In this coming year, our church is focusing efforts on what might be called, evangelism. In large part, our goal is to help congregants navigate the inevitably difficult and complex conversations they will face in our latest cultural moment. In those efforts, questions emerge: What are our greatest missional and evangelistic challenges in the contemporary West? What does it mean to have missionary encounters within our culture-—a culture that is so often divided?
To answer such questions, many are postulating necessary and vital insights on how the church can best engage our post-Christian culture with Gospel truth. As is always the case, cultural trends, moral and ethical standards, and epistemological assertions shift with each burgeoning generation. Christians, as a result, must reimagine their missional approach for the latest context. This has always been the case and will always be the case until Christ returns. And I praise God for those exceptionally gifted in providing clarity and insight.
(For one example, see Christopher Watkin’s latest, Biblical Critical Theory. This book is the exact kind of deep analysis Christians need to develop. I highly commend this phenomenal resource. Additionally, I also recommend the resources from City to City through Tim Keller’s “How to Reach the West Again.” For insightful enrichment to that content, also see Abe Cho’s post “Reaching the West with a Spirituality of the Margins”).
A New Missionary Encounter
But I wonder if—in our efforts to incisively assess culture, assess our missional challenges, and assess our missional models—we lose sight of one of the most critical assessments––self-assessment. I wonder if we first need a missionary encounter with ourselves that prioritizes confronting our “in here culture” before confronting the “out there culture.” Ultimately, I wonder if we need to ask the question: Is the Gospel we seek to propagate a faithful Gospel that honors Christ, or is it a culturally captive derivative that creates problematic barriers to truth?
Historically, a lack of such self-assessment has been pervasive and has created significant issues with Christian mission. When we lack proper self-assessment of ourselves and our most immediate ecclesial communities, we often create barriers to healthy missions before we even start our mission. This has been an issue from the very beginning.
For example, in Galatians 2, Paul––a missionary to the Gentiles––confronted the anti-Gospel impulses of Peter against the Gentiles. Peter’s prejudice against Gentiles undermined the very mission Peter was commissioned to engage. Peter could have perfectly assessed the cultural trends, moral and ethical standards, and epistemological assertions of the “out there culture” of his context, but in his blind prejudice, he undermined mission by allowing problematic beliefs of his “in here culture” to remain. Peter needed Paul’s rebuke to not only repent of his sin but also be effective for mission.
Similarly, how much more effective might our evangelism be if we refused to allow inconsistencies in our witness to undermine the very message we claim? It seems to me that we cannot find it sufficient to assess the “out there” culture of society without, at the same time, assessing the “in here culture” of our churches, institutions, and even personal lives (Not to mention the reality that we often treat the culture “out there” as something that is not often also “in here” as well). It seems to me, both historically and in many contemporary contexts, this has been the real failure of our cultural analysis.
In that assessment, though, what should we expect to discover?
I recently returned to Vince Bantu’s book, A Multitude of Peoples. The whole premise of the book is to provide historical clarity that allows for a self-assessment––assessment of Western Christian’s assumptions of superiority. I love this book because it is not only deeply historical but missional. In the book, Bantu challenges the cultural captivity of much of Western Christianity by showing how Christianity spread long before and without influence from Western Christianity.
Missionally speaking, he argues that “the Western, white cultural captivity of the church is the single greatest obstacle for people coming to faith in Christ. Although the Gospel has indeed spread at unprecedented rates over the last century, it is often a westernized expression of Christianity” and, as a result, “This dynamic only exacerbates the perception of Christianity as a western religion” (229). In naming and critiquing this failure of cultural captivity, Bantu lays a foundation for evangelism amongst those who believe Christianity to be nothing more than an imperialist, Western, and white religion. And for Bantu, self-critique––as a Christian in the West––provides him greater consistency for mission.
The situation of Peter and Paul, as well as Bantu’s rebuke of cultural captivity, reminded me of an essay written by John Stott, and in particular, a rebuke that came from René Padilla. Padilla rebuked the Lausanne 1974 Congress on World Evangelization, noting that European and North American missionaries have exported a "cultural-Christianity," that is “distorted by the materialistic, consumer culture of the West.” In hearing the rebuke, Stott noted that though it was “hurtful to us to hear him say this….he was quite right” for we often do not give “due weight to cultural factors” and “some people reject the gospel not because they perceive it to be false but because they perceive it to be alien.” Ultimately, he argues, “all of us need to subject our gospel to more critical scrutiny…” (Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 7).
Bantu, Padilla, and Stott are right. And though they are partially speaking of global missions, their words are deeply applicable regardless of one’s mission field. We desperately need to “subject our gospel to more critical scrutiny” because I do not think it is overstated to say, “cultural captivity of the church is the single greatest obstacle for people coming to faith in Christ.”
Of course, an inability to “subject our gospel to more critical scrutiny” is not at all unique to the contemporary Western church. I regularly think about how, in his book, A History of Christianity in Asia, Vol. I, Samuel Hugh Moffett chronicles the development of Islam. As part of that telling, Moffett points out several reasons why Muhammed did not accept Christianity when presented. He notes one significant factor was a lack of sufficient biblical texts available in Arabic. He points out that there could have been greater availability, but likely, due to prejudices against Arabs, efforts were not made to translate. As a result of this “cultural, racial prejudice, the Arabs, who were fiercely proud of their identity, could not have failed to resent it.” Mixing that with “the sad spectacle of Christian disunity” and “Christianity’s political connections to Arabia's imperialist neighbors,” it became clear to Muhammad “that his quest for Arab unity and religious reform could never be accomplished within a Christian framework” (332).
While not the whole story, Muhammad, and others, developed Islam partly because of cultural prejudice, Christian disunity, and the politicization and imperialistic connection of Christianity. One cannot help but wonder what might have been different if Christians had subjected their gospel to more critical scrutiny, realizing, again, that the “cultural captivity of the church is the single greatest obstacle for people coming to faith in Christ.”
Can We Do It?
In another book I would highly encourage you to read, Bible and Mission, Richard Bauckham––similar to Bantu, Padilla, and Stott––reflects on the extent to which the western church needs significant personal assessment before faithful mission is possible. He asks the question, “Can Christianity sufficiently detach itself from its own undoubted collusions with the oppressive meta-narratives of Western imperialism and progress to remain…something else.” (97)
He goes on to argue,
It may well be that if Christianity in the West becomes a movement of resistance to such evils as consumerism, excessive individualism, and the exploitation of the global periphery, can Christianity in many other parts of the world be credibly distinguished from the West's economic and cultural oppression of other cultures and peoples. (98)
Our ability to have a meaningful missionary encounter with ourselves, I think, really comes down to our ability to affirmatively answer questions like:
Can we sufficiently detach ourselves from the undoubted collusions with western, imperialistic impulses and become a movement of resistance against consumerism, excessive individualism, and exploitation?
Can we prove Christianity to be distinct from cultural prejudice, disunity, and politicization?
Can we reject the “single greatest obstacle for people coming to faith in Christ”––cultural captivity?
Can we “subject our gospel to more critical scrutiny”?
I am hopeful that we can. But doing so will require a missionary encounter with ourselves––an encounter that confronts, with Gospel truth, the ingrained anti-Gospel impulses of our churches, institutions, and personal lives. Frankly, if we have never consciously addressed such failures––that is, not if we are culturally captive to problematic Western impulses, but the extent to which we are captive––then we have much work to do. But, friends, for the honor of Christ, the purity of His Church, and the sake of His mission, that work is worthwhile.
So, as we do the in-depth work of cultural analysis and missional model creation, let’s also do the equally important work of confronting ourselves with the Gospel. All for the glory of Christ’s name.