Monday, April 23, 2007

The Challenges of Contextualization & Reconciliation

I had the privilege a few months ago of spending a few days with Richard Twiss, the President of Wiconi International, a ministry committed to reach Native Americans with the love of Christ in a culturally relevant way. I was first introduced to Richard through his book, One Church, Many Tribes, several years ago when I was browsing through a Christian bookstore and saw this picture of a Native guy in full regalia on the cover. The book discusses how to reach Native peoples effectively through the use of contextualized ministry.

I find that there are many misconceptions when it comes to contextualized ministry and what it really means. In a nutshell, contextualization is simply presenting the gospel to a specific people group in the context of their culture by effectively using elements of that culture such as language, dress, music, food, humor, values and customs. Since every person is a part of a culture and the Christian faith is expressed by people, there is nowhere on the planet that Christianity exists apart from culture. Every expression of the Christian faith in the world today is expressed in the context of a culture.

Understanding that each and every one of use has a culture is vital for the cross-cultural missionary or minister. There has been a big problem that those of us involved in missions throughout the history of the church have struggled with. It is this: that when taking the gospel to a new people group we often forget that our culture does not have to go with it. As Twiss says, “We are all creatures of culture that are narrow-minded and ethnocentric who see only in part.” Though some may argue otherwise, ethnocentrism is not the exclusive property of white Americans. Though we (myself included) are guilty of this, other people groups also struggle with thinking their way is right…that their culture is the best…and that if everyone else would just “act like them” the world would be a much better place.

The time that I got to spend with Richard was very helpful for me as I, along with a dozen other leaders seeking to reach First Nations people with the gospel, was able to wrestle through what it means to reach individuals within their own culture for Christ. I received a recent newsletter by e-mail from Richard as he shares some of his frustrations in seeking to effectively reach his own people for Christ while also expressing his hope in being a member of the universal Body of Christ. Here are his thoughts:
“I have always been deeply committed to the idea of unity among believers in the bigger picture of things. I think a cross-cultural, multi-cultural biblical unity is a profound picture of what God the Creator intended for creation from the very beginning. This commitment has often, and at times, been severely tested as some of my views of faith and culture have not been so warmly received by my brethren. I talked with a friend a few weeks ago who told me that the Native leaders of the Native district of a denomination had placed me on their “black list” because I was promoting syncretism
I have on several occasions been crushed by the decisions of Caucasian denominational leaders who dealt so selfishly and unjustly with their Native leadership (my dear friends) over issues of self-governance, co-equality and management of financial assets and resources. I have been deeply disappointed by local pastors and missionary workers who were unwilling to consider that some of their attitudes were still very paternalistic and controlling toward Native people. I have at times been angered over the simplistic demonizing of our cultural expressions of faith by people who were largely ignorant of our ways, espousing authoritative views based on hearsay, misinformation and just plain discriminatory prejudice. 
Over a year ago Kath and I left a church that we had been attending for nearly four years. I love the pastor and people, some of whom we have known as friends for twenty years. The leadership, in my humble opinion, however, never “got it” concerning diversity, Native people and indigenous ministry. They’re not bad people, just very consumed with who they are, and committed to what they believe God has called them to. Who am I to say God has not directed them that way? So I bless them. We remain committed to unity, despite having plenty of reason to justify becoming distrustful, non-involved and critical of denominations, Anglo missions agencies and the "dominant culture" or "white church.” 
Though Wiconi maintains a certain independence legally and organizationally, we cannot, however, justify withdrawing from the Body of Christ, in terms of fellowship and active participation in the wider church. In some small way we think this honors Jesus and presents a biblical alternative to disunity, factionism and the myth of the “homogenous church.” Will I ever join a denomination, mission organization or association for reasons of credibility, status or need for a “covering?” Probably not. 
That being said, neither will I judge those who feel they should, for those, and perhaps even better reasons. This posture in no way minimizes Katherine and my life calling to develop culturally appropriate, biblical and unique cultural expressions of Christ and the Kingdom in our Native communities; and doing it in ways that communicates the love of God in the “heart-language” of Native people. Before we “check out” we hope to see a truly North American indigenous church emerge from ours, and so many others efforts. Since leaving that church we have found a nice piece of ground to grow some roots – Living Hope Church – here in Vancouver. I now get to be a “roving around” kind of “pastor-at-large” of Living Hope Church in Vancouver, whatever that means. No, not a large pastor, just a guy who enjoys a high quality of mutual respect, love and honor with the formal leaders of our church. 
Several months ago I spoke at Living Hope after attending for about a year, along with my sons Daniel & Phillip and Jacob and Jodi Trevizo dancing in full regalia with me as part of my sermrabbling (my new word to describe rambling posing in the guise of a sermon – which is what I do). After speaking and dancing at six weekend services, I/we have been graciously, honorably and respectfully received as having an important contribution to make to the life of the church/our church. It is a church that is really working hard to authentically “get it” and has made room for this Native fellow to add his secret Indian portion to the mix (my hair growth tonic). May we all find the grace of God to do what we believe God has called us to do for Him, while avoiding the same ethnocentric impulses to consider “our way” the best way, as compared to the way our missionary predecessors did, and still do. Not easy for me at so many levels.”
Richard’s commitment to reaching Natives encourages me. So does his continuing desire to persevere within the broader family of God. Just as Jesus prayed in John 17 for the unity of all His followers, we, too, should demonstrate that same commitment. But just as Christ stated in Luke 10 that He came to “seek and to save that which was lost,” we, too, must demonstrate that same kind of commitment. If we are truly committed to reconciliation in the Body of Christ, we must also show a commitment to doing what it takes to reach the lost. As has often been said, in order to truly be reconciled my culture can't be the only one represented at the table. True reconciliation involves a coming together as equals. We value one another and what each of us “brings to the table.”

To be biblically reconciled means that I do not expect someone to change who they are in order to sit at the table with me, nor do they me. As people come to Christ right where they’re at, then they can be introduced to the wonderful reality of being part of a bigger family than what they may be aware. I think my relationship with God is so much richer because I've gotten to be friends with people of many other cultures within the context of their culture and vice versa. As equal members of the Body, we esteem, value, uplift and encourage one another. Though we do acknowledge our cultural differences, they do not become a barrier to us. They instead become a bridge in celebrating the diversity of God’s design and the unique contribution that we can all make in God’s Kingdom. The marriage of contextualization and reconciliation is a beautiful thing!

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