MR #36: Dream the dream . . . again

Dream the dream . . . again.

Walking with God–personally, intimately, faithfully.

      Being transformed into God’s likeness.

 

      Absorbing God’s love, seeing His holiness, witnessing His faithfulness.

 

      Shedding anger, losing lust, giving up personal advantage.

 

      Reframing ego–from

our

      glory to

His

      glory.

 

      Praying, fasting, worshipping . . . communing with God.

 

    Bowing before Him, acknowledging that He alone is Lord.

Walking in community–personally, intimately, faithfully.

      Journeying together with God to become like Him.

 

      Putting on love which binds us together in perfect unity.

 

      Loving the unlovable, accepting the unacceptable — within each of us.

 

      Encouraging the young, listening to the old, growing together in Christ.

 

      Expecting the miracle–bondage broken, addictions cured, bodies healed.

 

    Confessing sins to one another–feeling freedom, love, and acceptance.

Walking on mission with God–personally, intimately, faithfully.

      Emulating the ministry of Jesus.

 

      Becoming God’s ministers of reconciliation.

 

      Becoming spiritual friends with searchers and skeptics.

 

      Equipping God’s people for works of ministry.

 

      Doing church

God’s

      way- not

my

      way.

 

    Training leaders to plant churches that plant churches that . . . .

Dream the dream . . . again.

MR #26: The Missional Helix: Example of Church Planting

In the last missiological reflection I described the Missional Helix and attempted to show the intertwining, inseparable nature of theological reflection, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation in the practice of ministry.

Developing practice of ministry was understood as a helix because theology, history, culture, and strategy build on one another as the community of faith collectively develops understandings and a vision of God’s will within their cultural context. Like a spring, the spiral grows to new heights as ministry understandings and experiences develop.

Above: The Missional Helix

Each of these four elements (theology, history, culture, and strategy) is essential in reflecting on and planning for all types of Christian ministry.

This Monthly Missiological Reflection examines each item of the Missional Helix as it relates to the practice of church planting. Because this is only an overview and application of the process, the material is simplified and reduced to a few reflections which illustrate the process.

Theological Reflection

Theological reflection is the beginning point for ministry formation and the most significant element in the spiral. All missiological decisions must be rooted both implicitly and explicitly in biblical theology in order to mirror the purposes and mind of God.

Too many church planters, while acknowledging the Bible as the Word of God, allow culture rather than scripture to shape their core understandings of the church. The Bible is used to proof-text practice rather define its essence. Without a biblically-rooted ecclesiology, the teachings and practices of the church are likely to be shaped either implicitly by the dominant evangelical culture or explicitly by random surveys to ascertain what people want1. A biblical understanding of the nature of the church, consequently, enables church planters to develop churches that are rooted in the mission of God rather than presuppositions of popular culture.

The Missional Helix proposes that church planters beginning their ministry must use scripture to form a biblical ecclesiology. For example, in Ephesians 2:19-22 Paul uses multiple metaphors to describe the nature of the church. The church is a new nation: Newly converted Christians are “no longer foreigners and aliens” but “fellow citizens” in a community of faith (2:19). The church is a family, or “God’s household” (2:19). The church is a holy temple, well constructed with each part joined together and built around Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone. This fellowship comes into existence through conversion: Those dead in sin (2:1-3) have been made alive with Christ (2:4-7) by God’s grace (2:8-10). Paul stacks metaphors one on another to illustrate a redeemed fellowship “brought together under . . . Christ” (1:3-11) and existing “for the praise of his glory” (1:12). These perspectives form an inspired picture of God’s divine community.

Theological reflection, however, extends beyond textual study. The church planter must realize that all readers understand and apply Scripture within their historical traditions, based upon their rational systems of thought, and formed by their perspectives of experience. The church planter, therefore, must be cognizant of four different resources that shape theological reflection: Scripture, tradition, reason and experience (Stone and Duke 1996, 43-54). For example, in rural, face-to-face cultures Christians tend to perceive of the church as a “family,” in modern, industrial contexts as a “business,” and in postmodern, informational cultures as a “network” or sometimes as a “community.” Missionaries and ministers, as theological “meaning makers,” must theologically reflect upon the connotation of these metaphors using all four resources of theological reflection.

Cultural Analysis

In addition to theological reflection the church planter must undertake an indepth worldview analysis of the local culture. Much too often this second element of the Missional Helix is excluded. Church planters naively project their worldview upon other contexts and interpret reality in terms of their heritage. This intellectual colonialism results in transplanted theologies, reflecting the missionaries’ heritage, rather than contextualized theologies, developed by reflecting on scripture within the context of local languages, thought categories, and ritual patterns. Transplanted theologies are merely uprooted from one context and transferred to a new one with the expectation that the meanings will be the same in both cultures. The beginning point of theologizing in a new culture is always a thorough analysis of the culture on a worldview level. Based on these cultural understandings, trained missionaries are able to be theological brokers to those within the culture and minister alongside them in developing contextualized theology for their own context.

Church planting does not occur in cultural vacuums but in cultural contexts, where rival perspectives of reality vie for human allegiance. Church planters must, therefore, become adept at differentiating worldview types and diagram how these types influence the target culture. These understandings enable them to communicate God’s message so that it interacts with the culture’s perspective of reality.

At least four different worldview types are present in world cultures. Stated succinctly, a secular worldview divides the world into natural and supernatural realms and focuses almost exclusively on the natural realm. God is considered to be either non-existent or irrelevant to human affairs. Secularists tend to be resistant until they realize, usually during times of trauma, that humans are unable to “direct their own steps” (Jere. 10:23), that the divine and the human are interrelated. An animistic perspective of reality believes that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs. During times of disease, death, and drought, they use divination to discover which beings and forces are impacting them in order to ward them off or to employ their power. Animists must learn that creator God is approachable and concerned about human life, and unlike the gods, “majestic in holiness” (Ex. 15:11). Through the death and resurrection of his son God has defeated all the principalities and powers (Col. 2:15). A pantheistic worldview perceives that an impersonal, all-pervading essence, sometimes defined as “god,” fills the universe. As droplets of water merge to become a stream, then a river, and finally an ocean, so individuals can become one with the essence of the world through meditation, thus achieving a change of consciousness called enlightenment. The pantheist, through living illustrations of Christian meditation, must experience God to be living and personal, full of compassion and having a distinctive holiness. A theistic plausibility system presupposes that God created the heavens and the earth and continues to care for that universe. Some theists follow God’s distinctive way of salvation through Jesus Christ while others focus on submission to and honoring of Allah.

Based on these typologies, missionaries and ministers can diagram the intertwining influences of secularism, animism, pantheism, and theism within their host culture. While most cultures emphasize one or two of these types, influences from all four types may be syncretized in various configurations. Understanding the various influences in the culture enables missionaries and ministers to encode the gospel in theological metaphors appropriate to the culture.

Worldview analysis is only one of many tools of cultural inquiry. Other tools include study of the epistemological sources forming worldview, types of cognitive processes, a culture’s grid/group orientation, levels of technology and the resultant strategies for use of money and media, differing definitions of sin and related conceptions of salvation, and the logico-structural integration of its worldview universals within cultures.

Too frequently church planters analyze bits and pieces of a culture but are unable to make a systematic cultural analysis. Or, they effectively analyze culture in broad, general terms, like the premodern, modern, and postmodern, but are not equipped to make localized cultural analysis.

Historical Perspective

Likewise, church planters must develop ministry based upon historical perspective rather than being oblivious of what has previously occurred. Because of their short national history and focus on practical inclinations, many North Americans “rush into the future without looking back” (Hesselgrave 1994, 7-8). Samuel Escobar believes that North American missiologists tend to negate theory and historical background. In other words, they look at missions as a management task necessitating “a task-oriented sequence of steps to be followed in order to achieve” specified goals. He challenges the North American missions community to expand the horizons of their “managerial missiology” (1992, 13-14; cf. 2000, 109-112).

Historical perspective provides many insights that guide church planters to develop their practice of ministry. For example, the reading of history greatly aids contemporary evangelists to understand syncretism. Ancient Israel, like many people coming out of animism, was tempted to follow both God and the gods of the nations. “They bow[ed] down and [swore] by the Lord and . . . also by Molech” (Zeph. 1:5). Modern Christians have syncretized secularism and theism by negating the Holy Spirit and demythologizing spiritual powers. Postmodern Christians have brought new syncretisms, including pervasive relativism, fascination with spiritual powers, focusing on power and neglecting truth, and interpreting emotions and intuition as the work of the Holy Spirit2.

Church planters will find it difficult to understand the nature of syncretism or other issues in church planting without historical perspective.

Strategy Formation

Church planting, by its very nature, necessitates strategic planning. Strategy formation, however, should never stand by itself as a self-contained, “how-to-do-it” prescription. Never should practitioners merely ask the question, “Does it work?” Many strategies that “work” and enable the church to grow for short periods of time do not reflect the qualities and purposes of God. For example, the “health-wealth” gospel produces numerical results, but when God takes away health or wealth as in the case of Job, the faith of those who have come to Christ to receive His “benefits” will likely prove deficient. A question that better reflects the Missional Helix model is: “Does this model of praxis reflect the purposes of God within this historical, cultural context?”

The foundational understandings of theology and the perspectives developed through cultural analysis and historical perspective should, then, lead church planters to critical reflection upon praxis. The missionary or minister should return time and time again to reflect theologically, culturally, historically, and strategically in order to develop ministry models that are appropriate to the local context. The four elements work together and interpenetrate each other. Based on these understandings, I will define “strategy” as the practice of model formation for ministry shaped by theological reflection, cultural analysis, and historical perspective and by the continued practice of ministry.

Strategies for church planting currently are undergoing radical transformation as missiologists reflect upon the different social contexts of missions and the need for the church to be God’s distinct, called-out people.

Because the social contexts are vastly different, strategies for urban church planting are not appropriate for rural areas. Rural areas are largely homogeneous whereas urban centers are heterogeneous and pluralistic. In rural localities people tend to live in extended families and know everyone within the immediate village; in urban contexts people live in close proximity to thousands of other people but paradoxically are neighbors with few of them. In rural communities kinship is the dominant relationship connecting people; in urban societies associational and occupational webs overlay kinship relationships and frequently are considered more important. Church structures in rural cultures tend to coincide with families who know each other and interact with each other in many aspects of life; in the urban context, however, structures of community must be created in order for the church to function as a body of Christ.

Note, for example, some of Valdir Steuernagal’s points in his “map of challenges” for the new decade during the Iguassu Dialogue (2000, 128):

  • “Is there a friend around? The search for relationship in an environment of loneliness.”
  • “I am alone, without a ‘father or a mother?’ The crisis of the state.”
  • “The savage urbanization process and the absence of sanctuary. Urbanism is a mindset.”

The metaphors of Paul from Ephesians 2:19-22 take on a new meaning within this urban environment. Migrants from various areas are united to become a new nation. New community structures are created so that “foreigners and aliens” who have moved from a homogeneous rural environment become a family in a heterogeneous city. The church is a holy temple that stands as a beacon of light in the midst of the corruption and immorality of the city. The church must not be comprised of spectators who fail to receive nurture to become functioning members of the body of Christ.

The strategic implications of the above three paragraphs are immense. Churches can no longer operate as they have in the past. Because people in impersonal urban churches tend to get lost and slip out the back door, nurturing systems must be developed to incorporate new believers into the body of Christ. Church structures must move from impersonal models, in which Christians are spectators absorbing knowledge, to models that are participatory. Thus newly planted churches must make allowances for the anonymity of urban culture and develop intentional structures of nurture and incorporation. The house/cell church movement is predicated upon these social and theological considerations.

Conclusion

The Helix Metaphor is useful in at least two ways. First and foremost, it provides the Christian practitioner with a model of decision-making that is both intentional and instinctive. In other words, the missionary or minister should seek theological understandings, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation in the process of developing patterns for ministry. Hopefully, this process becomes instinctive to the missional practitioner. Second, the Missional Helix could be used as a model for theological education. Equipping for ministry should not focus on some of the elements and give little consideration to others but form an integrated model of formation.

Finally I would like to include an insight from a reader: Lynn Anderson of Hope Network Ministries, responding to the missiological reflection introducing the Missional Helix, wrote that he has frequently “felt ping-ponged between theologians and practitioners” and concludes that “theologically impoverished practices are usually proven to be poor practices” and “theology divorced from practice is usually impoverished theology.” He speaks of once writing a satirical article in Wineskins entitled “Why aeronautic engineers don’t make good fighter pilots and vice-versa,” which only succeeded in making both poles mad (Anderson, 2002). The Missional Helix thus works to explain the relationship between theology and other aspects of ministry preparation.

________________________________

1 Christian A. Schwarz in Natural Church Development (1996) and George Barna at are two examples of church planting models that were devised based upon survey methodologies.

2 For a fuller description of syncretism and types of syncretism during modernity and postmodernity read my article entitled “Modern and Postmodern Syncretism in Theology and Missions” (1997, 164-207).

Sources Used

Anderson, Lynn. 2002. Personal Correspondence.

Escobar, Samuel. 2000. Evangelical missiology: peering into the future at the turn of the century. In Global Missiology: The Iguassu Dialogue, ed. William D. Taylor, 101-122. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Hesselgrave, David J. 1994. Scripture and Strategy: The Use of the Bible in Postmodern Church and Mission. Pasadena: William Carey Library.

Hiebert, Paul. 1993. De-theologizing missiology: A response. Trinity World Forum 19 (Fall): 4.

Steuernagel, Valdir. 2000. Learning from Escobar . . . and beyond. In Global Missiology: The Iguassu Dialogue, ed. William D. Taylor, 123-132. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Stone, Howard. W. and James O. Duke. 1996. How to Think Theologically. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1997. Modern and Postmodern Syncretism in Theology and Missions. In The Holy Spirit and Missions Dynamics, ed. C. Douglas McConnell, 164-207. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

MR #33: Imagining Christ’s Church in the City

The following cartoon appeared in the Easter Sunday edition of the Daily Nation, the major newspaper in Kenya, East Africa, soon after “The Passion of Christ” appeared in theatres.  The drawing contrasted the “Passion” and “Church” of Christ (Sunday Nation, April 11).

Continue reading “MR #33: Imagining Christ’s Church in the City”

MR #34: Contrasting Missional and Church Growth Perspectives

I pray that churches will become missional, i.e., theologically-formed, Christ-centered, Spirit-led fellowships who seek to faithfully incarnate the purposes of Christ.  Missional churches define themselves as bodies formed by the calling and sending of God and reflecting the redemptive reign of God in Christ.  They are unique communities in the world created by God through the Spirit as both holy and human.  Missional leaders, likewise, reflect the calling and sending of God.  They minister with humility recognizing themselves as “jars of clay” who finitely seek to enter into what God is already doing in his world.

The missional approach to ministry stands in obvious contrast to the traditional Church Growth perspective.  Church Growth thinking has brought much to the practice of foreign and domestic missions.  Donald McGavran, the father of Church Growth, encouraged missionaries to personally minister among unbelievers rather than attempt to draw people into Western-style mission enclaves or mission stations.  He rightly emphasized the missionary nature of the local church and the need for pioneer evangelism among peoples ready to hear the gospel.  He called for the incisive evaluation of missions.  Above all, he taught us to employ tools from the social sciences to analyze culture and to use this analysis to develop penetrating strategies for reaching both searchers and skeptics with the gospel of Christ.

The seeds of syncretism, however, were rooted in the very principles of cultural analysis and strategy formation employed by this movement.  Practitioners succumbed unintentionally to the humanistic suppositions of the Modern Era.  Assuming that they could chart their way to success by their ingenuity and creativity, Church Growth practitioners focused on what humans do in missions rather than on what God is doing.  They saw the missional task as setting goals, developing appropriate methodologies, and evaluating what does or does not work rather than seeking God’s will based upon biblical and theological reflection.  Their thinking segmented the gospel and practice, the human and divine into two compartmentalized worlds, and practice was developed on the basis of “what works” rather than the will and essence of God.  Christian leaders placed more emphasis on developing effective strategy than forming communities shaped in the image of God.  Although they advocated faithfulness to God, the system they proposed was based on human intelligence and ingenuity.

It has been my privilege to work with five other missions educators (Elmer Towns, Craig Van Gelder, Charles Van Engen, Howard Snyder, and editor Gary McIntosh) to evaluate the Church Growth Movement.  The resulting book, Evaluating the Church Growth Movement (McIntosh, 2004), is part of the Zondervan counterpoints series.  My comparison of Missional and Church Growth thinking is are drawn from my chapter and that of Craig Van Gelder (Van Gelder, 2004) in this book.  A fuller description of this comparison can be found here.

Missional Church Growth
Orientation/ Perspective Theocentric Anthropocentric
Theological Practical
Postmodern Modern
Theological Focus Missio Dei Great Commission
Beginning Question What is the gospel? What makes the church grow?
Perspective on Scripture Narrative of God’s purposes Propositional truth
How does missions happen? By the Spirit (God’s “surprises”) By strategic planning
Nature of community Inclusiveness, unity of the body of Christ People groups
Focus of Evangelism Initiation of people into the kingdom of God; holistic understanding of “making disciples” Differentiation between  discipling and perfecting, individual salvation
Orientation toward Social Action The Gospel, evangelism, and social action cannot be separated Priority of evangelism and church planting over social action; Reactive to the Social Gospel

Church Growth thinking begins anthropocentrically.  The focus is on strategy development and cultural analysis with biblical passages appropriated to give validity to the perspectives.  The Missional movement, on the other hand, begins theologically with the perspectives of the mission and kingdom of God.

The Church Growth movement, emphasizing the human ability to decipher and strategize, reflects Modernity.  Missionaries and missions scholars, however, increasingly doubt the ability of human ingenuity to guide the mission enterprise.  They recognize the finite nature of human understanding and the need for dependence on the Spirit of God.  Post-Modernity provides a more favorable cultural environment for Christian leaders to understand missions as authored and guided by the Holy Spirit.

Deciding the primacy and ordering of questions determines the missiological focus.  Church Growth begins with the question “Why do some churches grow and others do not?”  The central concern of the Missional movement, on the other hand, is “What is the gospel?”  The gospel is thought to intersect with every question of theology and strategy.  Because it is the essence of the Christian faith, the gospel cannot be relegated to the periphery, even when formulating practical issues of strategy.

The Church Growth movement focuses on truth as proposition.  Christianity is reduced to culturally-defined categories and communicated based upon these conceptual groupings.  This topic framework of mental referencing is susceptible to syncretism because it is based upon conceptualizations made by Christian leaders attempting to intellectually clarify Christianity in the human cultural categories.  The Missional movement maintains that the gospel cannot be contained in a set of propositions.  The mission of God must be communicated as the dynamic story of God’s relationship with his creation.

Missional proponents believe that God’s mission cannot be predicted by human planning.  They point to “God’s surprises” in the book of Acts, resulting from the Holy Spirit going ahead of human messengers and directing them in God’s mission.  For example, Acts 10 describes the Spirit of God going ahead of Peter, teaching him of God’s acceptance of the Gentiles, and leading him to household of Cornelius.  The story is one of God working through his people for his purposes.  While the Church Growth heritage has emphasized the mighty workings of God and the Holy Spirit due to the emphasis in such writings as Roland Allen’s Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, the major focus has been on human ingenuity in decision-making.  Elmer Towns, for instance, has great trust in human creativity.  He believes that Church Growth thinking is leading missionary practitioners into a period of unprecedented growth by intentionally applying the scientific method to evangelism and church planting (2004, 39-40).  The tension between the sovereignty of God, on the one hand, and the creativity of evangelists and church planters to strategize for success is the most significant difference between Missional and Church Growth thinking.  A balance is needed between these two perspectives.  God does miraculously lead us forward in His mission.  He, nevertheless, calls us to minister intentionality.  Paul, for instance, viewed himself as “an expert builder” laying the “foundation of Jesus Christ” and encouraged other ministers to “be careful” how they built (1 Cor. 3:10-11).

The Church Growth movement has focused on the uniqueness and distinctiveness of people groups and the contextualization of the Gospel among the ethne of the world.  The Missional movement, on the other hand, believes that the gospel breaks socio-economic and ethnic divisions between peoples so that all become one in Christ.

The Missional orientation does not dichotomize evangelism and social action, discipling and perfecting, but views God’s mission holistically.  Church Growth adherents, reacting to the Social Gospel, argue that the primary task of missions is evangelism and incorporating new believers into the body of Christ.  Evangelism and church planting, therefore, take priority over social action.  They point to the existence of many social programs, which share loaves and fishes without the gospel.

The Church Growth and Missional movements represent two very different emphases.  The Missional perspective accentuates theological reflection and historical perspective and the Church Growth movement cultural analysis and strategy formation.   Each movement has much to learn from the other.  Those of a Missional heritage can learn from Church Growth how to study culture beyond the general impressionistic level and be more intentional in strategy formation.  Church Growth practitioners can learn to rethink their discipline in integrative theological categories and to study culture, interpret history, and develop strategy through the lens of Christian theology.

The Missional Helix

The limitations of Church Growth that have been discussed–the anthropocentric focus, pragmatics and the segmentation of theology and praxis, the theological level of inquiry, and the focus on growth–suggest the need for a new model of missions.  This new paradigm would maintain the strengths of the Church Growth model–a focus on identificational ministry, belief in the missionary nature of the church, critical understandings of culture, and incisive evaluation–while broadening its theological horizons.  The model, termed missional, is rooted in an understanding that a missionary theology should permeate both theology and missiology.  Kirk writes:

All true theology is, by definition, missionary theology, for it has as its object the study of the ways of a God who is by nature missionary and a foundational text written by and for missionaries.  Mission as a discipline is not, then, the roof of a building that completes the whole structure, already constructed by blocks that stand on their own, but both the foundation and the mortar in the joints, which cements together everything else.  Theology should not be pursued as a set of isolated disciplines.  It assumes a model of cross-cultural communication, for its subject matter both stands over against culture and relates closely to it.  Therefore, it must be interdisciplinary and interactive.

(Kirk 1997, 50)

The Missional Helix visualizes such an “interdisciplinary and interactive” approach to the practice of ministry and provides a corrective to traditional Church Growth perspectives.  It images the intertwining, inseparable nature of theological reflectioncultural analysishistorical perspective, andstrategy formation within the context of the practice of ministry.

The helix begins with theologies, such as Missio Dei, the kingdom of God, incarnation, and crucifixion, which focus and form our perspectives of culture and the practice of ministry.  Cultural analysis forms the second element of the helix.  Cultural awareness enables church planters and Christian leaders to define types of peoples within a cultural context, to understand the social construction of their reality, to perceive how they are socially related to one another, and to explain how the Christian message intersects with every aspect of culture (birth rites, coming of age rituals, weddings, funerals, etc).  The spiral then considers historical perspective, how things came to be as they are based upon the interrelated stories of the particular nation, lineage, the church, and God’s mission.  Finally the spiral considers incisive contextualstrategies, which are based upon theological reflection, cultural analysis, and historical perspective, for the practice of ministry.  This process of ministry formation must occur within an environment of spiritual formation in which the soul is being nurtured through a personal walk with God and a continual seeking of direction from God where God is sought for direction.

The Missional Helix is a spiral because the missionary returns time and time again to reflect theologically, culturally, historically, and strategically in order to develop contextual ministry.   Theology, social understandings, history of missions, and strategy all work together and interpenetrate each other.  Thus theology shapes praxis, which in turn influences theology within the context of on-going ministry.   The helix also infers growth as the practitioners spiral to higher levels of maturity and ministry effectiveness.

The Missional Helix is useful in at least two ways.  First and foremost, it provides the Christian practitioner with a model of decision-making.  Church planters, evangelists, and pastors seek theological understandings, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation in the process of developing patterns for ministry.  Second, the Missional Helix could be used as a model for theological education.  Equipping for ministry should not place high emphasis on some elements and give little consideration to others.  Rather, it should provide an intentional, integrated model of ministry formation.

Conclusion

I embrace Steuernagel’s belief:  “As we move into a new century, . . . we need to reposition ourselves and to work once again on the agenda” (2000, 127).  The Church Growth model is inadequate.  By beginning with anthropology rather than theology and segmenting theology and practice, Church Growth advocates assume that their model reflects the nature of God.   In other words, church growth determines effective practice and then seeks to validate this practice by the use of Scripture.  The movement emphasizes growth rather than faithful proclamation of the gospel and faithful living of the gospel.

I advocate an adapted missional model, one which begins with and always returns to theological reflection while taking seriously cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation.

Works Cited

Kirk, Andrew.  1997.  The Mission of Theology and Theology as Mission.  Harrisburg, PA:  Trinity Press International.

McIntosh, Gary L. (ed.).  2004.  Evaluating the Church Growth Movement.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Steuernagel, Valdir.  2000.  Learning from Escobar … and beyond.  InGlobal Missiology for the 21st Century – The Iguassu Dialogue, ed. Wm. D. Taylor, 123-32.  Grand Rapids:  Baker.

Towns, Elmer.  2004.  Effective Evangelism View.  In Evaluating the Church Growth Movement, Gary McIntosh, ed.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Van Engen, Charles.  2004.  Centrist View.  In Evaluating the Church Growth Movement Gary McIntosh, ed.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Van Gelder, Craig.  2004.  Gospel and Culture View.  In Evaluating the Church Growth Movement, Gary McIntosh, ed.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn.  Accessed on Dec. 16, 2004.  From Theology to Practice:  The Missional Helix.  http://www.missiology.org/mmr/mmr25.htm.

_________.  Accessed on Dec. 16, 2004.  The Missional Helix:  Example of Church Planting.  http://www.missiology.org/mmr/mmr26.htm.

_________.  2004.  Reformist View.  In Evaluating the Church Growth Movement, Gary McIntosh, ed.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

MR #40: “Case Study: Translating God in Mongolia”

In March 2003 a symposium of Christian leaders was held in Mongolia on the topic “Distinctively Christian . . . Distinctively Mongolian.”  This title was especially intriguing because it uniquely captured many of the issues concerning the tension between contextualization and syncretism.

Continue reading “MR #40: “Case Study: Translating God in Mongolia””

MR #38: Contextualization and Syncretism

For many years I have contended that the largest vacuum in Missiology is the study of syncretism and the interrelated perspectives toward contextualization. It has, therefore, been my privilege to edit a book of presentations of the Evangelical Missiological Society entitled Contextualization and Syncretism: Navigating Cultural Currents, (William Carey Library, 2006; written by fifteen leading evangelical missiologists. The book asks how the gospel can be effectively contextualized within various world cultures without changing its core essence. The authors struggle with the interactive dynamic and tensions between effective contextualization and essence-changing syncretism. The issues of contextualization and syncretism are discussed within the context of real-life field experiences. The authors are concerned that the Evangelical Movement, molded by modern rationalism and the desire for relevance, frequently truncates, abuses, and loses the essence of the gospel.

In this Monthly Missiological Reflection I will give three illustrations of syncretism and then define the terms syncretism and contextualization as I do in the first chapter of the book.

Examples of Syncretism

I am continually awed by the creativity of humans to mix and match various religious beliefs and rituals to suit their changing worldview inclinations.

I sat in an African house, full of people worshipping God. The mud-walled, thatched-roof house measured fifteen paces from rounded wall to rounded wall. Some sat around the circumference in chairs, others on stools, many on mats on the floor. About half an hour into a time of praise, a gaunt, nervous woman named Takwanya entered the house. Spotting the empty chair beside me, she sat down and whispered in the local language, “I want to be baptized.” I nodded politely. After a stirring evening of song, praise, and preaching, those who had not yet accepted the way of Jesus Christ were invited to do so. Takwanya announced, this time publicly, “I want to be baptized!” I was surprised when the elders stated that they would pray for the sister and guide her on the way of Jesus. Later I learned from both Takwanya and the church leaders that she had been sick for many months. She was desperate. Non-Christian relatives, noticing the transformation of new Christians, had told her that if she were baptized in the church, she would be healed. Takwanya, viewing baptism as a magical rite of healing rather than a participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, decided to try the “Christian way.”

Two years ago Jim planted an evangelical Bible church. The guiding question forming his strategy was “How can we meet the needs of the people of this community and make this church grow?” Jim developed a core team, launched with an attendance of 300 after six months of planning, and now has an average attendance of 900 people each Sunday. By all appearances he is very successful. However, Jim is inwardly perturbed. He acknowledges that his church attracts people because it caters to what people want. The church is more a vendor of goods and services than a community of the kingdom of God. Jim sees that those attending have mixed motives: Attending is their duty, a place to meet people of influence or where children receive moral instruction. Church attendance assuages guilt and declares to others (and to self) that “I am religious.” A spiritual responsibility has been discharged. Therefore, all is well. Observing the worldliness of members leads him to privately ask, “What have I created?”

Julie lived with tension. She was fearful about the success of her children, the faithfulness of her husband, and her own vocational ability. She also felt guilt because of her neglect of spiritual things. Julie grew up in a Christian home but grew tired of what she considered “the emptiness” of Christianity. She did believe in God and loved to hear stories about Jesus, whom she considered the greatest man who ever lived. In the midst of a busy family and work life, paradoxically, she was very lonely. Eventually she joined a yoga meditation group and found peace by relaxing and accessing the god within her while imagining the Holy Spirit drawing her to oneness with Jesus.

These stories illustrate the many ways in which Christianity is mixed with folk religion, humanistic understandings, and Eastern mysticism. I have found that in the West Christian leaders readily see the syncretism of Takwanya and perhaps Julie but permit (and perhaps appreciate) the syncretism of Jim because his church is growing. Is it possible that such syncretism is also prevalent in the Western church, but we are simply too close to perceive its pervasiveness? The Evangelical Movement, molded by modern rationalism and the desire for relevance, frequently truncates, abuses, and loses the essence of the gospel.

Syncretism is like “an odorless, tasteless gas, likened to carbon monoxide which is seeping into our atmosphere.”

(John Orme, 2004, 1)

Syncretism cannot be defined without an understanding of contextualization since the two processes are interrelated. As illustrated in the book, what is considered authentic contextualization by some may be interpreted as syncretism by others.

Contextualization

Definitions of contextualization differ depending on the emphasis placed upon scripture and the cultural setting (Moreau 2005, 335). Models emphasizing scripture usually define contextualization as the translation of biblical meanings into contemporary cultural contexts. Therefore, images, metaphors, rituals, and words that are current in the culture are used to make the message both understandable and impactful. This model “assigns control to Scripture but cherishes the ‘contextualization’ rubric because it reminds us that the Bible must be thought about, translated into and preached in categories relevant to the particular cultural context” (Carson 1987, 219-20).

When the cultural setting is prioritized, however, God’s meaning is sought experientially within the culture using the Bible as a guide. This model more fully “assigns control to the context; the operative term is praxis, which serves as a controlling grid to determine the meaning of Scripture” (Carson 1987, 219-20). The goal is to find what God is already doing in the culture rather than to communicate God’s eternal message within the cultural context. For example, Vincent Donovan in Christianity Rediscovered (2003) describes anthropological inquiry as a “treasure hunt that uses Scripture as map or guide to discover the treasures to be found in the culture” (Moreau 2005, 336; cf. Bevans 1992, 49).

Figure 1: Varying Emphases in Contextualization Models

Evangelicals, who believe that God’s revelation in Scripture is authoritative in life and ministry, view this second option as syncretistic. Scripture is marginalized in the contextualization process. According to Hesselgrave, “acceptable Contextualization is a direct result of ascertaining the meaning of the biblical text, consciously submitting to its authority, and applying or appropriating that meaning to a given situation. The results of this process may vary in form and intensity, but they will always remain within the scope of meaning prescribed by the biblical text” (1995). Tite Tiénou describes contextualization within the process of theology. He writes, “Contextualization is the inner dynamic of the theologizing process. It is not a matter of borrowing already existing forms or an established theology in order to fit them into various contexts. Rather contextualization is capturing the meaning of the gospel in such a way that a given society communicates with God. Therein theology is born.” (1982, 51)

To Enoch Wan contextualization is derived from the dynamic relationship between gospel and culture, between “cultural relevancy” and “theological coherence.” Contextualization is “the efforts of formulating, presenting and practicing the Christian faith in such a way that it is relevant to the cultural context of the target group in terms of conceptualization, expression and application; yet maintaining theological coherence, biblical integrity and theoretical consistency” (Wan 1999, 13). Wan then describes Sino-theology (ST), or a theology for China, as one such “contextual theology” and compares it to “Traditional Western Theology” (TWT). He says that Sino-Theology:

is specifically designed for the Chinese people; not by transplanting Christianity in the “pot” of Western culture but by planting it in the Chinese cultural soil so it can take root, flourish and grow. ST should be done by using the Chinese cognitive pattern (e.g. shame culture vs. the guilt culture of TWT), Chinese cognitive process (e.g. synthetic vs. the dialectic of TWT), Chinese way of social interaction (e.g. relational /complementary vs. dichotomistic/confrontational of TWT), Chinese vocabulary, topics, etc.

(Wan 1999, 13)

Christianity, according to Enoch Wan, can be dressed in the garments of a shame culture, a synthetic cognitive process, Chinese ways of social interactions, communicated through the use of Chinese grammar, and expressed in terms of Chinese topics (Wan 1999, 13-16).

David Hesselgrave and Ed Rommen define contextualization as “the attempt to communicate the message of the person, works, Word, and will of God in a way that is faithful to God’s revelation, especially as put forth in the teaching of Holy Scripture, and that is meaningful to respondents in their respective cultural and existential contexts” (1989, 200). The first part of this definition focuses on authentic understandings or faithfulness to scripture: “The adequacy of an attempted contextualization must be measured by the degree to which it faithfully reflects the meaning of the biblical text” (1989, 201). Contextualization thus involves conceptions of (1) revelation (God’s communication of eternal truth in human linguistic and cultural categories); (2) interpretation (“the reader’s or hearer’s perception of the intended meaning”); and (3) application (including how “the interpreter formulates the logical implications of his understanding of the biblical text” and how he “decides to accept the validity of the text’s implications” by totally accepting it, accepting some parts and rejecting others, or superimposing his own meanings upon the text (1989, 201-202).

The final phrase of the definition infers “effectiveness”–that communicating the gospel “grows out of an understanding of our respondents in their particular context and out of the active ministry of the Holy Spirit in us and in them” (1989, 199-200). Hesselgrave’s seven-dimension grid (Worldview–ways of viewing the World; Cognitive processes–ways of thinking; Linguistic forms–ways of expressing ideas; Behavioral patterns–ways of acting; Communication media–ways of channeling the message; Social structures–ways of interacting; Motivation sources–ways of deciding) provides tools for cultural analysis that equip the Christian missionary to effectively communicate the gospel (1989, 202-203). Hesselgrave and Rommen assert that authentic contextualization must be measured by its “faithfulness” to the meanings of the scripture and its “effectiveness” or “relevance” in communicating Christ within the recipient culture.

The New Testament has given us the pattern for cultural adaptation. The incarnation itself is a form of contextualization. The Son of God condescended to pitch his tent among us to make it possible for us to be redeemed (John 1:14).

Byang Kato (1975, 1217)

These definitions establish the need for contextualization and illustrate that an over-emphasis upon the cultural context can lead to syncretism.

Syncretism

Syncretism occurs when Christian leaders accommodate, either consciously or unconsciously, to the prevailing plausibility structures or worldviews of their culture. Syncretism, then, is the conscious or unconscious reshaping of Christian plausibility structures, beliefs, and practices through cultural accommodation so that they reflect those of the dominant culture. Or, stated in other terms, syncretism is the blending of Christian beliefs and practices with those of the dominant culture so that Christianity loses it distinctiveness and speaks with a voice reflective of its culture (Van Rheenen 1997, 173).

Frequently syncretism is birthed out of a desire to make the gospel relevant. The Christian community attempts to make its message and life attractive and appealing to those outside the fellowship. Over the years these accommodations become routinized, integrated into the narrative of the Christian community and inseparable from its life. When major worldview changes occur within the culture, the church struggles to separate the eternals from the temporals. The church, swept along by the ebb and flow of cultural currents over a long period of time, loses her moorings. Thus syncretism occurs when Christianity opts into the major cultural assumptions of a society (Van Rheenen 1997, 173).

For example, my religious fellowship was born and grew to maturity during Modern times and reflects Enlightenment thinking. Salvation was understood as certain steps that individuals had to do to be saved; scripture was interpreted as a blue-print or a pattern to be logically followed; and the hermeneutic of “command, example, or necessary inference” formed our interpretive grid. Generally our movement followed the rationalism of Alexander Campbell rather than the revivalism of Barton W. Stone. Our emphasis was on knowing about God and Christianity rather than relating to Him personally as Father God. I acknowledge these syncretisms for a number of reasons. Biblically-based theology must form our identities and challenge our syncretisms. We must realize that we are always, to some degree, syncretistic, and acknowledge our syncretisms before God and fellow Christians.

Missiologists’ writings tend to focus more on contextualization with only brief notations about syncretism. There are many reasons for this. Writing about contextualizing the message of the gospel in the life of the church is much more appealing than discussing excessive accommodation to the philosophies and practices of the dominant cultures. We also live in an age of tolerance. Few are willing to negatively critique the beliefs and practices of others. David Hesselgrave, however, does this frequently and with grace. For example, many of the authors of Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach encourage establishing common ground with participants of the new spiritualities. Satanists believe that people should not “follow the herd” as Christians do, but insatiably enjoy all of life. Within this context authentic Christians might be described as “Left-handed Christian philosophers,” who think for themselves despite peer pressure. The message of the taro can be an archetype for sharing the gospel. The story line of the Bible can be communicated within the framework of the Wiccan Wheel of the Year myth. A theology of anointing forms the basis of creative outreach to aromatherapists. Hesselgrave, however, raises a significant caution flag.

“Both philosophically and theologically, a communication approach that is over-dependent upon the discovery and utilization of similarities is open to question. Dissimilarities between beliefs and practices may, in fact, be more important and utilitarian in the long run . . . . If one’s objective is to convert and disciple, both the number and importance of these differences will far outweigh the number and importance of supposed similarities.”

(Hesselgrave 2004, 147, 149)

Incorporating oils into Christian practice, for instance, does not necessarily Christianize an aromatherapist. Christian evangelists must, therefore, consider both points of contact and points of contrast. Although the authors of Encountering New Religious Movements rightly provide an incarnational model of engagement with occult practitioners, they must also ask, “When and how do we adopt the forms of New Religious Movements to both relate to the culture and communicate a distinctively Christian message?” Can the accommodations of today become the syncretisms of tomorrow?

Sources Cited

Bevans, Stephen B. 1992. Models of Contextual Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

Carson, Don A. 1987. “Church and Mission: Reflections on Contextualization and the Third Horizon.” In The Church in the Bible and the World: An International Study, ed. D. A. Carson, 213-257. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Donovan, Vincent J. 2003. Christianity Rediscovered: 25th Anniversary Edition. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Hesselgrave, David J. 1995. “Contextualization That Is Authentic and Relevant.” International Journal of Frontier Missions. July, Volume 12:3, pp. 115-20. Accessed at http://strategicnetwork.org/index.php?loc=kb&view=v&page=v&id=8530&mode=v&pagenum=1&lang=

_________. 2004. “Traditional Religion, New Religions, and the Communication of the Christian Faith.” In Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach, eds. Hexham, Irving, Stephen Rost, and John W. Morehead II, 137-56. Grand Rapids: Kregel.

Hesselgrave, David J. and Edward Rommen. 1989. Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Kato, Byang H. 1975. “The Gospel, Cultural Context, and Religious Syncretism.” In Let the Earth Hear His Voice, ed. J.D. Douglas, 1216-28. Minneapolis: World Wide Publications.

Kraft, Charles. 1989. “Contextualizing Communication.” In The Word Among Us: Contextualizing Theology for Mission Today, ed. Dean S. Gilliland, 121-138. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Moreau, A. Scott. 2005. “Contextualization: From an Adapted Message to an Adapted Life.” In The Changing Face of World Missions, by Michael Pocock, Gailyn Van Rheenen, and Douglas McConnell, 321-348. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Orme, John. 2004. IFMA News, Vol. 55, Summer 2004, No. 2.

Tiénou, Tite. 1982. “Contextualization of Theology for Theological Education.” Evangelical Theological Education Today: 2 Agenda for Renewal, ed. Paul Bowers, 42-52. Nairobi, Kenya: Evangel Publishing House.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1997. “Modern and Postmodern Syncretism in Theology and Missions.” In The Holy Spirit and Mission Dynamics, ed. C. Douglas McConnell, 164-207. Pasadena: Wm. Carey.

________. 2006. Contextualization and Syncretism: Navigating Cultural Currents. Passadena, CA: William Carey Library.

Wan, Enoch. 1999. “Critiquing the Method of Traditional Western Theology and Calling for Sino-Theology.” Chinese Around the World: 13-16. Accessed on-line on September 22,

MR #41: “Christian” New Agers: A Growing Phenomenon

The Missiological Reflections (MRs) are prepared by Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen, Director of Mission Alive.  This reflection is a real-life story describing North American Christians who unconsciously absorb Eastern and animistic beliefs that lead them to perform practices that dethrone God as Lord.

Continue reading “MR #41: “Christian” New Agers: A Growing Phenomenon”

MR #37: Unspeakable Pain

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24)

We cry sometime every night. Will the tears stop?

As many of you know, Jonathan, our affectionate first-born son, died in an accident on the evening of February 12. Jonathan died instantly in the sleeping compartment of his truck when his 18-wheeler rear-ended another truck in slow-moving traffic. His co-driver fell asleep at the wheel. Jonathan died five days short of his thirty-fifth birthday, like a reed cut down by a sickle before its time. We feel unspeakable pain — a void, an emptiness, a vacuum that will continue until we follow him in death. Children are to bury their parents. . . . Oh, if we could have died for him! Why could not the order be reversed?

Jonathan and Nicole married on July 18, 2003, and in this short period of time, had two children, Eli (20 months) and Eva (8 months). Our younger son David commented that Jon was “living the life of his dreams.” All he wanted from God in life was an affectionate wife and healthy children. Phyllis Phillips, Jonathan’s mother-in-law, asked Jonathan what he wanted for his birthday. His reply was “I have everything I want.”

He loved all people equally — whether rich or poor, black or white. While shy and unassuming, he was the consummate encourager. We remember stories of him encouraging the mechanic fixing his truck, an African student struggling to adapt to the USA, and his son while learning to walk and talk. He was a man without guile — loving, caring, ethical, a follower of “good.” He was a wonderful father, husband, brother, and son. The words of the birthday card that we purchased before his death but never sent expresses our sentiment:

Happy birthday, son. You were born to be one of a kind . . . .

Since the day you were born,
We knew you would grow up to be someone special.
Who could have imagined that your love for life and genuine compassion for others
would touch so many lives.

Our son’s accident closed an interstate highway for five hours.
Traffic frozen,
lives on hold,
thoughts racing.

And then, the traffic began to flow again, first slowly, then more quickly, . . . but with a new wisdom. Life is fragile and finite. We are only visitors passing through this world. Wisdom, however, lacks understanding. “Why, oh why, God? What have you allowed Satan to do?”

We have tried to put our thoughts, our struggles, our prayers on paper and thus refocus life without our first-born. During our first years in Africa, when Jon was only one year old, we heard the blasts of machine guns nightly as Idi Amin of Uganda eliminated all dissenters. We talked our way through road blocks and made final trips to nourish the first struggling Christians among the Bakonjo people in Western Uganda. By God’s might and power 9 churches grew up among the Bakonjo of Uganda. When our team was forced to flee to Kenya, our partnering elders contemplated bringing us home. But God settled us among the Kipsigis people of Kenya for the next 13 years, where He worked in His mission through our team to raise up leaders to plant over 250 local churches. We remember our time in Uganda as our time to testing: Would we stay? Would God use us in his missionaries in Africa?

When we retired from Abilene Christian University to launch Mission Alive, we felt that Becky’s declining eye-sight, a disease we earthlings call Retinitis Pigmentosa (a degenerative eye disease involving loss of peripheral vision and night blindness), was our “Uganda experience,” like Paul’s “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment [us]” (2 Cor. 12:7). We believe that when Satan saw captives set free from addictions and lostness in our new church plantings in Fort Worth, Austin, and Lexington, and developing plans for church planting in Atlanta, Denver, Dallas, Providence, and other places, he has hit us were it hurts most, the death of our child to discourage and distract.

It is the nature of Satan to hinder the mission of God. He is the great tempter, hostile to God, and working to overthrow divine purposes. He is the great dragon, waiting to devour the young Child at the moment of His birth. God, however, caught Him away to another land (Rev. 13:4; cf. Matthew 2). After his baptism, he sought to turn back the ministry of Christ through temptations before the commencement of Jesus’ earthly ministry (Matt. 4:1-11). Satan entered the heart of Judas (John 13:2) and through religious leaders instigated and carried out plans to kill Jesus (John 8:44). Jesus shared in our humanity “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15).

To some degree we have entered into the grief of God. We know what it means to lose a son.

Because we know the battle (Eph. 6:12), we will not turn back from the mission of God. We know that Satan’s work is manifest not only in the world but paradoxically also in the church. Christianity in North America has become tainted: Too many Christians have a form of godliness but deny its power (2 Tim. 3:5). Missional renewal and church planting are desperately needed in a generation in which too many churches have accommodated to the rationalism and life styles of popular culture and do not readily reflect the majesty, glory, holiness, and love of God.

We have found this death to be dirty, bloody, foul, an unimaginable separation, soul ripped from body. We have seen churches likewise die because of immorality, anger, jealousy, gossip–the lust of the flesh entering the kingdom of God. We perceive resurrection to be the opposite: glorious, aromatic, clean, unimaginable connection, soul united with its Creator. We have experienced such church renewal through affirmation of spiritual reality, focus on holiness, confession, repentance, turning to and reconnection with God. The badness is eaten up in the goodness. Morality is swallowed into immortality. Resurrection transcends death. Thus we not like those who “grieve . . . without hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).

God is at work in the midst of our sadness. Churches of Christ, black and white, were brought together. Jonathan’s co-driver Eric Dickerson, who died a few hours after our son, was in training to become a deacon at the Midwest Church of Christ in Louisville. Jonathan was a member of the Westport Road Church of Christ across the city. Christian leaders from the two churches came to both visitations and memorial services and cried on each others’ shoulders. Nicole amazingly attended Eric’s funeral to give support to his wife Sherri. Black and white, too divided in life, coming together in death! Eric and Jonathan were loving husbands and parents and Christian role models. May they enjoy God’s presence together!

More about the accident can be read at Indiana wreck kills two Louisville friends; both UPS drivers and Semi crash kills driver, passenger.

We are thankful for the thousands of people who have sent us words of comfort through emails, cards, and telephone calls. You are comforting us through unbearable pain.

Please pray for us, Jonathan’s wife Nicole, their children Eli and Eva, and his siblings Rebecca, Deborah, and David.

MR #35: Church as ‘Place’ or ‘Service’

Increasingly Christians in North America are thinking about “church planting.” This phrase “church planting,” however, carries its own baggage.

I have found that many church leaders assume that the first step in church planting is purchasing a piece of property and constructing a church building. A church defined as “a place where things happen” (Guder 1998, 79) necessitates property and place. A second assumption is that church is a public “service” organized by a staff for the giving of information or for celebration. Church becomes, to some degree, a spectator engagement. These ideas are so culturally embedded in the term “church” that we commonly say, “Let’s go to church,” inferring place, or ask “When does church begin?” inferring service. When American pragmatism is added to this mix, church planting becomes “getting the largest number of people to a service in the shortest period of time.”

Within the North American cultural environment where “success” is defined by numerical growth, church planting is frequently the reapportioning of the Christian population. Christians sometimes flock to new churches who because of abundant financial resources have brought together the best personnel to offer better preaching, enhanced children’s ministry, superior classes, and/or inspirational services than other churches. Megachurches consume smaller churches in what might be called the Wal-Martization of Christianity. The goal becomes providing more and better services to fulfill the felt needs of a consuming population. Making disciple-making and spiritual formation are frequently marginalized in this process.

My devotional life and understanding of church has been enriched by Philip Kenneson’s Life On The Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community. Kenneson is convicted that the church in the United States is seriously ill and aims to accurately and honestly provide both a diagnosis and remedy. He believes that “it is quite possible for the church to be both growing and yet not bearing the fruit of the Spirit. What is happening in many cases is that the church is simply cultivating at the center of its life the seeds that the dominant culture has sown in its midst . . . . The church that is being cultivated in the United States looks suspiciously like the dominant culture rather than being an alternative to it” (1999, 11-12). The question is not simply “Is it bearing fruit?” but “Is the fruit that the church is bearing the fruit of the Spirit?” (1999, 15). For example, the rates of divorce and premarital chastity do not significantly vary between Christians and non-Christians (1999, 16). Christians are frequently “pledging allegiances to Christ with their lips while engaging in practices that cultivate a quite different set of loyalties, dispositions and convictions” (1999, 29). They are like ancient Judah who partially followed God but also served the gods of the nations around them. Jeremiah wrote that they “turned their backs” to God but “not their faces.” Only when they were in deep trouble would they say to God, “Come and save us!” (Jer. 2:27).

Christians held captive by the assumptions of the dominant culture must seek liberation. But this is not easy. First, Christians do not realize the extent to which their behaviors, values, and assumptions are formed by the dominant culture. Second, intentional nurturing of the soil and plants is imperative if distinctive Christian fruit is to spring forth from the soil of American culture. As an old farm boy, I learned to expend much time and effort weeding and fertilizing tomatoes, green beans, and corn but whenever I left the garden unattended, weeds flourished and smothered the crops that I had intentionally planted and nurtured. The good fruit must be tended and nurtured; weeds spring up almost without effort because the environment in which we live is conducive to their growth (adapted from 1999, 30).

Kenneson rightly suggests that Christianity, if it is to distinctively grow in the soil of American culture, must reflect the character and mission of God “uniquely embodied in the person of Jesus Christ” and much less perfectly “in the life of that community animated by his Spirit” (1999, 32).

The church is often like the vineyard bearing bad fruit that is soon to be discarded (Isa. 5:1-7). But our hope is in God, who prunes us so that we might become faithful and bear the fruits of God (John 15:1-5). After describing the divine character of the nine fruits of the spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23, Kenneson explains why Christians have difficulty implementing them. His chapter headings illustrate the difficulty of living Christianly in a non-Christian American context:

  • Cultivating Love in the Midst of Market-Style Exchanges
  • Cultivating Joy in the Midst of Manufactured Desire
  • Cultivating Peace in the Midst of Fragmentation
  • Cultivating Patience in the Midst of Productivity
  • Cultivating Kindness in the Midst of Self-Sufficiency
  • Cultivating Goodness in the Midst of Self-Help
  • Cultivating Faithfulness in the Midst of Impermanence
  • Cultivating Gentleness in the Midst of Aggression
  • Cultivating Self-Control in the Midst of Addiction

While Kenneson’s Life On The Vine does not deal with church planting, many lessons can be learned about this ministry. We no longer live in a world where people ascribe to basic Christian values. Church planting which focuses on meeting people “where they are” is doomed to synthesize the values of the dominant culture with those of Christ. We must, therefore, seek a new and different way of church planting, one which primarily looks to God for its identity and purpose and then incarnationally contextualizes these missional perspectives in local cultural contexts. This missional church understands itself as a community of disciples on a pilgrimage through life helping each other to be Christ’s disciples and encouraging others to join them as they journey through life to heaven.

Imagine the life in such a counter-cultural church:

  • Spiritual formation: Every member is passionately, whole-heartedly pursuing full devotion to Christ. Their very lives exist in relationship with God.
  • Community: Christians are nurtured in Christian community to grow as disciples of Christ. They are not mere spectators.
  • Lay Equipping: Leaders are equipping “God’s people for works for ministry” (Eph. 4:12).
  • Evangelism: Christians make disciples through personal relationships, through intimate spiritual friendships.
  • Multicultural: Christ breaks down racial and ethnic barriers so that planted churches are “red and yellow, black and white.”
  • The Strong in Christ Serve the Weak: The Church compassionately cares for the children and the poor.
  • Kingdom: The church is a unique community, formed by the calling and sending of God.
  • Missions: Christians are passionate about God’s mission to the nations.

These types of emergent churches are even now being planted by those of a missional heritage. For example, Mission Alive (www.missionalive.org) exists “to discover, equip, place, and nurture church-planting leaders who will plant missional churches in suburbs, city centers, and poverty areas with unbelievers as the primary target.” Mission Alive is…

“Missional people,

    1. because of the mission of God.”
  1. planting missional churches

Works Cited

Guder, Darrell L. 1999. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Kenneson, Philip D. 1999. Life On The Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.