Syncing Your Faith: Challenges in Mission and Outreach
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?