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Syncing Your Faith: Challenges in Mission and Outreach

April 9th, 2010
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A well done post by Joe Burnham: Over the past couple weeks, I took time to sit in on the Theology of Mission course that was being offered at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Tshwane where I’m currently serving as guest professor. The class, which was taught by Detlev Schulz, author of Mission from the Cross: The Lutheran Theology of Mission is essentially, as the book would suggest, an exploration into the missional nature of Lutheran theology. Given that I’ve been fleshing this out in my own mind and teaching what I’ve been discovering for the past 6 years, it was good to hear that someone else in the Lutheran circles I run in has come to many of the same conclusions.

One day in class we were discussing one of the biggest challenges for any Christian who seeks to be missional … syncretism.

syncretism – an amalgomation or attempted amalgomation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought

The challenge stems from the reality that, while the gospel is timeless and above culture, it is always expressed in and through culture. This means that anytime you seek to take the gospel from one culture to another you have one of two options:

1. you take people out of their native culture and move them into a culture where you already have a faithful translation of the gospel
2. you learn a new culture and faithfully translate the gospel for that culture

For many years, missionaries chose the first option, much to the detriment of both culture and the gospel. Be it through colonialism in Africa or the early Lutheran efforts to reach out to Native Americans in Frankenmouth; imposing Western culture on non-Western groups not only created resentment towards the West (including Christianity), but it also resulted in indiginous people never fully taking hold of the gospel and remaining dependent on foreign missionaries. One example of this would be the aforementioned Frankenmouth outreach which lasted for decades but only resulted in only two Native Americans attempting seminary education (both dropped out) and the complete abandonment of the Lutheran faith when the Native Americans were forced onto reservations.

So, having learned from the failures of previous generations, missionaries are now working on option two. The problem is, whenever you try and explain something new, like the gospel, you have to work within people’s existing mental framework, in other words, you have to start with what they know and take them to what they don’t know. This brings us back to the challenge of syncretism, because what people already know often becomes blended in with the new gospel teaching.

Now, in Africa, syncretism is rather blatant, because it typically happens as the animistic tribal religions are blended with Christianity. So, for example, the rites of the liturgy aren’t something designed to point you to Christ and his work for you through the cross and empty tomb, but they are things that you do to appease God (which, oddly enough, has a Medieval Roman Catholic sacramental vibe to it). However, in the United States, syncretism is much more subtle because there isn’t a native religion (except for on the aforementioned reservations) to syncronize with Christianity, rather, various elements of popular philosophy have managed to penetrate their way into the Christian thought and left people clinging to something less than the gospel. Let me offer a few examples:

* Materialism: The most blatant expression of this would be your health and wealth preachers who boldly declare that, if you have faith and do the things that God wants, then you’ll be blessed with material wealth. In contrast to this, the gospel is intensely sacrificial in nature and isn’t about getting, but giving.
* Individualism: This version has God being all about you, your salvation, and being the best you that you can be. This stands in stark contrast to Scripture which doesn’t focus on the individual, but the community.
* Consumerism: By nature, consumerism views people as objects and works to get them to buy into your brand. Many churches have, in the name of Jesus, objectified people which devalues them and therefore stands in contradiction to the gospel.
* Conservative Politics: The Republican Party, especially under the leadership of George W. Bush, co-opted the Christian vote by highlighting select issues. However, in the process, many Christians wed themselves to the parties entire platform, including those elements that are contrary to the gospel.
* Liberal Politics: As part of a backlash to syncretism with conservative politics, some Christians who want to see an emphasis on care for the poor, disagree with Bush’s war philosophy, or want a government to serve as a check and balance against the sinfulness of corporate American, have now gone to the other extreme and embraced a pure liberal political stance.

So, how do Christians work to avoid syncing their faith with the very culture we are part of and seek to share our faith with? Here are a few guidelines I’ve come up with:

* Repent: The truth is, we’re all syncretists. Realize that there is no human culture that is in complete alignment with the gospel and we’ve all read elements of our culture into the gospel story. Admit this, ask God for forgiveness, and ask for the Spirit to guide you as you move forward.
* Get Out of the Water: Much like a fish doesn’t realize it’s in water until it finds itself on land, we don’t realize how much we are a part of our culture until we step out of it. Go somewhere and experience something that’s radically different … force yourself to look at home with new eyes.
* Stand Under the Bible: All too often, when we study the Bible, we read it through our cultural eyes and in such a way that it makes God like the people we like and hate the people we hate … we conform God and Scripture to our image rather than allowing it to transform us. You will never understand the Bible until you stand under it and allow it to change you.

So, what am I missing?

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Categories: Outreach
  1. Rev. Lance Armstrong O’Donnell
    April 9th, 2010 at 07:56 | #1

    Good summary: repent, expand your world-view, be ever-learning from the Scriptures (Bereans). You’re missing the spelling of Frankenmuth, for one, but I suspect you have a reason for that. Your post seems to suggest that the Frankenmuth mission failed (though you didn’t use that word). Though it was wrapped in its cultural mid-19th century dress, we should note that the mission-colony concept under which Frankenmuth was organized was one of the most unique efforts in the history of Christian missions. Frankenmuth remains a thriving mission colony to this day, keeping its heritage and supporting missions world-wide, and (self-disclosure) this former pagan was converted and learned the basics of the faith there. It’s rather simplistic to suggest that the new-found faith of the Chippewa “didn’t hold” because the missionaries were Germans and didn’t know any other way to be Christians. The missionary pastor spent a good deal of time with the Indians, learned Chippewa, and baptized a goodly number of them. The government then moved the Chippewa. We didn’t get to see what might have happened as the bi-cultural Christian Chippewa moved back and forth between two cultures. This is to say, the more “incarnational” model (#2 in your post) wasn’t widely known at the time, but it was being learned, and your post is a reflection of that. It would be fascinating to see a 21st century mission-colony, having learned from the mono-cultural model, that goes into frontier mission territory according to the incarnational model .

    Thanks for your post.

  2. April 9th, 2010 at 09:14 | #2

    About time somebody started to think Lutheranly (i.e., around AC Art. IV) about missions. Kudos to Detlev (and you in this post) for leading us back on track.

    Re the Frankenmuth colony: some years ago I came across an English translation of E.R. Baierlein’s account of his mission work among the Chippewa in the wilds of Michigan. It was published in 1996 “In the Wilderness With the Red Indians: German Missionary to the Michigan Indians 1847-1853″ (Great Lakes Books) (Paperback) A fascinating read, and gives the lie to the old stereotype that all of Loehe’s men expected American Indians to learn German before they could hear the Gospel. A postscript lends poignant testimony to the power of churchly (i.e. liturgical) culture as a context for Gospel preaching and catechesis that bridges earthly cultural gaps.

  3. April 9th, 2010 at 09:32 | #3

    Thanks for the comments. Please note that this post was written by Joe Burnham as a summary of his experience in a class with Dr. Schultz. Don’t get bogged down in a particular detail in his summary.

    I agree that Frankenmuth is NOT to be held up as an example of Germans making Indians learn German before they were catechized.

    Hal Senkbeil’s reference to the Baierlein book is spot-on and nobody reading that book and actually learning the facts about what was done among the Chippewa could ever again repeat that silly assertion about forcing the Indians to learn German. Nothing could be further from the truth.

  4. Ted Badje
    April 9th, 2010 at 18:05 | #4

    So Loehe’s people teaching the Chippewa German was a myth? That’s not what I heard when I went to a synodical college. It could have been that the professors had a different vocational bent. How did the myth get started? Was it the gainsayers of the Buffalo Synod? Inquiring minds want to know ;-).

  5. April 9th, 2010 at 22:03 | #5

    On the subject of missions, the Australian Lutheran missions to the indigenous people, which were started in the 19th C., continue to this day, to the point where the indigenous Lutherans are asking to be called a ‘church’ and not a ‘mission’. The Lord has particularly blessed this work in central Australia, to the point where we have many indigenous pastors, even though elements of the animistic worldview survive.
    The son of a German missionary whose father came out to central Australia in the 1930s and who himself spent his life in mission work there told me that when the missionaries banned the animistic rites, the people simply took them underground, because the rites were intimately connected with the system of traditional law which held indigenous society together. So, since the 1950s onward, the missionaries have had to work with, rather than against traditional culture. But this obviously presents many theological problems. To what extent, for instance, can we view tribal law and the rites that enact it as a ‘first article gift from God’, and where must the line against syncretism be drawn? In some instances this is going to be quite a clear decision, but in other matters it will not be so clear.

    (Btw, one unexpected positive of acknowledging and researching tribal law is that many of the Old Testament stories speak quite strongly into an animistic context and are understood by indigenous on a level that we just don’t ‘get’. )

    I suppose, in some ways, this is the same question that faces advanced societies that have a strong civil religion. Can societies survive and thrive without some form of religious underpinning which has the peoples’ consent and which sanctions civil authority in their minds? It is not at all clear that they can. Australia, whose founding was concurrent with the Enlightenment, is a good case in point. Yes, we are a prosperous and relatively harmonious nation, but we are beginning to see ‘culture wars’ as the old Anglo-Australian cultural consensus fragments and migration from non-Christian societies brings added factors and worldviews into play. How does a church uphold God’s gift of law and social order, without crossing over into syncretism with the civil religion, and how do they remain open to mission to the new peoples’ arriving, and be sensitive to their cultural traditions? Challenges indeed!

  6. April 10th, 2010 at 01:39 | #6

    @ptmccain, thanks for reposting! So nobody thinks Dr. Schultz said something ill about Frankenmuth, this flowed from a class discussion about syncretism and him turning to me, the only other American in the room, and asking if we had something comparable to what the Animists are tempted to do with rites and rituals. My response was varying philosophies, which I expounded upon for this post.

    @Lance, the misspelling is corrected in the original article, it was just a mental lapse on my part. Thanks for pointing that out. When I wrote on the mission previously (an LCMS History class), I came to the conclusion that the community had a beautiful and faithful heart with an imperfect model (as all models are, today, we learn from them so we can make a whole new set of mistakes). Pastoring the incarnational mission-colony you reference at the end, is my dream call!

  7. Steve Foxx
    April 10th, 2010 at 06:45 | #7

    Thank you for posting about this topic and this book. It is especially pertinent to our church here in Hopewell because we are becoming very mission minded through the leadership of our wonderful new Pastor. This book will, Lord willing, greatly help us in reaching out to our community with the Gospel.

    God bless your day,

  8. Joanne
    April 10th, 2010 at 18:48 | #8

    Christianity has the culture of the Roman Empire woven into it’s nature. Geographically and temporally it creates the Empire. It may take a few generations, but ultimately the barbarian converts will become subjects of the Christian Emperor and citizens of the Roman Empire. We are none of us barefoot in Athens, now are we?

    • April 10th, 2010 at 19:08 | #9

      Actually, they wore sandals in Athens. Joanne, your comment is kind of, well, weird. Care to elaborate?

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