April 28, 2020
by Dr. David Wesley
Professor of Intercultural Studies
We have moved to a new country where life is different than where we came from. The way we talk to neighbors and friends is different. The things that were important in the old country before Covid-19 have changed and even how we express community spirituality is different. Indeed, we have moved to a new and different place that will take some getting used to.
This shift is similar to when my family moved to a new country as missionaries. We wanted to take the culture from our home country with us, but we found out the new country had its own culture and God was present there just as he had been in our home country. We needed to adjust to a different way of living if we wanted to be effective.
So, how do we, as Christians who live into God’s mission, approach this new reality? In his seminal book Translating the Message, Lamin Sanneh, a former Muslim and noted Gambian scholar notes the different ways that Islam and Christianity approach new cultures. Islam, according to Sanneh, focuses on diffusion, whereby “religion expands by means of its founding cultural warrants and is implanted in other societies primarily as a matter of cultural adoption” (33). Orthodox Islam insists that the words of the Qur’an must be preserved in the original Arabic and its insistence on a single sacred language has allowed Islam to create a unified culture resulting in a form of “cultural imperialism” given that it cannot embrace a plurality of cultures into a single Islamic religion (158-60, 254). Stated differently, culture adapts to the home culture of Islam.
The nature of Christianity, however, is always translation or critical contextualization in which the Gospel is a corrective as well as a supporter of culture. In other words, faith is “vernacularized” as it is translated into the indigenous culture (33-34). Christian missionaries seek to translate the message of the gospel in ways that are consistent with culture. This translation is not simply the written word but includes the translation of the messengers themselves. Incarnation is perhaps the most fitting concept for this (see Phil. 2:5-7).
Some colonialist missionaries of the past insisted on packing their fine china to be shipped to the mission field. Muslims insist on a home culture for their faith. Some churches want to carry with them the customs and practices developed for another culture such as a focus on buildings and the things we do when people physically come together. Missionaries move to another country where they discover that many practices from the old country were primarily about their home culture. They also find that the new country has Christian practices that are woven in the fabric of a new culture which is now the home culture of the gospel.
In our move to a new reality, the Holy Spirit will accompany us as we discern that God is already present. We will need to bring the family pictures that remind us of the creeds of the church that have formed our common faith. We need to bring the family bible as our foundation, and we need to use reasoning to help us discern practices that are dissonant to the nature of the Gospel.
Some have asserted that the church is in exile to a foreign country. What if, however, we are not in exile, but rather we are missionaries to a new country where God has called us to join His (God’s) mission? Like good Christian missionaries, churches will have to think about the things that are truly at the heart of their faith. Some will cling to the treasures from the old country and insist that it is the building, nationalist focus, and a certain style of music. Others will start to contextualize and ask the important questions about what it really means to follow Jesus into a new country. And who knows? The new country might help us learn a new way to be real and just perhaps in a new country, we will find the renewal that we have all hoped and prayed for. A missionary journey does not include guarantees of safety or comfort, as many can testify. It does, however, offer the promise that God is indeed with us, which is the best of all.