifact of human culture is a response to God's general revelation (d. Isaiah 28) but always marred by an idolatrous heart that doesn't want to acknowledge the total sovereignty of God (Rom 1 :21.) So all cultural production is a dialogue between God's general revelational grace and the idolatrous nature of the human heart.

In short, every human being who produces culture (and everyone is!) is in a deep 'dialogue' with the general revelation of God. Therefore human culture is an extremely complex mixture of brilliant truth, marred half-truths, and overt resistance to the truth. We should be willing to be very engaged with general human culture produced by non-Christians. Why?

a. First, a 'thick' view of sin means that even overtly Christian-produced culture will always have some idolatrous discourse within it. When we become Christians we continue to have powerful amounts of remaining sin In us.

b. Second, a 'thick' view of grace means that even overtly non-Christi anproduced culture will always have some witness to God's truth in it. Even the angry, overtly anti-God culture is to a degree a testimony to God's reality. Many of these have an air of desperation about them. They are vainly trying to 'put out' what they know in their hearts.


So Christians are never as good as their 'right beliefs' should make them and nonChristians are never as bad as their 'wrong beliefs' should make them. In general, then, this means a stance of critical enjoyment of human culture. On the one hand it means to recognize the half-truths and to resist the idols. How do we do this? It means when you recognize a cultural artifact that is a blatant, overt (even angry) resistance to God's general revelation, there is no need to delve deeply into it or expose yourself to it repeatedly. On the other hand it means to recognize and celebrate the wide-spread expressions of justice, wisdom, truth, and beauty in any culture.

Conclusion: The view that all cultures are essentially religious could lead to an 'absolutist' view of culture. The response to the absolutist view is a more relativistic view.

"Absolutist" view - Cultural forms are either pure (because the commanding truths of that culture are based on good theology) or impure (because the commanding truths are based on bad theology). Therefore every cultural product can be evaluated as acceptable or un-acceptable.

"Relativist" view - Cultural forms are neutral and relative because the ultimate commanding truths of any culture are all relative and arbitrary. There is no absolute truth.

But the Biblical understanding of the gospel (Christians are saved but sinners) of the image of God (people are lost but indelibly reflect the nature of God) and of common grace (all people suppress the truth about God but they nonetheless 'hear' and 'know' it)-creates a much more nuanced understanding of culture.


Some particular evangelical responses to the challenge of contextualization.

1. Eugene Nida's approach to Bible translation-"dynamic equivalence"-and Kenneth Pike's approach to linguistics-"tagmenics" seek to shake off the effects of older secular views of culture.

How can Sender (S) re-encode message (M) so that receptor (R) knows the same meaning, in his cultural context, that S has in his?

Older views (developmental and functionalist) saw words as "boxes" containing the meaning within them. In that view, the important thing is to assume there is an equivalent "box"/word in the R's language to use in the translation. (Thus NASB translates word-far-word.)

But Nida saw words not as "boxes" that contain meaning within them but as "arrows" that prick the hearer's heart and evoke the meaning. In this view "meaning" is in the heart, not the word. Thus we choose words that prick the R's heart in the same way it would prick SiS heart in his language. (Thus NIV translates -"idea for idea"). This is done, says Nida, or else the real meaning of the text does


not come through. Called "dynamic equivalence". It assumes you have to make greater changes to the language and cultural form of the message, if you are to maintain the same meaning or content. Keep the form, you unwittingly change the meaning-change the form in order to maintain the meaning.

2. Charles Kraft. The Bible is a body of absolute truth, but as soon as we ask: "what does the Bible teach?" and begin to write our "theology" we will find that we are answering a set of questions that we have asked the Bible. What has determined what those questions are? Our list is a product of our cultural situation. For example, the Westminster Divines didn't ask the Bible much about our relationship to our parents and ancestors. But if Koreans ask "what does the Bible teach?" they will immediately ask a number of questions about one's relationship to one's family and ancestors. Thus, the Bible is absolute, but every creed or "message" taken from the Bible will be done within a particular cultural horizon. We will have understood its meaning within our own cultural context. There is, then, such a thing as 'ethno-theology.' There is 'Black' theology and 'Latin American' theology and 'Asian' theology in a sense. The problems:

The Receptor's cultural horizon has sin in it. His cultural issues and questions may be antithetical to the gospel at certain points. Therefore there is a danger, that if we adapt too far to his interests, if we remove too many 'skandalons', we will change the message of the gospel and lose it.

But, it is just as much a danger for the Christian Sender to underestimate the sinful elements in his own cultural context-i.e. his context is not perfect, and sinful elements may have influenced his own understanding of the gospel. Also it is a danger for the Christian Sender to underestimate God being at work in other cultures. Common grace works everywhere, and culture that doesn't seem "Christian" may have good elements within it.

"Conservative" mistake. So many evangelical Christians unwittingly have a static view of culture that is functionalist or even developmentalist. As a result, they look at cultures as being wholly good or bad, instead of in flux, with sinful elements and God's common grace in them all. Thus, they see their own understanding of Christianity as "pure", not contextualized, and (especially) not tainted by one's own culture's sinful imperfections. Therefore there is no attitude of humility and adaptation in the gospel communication process.

"Liberal" mistake. Some radical contextualizers (see the 'seeker driven church movement') may also have a naive and static view of culture. They may see it as neutral, and not as essentially rei igious at its core. Thus they forget that modern culture worships autonomy, etc. Wholesale adaptations to a particular culture are always dangerous and usually not wise.

The Nature of Contextualization

"Contextualization" refers to the process by which we 'incarnate' the Christian faith in a particular culture, addressing: a particular world-view with the gospel. That is, we communicate it and practice/embody it in forms that the 'receptor-hearers' can understand. Contextualization is not 'giving people what they want' but rather it is giving God's answers


(which they may not wantl) to questions they are asking and in forms they can comprehend. Principles behind this definition follow.

1. Cultures are dynamic, mixed entities with a world-view about God at their heart.

2. There is no universal, de-contextualized form of Christianity.

Contextualization assumes several things about the 'sender's' culture and the 'receptor's' culture:

a. Christianity in every culture is syncretistic to a degree. It is inadequately contextualized. Every church has to some degree brought some elements of culture uncritically (un-processed by the gospel) into its form of Christianity. Individualistic cultures miss out on the communal aspects of Christianity. Authoritarian cultures miss out on the freedom of conscience and grace aspects of Christianity. None of us have contextualized rightly.

b. Every expression and embodiment of Christianity is contextualized. There is no such thing as a universal, a-historical expression of Christianity.

c. So the minute we begin to minister we must 'incarnate', even as Jesus did. Actual Christian practices must have both a Biblical form or shape as well as a cultural form or shape. For example, the Bible clearly directs us to use music to praise God -but as soon as we choose a music to use, we enter a culture. As soon as we choose a language, as soon as we choose a vocabulary, as soon as we choose a particular level of emotional expressiveness and intensity, as soon as we choose even an illustration as an example for a sermon-we are moving toward the social context of some people and away from the social context of others. At Pentecost, everyone heard the sermon in his or her own language and dialect. But since Pentecost, we can never be 'all things to all people' at the very same time. So adaptation to culture is inevitable.

d. This is not relativism! Paul does not change the gospel-but he adapts it very heavily. Sure this opens the door to abuses, but to fear and refuse to adapt to culture opens to abuses of gospel just as much! We can put this another way:

I. Imagine there are five translucent but colored globes, and in the center of

each globe there is the same small, solid, triangular stone.

II. Each globe is a different color and texture-red, orange, blue, green, violet. iii. There is no place in the world where that stone exists outside of the globes. IV. Now-what can you tell about the stone and what can you not tell?

v. Because the stone is triangular in every globe, you can assume it probably is triangular. And perhaps there are textures and other aspects of the stone you can see in all the globes as well.

vi. But because every globe is tinted, it is difficult to tell just what the color of the stone is. The more globes you look in, the easier it is to tell (for example) that it is a dark color, and you may be able to deductively guess at it. But you can't be sure.


vii. The Christian gospel is like the stone and the cultures of the world are like the globe. There is no place in the world where we can directly view a universal, de-contextualized, a-historical gospel. As soon as we choose a particular language, we are 'skewering' Christianity toward our own culture. The word 'God' in English has a different meaning than the word for God in other cultures (every word has a different cultural history and connotation.) So there is no way to express the gospel in a culturetranscending way.

3. Contextualization is a two-way process.

a. On the one hand, you are seeking to 'correct' the receptor's cultural prejudices and distortions with the gospel. But at the very same time you must use the interaction with another culture as an opportunity to reflect on the ways in which your own understanding of the gospel is culturally incarnated and somewhat distorted. You will always assume or feel that some aspects of your familiar gospel Christianity which are cultural adaptations are really universals that everyone should follow. Contextualization is a time for the communicator to notice and correct his own cultural prejudices and distortions of the gospel. If that is not done the contextuallzation process will simply not work.

b. While the Bible cannot be corrected by non-Christian cultures, Christians can be. (A refusal to allow your own Christianity to be corrected means you assume your Christianity is perfectly Biblical.) A non-Christian philosophy can point out something that is a Biblical insight but which the Christians have missed. Such a process shows us what part of our own framework is really Biblical, and what part was our own cultural or emotional baggage.

c. For example, secular individualism as a philosophy is very sensitive to violations of human dignity on the basis of race. It doesn't really have a sufficient basis for calling racism evil, but its system (which idolizes individual freedom) is a radar screen which picks up racial prejudice wherever it exists. Now if secularists point out racism in a society, Christians might be forced to go back to the Scriptures and find that the Bible speaks far more about the evi I of racism than they had thought. Christians are not correcting the Bible, but are correcting their understanding of the Bible, through humble interaction with non-Biblical philosophies. Why is it humble?-because we know our own si n, we know that we are not thoroughly Biblical, and we know that God in his mercy sometimes gives pagans morally informed consciences (Romans 2), which sense real evil and truth even if their intellectual furniture has no basis for their insights.

d. Another example: Korean Christians have a heavy pre-layer of Confucian culture (which makes an idol of human tradition and worships ancestors). So when they read the Bible, they see the emphasis on submission to authority, loyalty, commitment. American Christians have a heavy pre-layer of Western individualism (which makes an idol of individual feelings and needs). So when they read the Bible, they see the emphasis on freedom and personal decision. But Korean Christians will be able to pick up American Christian's phobia about commitment and hatred for authority (ie where they "screen out" Biblical truth), and American


Christians will be able to pick up Korean Christians tendency to toward authoritarianism in their institutions and to enshrining human traditions in a Pharisaical way (ie where they "screen out" Biblical truth).

4. Contextual theology is the set of answers to particular questions you ask the Bible.

When a church writes down a confession of faith, it is not simply writing down what the Bible is saying. Rather it is writing down its answers to the particular questions it is asking the Bible. Harvie Conn used to point out that though the western church insisted that the Presbyterian churches of Korea adopt the Westminster Confession, there is essentially nothing in the confession about attitude toward ancestors and very little on how we should regard parents and grand-parents. Those issues are absolutely

enormous in Korean culture, but the writers of the WCF did not ask the Bible about them. If the Koreans had written their own confession (using older confessions as a guide, as the WCF writers themselves did.) they would have asked quite a few questions that the 17th century British did not.

5. Contextualization is a balance of accepting and reiecting, of entering and challenging.

a. Missionary strategy consists of two parts: a) On the one hand, be sure not to remove any of the offensive essentials of the gospel message, such as the teaching on sin, the need for repentance, the lostness of those outside of Christ, and so on. b) On the other hand, be sure to remove any non-essential language or practice that will confuse or offend the sensibilities of the people you are trying to reach. The key to effective mission is to know the difference between essential and unessential.

b. Those who say they refuse to contextualize cannot really avoid it. Often, in Reformed circles, the greatest critics of contextualization may uncritically adopt favorite historical models of ministry (from Calvin's Geneva, or English Puritanism, or 19th century revivalism, or the traditional parish method from the "old country", and so on).

Summary: If you over-contextualize your ministry-if you mistake the 'required' for the 'relative'-you give too much authority to the new culture to which you are reaching. You 'buy in' to the new culture's idols. But if you under-contextualize your ministry-if you mistake the 'relative' for the 'required'-you give too much authority to the old culture from which you are reaching. You 'buy in' to the old culture's idols.

If the culture is not truly entered (that is, if the gospel communication comes in the undiluted cultural-form of its sender,) then the receptors have a 'cultural conversion.' They do not actually encounter God, but simply adopt the culture of the sender. If, on the other hand, the culture is not truly challenged and re-worked (that is, if the basic idol(s) of the culture are not really removed,) then the receptors also have only a 'cultural conversion.' They simply get a lightly 'Christianized' version of their own culture! In both these cases, non-contextualization leads the 'converts' to an encounter with culture rather than God.

6. Contextualization is entering, chellenging, and re-telling the culture~ basic 'story-lines' and cultural narratives.


The previous part of the outline could lend the impression that culture is a pile of discrete, disjointed beliefs and practices, and it is the job of the Christian contextualizer to simply sift through them, keeping the acceptable, rejecting the unacceptable, and mildly adapting the offensive but not totally unacceptable. But that is the old 'functionalist' mechanistic view of culture. Rather, the contextualizer must discern a culture's basic 'story-lines' and connect the culture's stories to the great Christ-story of redemption.

Human beings can't make sense or attach meaning to anything without placing it in some kind of 'narrative-structure' or 'story-Ii ne.'

a. This has been the consensus of a remarkable amount of study over the last 20 years (and this crosses the lines of 'liberal' and 'conservative' thinking)

b. The example of September 11. No one could ever discuss the event without placing it into some kind of narrative structure. Some liberal voices said, "See-this is the result of America's abuse of its imperial power in the world." Some conservative voices said, "See-this is the result of evil forces in the world who hate us because we are good." Some leaders in New York City said, "See-this is the way we can become a better city, by pulling together and being strong and getting through it." But no one was able to talk about what 9-11 meant unless they could see it as part of a story-line. We need stories to provide meaning to things.

What is a story or narrative?

a. First, a story begins when something throws life off balance. For example: "Little Red Riding Hood took her grandmother some goodies" is not a story. But "Little Red Riding Hood was going to her grandmother to bring her some goodies, but a big bad wolf tried to eat her"- is.

b. Second, a story progresses as the central characters fight to restore that balance.

This means-and it is something many scholars don't like-that stories unavoidably divide characters into protagonists (those struggling toward the restoration of balance/peace) and antagonists (those struggling against the restoration and the protagonists). Thus since there can be no meaning without stories-and no stories without good guys and bad guys-then there can be no meaning or community identity or personal identity without the creation of 'the Other'-the 'bad guys', the people we are not like.

c. Third, the story ends as the struggle results in either the restoration of the balance or the failure to restore it.

Summary: So a 'story' consists of the answer to three questions: 1) "how are things supposed to be? "(implied in any story-unavoidably-is a theory about how life ought to be 2) "what has gone wrong?" what is the main problem with things? 3) "what is the solution and can it be realized?"

Since the beginning of history, people have not only used stories to make sense of events but of fife itself.


Everyone knows that the world as a whole is out of balance-seriously out of whack. No one says the world or life is fine.

a. First, there is something wrong within us. Nothing ever seems to make us happy or fulfilled in anything but the most passing way. Lovers, landscapes, experiences all seem to promise us ultimate joy but can never deliver it. We seem to want something that they point to-something that nothing in this world seems to satisfy.

b. Second, there is something also wrong among us. The world is filled with poverty, war, suffering, and injustice. Something seems to have knocked the whole world off balance. What is it? And what is the solution?

c. It is impossible to live life without a working theory or belief about what is mainly wrong with things and what will put it right.

The result of any answers to these 'big' questions-is what has been called a 'worldview'-a mental/spiritual map of reality,

a. We call it 'mental' because it is a set of assumptions through which understand things-it is a 'macro-story' that helps us attach meaning to the events around us. We put every event into the macro-story to make sense of it. (That is why a liberals and conservatives could both take 9-11 and make it confirm what they always had thought about the world.)

b. We call it 'spiritual' because any answer to these questions is unavoidably a set of faith beliefs. It is always based on views of human nature, a commitment (again, unavoidable) about God's nature, importance. It is an understanding of the problem in life and the struggle against it and the way to be 'saved.'

c. It is unavoidable to have some kind of working 'world-story' or world-view. It answers questions: what is life all about? What is worth doing and not worth doing? In other words, every culture has had a World-Story, which consists of the agreed upon answers to the three questions. The Greeks saw the main problem to be the body and the material world. Eastern religions and cultures however believed the main problem was the illusion of individual consciousness and the selfish craving it engendered. So a 'world-view' is a 'World-Story'-an account of how things ought to be, what knocked them out of whack, and how we can put things right

The Christian 'story-line' of the gospel can actually encompass and complete other world-view 'story-lines.'

Compared to Christianity, other views of reality (and thus cultures) identify some created thing as being 'the problem' with the world and some created thing as 'our hope, our trust' to get us through. (These are the 'protagonists' and the 'antagonists' of their world-view's story of the world.) But Christianity says that the answer to the first question is 'sin', and the answer to the second question is 'Jesus only'. Without the gospel, you have to make something besides the Lord into a savior, and thus something else into the demonic 'other' or 'enemy'.


a. Thus Marxism assumes all our problems come from the powerful, greedy capitalists who won't share the means of economic production with the people. The solution is a totalitarian state.

b. Freud on the other hand believed all our problems comes from repression of deep desires for pleasure. The solution is the unrepressed freedom of the individual-thus the villains become repressive moral 'gate-keepers' in society like the church.

c. Plenty of people have a "traditional values" world-view. They think the problem with the world lies in bad, undisciplined, selfish people who won't submit to traditional moral values and family responsibilities. The solution is a moral 'revival' in society of religion and morality and virtue.

d. Only the Christian world-view locates the problem with the world not in anyone part of the world or in anyone group of people but in Sin itself. And it locates the solution in God's grace and the coming of the kingdom. Sin infects us all, and so we cannot simply divide the world into the 'good guys' and the bad. Without an understanding of the nature of the kingdom, we will be either naively utopian or cynical and disillusioned. We will be demonizing something that isn't all that bad and we will be idolizing something that isn't all that good.

The Christian story line works beautifully a) to make sense of things, and b) even to appreciate the truth embedded in stories that clearly come from another world view. The Christian 'story' line is: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

a. Everything is good. God made the world and everything in it was good. There is no intrinsically evil parts of the world. Nothing is evil in the beginning, even Sauron was not so. You can look for the 'creational good' in anything. Like Tolkien did with his celebration of ancient (pagan) Anglo-Saxon culture and even the nature spirit (Tom Bornbadil). Non-Christian world-views make idols out of created things, but Christianity can appreciate the goodness of anything the culture lifts up (though too high.)

b. Everything is fallen. There is no part of the world not effected by sin. For example, is reason bad but emotion good? No. Are emotion and passions bad, and reason good? No. Is the physical bad and the spiritual good? Is the normal day-to-day world profane, but religious observances good? No. All of these distinctions fail the gospel world view and try to locate the world's problems in some created thing instead of in sin. Non-Christian world-views villainize and demonize some created thing, but Christianity can appreciate the evil and danger of anything the culture denigrates (though too much.)

c. Everything is going to be redeemed. Jesus is not going to redeem just the spirit but also all things. This means in Christ's future redeemed world virtually all the main hopes of any non-Christian culture will be realized.

The Christian, then, can appreciate the truth in any world-view while at the same time 'deconstructing' it: The Christian who is 'contextualizing' the gospel must show the destructiveness of making something besides God into the central thing. You must show


the culture that their own world-view will not be able to give them their deepest hopes. You must show that only in Christ will your culture's basic story have a 'happy ending.' The macro-gospel story line is remarkably able to 'take in' all sorts of mini-stories and make sense of them in a way that doesn't offend or make feel coerced. For example.

Modern example. The radical deconstructionist in NYC wants to show that all truth claims are really just power grabs. He uses deconstruction to free people from oppression-which is his ultimate hope.

a. But when you make the deconstruction tool into an ultimate it deconstructs itself. If all truth claims are just power grabs-so is that, and why do we have to listen to it? In end, to see through everything is not to see.(CSL, Abolition of Man)

b. But Jesus de constructs moralism. The oppressiveness that demonizes 'the Other' comes not from the idea of truth but from trying to save yourself by believing and obeying the truth. There is a true deconstruction (the gospel of grace) that deconstructs Phariseeism and oppression without deconstructing itself.

Ancient examples. This is what Paul is doing in 1 Cor 1 when he says that the jews wanted power (but the cross is weakness) and the Greeks wanted wisdom (but the cross is foolishness) and YET Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

a. This means that in one way the gospel story challenged both the Jewish baseline culture narrative (the search for power) and the Greek's baseline cultural narrative (the search for wisdom.)

b. Paul is saying that in one way the gospel enters the culture's story (because yes, power is important and yes, wisdom is important) and yet it tells each culture how it will never find true power or wisdom except in Christ. There are always tensions in the culture's story-antagonists that you cannot over come-without Jesus. Paul "entered" and sympathized with both jews and Greeks in their cultural aspirations but also showed how the culture's plot-lines can only be resolved in jesus. The Jews were offended by the idea of a weak Messiah-but in the end jesus gives the Jewish believers the ultimate power their entire culture has been seeking so passionately. The Greeks were offended by the idea of a foolish Messiah (and by the whole idea of revelation)-but in the end Jesus gives the Greek believers the ultimate wisdom their entire culture has been seeking so passionately

A generational example.

a. The older generations in America had this as their cultural story-What life is all about is being a good person: a good person, a good father/mother, son/daughter, to live a decent, merciful, good life.

b. The younger generations in America have this as their cultural story-What life is all about is being a free person. We must be free and self-created and


authentic (theme of freedom from oppression) and we must make the world safe for everyone else to be the same (theme of inclusion of the 'other').

c. We must then show how only in Christ can we have freedom without slavery. Only in Christ can we truly embrace the 'other' without injustice. We must 're-tell' the culture's story and show how its story lines only resolve themselves in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Current example: In the 20th century hundreds of millions of Africans concluded that when comparing tribal animism, Islam, secular capitalism, and ChristianityChristianity best resolved the their hopes and aspirations as Africans to be a moral people with freedom from the forces of darkness in the world (That is their fundamental cultural story. Not, like the Jews a quest for wisdom, nor like the Greeks a quest for philosophy and wisdom, but a quest for freedom and authority over the spiritual forces in the world.)

So gospel communication does not mean only a 'head on collision'-i.e. my story is better than your story. Rather, gospel communication is: Jesus resolves the plot lines in your story better than anything else can. So a great writer like Tolkien enters the old did old northern European pagan world and resolves their main story lines of valor and glory and doomed-fulfillment-of-duty. So a great writer like Flannery O'Connor enters the racist narrow Southern culture and resolves it with grace.

The concept of the gospel as the 'Good Story' has enormous implications for communicating the gospel in every culture. Lamin Sanneh, in Translating the Message insists that only Christianity does not decimate an indigenous culture's story, but rather a) enters it, b) cleanses it of distortions, demonic and idolatrous elements, and c) resolves its unresolved story lines in Christ.

So Tolkien wrote:

The Gospels contain ... a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairystories. But this story has entered history and the primary world ... There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which 50 many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath ... [T]his story is supreme; and it is true. God is Lord, of angels, and of men =end of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

7. The gospel itself is the key to contextualization.

Religion (! obey-therefore I am accepted) leads to either pride (if I am living up to standards) or inferiority (if I am failing to live up to standards) but the gospel (I am accepted through Christ-therefore I obey) makes us both humble and confident at once.

This makes us contextualizersl If we need the approval of the receiving culture too much, it shows a lack of gospel confidence. If we need the trappings of our own culture too much, it shows a lack of gospel humility. Gospel humility directs us to neither hate tradition nor be bound to it. It is proud to imagine that other Christians did not find much grace in past 'contextualizations' and therefore we do not ignore tradition. But it is also proud to think


that new cultural trends have no grace in them and that former cultures were all more spiritually pure. Thus we adapt.

8. Theological resources for contextualization.

a. Incarnation

In Philippians 2:6-11, we are told that Jesus Christ did not hold on to his heavenly culture and identity, but submitted himself to our form and became a servant for us. Paul insists that we all imitate the incarnation, telling us to "not only look to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." (vA)

So there may be two kinds of churches. One kind says to its community: "you can come to us, learn our language, our interests, and meet our needs." The other kind says to its community: "we will come to you, learn your language, learn your interests, meet your needs." Which of these approaches imitates the incarnation? The latter. And it is this latter kind of church that is likely to adapt its shape in such a way as to communicate most effectively with the people God has called us to reach.

b. Hermeneutics

Whenever a believer reads the Bible, he or she must ask: "how can I obey the Bible here and now?" Why? Nothing in Scripture is revealed simply to be known abstractly. Rather, everything is revealed to be obeyed in our concrete situation (Deut.29:29). This is because "the Creator-creature relation is a covenant relation, a Lord-servant relation." All revealed truth is a summons by God to know him and obey him. The Biblical God is a covenant Lord, speaking to covenant servants, he expects us to apply the word to the situation (the age and the culture) in which we live.

The effect of this understanding of the Scripture as "covenantal revelation" is to keep united what has traditionally been separated, namely "meaning" and "application".

"Over and over, preachers (and others) try to proclaim the 'meaning' of the text and then its 'application'-the first part is 'what it means', the second 'what it

means to us' [But] every request for 'meaning' is a request for an

application the one who asks doesn't understand the passage well enough to

use it himself. .. A person does not understand Scripture, Scripture tells us, unless he can apply it to new situations, to situations not even envisaged in the original text (Matt.16:3; 22:29; Luke 24:25; John 5:39f.; Rom.15:4; II Tim.3:16f.; 11 Pet.l :19-21-in context)." 2

Frame's argument is this: we don't understand what a text means unless we understand how we are to use it and obey it. Scripture cannot be understood unless it is being obeyed, and it cannot be obeyed except in the concrete situation. When we use this approach in ministry design, the results are radical. Many Biblical scholars have tried, in their study, to distill from the Bible a single, pure ministry design or church structure which must then be faithfully reproduced wherever one goes. Frame argues that this is a misunderstanding of Scripture as covenantal revelation. Instead, the Biblical

1 John Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, p.13.

2 Ibid, p. 83-84


absolutes which give the church its form must take different shapes as they become expressed in different times and cultures. There will be many church "models" and many ministry designs, all very Biblical.

Therefore, there is no such thing as 'pure theology' that can be extracted from the Scripture and which then must be 'contextual ized.' All theology is to one degree or another already "contextualized" culturally in its very form. What is systematic theology? It is a series of answers to questions we have asked the Bible. But what determines the questions on that list? Why does a theologian ask the particular set of questions he or she does? It is largely because our experience in our time and culture poses such questions to our mind. Then we seek answers to them in the Bible, and the result is a culturally influenced systematic theology. In the Westminster Confession, for example, there is nothing about ancestor worship, because none of the Westminster divines asked the Bible that question. In Korean culture, however, that is a pressing issue.

Thus every systematic theology ever written is 'contextualized' already. And in every age and culture, we must come to the Scripture with new questions relevant to that time and society. Since we are not relativists (who teach that truth is entirely subjective and bound by our experience), we are not to discard or demote the penetrating and comprehensive confessions of past eras. But new congregations must not only propagate formulae which were the result of another centuries' set of questions. They must also answer the questions of the age and apply the gospel to the forms of confusion and brokenness we confront now.

c. History of Revelation

Redemptive history is also the history of revelation, and in revelational history we continually see God adapting his communication to the capacities of the receiver. Geerhardus Vos in his Biblical Theology has shown that God unfolds revelation in a history, in stages, with each stage adapted to the ability of the people to whom he speaks.

God sends his message through a human prophet when the people complain they cannot listen to his voice directly (Deut.18:15-19).

When God entered into a relationship with Israel, he adopted a cultural form, the specific format of suzerain-vassal treaties in the Near East during the second millennium S.c. See Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authoritv (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), pp. 21-38.

Paul boasts that he becomes "to the Jews as a Jew ... to the weak I became

weak .. .that I by all means save some ... " (I Cor. 9:19-23). Studies have been done of Paul's adaptation of the gospel message to the diverse cultures of his many audiences. Paul varied his use of emotion and reason, his citation of approved authorities, his vocabulary, his choice of points of contention (avoiding unnecessary issues), his identification of the audiences concerns, hopes, and needs. In every case, he had a specific kind of people "targeted". See Jay E. Adams, Audience Adaptations in the Sermons and Speeches of Paul (Presby. and Reformed, 1976), especially pp. 61-64.


d. Biblical authority

A high view of the Bible demands that we believe in contextualization. Why? The Bible gives us great freedom in the details of living. (That is why it can be used in all cultures.) Since the Bible does not tell us specifically how to dress or specifically what kind of music to listen to, there is freedom to shape dress and music in such a way that both honors the Biblical boundaries and themes and yet fits a culture. To deny that much of our Christianity is culturally relative is to elevate human tradition to divine authority and to therefore dishonor the Scripture.

e. Paul's contextualization in Acts, Romans, and 1 Corinthians We continually see Paul's approach to contextualization:

A church must avoid all unnecessary cultural offense. Where the Bible has not spoken, and has left the conscience free, we must not elevate relative human cultural norms to make them absolutes. For example, we should not insist that rhythmic music is less pleasing to God than melodic music and must be excluded from worship. We must not absolutize styles of dress, and so on.

On the other hand, it must not eliminate the offense of the gospel. The cross is a skandalon, an offense. What the Bible has clearly and absolutely taught, we cannot soft pedal or discard. If we do, we have not adapted to the culture, we have capitulated. For example, if we have a congregation of rich people, and we never speak of social justice, we eliminate a Biblical skandalon.

Paul applies these two principles to the question of meat offered to idols (I Corinthians 8:1ff). This was a cultural problem-jews saw the idols as nothing and former pagan Greeks were offended because of their culturally framed consciences (d. I Cor. 10:32). Though Paul agrees that the meat was harmless and thus the "weak" brothers were being controlled by a strictly cultural taboo (I Cor. 8:4-5), the "strong" should not unnecessarily "offend" the weak by exercising their freedom from the culture (I Cor. 8:10-12). Cultural accommodation here does not compromise the gospel.

In summary, churches will grow if

1) they choose models of ministry and communicate the gospel in forms "contextualized" to their community

2) they answer the questions of the age from the Scripture

3) they give no unnecessary cultural offense, while challenging the culture with the irreducible truths of the gospel.

Reflection Questions:

Q1: Explain Contextualization in your own words. What is it?


Q2: How would you describe the process of contextualization?

Q3: Why is contextualization so important to urban church planting?

Q4: Describe a time when you succeeded at contextualization, whether with a message, a relationship, a program or an approach. What did you do and how was it received?

Q5: In your own words, respond to the following assertion: "Contextualization is really just a fancy word for capitulating to the surrounding culture and compromising the truths of Scripture."


Q6: From your knowledge of the context of your plant, what cultural issues will need to be addressed? Which of your past ministry practices will need to be adapted to contextualize the gospel for the people you want to reach/serve?

Supplemental Reading:

H.Conn, Eternal Word and Changing Worfd (Zondervan, 1984)

"Contextualization: Where do we begin?" in Evangelicals and Liberation, ed C.Amerding (Presby and Reformed, 1977)

"Contextual Theology" course syllabus and 20-tape set of lectures. Available from Westminster Media

"Norrnativity, Relevance, and Relativity" in Inerrancy and Hermeneutic, ed. Harvie Conn (Baker, 1 988)

David J. Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-culturally (Zondervan, 1978) Charles Kraft, Communication Theory for Christian Witness (Abingdon, 1983) and Anthropology for Christian Witness (Orbis, 1996)

Sherwood Lingenfelter, Ministering Cross-Culturally (Baker, 1986) with Marvin K. Mayers and Transforming Culture (Baker, 1998.)

John Stott and Robert Coote, eds. Down to Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture. (Eerdmans, 1980.)

See especially the Appendix: "The Willowbank Report" Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (revised) Orbis, 1992.

Marc Cortez, "Context and Concept: Contextual Theology and the Nature of Theological Discourse" Westminster Theological journal (Spring, 2005.)


To be most helpful to you, you'll want to interact with this material as you read it.

When you read something that makes an important point or answers a question for you, put a 'l' in the margin.

If something raises a question or presents something you'd like to explore further, place a '?' in the margin.

If you read something that sparks an idea that you want to include and develop in your church plant, place a '*' in the margin.

Reading 4.2 Our Post-Christian Western Context

Source: Keller, Tim. Cospel Ministry: Model and Practice. Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2006.

A. The importance of Lesslie Newbigin

Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary of the United Reformed church of Britain to India. He served for approximately 40 years there, from 1936 to 1974, serving as a bishop in the Reformed church of India in several locations.

As any missionary, Newbigin learned to communicate and embody the gospel in a culture that on the whole found the Christian claims uri-credible and incredible. In Europe and North America, the main institutions (schools, cultural institutions) operated out of a broadly Christian understanding of things. Thus culture produced people with generally Christian beliefs who simply needed to be called to commitment and incorporated into the church. But in India churches had to adapt absolutely every aspect of their church life-worship, preaching, community life, discipleship-to being in a non-Christian world. They assumed every person they contacted had a significantly different way of thinking about the world and life. When Newbigin returned to Great Britain he discerned two facts.

1. First, western culture had lost its Christian orientation and was fast becoming as resistant to Christianity as other societies if not more. (A post-Christian society can be more dismissive of the gospel than a pre-Christian society, since people in a post-Christian situation may feel 'we tried that-and it didn't work.')

2. Second, the churches had not really adapted to their new situation. They continued to preach in language that only 'Christianized' traditional and conservative people could understand. They continued to create an environment that only traditional and conservative people could feel comfortable to enter. They continued to 'disciple' people by only training them with individual skills for their private lives (Bible study, prayer) and not by training them how to live distinctively Christian lives in a now very secular world where the values reigning in their vocational field could now be sharply different than Christian values. In short, churches in the West were now in a 'mission' situation-surrounded by a hostile-to-Christian-culturebut they hadn't become mission (or 'rnissional') churches.

Newbigin was perhaps the first voice to begin to sound the alarm. His short monograph "The Other Side" in 1983 sparked a great deal of interest. This led to his lectures at Princeton Seminary and the book Foolishness to the Greeks (1986). This was a more complete analysis of what the non-Christian culture of the West looked like. In The Gosoel in a Pluralistic Society

, ,

(1989) he began to fulfill his own agenda, including the provision of an apologetic of post-

Enlightenment, 'post-modern' times, as well as an outline of what it meant to be a missionary congregation in the western world.

B. A summary of Newbigin's agenda (paraphrased but mainly in his own words.)

From: "Can the West be Converted?" International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 11 (1), Jan. 1987, pp.2-7. Foolishness to the Greeks (Eerdmans, 1986) pp.134ff. The Household of God (out of print).

1. The Question: "O! course, the Number One question is, Can the West be converted?"

If one looks at the world scene from a missionary point of view, surely the most striking fact is that, while in great areas of Asia and Africa the church is growing, often growing rapidly, in the lands which were once called Christendom it is in decline; and, moreover, wherever the culture of the West, under the name of "modernization," penetrates, it carries with it what Lippmann called "the acids of modernity," dissolving the most enduring of religious beliefs including the beliefs of Christians. Surely there can be no more crucial question for the world mission of the church than the one I have posed. Can there be an effective missionary encounter with this culture? Can the West be converted!? Why is it that we have a plethora of missionary studies on the contextualization of the gospel in all the cultures of the world from China to Peru, but nothing comparable directed to the culture which we call "the modern world"? Can the experience of cross-cultural missions to the many pre-modern cultures of our world in the last two centuries illuminate the task of mission to this modern world?

2. Analysis of Western Culture:

a. Apparently No Heresy

One of the most persuasive writers seeking to articulate a Christian affirmation in the terms of our culture is Peter Berger. In his book The Heretical Imperative he has argued that the distinctive fact about modern Western culture, as distinct from all other cultures, is that there is no generally acknowledged "plausibility structure," acceptance of which is taken for granted without argument, and dissent from which is heresy. A "plausibility structure," as Berger uses the term, is a social structure of ideas and practices, which creates the conditions that determine whether or not a belief is plausible. To hold beliefs which fall outside this plausibility structure is to be a heretic in the original sense of the word haeresis, that is to say, one who makes his own decisions. In modern societies, by contrast, we are required to make our own decisions, for there is to be no accepted plausibility structure. We all have to make our own decisions. We all have to be, in the original sense, heretics.

b. The Hidden Heresy

We come to what is perhaps the most distinctive and crucial feature ofthe modern worldview, namely the division of human affairs into two realms: the private and the public, a private realm of "values" and a public world of what our culture calls "facts." This dichotomy of the public and the private is something which is absent from traditional cultures.

[In Western-modern societies] what we call"fact" statements are considered either true or false. But with respect to "values," and supremely in respect to religious beliefs on which values are believed to rest, one must not use this kind of language. Value systems


are not right or wrong, true or false. They are matters for personal choice. Our values, our views of what is good and bad, are a matter of personal opinion, but on the facts we must all agree. Here is the core of our culture, the real "plausibility structure" we must bow to or be (without the word) heretics in modern society. We must agree that facts are facts, values are not right or wrong.

Here, I submit, is the intellectual core of that culture which, at least from the mideighteenth century has been the public culture of Europe, and has under the name of "modernization" extended its power into every part of the world. Two hundred years ago it was hailed in Europe as, quite simply the dawning of light in the darkness: the Enlightenment. And it still bears that glow about it. For millions of people all over the world what we call the modern scientific worldview is accepted quite simply as the true account of how things in fact are, in contrast to the dogmas, myths, and superstitions of traditional religion.

c. The Result

The end result is not as we imagined twenty-five years ago--a secular society, a society which has no public religious beliefs but is a kind of neutral world in which we can all freely pursue our self-chosen purposes. We see that now for the mirage that it was. What we have instead is, as Gladstone foretold, a society whose public life is ruled by very religious beliefs that are a form of the old paganism. And because it is not a preChristian paganism, but a paganism born out of the rejection of Christianity, it is far tougher and more resistant to the gospel than the pre-Christian paganisms with which foreign missionaries have been in contact during the past 200 years. It still denies that it is religious, it denies that it pronounces people "heretics". Here, without possibility of question, is the most challenging missionary frontier of our time.

3. A Missionary Encounter with Western Culture:

What would it mean if, instead of trying to understand the gospel from the point of view of our culture, we tried to understand our culture from the point of view of the gospel?

a. A New Apologetic

It will no longer do to accept the dichotomy between a public world of so-called "facts" and a private world of so-called "values." We shall have to be bold enough to confront our public world with the reality of Jesus Christ. [How can we begin? We must point out the utter failure of any society based on the modern dichotomous worldview.]

The Impossibility of Ethics. Alasdair Macintyre in his book After Virtue demonstrates that all attempts to ground ethical precepts in the "facts" as science understands them have failed. As Kant and others have insisted, from statements of fact, "This is so," you cannot move logically to statements of value or obligation: "This is good," or "This ought to be done." This is because "facts" have been defined in such a way as to exclude purpose. The publicly accepted definition of a human being excludes any statement of the purpose for which human beings exist (that would be a "value" or religious statement). But then it follows necessarily that no "factual" statement can ever be made about what kinds of behavior are good or bad. [There can be no common basis for ethics in a society.I


The Impossibility of Social Progress. The practitioners of what are called the behavioral sciences seek to formulate laws of human behavior analogous to the laws of physics and chemistry. On the basis of these laws the administrator, the civil servant, and the advertising consultant seek to direct or influence human behavior. In doing so, they are crediting themselves with a capacity for purposeful activity directed to rationally chosen ends=-but that is a capacity which the method denies to those who are investigated. What will direct the behavior of those who use the methods of science to direct human behavior? Science itself cannot provide the answer to this question because its method eliminates purpose as a category of explanation. If there is a purpose to which in fact all human life ought to be directed, this purpose cannot be discovered by the methods of science. Yet the scientist wi/! have his own purposes-they are his personal choice. He is left under the control of whichever is the strongest impulse of his nature.

The Post-modern Disillusionment. When the Western worldview meets older traditional views, such as those of India and Africa, the decisive argument has usually been: "Look! Our view works. It delivers the goods. Look at our machines, our medicines, our technology. It works [IF But today we are not able to give that answer with the same confidence. We acknowledge the enormous achievements of the modern scientific worldview, but its failures are becoming apparent. It is not opening for us a rational view of the future. We can no longer say, as we did a generation ago, "This is just how things are." And more to our present purpose, it will no longer do for Christianity to accept, as Berger invites us to do, a position in one of the enclaves of this culture, even as one of its privileged old-age pensioners. It will no longer do to say that the Christian faith is one among the possible private options available within the parameters of this culture.

h. The Gospel of the Kingdom

Second, I would place the recovery of that apocalyptic strand of the New Testament teaching without which Christian hope becomes merely hope for the survival of the individual and there is no hope for the world. The silencing of the apocalyptic notes of the gospel [of the coming kingdom] is simply part of the privatization of religion by which modern culture has emasculated the biblical message. (Foolishness To The Greeks - "We have before us the vision of the holy city into which all the glory of the nations will be brought and which everything clean will be excluded (Rev.21, 22). This faith heals the split between the public and private. There is no room for a political fanaticism that supposes that my political achievements will establish God's kingdom, or declares a holy war against opponents. Equally, there is no room for a piety that seeks personal holiness by opting out of the struggle for a measure of justice and freedom in public life.)

c. A New basis for freedom and tolerance

Third, I would put the need for a doctrine of freedom [and civil tolerance] which rests not on the ideology of the Enlightenment but on the gospel itself. The world will rightly distrust any claim by the church to a voice in public affairs, remembering that the freedom of thought and of conscience which the Enlightenment won was won against


the resistance of the church. But the freedom which the Enlightenment won rests upon the illusion of autonomy-and it therefore ends in new forms of bondage. Yet we have no right to say this until we can show that we have learned our lesson: that we understand the difference between bearing witness to the truth and pretending to possess the truth. That we understand that witness "marturia" means not dominance and control, but suffering.

d. Lay Transformation of Culture

I would put next the de-clericalizing of theology so that it may become an enterprise done not within the enclave, in that corner of the private sector which our culture labels

"religion," but rather in the public sector where God's will as declared in Jesus Christ is either done or not done in the daily business of rooms of corporations, the trade unions, the universities, and the schools.

e. A Counter-Cultural Church

The Household Of Cod - The situation in the West today is more like the situation of the church in the midst of an ancient non-Christian culture like Hinduism. In the first place, becoming a Christian in such a situation involves a radical break with the whole of the non-Christian culture. That culture may contain a vast amount of good, but the convert is only able to assess the culture, seeking to preserve what is good, because he is now a member of a new community based on quite different principles. The church is compelled to demonstrate that Christianity is not only a new pattern of personal behavior, but a new pattern of corporate activity, extending beyond the strictly religious sphere to education, business, art, and so on. The church is a new community set in and yet separated from its surroundings. A new line must be drawn dividing the Church from the world, but not separating the Christian community from the local society.

f. A Unified Church

I would affirm the need for a radical critique of the theory and practice of denominationalism. Sociologists have rightly pointed out that the denomination (essentially a product of North American religious experience in the past 200 years) is simply the institutional form of a privatized religion. Neither separately nor together can the denominations become the base for a genuinely missionary encounter with our culture. (Foolishness To The Greeks - One of the encouraging features of church life is the growing number of local cooperative projects that bring together denominationally separated churches to create a coherent and credible Christian witness to the whole human community in that one place. These are scattered, fragile, and vulnerable enterprises, but they indicate the direction in which the church must go.)

g. A Global Church

Also, there will be the need to listen to the witness of Christians from other cultures. The great new asset which we have for our missionary task is the presence among us of communities of Christians nourished in the cultures of Asia, Africa, and the West Indies. We need their eyes to see our culture afresh. Foofishness To The Creeks - Paul says that we need all the saints to comprehend the greatness of Christ (Eph.3 :14fO We need the witness of the whole ecumenical family if we are to be authentic witnesses of Christ to our culture. We need their witness to correct ours; they need our witness to correct theirs. At this moment, our need is greater.


h. Courage

But finally, and this is fundamental, there will be the need for courage. Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and powers-realities to the existence of which our privatized culture has been blind. To ask, "Can the West be converted?" is to align ourselves with the apostle when he speaks of "taking every thought captive to Christ," and for that - as he tells us - we need more than the weapons of the world.

C. Reflections on Newbigin and his work

The impact of Newbigin's thinking has been far-reaching. His thesis-that we now live in a 'post-Christendom society' and that the church must re-group itself into a 'church on a mission field'-is now pretty much a consensus view. There are two major movements that are trying to implement his specific proposals for missionary strategy.

1. In this country an entire organization-J/The Gospel and Our Culture Network"-was formed for the express purpose of working off of the foundation Newbigin laid.

a. Their purpose is 1) to analyze modern western culture the way any missionaries would analyze a new, hostile, non-Christian culture and 2) to formulate church-forms, ministry strategies, and ways of communicating the gospel that both challenge and adapt to this culture. This organization has put out a series of books. The most seminal is Missiona/ Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Eerdmans, 1998) ed. Darel1 Guder. The most recent book is Stormfront: The Good News of God (Eerdmans, 2003) ed. James V. Brownson. The former is devoted to the form of the church in a 'missional' North American context, and the latter is an exposition of how the message of the gospel should be expressed.

b. Criticisms of this movement are:

it is more a restoration of mainline churches to greater orthodoxy and therefore it gives great emphasis to community and social justice but it is fuzzy and vague in its views of conversion and evangelism

it seems to ignore the city and the importance of urban ministry

it has been somewhat hi-jacked by the Anabaptist emphasis on creating countercultures and has abandoned Newbigin's Reformed understanding of cultural transformation. Newbigin himself had an interesting balance between the importance of forming Christian 'counter-cultures' (Niebuhr's "Christ vs. culture") and of penetrating secular culture with Christians (Niebuhr's "Christ transforming culture")

2. To a great degree the new 'emergent' church movement-which rejects the corporate, slick, 'seeker' driven mega-church as 'modern' and seeks to adapt to 'post-modern' times-is an effort to put into practice Newbigin's call to create missional churches within a postChristendom society. Books that characterize this movement (notice how recently they have been published!)

Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church


Spencer Burke, Making Sense of Church: Eavesdropping on Emerging Conversations About God, Community- and Culture

Joseph Myers, The Search to Belong: Rethinking lntimecy, Community, and Small Groups

Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian and The Story We Find Ourselves in Now and More Ready than You Realize

Robert Webber, The Younger Evangelicals

a. Here is an outline based on Robert Webber's The Younger Evangelicals which sets out some of the differences. 1

Traditional Contemporary. (Modern) Emergent {post-modern)
Worship Traditional music; Contemporary music; Eclectic music; mixture of
liturgical non-liturgical contemporary!liturgical
leadership Minister as pastor! Minister as leader! Team ministry. Minister as
preacher CEO poet, facilitator
Witness Mass evangel ism Seeker services Process people in
Gospel Historic truth Answer to your needs A new community
Service Evangelism only Felt need groups Social justice
Church-form Small-town church Regional mega-church Urban parish church
Apologetics Evidential argument Changed lives testimony New community as the
Theology Cross-centered Spirit-centered Kingdom-centered
Education Sunday school Small groups lntergenerational parishes
Bible-knowledge Discipleship topics whole-life spiritual
formation In addition, this movement:

1- Emphasizes the past and ancient tradition more than modern, white, 20th century evangelicalism (MW20E) did.

2- Emphasizes the importance of community more than MW20E did. Thus it puts more emphasis on baptism and the sacraments and incorporation into the church.

3- Emphasizes differences in cultural perspective and is much more flexible about theology and ministry than MW20E was.

4- Emphasizes process, friendship, and community in evangelism rather than programs and presentations that were emphasized in MW20E.

5- Emphasizes experience in worship, personal devotion, and education while MW20E was much more information-driven.

6- Emphasizes 'flat' informal relational structures and leadership by consensus rather than corporate, command and control leadership and church organization favored by MW20E.

1 See Robert E. Webber, The Younger Evangelicals (Baker, 2002) p.1S. About half of this outline is taken directly from Webber.


7w Emphasizes tension and paradox and dislikes the old either-or theological battlespredestination vs. free-will, Pentecostal vs. non-Pentecostal, even Protestant vs. Catholic.

S- Emphasizes the gospel as the call to a new way of life under the Lordship and reign of Christ, rather than an emphasis on the forgiveness of sins as in MW20E, which is seen as too individualistic.

9- Emphasizes social justice and social concern more than MW20E.

b. Criticisms of this movement:

1) It is just as narrowly focused on one subculture (20-something North Americanstheir music and popular culture) as the seeker-driven mega church was focused on Baby Boomer music and popular culture.

2) It is just as imitative of market-driven culture (imitating Starbucks and artsy-culture) as the seeker-driven mega church (imitating shopping malls and business-culture.) This simulation of currently (and temporarilyl) hip cultural forms may doom this movement to looking very dated in just a few years.

3) It desires to draw more on ancient historical Christian, but it doesn't want to inhabit any particular historical tradition-whether Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican. It only picks and chooses superficial symbols from them all.

4) Many people are saying this is still basically a white-kids movement. It seems to ignore the fact that many non-white church traditions were already oriented to social justice and experiential worship, in particular, the African-American church. Also, the African-American church was not a church that was shaped by the traditional power-relationships of Christendom. It was most definitely a counterculture that nurtured and sought justice for persons excluded from the 'system.' Again, it seems the 'emergent church movement' wants to re-invent the wheel rather than inhabit and re-vitalize existing historical traditions. In that sense, it is much more 'modern' than it wants to admit.

5) In its theology many of its architects are dropping classical Biblical doctrines such as the inerrancy of Scripture, the substitutionary atonement, and the omniscience of God-they are all seen as 'modern' and 'rationalistic' accretions from the Enlightenment. The desire to emphasize the kingdom of God in their theology has led to some loss of orientation to the importance of the cross as an atoning sacrifice.

Reflection Ql: Which of Newbigin's points are most compelling to you?


Q2: Can you give one or two practical outworkings of Newbigin's thought in your ministry?

D. An 'emergent' approach to evangelism in the post-Christian western context

Case Study #1

One of the biggest problems with the movements that rely heavily on Newbigin is that when they expound the gospel their emphasis on the kingdom and community is often done in such a way that the ground-note of grace and individual conversion is muted or even lost. They do not seem to know how to integrate the redemptive-historical approach to the Bible (with its emphasis on the present-but-coming kingdom of God) with the classic call to receive Christ and be born again and adopted (lohn 1 :12-13.)

An example of this lack of integration follows. It is an article by Dieter Zander that was printed in Regeneration Quarterly (Summer, 2001.) By the way, Dieter has visited Redeemer and knows many people in our networks. I don't want to single him out as being some kind of 'heretic' here. Rather this is just an example of what I think is a lack balance in this movement. ABDUCTED BY AN ALIEN GOSPEl by Dieter Zander

I was abducted by an alien gospel. At least that seems like the best way to describe what happened when I was eleven years old. One day, during a summertime visit to my aunt's home, I found some matches and played with them in the backyard. As she was putti ng me to bed, my aunt, who had been tipped off by a neighbor, asked me if I had been playing with matches. Being an eleven-year-old, I naturally said, "No."

"God knows if you were playing with matches," my aunt said sternly. "If you are lying, you are committing a sin. If you die tonight without having your sins forgiven, you will go to hell."


That seemed awfully severe, but having burned my fingers earlier in the day, I didn't want to risk getting close to eternal fire. I eagerly asked Jesus to forgive me for lying, playing with matches, and an assortment of other sins. I fell asleep relieved that if I died during the night I would go to heaven. Now I was saved!

But was I?

Had my aunt's 'evangelism' ushered me into the new life that Jesus offers and that the Scriptures describe - a life of love, joy, freedom, and power? Or had I been abducted by a narrow, alien version of Christianity, which consisted merely of trusting Jesus to rescue me from hell and then faithfully trying to get others to trust Jesus for the same rescue?

In one sense, my aunt's evangelistic effort was effective. For thirty years I have been trying to follow the Jesus I prayed to that night, and I have been trying to introduce others to him. But I have become frustrated with the evangelism that I received and have practiced myself. More and more, l've sensed that the gospel I was told, and which I've been passing along, ignores the substance of life in its hurry to save me from eternal damnation.

This frustration caused me to revisit some old friends. Anyone raised in the evangelical Protestant world will be familiar with these memory verses:

The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. (Luke 19: 10)

For God so loved that world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (In 3:16)

Believe in the Lord jesus and you will be saved. (Acts 16:31)

For years my definitions for these italicized words went something like this:

lost - someone who is going to hell because he has not believed in Jesus for the payment of his sins.

Saved - someone who has eternal life because she has believed in Jesus and asked him to forgive her sins.

Believe - to agree with the proposition that Jesus, God's Son, paid for our sins, thereby giving us eternal life. Generally we show that we believe in him by praying a prayer asking him to forgive our sins and come into our lives.

Eternal life - life in heaven with Jesus when I die. As millions of evangelicals have been taught to ask: "If you were to die tonight, are you sure you would go to heaven?"

This understanding of the gospel is essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin and death, with wrongdoing and its effects. We've got the past covered-past sins are forgiven. We've got the future covered-heaven when we die. But what about the present? Life, our actual daily existence, is strangely absent from this version of the good news.


Shortly after we moved to San Francisco, a neighbor asked me to explain what it means to be a Christian. Raised in a Jewish family, he had never talked with a Christian about the essence of Christianity. I rolled out myoid presentation:

God loves us, but we've all sinned. God sent Jesus to pay for our sins, and if we trust in Jesus' payment, God will forgive our sins and give us eternal life.

I've practiced this stuff: my words were clear, my illustrations were clever. But all the while, I found myself thinking, "This just doesn't sound like good news .... "

That conversation, and others like it, sent me on a search for the gospel that really is good news. The gospel Jesus announced caused people to run after him, climb trees to get a look at him, go without food just to stay around him, tear the roof off of houses just so they could get close to him. The gospel I announced mostly caused people's eyes to glaze over.

My evangelical heritage at least gave me a determination to listen to Scripture. I went back to the New Testament and paid a visit to myoid friends, those key verses and words I had memorized long ago. The more I studied them in context, the more I suspected that they had been abducted by alien definitions. The gospel that Jesus himself proclaimed was very different from the gospel that I had been proclaiming.

Take Jesus' words in Mark 1 :15: "The time is come, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news." My prior definition of repent, "to be very sorry," doesn't make much sense in this passage. No one can simply be sorry for not having previously known something that has just been announced as news. One can, however, change in response to news, and this change in direction is, in fact, the core meaning of the Greek word translated repent - "to turn around from the way you are going."

And what about "the kingdom of God"? This potent phrase played almost no role in the "good news" I was used to, but it seemed to be nearly the whole substance of Jesus' proclamation - the arrival of a different kind of life, under the reign of a present and powerful God who, according to another version of Jesus' good news in Luke 4, was intent upon restoring, healing, redeeming, and reconciling all of creation.

Now this was (and is) good news, because news is crucial information about the present. Information about the past we call "history," and information about the future we call "prediction." Jesus brought good news, and at this point in my reading, I wanted to know more. Over time J discovered that those key words of my youth had this same life-changing immediacy.

lost - to be out of place, as Jesus makes clear in his series of stories in Luke 15. The sheep is not in the fold with the shepherd. The coin has rolled under the couch. The Jewish son is living with pigs rather than at home with his father.

I'm discovering that people around me actually do feel lost. They don't know who they are, they don't know what they're supposed to do, and they don't know what is going to happen to them. Jesus' gospel is good news for these people because it addresses the present in which they live, not just an afterlife that only occupies the realm of occasional consideration.


Saved - if a person is lost, then being saved means being found: brought back to a place of belonging. This happened to the sheep, the coin, and the son. In each parable, that which was out of place (lost) was brought back into the right place (found)-a return worth celebrating. So "being saved" isn't primarily about some eternal disposition-it's about accepting an invitation to return to the right place, as a subject of the ki ngdom of God.

Believe - to trust or depend on someone or something. This is different than professing to believe something. I can say I believe the chair will hold me up when I sit in it, but that is merely professing to believe something. To place myself in the chair, to put my full weight on the seat, is to believe.

So when we ask people to repent and believe the good news, we are not primarily asking them to intellectually assent to something; we are inviting them to place their full confidence in Jesus for their whole life. In fact, this is how many people responded to jesus in the New Testament. Matthew left a lucrative business to follow Jesus. The sick and disfigured journeyed to be near jesus and risked public ridicule, confident Jesus could heal them. After meeting jesus, Zaccheus gave away half his wealth and repaid those he had cheated, completely reorienting his life.

Naturally, this kind of trust involves acknowledging the ways we have lived without trust. Jesus' death paid for our sins - our daily choices to trust self and to mistrust God - and forgiveness is available. But forgiveness from our sins is just the precursor to the real drama of salvation. Salvation is not just from death, it is for life - a life lived with Jesus in the kingdom of God.

Eternal life - Jesus himself defined this one. "Now this is eternal life: that they [my disciples} may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have

sent" (John 17:3). Eternal life, a life in intimacy with God, starts now and continues as we move from this life to the next. Eternal life is not just a promise related to our future destiny; it is news about what God is offering us in the present.

Sometime in the middle of all this discovery, my neighbor and J went for a run. I blurted out, "I'm rethinking everything I told you a year ago when you asked me what it meant to be a Christian." This must have intrigued him. "What do you believe now?" he asked.

"I no longer believe that being a Christian is just a matter of having my sins forgiven," I said. "The good news that Jesus announced is that we can live our lives with Godwhich is the best kind of life that is humanly possible. We don't have to live life alone - taking care of ourselves, being afraid that we don't have what we'll need, being intimidated and controlled by things in our life that we can't seem to change, wondering if there's anything or anyone who can make sense of the whole thing. Jesus' message is, simply, 'Turn around and step into a life with God, the kind of life I lived and invite you to live with me. I

When we accept jesus' invitation, believe that what he is saying is true, and follow him with our whole life, we experience freedom from past sins and future fears, along with


contentment, joy, love, and power today."

After I finished, my neighbor said, "Frankly, what you told me a year ago sounded like a hollow shell. What you just told me sounds like the substance of your faith."

That's the way the gospel now feels to me, too. It is the substance of good news for life. For the first time in thirty years of being a Christian I love to evangelize, although I dislike the word itself because I have come to understand that evangelism is simply "good-newsing" people. It is announcing the presence of the kingdom and its availability through faith in jesus Christ. As Paul says, "We are holding forth the word of life."

This requires, of course, that we ourselves be "good-newsed" continually - be immersed in and ravished by the reality of a universe permeated with God's presence, power, love, and activity. As we enter into an increasing experience of confidence, love, and power in our lives, our lives become good news to those around us. We begin to bring to people the same message that jesus brought: the offer of life with God and the invitation to be his coworker in what he is doing in the world.

Frankly, I wonder, if we aren't doing that, what are we doing?


1. What is wrong with his Aunt's gospel? (Hereafter /lA_GIf)

It is pretty obvious the simple 'Aunt's gospel' that Zander grew up with was inadequate. And he is right to think that the most popular gospel presentations of the twentieth century were not too far from what his Aunt told him. But what was really wrong with it?

a. First, it provides an extremely shallow concept of sin. Sin is 'breaking the rules' and you need forgiveness for that. There's no hint that sin is at root playing God, selfjustification, being your own Savior/Lord, or idolatry (there are many ways to put itl).

h. Second, because sin is seen only as breaking the rules, the A-G provides an extremely 'thin' concept of what belief and faith means. In the A-G, belief is simply asking God to forgive us-rather than a radical shift from trusting oneself or something else for hope/meaning/and salvation to instead trusting Christ for our acceptance before God. The average listeners to the A-G will at bottom think they are being forgiven not primari Iy because of what Jesus has done for them, but because they are si ncerely submitting to God and begging his mercy. They do not see themselves moving from self-salvation (either of an irreligious/secular kind or a religious moral kind) to resting in the work of Jesus and the grace of God. Rather, they see themselves moving from living bad lives to living for jesus. Now that they are living for jesus, their sins are forgiven and they are saved.

c. Third, because sin and faith are 'thin'-and because the note of sheer grace is muted or absent-{as Zander says) there is no concept of how a gospel-changed life would be a transformed life now. A 'thick' exposition of sin and faith and grace makes it obvious to the listener how his or her life would be changed by the gospel. Most important, the 'kingdom of God' only makes sense within the framework of this 'thick' view of sin, faith, and grace. We must build our hope, meaning, self-image, identity, joy on


something-what ever that is our 'lord' and we live in its 'kingdom.' This can be seen in the more personal, individual aspect. What does it mean, then, to allow jesus to be Lord of our fives? What does it mean that anything is the ford of our life? just this:

Whatever controls us is our lord. The person who seeks power is controlled by power. The person who seeks acceptance is controlled by the people he or she wants to please. We do not control ourselves. We are controlled by the lord of our liie."? Until we have saving faith in Jesus, we have saving faith in something else. What ever that is will drive us and rule us. We have to have it or we can't be happy, content, significant, secure-so we are enslaved to it.

On the other hand, the kingdom of God can be understood in its more corporate, communal aspect. Until we have saving faith in Jesus, we may have saving faith in our racial heritage, our ethnic identity, our social class and status. When race, class, gender are made into ultimate values, they become demonic, and there is then war and oppression and injustice.

As Jesus said, 'you must be born again to see the kingdom of God' (lohn 3). The kingdom of God is the renewal of the whole creation through the entrance of God's righteous power-but it is not entered until you are born again. When you are born again the changes in your life should be radical. Power, wealth, recognition, success, racial identity-none of these things can control you like they used to. When we repent (see we have been trusting other things besides Jesus for our salvation) and shift our saving faith to him, that means we are liberated to begin using our resources for others, we are liberated to serve others. Our lives become signs of the future, coming kingdom of God, when he will return fully and wipe out all the brokenness which is the result of sin and evil.

2. What does Zander think is wrong with the A-G?

a. Dieter is right to see that the A-G has inadequate defin itions of si n ("lost") grace ("saved") and faith (libel ieve"). He is right to see that si n is on Iy defined as a lack of right doctrine (going to hell because he has not believed in jesus for the payment of his sins) and faith as simply agreeing with the right doctrine (to agree with the proposition that jesus paid for our sins) And he is right to see that 'grace' is only defined as a guarantee of future reception in heaven.

b. But Dieter concludes that the main problem is that the A-G doesn't orient itself to the present. And the reason it doesn't do that is because it leaves out the Biblical concept of the kingdom of God. He sees it as a 'way of life' in relationship to God which we enter when we come to him. This fits in well with post-modern sensibility, which is very concerned with embodiment, with living spirituality out in daily life.

c. Once he has hold of the idea of the kingdom as a new way of life, he returns to the concepts of sin, grace, and faith. Now he re-thinks the gospel and in a way that is better than the old A-G. He sees sin as 'our daily choices to trust self and to mistrust God' and faith as putting full confidence in jesus for their whole life and grace as intimacy with God right now fasting forever.

2 Rebecca Pippert, Out of the Saltshaker (rVp) p.53.


d. All of this is, I think, an improvement and a step in the right direction. But when we read his little gospel-nutshell there is a pretty big problem. 'Repentance' is defined only as 'stop living your way' and faith is 'begin living my way.' It certainly sounds like salvation is up to you. There is no mention of the cross and resurrection at all=-or why it was necessary.

e. In the end, the A-G is too vague about sin, grace. (Sin is just disobeying rules and grace is just exemption from punishment). The listener can easily conclude from the AG presentation that 'I'll be accepted if / believe the right doctrine'.

But Dieter's presentation is just as vague about sin and grace. (Sin is living without Jesus and his kingdom values. And grace-is what? Just being called back into a community of belonging? How is that grace?) The listener can easily conclude from Dieter's presentation that'l'l/ be accepted if / live the right way-according to kingdom values.'

E. An emergent approach to evangelism

Case Study #2

1. Another recent example: Graham Tomlin, The Provocative Church (2002). Tomlin says that the older gospel presentation, in a nutshell, is 'jesus is Savior. jesus died on the cross for your sins so you can be forgiven and go to heaven. Ask for his forgiveness now.' But the new gospel presentation should be 'jesus is Lord. jesus is God's king over the world, and he has defeated the powers that oppose both God and humanity. He holds ultimate power. Submit to him and join his movement now.'

2. Tomlin admits that the earlier presentation was more of a 'Pauline' approach and the emphasis on the kingdom is more of a 'synoptic gospel' approach. He believes that the more Pauline approach was better fitted to the time of Christendom-which is now passed awaywhile the kingdom-approach is better fitted to our own time.

For centuries the Church has operated in a culture where the existence and reality of God was unquestioned. In the Middle Ages, for example, most Europeans had no real doubt that God existed, that he saw everything they did and that he would judge their lives after death. The key question was therefore how you might get past this judgment or, more technicalfy how you might be put right or 'justified' before this God. It's no surprise then that at the time of the Reformation the question of how justification takes place took center stage in the debates .... Nowadays, the Church in the West lives in a culture where the idea of God as judge is fast vanishing. That is no longer the framework in which most people think. If they do believe in God, as of course many still do, he is normally considered to be a genial parental figure who will forgive people because that's his job.

As a result perhaps the first thing Christians need to say today is not so much the message of justification but the message of the kingship or kingdom of God. Before being told how they can be reconciled to God, people need to know who this God is in the first place, the creator of heaven and earth, who generously provides everything


for life, who loves his creation passionately who hates all that is evil and will one day destroy it, and in whom we find true life, joy and peace. It is not that justification has become less important; it's that in a changing cultural setting, we need to start in a different place jf we are to proclaim and demonstrate the gospel. The response to the gospel is of course always the same wherever you go. It may take different forms in practice, but the same two factors are always present: repentance and faith .... When a person grasps the good news that jesus is Lord of heaven and earth there can be no other response but to repent of living as if that were not true, and starting to believe it and live as if it is. (p.5 7 -53)

3. Here we see that one of the problems in this whole debate is the inability to integrate the Pauline and lohannine language of salvation with the Synoptic language of salvation.

a. The classic western evangelical church stressed the Pauline version of the gospel.

Paul speaks of justification by faith and the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. The gospel of John also speaks of the new birth and receiving Christ (John 1 :12-13) and the Holy Spirit. This fits in well with a more individualistic approach to Christianity. Salvation is a personal relationship with God and a clear conscience and the knowledge I am going to heaven.

b. In the synoptic gospels, however, Jesus speaks of the kingdom constantly and the gospel is said to be that the kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1 :14-15). Virtually all the people seeking to adapt the gospel to post-modern, post-Christendom people start with this language, rather than the Johannine and Pauline terminology. The emphasis on the kingdom (rather than on justification and the new birth) puts more emphasis on community and the corporate. The emphasis on the kingdom of God has these implications for a gospel presentation:

The kingdom of God in the past means-Jesus came to set up this new kingdom. When he died on the cross in service, love, and sacrifice he 'defeated the powers' of this world (Colossians 2:14-15) that oppose God and which oppress humanity. These are 'powers' are evil forces-a kind of conflation of demonic forces with worldly systems of greed, racism, injustice, hatred, and violence-that control us Jesus' death exposes and defeats them and frees us from them.

The kingdom of God in the present means-God has come with a new 'administration'-a new society, a new way for people to live together. It is open to al I people, not just one race and nation. It is marked not by power, wealth, status, and coercion but by service, generosity, kindness, and forgiveness. So becoming a Christian means to make Jesus Lord of your life and become part of his new kingdom-community.

The kingdom of God in the future means-God is going to renew this world, not just take individual souls to heaven. So being a Christian means being agents for restoration and healing of this world, not just getting ready for the next world.

c. The problem with this gospel presentation is that it doesn't just begin at a different place than 'justification' but it can (unwittingly?) re-define justification. Tomlin says


that post-modern people won't find the doctrine of justification-by-grace compelling because they don't see any problem with God's accepting of them. They perceive God, if he exists at all, as a 'genie! parental figure' who just accepts them without any need for atonement or radical grace. But in this presentation, doesn't God continue to be a 'genial parental figure' who has no trouble accepting us if we are willing to join the kingdom-movement? The impression is that God has no problem with you-you are just harming yourself by failing to belong to his movement. There is no barrier that needs to be overcome between you and God other than your unwillingness to submit to his reign. This pretty much adds up to 'salvation by works', I think. It is not a different starting place for the gospel, but a different definition of salvation by grace.

In addition, I think it means a fairly different understanding of conversion. Traditional Protestantism believed that conversion was not simply the adopting of a new set of values but a radical inner identity change. The driving motivation of your life became grateful wonder and love for the one who did so much for you. The old motivations of fear and pride were swept away by his radical grace. All that is muted in the kingdom-presentation. I can't imagine anyone hearing the gospel of "submit to Jesus as Lord and join his kingdom community" would end up singing. "my chains fell oii, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee." (from Charles Wesley - "Amazing Love") The wonder and astonishing love of Jesus seems to be muted in this presentation.

d. If this 'kingdom-presentation' doesn't integrate the atonement and justification well into its account, we should admit that many traditional gospel presentations, that stressed solely the forgiveness of individual sins were also one-dimensional. The solution is not to pit one over against the other, but to integrate the two. It would be better to present sin not just as personal immorality (traditional 'forgiveness' gospel) or social injustice (post-modern 'kingdom' gospel) but as self-salvation and idolatry which leads to both internal personal slavery and social oppression and conflict.

e. Underlying much of this issue is another theological issue that we cannot get into now. Many are questioning the Anselmian 'satisfaction' theory of the atonement, namely that God had a problem with sin which Jesus came to remove by paying a debt or ransom to God. In this view, the main effect of the atonement is on God-it satisfies his justice. Many are instead preferring the old Christus Victor model of the atonement that Jesus on the cross broke the power of sin and death over us. In this view the main effect of the atonement is on us-it takes away the power of the devil and sin that made us helpless participants in evil. Traditionally, the Reformed church has believed that the Christus Victor view is one way the Bible talks about the meaning of the atonement, but has not thought that view can stand on its own all alone. Why would the death of Christ have broken the power of the devil and evil over us if it did not remove the curse of God's law on us by removing the penalty? If God had no problem with us-why could he not have simply ended the power of the devil over us with a literal snap of his fingers?

I had the advantage of studying the atonement under Roger Nicole, who really was a master-teacher of theology. The way he put it was that the Biblical doctrine of substitutionary atonement includes illl the metaphors of the Bible and therefore all


the other 'models'-it includes the language of the battle field (victory over powers that enslaved us), the language of the marketplace (ransom to buy us from those who owned us), the language of the temple (sacrifice to turn away the wrath of the deity), the language of the law court (satisfying the penalty of the law.) Even the 'moral influence' view of the atonement-that it moves and changes us-is true if you combine it with all the others. Dr. Nicole said the key is that you must not throw out the others in order to exclusively privilege your favorite language. You must not interpret one of the metaphors in such a way that you eliminate or make ridiculous the others.

But if there is one thread that works its way through all of the models/metaphors it is the concept of 'substitution.' In every case Jesus puts himself in our place and does what we can't do (fight, pay, satisfy.) He does for us what we cannot do ourselves-that's grace and salvation by his work, not ours.

Conclusion: J have some fears that the popular move from an individualistic 'forgivenessgospel' to a more communal 'kingdom-gospel' is not careful and can be harmful. The older 'forgiveness-gospel' produced 'easy-believism', and the newer kingdom-gospel therefore calls for real change of life. But it may lead to a new kind of moralism. You are saved because you changed your life. This may lead to people who are committed but not really converted.

What kind of gospel presentations unite the Johannine/Pauline and Synoptic/Kingdom language? J think that most presentations are going to 'privilege' one over the other a bit, but we can do a much better job of integrating them.

Reflection Questions:

Q3: Much theology is a reaction to something that the theologian perceives as dangerous. What do you think Tomlin and Zander are reacting to? What do they perceive as dangerous?

Q4: Summarize the concerns Keller has with the conclusions Tomlin and Zander reach in their attempt to correct the dangers they see in American evangelical theology.


Practically, how would you address the concerns of Tomlin and Zander while, at the same time, incorporating Keller's critique? Give an example of what you would do in one specific ministry area.



In our ministry in western cities we must not only recognize the rise of 'post-Christian' western society but also 'post-western' world Christianity which is rising in urban areas.

A. The pattern of Christian expansion

1. Christianity has not grown like any of the other religions. For example, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam are all still demographically centered on their land and people-group of origin. That is, the lands that began as Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic have stayed so and thus each religion remains dominated by its original people group-Indian, or Asian, or Arabic/Middle Eastern. Of all the major world religions, Christianity alone is quite different. The original center of Islam was and still is Mecca. But the original center of Christianity, Jerusalem, is no longer that. What is the Christian pattern of expansion?

2. At first, Christianity was centered on Jerusalem but within a century, the center of Christianity was the Hellenistic world of the Mediterranean. That was the center for several centuries, but as the Roman empire collapsed the barbarians of Northern and Western Europe became the new center. Europe was the center of Christianity for many years, though one might say that over the last couple of centuries North America took that role. Now however Christianity is losing influence in Europe and only holding its own in North America, but it is growing at 7 to 10 times the rate of the population in the parts of the world growing the fastest-Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Already more Christians live south of the equator than north of the equator. The centuries of Christian institutions and the greater fi nancial resources of the West continue to give the churches of the west dominance despite their dwindling numbers. But over the next few decades and century increasingly the centers of theological reflection and training as well as the centers of ministry and of the most influential churches will be outside the West.

3. So this is the pattern: Christianity always flourishes away from its own center, at or beyond its periphery, among people who are excluded from power. It tends to weaken at its own center and renew itself at its margins. This means:

a. Christianity is the only truly multi-cultural religion. It is the only religion that has truly been owned and operated by a series of different racial! cultural groups.

b. Ultimately no one people group owns the Christian faith. Lamin 5anneh puts it in the form of a rhetorical question of his book-title, Whose Religion Is Christianity? His point is that Christianity cannot be seen as primari Iy or only a Western religion, any more than it was primarily a Hellenistic religion or a Jewish sect. As Andrew Walls says "The: is, there is no 'Christian culture' the way there is an 'Islamic culture' which you can recognize from Pakistan to Tunisia to Morocco. N (liThe Expansion of Christianity: An Interview with Andrew Walls" Christian Century August 2-9, 2000, p.792)

B. The magnitude of Christian expansion

Phillip lenkins=-r lhe Next Christianity" (The Atlantic) and The Next Christendom-was the first scholar to get media attention for this phenomenon, though Andrew F. Walls and others had been writing about it for a couple of decades. It is arguably the event that will have the most impact on the history of the world over the next century. Some interesting details in order to put things in perspective (the following are from Jenkins and Sanneh):

In 1900 Africa had 8.7 million Christians, about 9% of the total population of 107.9 million, and most of these were Coptic and Ethiopian Christians. Today there are 370 million Christians, about 45% of the total population of 340 million. The Christians now are just about equal in size with Muslims and all projections are that Christianity will grow to over 600 million within 25 years and comprise over 60% of the African population.

The size of the church in China is notoriously hard to count. The Communist government's official estimates are no more than 15 million, but it only officially recognizes a certain number of registered churches called the "Three Self Patriotic Movement" and ignores the millions of house churches. High estimates are 30-90 million Christians in China, out of the 1.28 billion population (5-7%). However, there is consensus that something much like the African 'explosion' of Christian faith is happening in China. Even the Three-Self movement acknowledges enormous growth statistics of 20% or more over the last couple of years. Many predict that by 2050 the Christian population in China could approach 400 million.

By the year 2050 there will be 500 million Buddhists in the world, but there will be 1 billion Pentecostals alone (!) and probably 1.4 billion Catholics, to say nothing of other Protestants and Orthodox churches. Pentecostals alone will equal the number of Hindus in the world. And all Christians will continue to outnumber Muslims by 2 to 1. (See Jenkins)

C. The nature of post-western Christianity

1. Post-western Christianity. Lamin Sanneh uses the terms "world Christianity" and "global Christianity" to refer to two somewhat different movements. "World Christianity" is the faith as it takes shape in a new society that expresses itself through the cultures, customs, and traditions of the people. (p.22) "Global Christianity" is a term he uses to describe the repl ication in other countries of forms of Christianity forged in Europe.

2. How it has emerged. How does 'post-western' world Christianity emerge?

a. Both Andrew Walls and Lesslie Newbigin describe the stages that a new culture goes through as it receives Christianity. At first the converts receive the faith in a form fairly close to the form of the faith in the missionary's home culture. As the converts read the Bible, after a time they come to see things in the Word that the missionaries 'played down' (like exorcisms) and


other things they 'played up' in accordance with their own cultural perspectives and biases. This may lead to a time of over-reaction against the missionaries' form of faith in which they try to purge themselves of any feature of 'western' Christianity at all. Eventually the converts come to terms with their own cultures and traditicns= rejecting parts of it, affirming parts of it, and modifying parts of it all in light of their reading of the Scriptures.

b. How does this happen? Here is an over-simplified answer, based on the writings of Walls:

Unlike Islam and other religions, Christianity has an incarnate God, a God who comes to express himself in our own flesh. Jesus was both a 'prisoner' of our humanity (it limited him in many ways) yet a 'liberator' of our humanity.

In Acts 15 the leaders of the earliest church, the Jerusalem Christian community, concluded that the Gentiles could enter the new Israel without becoming Jews. "Though circumcised, Torah-keeping jews themselves, they recognized that Gentile believers in the Messiah could enter Israel without becoming jews. They were converts, not

proselytes .... It is hardly possible to exaggerate the importance of this early controversy and its outcome; it is a pivot on which Christian history turns .. Ior it built the principle of cultural diversity into Christianity in perpetuity." (A.Walls, quoted by Mark Gornik in his unpublished paper "Andrew Walls on the Changing Church and Missions") In principle the church has always been multi-cultural. Today it is finally realizing what it has always been in principle.

Note: to Walls a 'proselyte' is someone who has simply adopted someone else's culture. A 'convert' is someone who has appropriated Christ into one's own thought, life, and culture where it makes radical changes but nonetheless expresses itself.

c. This is why we believe in translating the Word of God into the languages of the hearers. Islam does not believe the Koran can really be translated. You must learn Arabic (and therefore Arabic thought forms and culture) in order to hear God's word. It makes sense that Muslims don't believe God's word

is translatable. To use the words of a new language is always to use the concepts of that language's culture. For example, the word 'God' exists in every culture, but it is tied to the traditions of that culture's non-Christian past. So to translate holy writings into a new language is both to correct and connect to that culture's traditions. It corrects because the 'God' of the Bible does not act like the 'God' of that culture's past. And yet the very use of the word causes people to see ways that God was working in their own cultural past before they knew of Christ.

d. For example, Paul's use of the Hellenistic idea of pleroma ("fullness") and John's use of the word logos ("reason" or "Word") connects to the Greek pagan past automatically. Their use of the words says to readers something


like: lithe aspirations of your ancestors and people for wisdom is now found in Christ.

e. For example, 20th century Africans had a long tradition of belief in a supernatural world of good and evil spirits. Their tribal religions, however, were proving inadequate to really help people overcome the evil they saw around them-personal, social, political, spiritual. This was particularly true in the social breakdowns that have occurred in Africa since the end of colonial rule after World War II. But what alternatives did Africans have? There was western secularism (with its disdain of the supernatural) and Islam (with its disdain of the African past). When Africans began to read the Bible in their own languages, with their own traditional words for God used in the text, they began to see in Christ the final solution to their own historic longings and aspirations as Africans.

The old [African] religions provided the rules, rewarding good conduct and punishing wrong, but they had only a limited ethical range .... Christianity answered this historical chal/enge by a reorientation of the world-

view .... People sensed in their hearts that Jesus did not mock their respect for the sacred nor their clamor for an invincible Savior, and so they beat their sacred drums for him until the stars skipped and danced in the skies. After that dance the stars weren't little anymore. Christianity helped Africans to become renewed Africans, not re-made Europeans. (Sanneh, p. 43)

f. Something like that is happening in China. While the Africans realize that Christianity (rather than the alternatives of Islam, tribal animism, or western secularism) is the best way to honor their own African-ness (rather than Confucianism, Communism, and western secularism) so the Chinese are coming to realize that Christianity is the best way to honor their own

Ch i nese-ness, thei r historic aspi rations and character as a people. Every form of Christianity is 'imprisoned' in a culture (somewhat limited by it) but at the same time is its liberator, transforming and purifying it with the gospel.

g. It is quite right to worry about syncretism, which is the corruption and overadaptation of Christianity to a culture. (Syncretism is 'selling out' some gospel distinctives in order to make Christianity palatable to a new society) But if a 'sender' won't adapt Christianity at all to a new 'receptor' culture that means you have wedded Christianity too close to your culture. It means you have turned your own culture's incarnation of the faith into a absolutely universal form of Christianity. You don't see that the Christianity of your heart is partially a 'prisoner'-is limited and adapted to your culture.

Lamin Sanneh (drawing on Wall) defines conversion as "turning of our selves to God, and that means all of ourselves without leaving anything behind or outside. But that also means not replacing what is there with something else. Conversion is a re-focusing of the mental life and its cultural/social underpinning and of our feelings, affections, and instincts, in the light of what God has done in Jesus." (Sanneh, p.43-44.) This is quite


helpful. When Africans become a Christian, their African-ness is converted; it is not replaced with Chinese-ness or European-ness. Along the same lines, Miraslov Volf insists every Christian must get distance from his or her home culture through Christ, yet not 'arrive' in some other culture in order to be Christian. African believers must get distance enough to critique their African traditions according to the gospel and the Word, yet must also embrace and inhabit their African culture.

Summary: Contrary to popular opinion, Christianity is not a western religion. It is not the creation or result of any particular culture, but it is the result of the Spirit recreating Christianity in the soil of each and every culture. Christians are Christians first, and Europeans or Asians or Africans second. But Christianity does not make Africans into Europeans. Christianity completes and fulfills Europeans, Asians, and Africans as themselves, at the very same moment binding together people in Christ who previously could not unite in peace. Christian conversion is the trans-cultural work of the Spirit of God, incarnating the gospel in every culture, bringing down the barriers that have divided the human race.

3. Post-enlightenment Christianity. As we noted above, perhaps the chief characteristics of the new 'post-western world Christianity' is that it did not make its peace with the Enlightenment the way western Christianity did. This is one of the main differences between it and western churches.

a. Both liberal and conservative Christian theology have been profoundly effected by the Enlightenment, which assumes there is an extremely firm line between the empirical time-space world and the spiritual world. Liberal Christianity essentially believes the line is completely firm. It uses historical criticism on the Bible that denies the miraculous elements as necessarily 'legendary'. It re-i nterprets the deity and resurrection of Christ as 'symbols' only. But conservative Christian theology, while fervently defending miraculous events in Biblical times, is extremely skeptical of the supernatural today. We believe that the line between the supernatural and the natural world was breached at several places (the incarnation, resurrection, Pentecost, and very rare other instances si nce then, perhaps.) Guidance, prayer, Christian growth-are all interpreted in very rational ways, largely as the application of sound doctrine through our minds and our wills.

b. But non-western cultures did not pass through the Enlightenment in the same way. They see the line between the supernatural and the natural to be a very porous boundary-being crossed every day. Their understanding of evil is much more multi-dimensional than western people and even than western Christian. They understand that evil has a spiritual life of its own-it is not just the result of discrete actions. When non-western people read the Bible, they see that the Bible does not recognize the very strict boundary between the supernatural and the natural that western people assume.

c. Ironically, Christianity is much less 'imperialistic' toward cultures than western Enlightenment-drenched secularism. Secularism is extremely


disdainful of belief in miracles, healing, and demons, and is uncomfortable with any religion at all.

"Should we not instead be talking about goodwill among all people without regard to religious labels?" is a typical secular western observation expressed in Lamin Sanneh's book. Sanneh responds: "Let us talk about the expansion of goodwill among all people, but let us not make that goodwill an alternative or a rival to religion lest we become sectarian and triumphalistie in another way." (p.33) Sanneh's point is that western culture's seeming 'tolerance' of all religions is actually a rival religion-a sectarian and triumphalistic anti-supernaturalism and individualism that will replace and mock Africans' "respect for the sacred".

At another place in Sanneh's book another typical western view is expressed. "I have an objection to Bible translation as being too simplistic. It perpetuates an anachronistic, pre-scientific worldview about creation, the virgin birth, miracles, bodily resurrection, life after death, the second coming of Christ, and judgment day as literal truths." Sanneh responds, "You were complaining just now about missionaries using the Bible as a stealth platform to advance their own agenda. Shouldn't you, to be consistent complain just as vehemently if

we ... promote the Enlightenment agenda of rationality? Because that would he stealth invasion no less .... The peoples of the world have a

right to come to their own view of the matter ... and not accede to our [western] standards of progress." (p.115-116) lslam is just as insistent that converts take on Arabic culture. So Christianity is the least imperialistic of the world-views. That is a point Sanneh tries to make, but it is an extremely difficult point for western skeptics to recognize (or refute!).

4. So what is the emerging "Supernatural" Christianity? It holds:

a. the entire trustworthiness of the Bible, though they may read it more 'mystically' than we would read it-not dissecting and interpreting it but 'inhabiting' it and embodying it.

b. the redemptive work of Jesus as the only, gracious basis for salvation, though they may see the cross more in Christus Victor terms of Jesus' triumph over the evil forces that bind us.

c. the historical reality of miracles, the virgin birth and incarnation, the resurrection of Jesus, though they are much more likely to believe that such miracles continue today.

d. the necessity of the supernatural work of the Spirit to convert and renew individuals, though their understanding of daily guidance and victory over sin and evil would also be considered parts of the normal work of the Spirit.


e. the return of Jesus Christ personally and historically to renew the whole world.

The Christianity growing in the world today is not identical to any western variety, but it is furthest from the mainline-liberal Christianity that was the most heavily steeped in a skepticism of the supernatural. The irony of this is that for most of the 20th century this very rationalistic version of religion was thought to be the only kind of Christianity that would grow in the future. The very liberal Bishop Spong published a book entitled Christianity Must Change or Die yet the very kind of Christianity he insists must change is flourishing at an enormous rate.

Another irony is that for so many years the liberal western church sought to be an advocate for the poor and the oppressed of the world. Now the very churches of the poor and the oppressed oppose the theology and policies of the dominantly liberal mainline churches (e.g. the controversy in the Anglican Communion over homosexuality.) Someone quipped, lithe liberals opted for the poor, but the poor opted for born-again Christianity." While 'liberal' mainline is still enormously wealthy in Western world, with billions in assets, and therefore will not simply collapse but will continue as an institution for many years-it is nonetheless dwindling in numbers and very rapidly becoming marginal to the concerns of the world church.

D. Post-western Christianity and the future

What are the implications for us, now, in light of this momentous development?

1. Theological education. There needs to be a significant change in theological education and reflection. We need to study not just the history of the church in the West, but the history of the church in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Why? Nonwestern church history can teach us about how to deal with pluralism-something western churches have not faced in 1500 years. While European Christianity spread through the power of the nation-state (princes and rulers adopting Christian faith on behalf of their people) that has not been the situation of the post-western church in any part of the world. Also, we have much to learn from them on a) evangelism from a position of cultural marginality, b) theological reflection on the poor, c) worship and spirituality, and d) a wholistic approach to counseling the person. (This list is from Mark Gornik's paper)

2. Cooperation and mutual learning. Cooperation and mutual learning must occur across the barriers. Every culture that receives Christ contributes to our understanding of the fullness of Christ. It would fit the postmodern fashion to say that each local Christian discourse is valid and sufficient in itself. But the church is Christ's body and the picture we are given in the Epistle of the Ephesiens of the relations of different cultural presences in the body is neither of uniformity nor of separated diversity but of mutual possession" (Walls, "Christian Scholarship and the Demographic Transformation of the Church"). In other words, just as Christ is not reflected fully in the gifts of anyone person-but only the whole church reflects him-so Christ is not reflected fully in the gifts of anyone culture-but only the whole world-wide body of Christ reflects him. In other words, only when Christians from all the different cultures come together will we really see who Christ is!


One of the first places this 'coming together' will be is in the great cities of the western world. As we noted above, most non-western cities are not globalized, they tend to grow through immigration from their own heartlands and rural areas. Western cities, however, grow though immigration from allover the world. The first place that the new post-western Christianity will meet western Christianity will be in the major cities, especially New York City. London and Paris have Jess

connection to Latin America or East Asia. Los Angeles and the U.S. west coast have small connection to Africa. Only NYC has a strong connection to every part of the emerging world Christianity. African, Chinese, Indian, newer Latinos, Caribbean people groups which are now on the rise and are supplanting the older ethnic groups of the city.

No place has a greater opportunity for leaders from churches of the world to do theological reflection and education together than NYC.

Reflection Question:

Q1: What import does this understanding of Post-western Christianity have on your work and your church? What lessons can be learned?

Q2: Can you think of one practical ministry application of what you've read here?


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