Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Communicational Heretics

I have mentioned previously my interest in looking at aspects of cross-cultural missions and its applicability to church, evangelism, and missions in the Western and North American contexts. Of particular interest is the cordial debate in missions and missiological circles as to the appropriate degree of contextualization as it relates to Muslim cultures.

One of the debates is over the question as to what extent it is appropriate for Muslim converts to Christ should stay within Muslim culture to worship and express their faith (known as C5 or C6 contextualization, or sometimes referred to as “insider movements”).

One of the concerns raised over insider movements, whether in Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or any context, is the fear of syncretism, the inappropriate amalgamation of aspects of Christianity with other religious elements. In an interesting article titled “Pursuing Faith, Not Religion: The Liberating Quest for Contextualization” from Mission Frontiers (September-October 2005), Dr. Charles Kraft, a missiologist at Fuller, touches on this fear in one section of the article. He writes:

There are, however, at least two roads to syncretism: an approach that is too nativistic and an approach that is too dominated by foreignness. With respect to the latter, it is easy to miss the fact that Western Christianity is quite syncretistic when it is very intellectualized, organized according to foreign patterns, weak on the Holy Spirit and spiritual power, strong on Western forms of communication (e.g., preaching) and Western worship patterns and imposed on non-Western peoples as if it were scriptural. It is often easier to conclude that a form of Christian expression is syncretistic when it looks too much like the receiving culture than when it looks “normal,” that is, Western.

But Western patterns are often farther from the Bible than non-Western patterns. And the amount of miscommunication of what the gospel really is can be great when people get the impression that ours is a religion rather than a faith and that, therefore, foreign forms are a requirement. To give that impression is surely syncretistic and heretical. I call this “communicational heresy.”

If we stop to reflect on this discussion in overseas mission contexts and to apply it to our own situation there are many questions we need to ask ourselves, and if we are wiling to reflect carefully, much that can be learned.

What does it mean to consider Christianity as a faith and not a religion? How might our American forms of Christianity which we take for granted, be foreign to increasing numbers of subcultures in our communities? What would it look like if we created new cultural forms of the faith for these various subcultures rather than attempted to transplant them in our Western church forms? And perhaps most painfully, might it be that our refusal to consider these questions means that in our fear of syncretism and heresy we have already practiced syncretism, and functioned as heretics, commucational heretics?

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