Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cultural Imperialism: A Mission of the Church

As I think of the possibility of missions work in my future, I have been considering my own understanding of Christian mission. I have begun reading The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher Wright, which sets out to “demonstrate that a strong theology of the mission of God provides a fruitful hermeneutical framework within which to read the whole Bible” (26). The book comes highly recommended as a work of biblical theology, which purports to turn the hermeneutical key for “unlocking the Bible’s grand narrative,” i.e. the mission of God.

I’m a little surprised that the initial chapters of the book relate to a philosophy of missionary work. (I’m actually reading it because it is a standard work on biblical theology.) In one of these initial chapters, Wright grapples with the idea of contextualizing the gospel in the work of mission(s). This is the idea that while the gospel “has an unchanging core because of its historical rootedness in the Scriptures and the Christ event,” yet “it has been [and should be] received, understood, articulated, and lived out in myriad ways, both vertically through history and horizontally in all the cultures in which Christian faith has taken [or takes] root” (46).

In the context of this discussion comes the sticky issue of how Western missionaries have frequently imposed Western cultural expressions on cultures to which those expressions are completely foreign. The flaw to avoid is confusing the “unchanging core” of the gospel with unnecessary baggage of Western culture. Wright says that “the West” is “a particular context of human culture, not necessarily any better or any worse than any other context for reading the Bible and doing theology” (42). This statement implies that he views “the West” as simply the “culture” of northern Europeans (and Americans), especially of the post-Enlightenment manifestations of it. According to this line of thinking, a missionary needs to remove the gospel from his own cultural husk and not export those trappings as part of the message he delivers.

Another expression of very caution was recently recommended to me in a blog post by R. C. Sproul Jr. called “Contextualizing Missions.” In that article Sproul Jr. uses the example of missionaries who into “untamed interiors” haul musical organs along with the gospel. But it isn’t always a musical instrument that we export. Missionaries are also guilty of imposing “our own traditions [and] our own way of doing things.” In contrast, the task of missionaries is to “grow and encourage the church of Jesus Christ,” to “grow and encourage the local believers,” and to “encourage them to follow Jesus, not us.” We are not to go “with programs, but with the gospel.” The missionary’s goal ought to be to “win the lost,” not “to remake ... churches or cultures in [his own] image.” Sproul Jr. is witty and uses rhetorical flourishes to make a point, but his thesis is clear: a missionary needs to know “the difference between a cross and an organ.”

The point of view of Wright and Sproul Jr. has some merit. It is important not to give unnecessary offense for the sake of our favorite method or style. It is important that we know exactly what the gospel is. We need to know the difference between the gospel and implications of the gospel. We need to discern between what a newly-planted church is ready for and what is necessary for planting a church. We need to be open to the fact that we cannot always offer the “complete package” to the first generation.

Yet, implicit in these view are at least four undesirable implications about culture and the gospel. First, all cultures are viewed as possessing neutral trappings that eventually create an external husk for the gospel. Styles are seen as realities predetermined by the target cultures, and missionaries should not impose the unfamiliar styles of their own culture upon people from another. Yet, cultural expressions are not neutral and may be evaluated by biblical norms. Putting the gospel into an unholy husk is a compromise that should be avoided. We should be very careful about assuming that people will be able to disassociate their cultural expressions from their former paganism. Missionaries and evangelists offer an alternative. Why should we expect the gospel and its implications to be familiar to a pagan? This critique of not recognizing the paganness of cultures untouched by the gospel goes hand in hand with my previous critique of not recognizing the churchness of Western culture.

A second implication, which I highly doubt anyone actually believes but which should still be addressed, is the idea that cultures and their expressions and styles cannot be reformed or formed by the gospel. Rather, cultures are treated as givens, which must not be tampered with. Indeed, tampering with them is a form of cultural imperialism, a missionary flaw to be scrupulously avoided. Yet, of course, this is not true. And missionaries, domestic or foreign, should be careful not to pull a classic “bait and switch” in their presentation of the gospel: get them in with familiar, though pagan, cultural expressions, then work on changing them.

Third, these exhortations for contextualization imply that the church itself does not contain a culture, that the cultural expressions that developed in “the West” did so less because of the church and more because of the geography or whatever else might have changed the barbarians of western Europe into a civilized society. In contrast, I affirm that the church itself has a culture. The church has not always been reactionary, borrowing raw material from surrounding culture. There was a time when the church created culture, governed by the desire to make sanctuary worship beautiful and glorious. And so godly, artistic, creative men and women invented and created. And so also architectures, musical genres, and thought and behavior patterns were born. And these inventions, originally made for the purpose of beautifying and glorifying sanctuary worship, spilled over into the larger society.

Thus, I think that the term “Western” as a characterization of a culture can be unhelpful. The church largely created what we think of as “Western culture.” So why should we see those cultural expressions, which the church developed over the course of over 1,000 years out of an impetus to make worship beautiful, as irrelevant and undesirable for missionary work? Do we really expect foreign converts to start that 1,000-year clock over and in the meantime to borrow their cultural expressions from the surrounding pagan culture? Should missionaries promote this out of a fear of being accused of being cultural imperialists?

Or perhaps the church did it wrong in the West. Let’s go back to example of musical organs. We don’t really think that the missionaries to the barbarians of northern Europe discovered the organ from the barbarians, do we? Surely, we don’t regret the invention (or progressive improvement) of the organ in both the church service and the concert hall, do we? (Obviously, some churches throughout history have abuse their use of the organ. But cannot any good thing be abused?) The fact that the organ is now associated with the West and not just the church is very telling about how the church forms culture. The very example used for imperialism of Western culture is not inherent to “the West” at all, but rather the church!

(I know the original organ was most likely not invented by the church, but it was improved by it. What we now think of as an organ is largely a product of the church and is a far cry from its Greek prototype. But this particular instrument was chosen and developed because 1) it makes a beautiful sound, 2) it can function like a complete orchestra though played by one person, and 3) not having a decaying tone, it is ideal for accompanying and beautifying singing in worship.)

Finally, and closely related to everything else I have said about the missionary endeavor, I would ask, what is the gospel? I question the understanding of the gospel and the project of spreading it as simply getting individuals saved by getting them to ascribe to certain propositions. Rather, spreading the gospel should be viewed more as the building of a kingdom. I agree with Sproul Jr. that missionaries should encourage people to “follow Jesus,” but I want to think of Jesus as the totus Christus, the “whole Christ,” Head and body. If our understanding of salvation and the gospel is tied up with our doctrine of the church (and it should be), then indeed we are offering people more than individual salvation. We are offering them life as citizens in the kingdom of light, a complete package of Jesus-church culture, practices, music, history, story, and affections. And in this sense, we need to own up to reality by pleading guilty to being cultural imperialists, not of Western culture per se but of the culture Jesus has been nurturing and developing through His Spirit for almost 2,000 years.

Even with the above four caveats, I still submit to the warnings by older and wiser men concerning contextualization. Obviously, a missionary must fit the gospel message into a specific linguistic context. One of the first tasks of a new missionary needs to be to learn the language. (He might then begin laboring to mould even the language by the Bible, as was done in the West.) Missionaries must also understand the historical milieu of his target country in order to understand how the culture has grown into its current state. Also, geography and accessibility can severely limit what a missionary can do. Bamboo musical instruments are usually not practical in regions where it does not grow. (Thus, I am not arguing that missionaries ought to take organs into the untamed interiors.) Finally, missionaries should apply with discernment the ancient practice of plundering the Egyptians, that is, using materials from the surrounding society for the purposes of building up and beautifying worship. Israel used the plunder from Egypt to build and decorate the tabernacle. Medieval churchmen snatched and then improved upon an instrument like an organ in order to make the singing in congregational worship more glorious. We are welcome to knock on the gates of hell, pilfer the clever devices of the pagans, and transform them for worship, and therefore culturally formative, purposes. In these ways can missionaries continue the church’s work of being culturally creative rather then reactive and perpetually dependent.

One final point. All these observations can apply to a church-planting pastor in his own country. Using styles that are familiar to the surrounding pagan and rebellious culture for the sake of converts may produce some numbers. They might even fill church buildings with Christians, but ones who remain in a perpetual state of immaturity. Always keeping their eye on the surrounding culture for their cues, purportedly in order to be relevant to the world, these contextualizing church-planters undermine the work that is the most relevant for the creating and transformation of culture, which is sanctuary worship of Almighty God, a strange and dangerous task. It’s time for the church to recover her project of creativity and invention for the sake of glorious sanctuary worship and thereby ultimately for the life of the world.


  1. I never thought about it how much the culture of the West was formed by the church, and therefore not to be cast off by missionaries without careful thought.