Monday, August 15, 2005

Rethinking Evangelical Extractionalisms

As part of my steady diet of reading I recently consumed Charles H. Kraft's Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Orbis Books, 1979). The book is full of interesting insights that come from the author's interaction with not only cross-cultural missions, but also anthropology and communication theory as well.

One of the items the author discussed that struck a chord with me was what he called identificational and extractionist approaches to communication. Kraft notes that human beings live in diverse contexts and frames of reference. We communicate from our own cultural frame of reference to others who may not share the same frame of reference as we do. Kraft defines an extractionist communicator as one who assumes or demands that their fame of reference be the one which provides the background and foundation for communication. He says that a "primary concern of such communicators, then, is to convert receptors to their way of extractionist thinking. Communicators seek to teach receptors to understand and look at reality in terms of their own models and perspectives."

By contrast, the communicator using an identificationalist approach seeks to adopt the hearer's frame of reference. Kraft states that "in this approach communicators become familiar with the conceptual framework of the receptor and attempt to fit their communication to the categories and felt needs of that frame of reference. Communicators employing this approach first attempt to learn where their hearer is and what needs the hearer feels before attemptoing to present any answers. And then the answers are presented in such a way that they 'scratch the hearer's itch' - not the speaker's."

Kraft also notes that extractionalism not only takes place in approaches to communication, but also in concepts of revealed truth. In discussing the idea of static rather than dynamic revelation he states:

"Western culture places an extremely high value on information for its own sake. Information and the increase of knowledge are thought to be good in themselves whether or not the knower is able to do anything with that knowledge. In keeping with this emphasis of western culture, we have both accepted the informationalizing of revelation and often lost our ability to imagine that it could be anything else. We have done the same thing with truth - and in the name of the One who made a point of the fact that truth is not informational but personal." (Emphasis in original.)

As a student of intercultural studies in the religiously plural Western world, I believe evangelicals must become aware of, and rethink their utilization of various forms of extractionalism. I will comment briefly on the two forms mentioned above, and mention one other below.

1. Extractionalism vs. identificationalism. Whether consciously or subconsciously, evangelicals often assume that their hearers share their frame of reference, particularly on religious and spiritual matters. Their starting point in interreligious discussions is a conservative evangelical frame of reference, with a strong concern for doctrinal acumen. From this vantage point the evangelical then contrasts and refutes the beliefs of the "religious other" because they are in conflict with an evangelical worldview. Such an extractionalist approach often results in a lack of any meaningful understanding or communication, with the hearer perceiving little other than a sense of attack. Evangelicals might benefit from reconsidering such approaches, and substitute an identificationalist approach wherein the evangelical would sympathetically enter into the conceptual world of the hearer, thus providing an opportunity to frame the Christian message in the hearer's conceptual and cultural context.

2. Extractionalism and informationalism in divine revelation. Having assumed an extractionalist stance in communication, as evangelicals share Christian doctrine with those in other religions it appears that there is also hidden Western cultural assumption that doctrine, as divine information, is valuable in and of itself, regardless of the ability of the hearer to understand the information, or to assimilate it in personally and culturally relevant ways. In utilizing our traditional evangelistic methodologies, particularly in the area of alternative spiritualities, have we become little more than information brokers monologically proclaiming abstract ideas, conceptually and culturally detached from the hearer, rather than the One who is Truth?

3. Extraction evangelism. We might also consider another facet of extractionalism, and that is the tendency in evangelicalism to shy away from indigenous expressions of church, preferring instead to extract converts from their indigenous culture and reinculturating them as middle-class, Western evangelicals. In an article in Evangelical Missions Quarterly H. L. Richard discusses the drawbacks of such approaches in missionary work among Hindus and Muslims. (See "Is extraction evangelism still the way to go?: Several other models suggest some possible alternatives in mission to Hindus and Muslims," EMQ, April 1994.) If we pause and apply the insights of this aspect of extractionalism in Western missionary contexts among alternative spiritualities (assuming that the church shifts gears and applies cross-cultural missions approaches to such religions and spiritualities) can we learn from the extractionalist failures on the world's mission fields in order to allow indigenous expressions of church within the subcultures of Wiccan converts, Neopagans, or Latter-day Saints? Will we have the insight and patience to sort through the various aspects of these cultures in order to create vibrant faith communities within their own subcultures, or will our aversion to heresy and our long history of conflict with such groups perpetuate extraction evangelism?

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