The act of judging a foreign culture for meaning and moral value is attacked by post-modern critics as an example of bigotry. After all, what standard are we using to judge another culture? Does the Bible present a cultural norm to which all cultures must conform? If not, who are we to use the Christianity developed in the West to judge the expression of Christianity in Africa, or Asia, or Latin America?
These are good questions, and questions the church has only seriously faced in the last 100 years or so, as Christianity has truly become a global phenomenon.
One of the strengths of the post-modern critique of modernity is to remind us all that pure objectivity in judgement does not exist. We all judge with pre-understandings, unquestioned assumptions, and hidden prejudices. A Western Christian is going to read back into Scripture some of his cultural experience of Christianity. When he plants a church in Africa, he will probably implement such things without noticing that they are part of the baggage train of Western Christianity, and more to the point, of his particular tradition within that tradition. (Many American Baptists would be stunned to think that Paul may not have had a Wednesday Evening Bible Study.)
On the face of it, it seems we are stuck. We cannot escape our own cultural worldview. We can do our best to become aware of it, but that is like telling a British child in a British school to become aware of his British accent. We are embedded in our cultures, and by definition, do not notice the things we take for granted. How do we judge another culture fairly?
The missionary’s dilemma is twofold. First, the target culture may not have within it forms appropriate for Christian use. Second, he wants to sort through his own thinking to know what is peculiar to Western thinking and inapplicable to other cultures, but how does he do this objectively? To uncritically embrace the forms of the target culture alone would be cultural naivete, foolishly believing that every cultural expression is neutral, communicates biblical truth helpfully, and has no bearing on how meaning is perceived. To simply trust and transplant his own tradition may be to fail to translate the gospel and whole counsel of God into terms and forms that the culture understands. It’s also to assume that what was developed over hundreds of years can be stuck onto another culture like a decal.
So where do we and he turn? For a missionary to become aware of the extraneous part of his own cultural expression of Christianity and to properly judge the culture he now seeks to reach, his best resource would be to turn to the Christianity of the past. If he reads copiously from the writings, prayers, hymns and biographies of the saints of the past two thousand years, he will begin to discern various patterns. For one, he will notice what Christians have shared across serious cultural shifts: the Roman empire and its fall, the Dark Ages, the feudal system, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernism. He will notice what has become a permanent fixture in the thinking and expression of Christians across languages and continents: Augustine in Africa, Bernard in England, Gregory in Turkey. He will also smile at their cultural idiosyncrasies, and how they often took them to be gospel truth. By living with the church of the past, he will pick up the scent of true catholic – i.e. universal – Christianity. Hopefully, he will begin to notice some of the idiosyncrasies of his own Christianity, and be prepared to hold some of them loosely. He will see what is essential and universal in Christian worship, fellowship and discipleship. In other words, he will have a sense of what is timeless to good ecclesiology, and will arrive in a foreign culture ready to start doing the hard work of parsing individual cultural forms for their usefulness to that vision of catholic ecclesiology.
If someone would argue that a study of church history would be a study in Western thinking, my reply would be, well, yes. Do we think God’s sovereign oversight did not extend to this fact? Why did early Christianity in China and India so quickly turn to Nestorianism? Why did Christianity in Ethiopia and the Byzantine kingdom lose the essentials of the gospel? Why did Western Christianity experience a Reformation, while Eastern Orthodoxy never did? I do not know, but there was something in the West which God used to preserve biblical Christianity. To be embarrassed by this fact would be to disdain providence. God used the West to preserve the gospel, and to develop forms which best expressed it. It is no sin to be thoroughly acquainted with these forms and how they communicate. This is a helpful position to be in to judge both the Christian culture from which the missionary hails, as well as the culture to which he now goes.
While some of these forms would not necessarily be transplanted in toto to another culture, we are naïve to think they have no relevance or value in church plants to cultures that have lacked exposure to the gospel. Before I ask my son to write a book, I teach him to read. Before we rush to use the songs of the animists in worship, we labor to see them soundly converted and thinking like Christians. We expose them to examples of good forms from the West, and watch to see how they will take root and be shaped by the mixture of newborn Christianity in their culture. We keep parsing what is produced, examining it for meaning and appropriateness. We train indigenous leaders to be able to do just this. We know it will take a very long time, because as T.S. Eliot said, the shaping of a culture takes generations. “You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism.”
Truly indigenous churches will preserve and spread biblical Christianity, not merely in propositional form, but also in art forms understood by the Christians of that culture that best carry the full meaning of Christianity. They may have to do so with barbarism in full bloom around them. The existence of such churches around the globe would be, to me, a successful and obedient implementation of the Great Commission.