The paradox for missions of being in the world but not of the world
One of the most challenging issues for mission work, where Jesus has yet to be heard, is balancing the fine line between one’s faith in Jesus while living contentedly within one’s society – socially and sometimes even legally where that might be life threatening.
Syncretism is drawing from two or more belief systems at the same time; hoping for the best of two religious worlds. One kind of syncretism is the “mixing and matching” of pagan beliefs and practices with those revealed by God, like in Exodus 32 when the Israelites follow the customs of the surrounding nations by constructing a golden calf to be their god and giving it honor that rightfully belongs to God. The second kind is when a Christian (and sometimes a Western) practice is inbued with indigenous meaning such as when Simon the magician seeks to buy the power of the Holy Spirit and continues to act from his former role as a sorcerer.
Both are wrong, since the Church is to be pure and all that is believed and practiced should be biblical. But how are local believers to live in faith to Christ where there is none, and yet retain a culturally acceptable identity? This “insider paradigm” – can be a worthy goal even; believers retaining their involvement in the hope to influence their culture toward Christ.
Do we need to pray with our heads bowed and eyes closed? Can our eyes and palms be opened or can we pray standing or prostrate? Must we sing worship songs before we hear the Word of God? Can I use a scripted prayer? Can church be on another day other than Sunday? Can two or three gathered be called “church”?
I ask these questions because I recently read an article that raised these issues and every time I visit the field, I am amazed by how many national believers speak the same language of “Christian-ese” (if there was such a word) even though their cultures are so different. Yet I am also humbled when I see the beauty of a local but faithful interpretation of the Gospel through their cultural forms. Many of these questions are real issues for new believers where the Gospel is only just being reached. The Jesus we preach can often be lost in the Western Christian culture we practice. Our hope should be to communicate the Gospel in a meaningful and relevant way to the culture we bring it to, rather than a religious reflection of the culture we are from.
I don’t have a definite answer to this fuzzy line between syncretism and contextualisation, but we can look to Jesus who whilst upholding the highest standards of holiness was able to respond to people in their context with great compassion.
What local and contextualised ways have you seen the Gospel faithfully interpreted on mission trips? Share your thoughts and let us know!
Thanks Ly-ann Tan Low for this great article!
After 10 years as a teacher, Ly-ann has found her balance serving those on the field as Island ECC’s Global Outreach Coordinator and using her professional skills as an Education Technology Consultant for Asia Education Resource Consortium to help families in the field.