Must the Faith Get Out of Control?
The Word In The Mother Tongue and Life In The Mother Culture
The Presbyterian Fellowship is an example of a specialized task force concentrating exclusively on frontier missions to Unreached Peoples yet working cooperatively within a denominational structure. Today it musters resources for outreach to 140 Unreached Peoples and has a goal of reaching 200 by the year 2000. Ed.
On the one hand, Wycliffe Bible Translators has helpfully sensitized us to the God given right of all people to have the Word of God in their mother tongue. And that phrase, their mother tongue, carries a lot of emotion as it should--the right to have the language of our mothers and fathers honored and lifted up, the right to read God's word in the language of our most tender and formative years, the right to read that Word in the language where love was first spoken to us. All people have the right to read the Bible in their birth language.
However, I believe it is time for us to think more seriously and more radically about another right which all people should have--the right to live and worship and express their love of and thanks to the God of Life as revealed by Jesus in their mother culture.
All of us who have learned another language know that language and culture are inseparable. You cannot properly translate a language just from dictionary to dictionary. Words, expressions, the deepest meanings of idioms are known only as they are understood in a cultural context. Since that is true, then it must also be true that for a people to fully express themselves in the living out of their life in Christ they must be able to do it in the context of the culture in which they have been born and raised, their mother culture. . . .
I believe, as many others do, that the Great Commission will not be completed in our day, or any other, unless and until we as evangelists and missionaries, whether First World or Two-Thirds World, are willing to trust the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and the Presence of Jesus enough to let the Gospel move out of our control and find true and authentic expression in other cultures.
This will not happen until we rethink the importance of the cultural context in which the Gospel is being planted and believe unreservedly that all cultures are equally capable of being fit vessels to contain the Good News.
The missiological dream of a people movement to Christ when large numbers of people are swept into the kingdom in a short period of time is the only way the task is going to be completed. It cannot happen when we feel theologically and emotionally that we have to "Westernize" the converts, doing "extraction evangelism" as many call it. And I don't believe it is God's desire that the rainbow of cultures which have come into existence in God's providence should be obliterated. I believe that the passage used five times in the Book of Revelation, "every nation, every tribe and tongue and people," with its marvelous image of oneness around the throne of Christ is an image of oneness of cultural diversity in which our differences are mutually enriching and fulfilling. That is God's dream given to John. As it is right of all peoples before God to have the Bible in their mother tongue, I firmly believe it is their right before God to live out the Good News in their mother cultural framework.
The Gospel Out of Control
I spent twenty two years in Ethiopia and since then have traveled to many other parts of the world visiting churches and Christians in the cause of the Unreached People. In my life endeavor, I have seen and heard and experienced people movements to Christ. A common phrase which I now use in describing some of my observations in the world is, "the Gospel is out of control, praise God!" I have been in places where the Gospel is out of the control of western missionaries, church organizations, and even pastors! It is running through the countryside in the lives and on the tongues of common people. It is running like it ran throughout the Greek and Roman Empires during the days of the early church. In Africa where we have seen an explosion of the church, it has come because the Gospel has increasingly been set free from the colonial bonds so that people feel free to express their faith in Christ in their own cultural context.
A Full-Blown Example
Last November I was among the Shekicho people of Western Ethiopia. Our mission team had touched that tribe through a network of airstrips with itinerant medical work laced with the Good News. But for all practical purposes, nothing had happened. However, just before the communist revolution forced us out of the area, a charismatic revival hit that part of Ethiopia and it continued throughout those terrible times. The revival touched the Shekicho people initially through students who had been transformed by the
Gospel. I was astounded in my first return to the area years later to find the Gospel out of control! I saw churches all over the place and being planted so fast the Mekane Yesus Church cannot keep track of them.
There are no formally trained pastors--only lay leaders sharing their joy of being set free from the witch doctor and from a fear dominated world of spirits, to live as free people following Jesus who has saved them from the dark side of their lives to live in hope. The message that Jesus has come from God with power over all spirits and a message that God loves all people and calls them to a life of love has been received as Good News for the whole society. It is the kind of news they have always hoped for. That news is being received as God's word for them within their societal structures--not news that they have to become something else, live in a different culture, become divorced from their family and friends.
I visited their largest church which seats over a thousand people located in the midst of a lush forest area of coffee and big trees. While talking to them, I noticed a large drum standing off in the corner of the church. So, I asked if they have their own songs in their language? "Oh yes," they replied, "We compose our own songs for worship." They brought the drum over and sang for me, clapping and swaying their bodies as they sang out the joy of the Lord.
The Gospel is out of control in Shekicho country--out of control of any missionary, out of control of pastors and other leaders from nearby tribal groups. It is growing among common, ordinary people in the mother culture of the Shekicho tribe as God intended it should.
Unfortunately, they do not yet have the Bible in their mother tongue. Many of them are bilingual so they do have scripture they can read and understand and which can guide them in sorting out at least to some measure the cultural expressions that are in harmony with what Jesus expects and those which must be changed to fit Biblical principles. They have asked for a Wycliffe translator to live with them and begin that work and hopefully that request can be honored soon.
Or, Take the Mizos
A couple of years ago I was asked to share in the one hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the first missionaries to the Mizo people in northeast India. They are oriental people and when the missionaries arrived they were still head-hunters. The British journals give ample evidence of this and the people themselves readily spoke of their bloodthirsty, violent past as they now celebrate the transformation of their lives and society by the presence of Jesus. The state of Mizoram may house the highest percentage of Christians in the world. Certainly I came away feeling I had been to the most Christian society I had ever experienced--I felt I had been to a Christian Shangrila.
What I found especially fascinating was the stories they told and the historical records which documented the rapid spread of the Gospel which was life and culture transforming and so all inclusive in the society. The Welsh missionaries had been deeply touched by two Welsh revival movements and carried that movement of the Spirit with its somewhat wild enthusiasm, back with them to Mizo land. That revival spirit caught fire among the Mizo and allowed the Gospel to run free within the culture, out of control of the missionaries and the Western worship patterns up and down the valleys and over the hills. The Gospel spread so fast it was impossible to keep things in order and the Gospel literally got out of control.
Without a Plan
Without plan or missiological insights, the Gospel became contextualized in the culture of the common people. Not only did they read and hear the Gospel in their mother tongue, they were set free to express their joy in the Lord, their worship of God in their mother culture. In spite of missionary objections, the drum was used-- it was all they had to express joy in the Lord out in the back country. They told about a period when the church had to limit the number of new songs that were being written and sung because they couldn't keep up with the printing of them! It was the drum which carried the songs up the valleys and over the hills. According to the records the "missionary church" in the capitol city of Aizwal was the last congregation to allow the drum in worship! Only a contextualized Christianity could have changed that bloodthirsty society. And a radically contextualized movement to Jesus is needed in the great blocks of Unreached Peoples today if we are to see the Great Commission completed.
It's Happened Before
I have just been reading what I consider the most pertinent new missiological book on the market. And it is a most unlikely one for it is a secular book, presently on the non-fiction best seller list. The book is, How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill. He is a secular writer, Religion Editor for Random House, but in his recording of St. Patrick's ministry and the spread of the Gospel in Irish culture, he reports on a Gospel contextualization which penetrated the common culture of the Irish and changed a whole society from top to bottom--or maybe better from bottom to top--in ways that hadn't happened, he says, since the days of Paul.
His historical work corroborates Ralph Winter's thesis in Mission Frontiers in amazing ways. Every cross cultural missionary should read this book! Cahill wrote, "So Patrick was really a first--the first missionary to barbarians beyond the reach of Roman law." p. 108. And again, "Patrick's emotional grasp of Christian truth may have been greater than Augustine's. Augustine looked into his own heart and found there the inexpressible anguish of each individual, which enabled him to articulate a theory of sin that has no equal--the dark side of Christianity. Patrick prayed, made peace with God, and then looked not only into his own heart but into the hearts of others. What he saw convinced him of the bright side--that even slave traders can turn into liberators, even murderers can act as peacemakers, even barbarians can take their places among the nobility of heaven." And later in the book he echoes Winter's theme of the move of the Gospel message from one culture to another as he writes, "Patrick's gift to the Irish was his Christianity--the first de-Romanized Christianity in human history, a Christianity without the sociopolitical baggage of the Greco-Roman world, a Christianity that completely inculturated itself into the Irish scene."
Chaos in Heaven?
It is this kind of de-Westernizing of the Gospel which must take place in all cultures of the world. I believe that every culture has been prepared by God, and touched by God to receive the Good News of Jesus as a direct fulfillment of their best hopes and dreams. (See Rom 1:19, 20). I believe one of our primary responsibilities when sharing the Gospel with another culture is to find the God given touchstones of truth in that cultures and share the message of Jesus from that point of view so that the people receive the message as a fulfillment of all the best for which they have longed. That is what de-Westernizing the Gospel is all about. We must present the Gospel devoid as much as possible of our cultural clothes so that those who receive it can be clothed in the culture which God has given them. Then they can live truly fulfilled hearing the Word in their mother tongue and continuing to live out the message in their mother culture. It also means that when "every nation, every tribe and tongue and people" (Rev. 7:9) gather around the throne of Christ they will gather as one company of His followers but dressed in a wild array of cultural clothes and singing the songs of salvation in thousands of mother tongues. It is then that the Shepherd will truly rejoice that His Great Commission has been completed!