Sunday, August 31, 2014

Culture and “Critical Contextualization”


Recently Kristi and I were having dinner with about a dozen missionaries.  An interesting conversation erupted regarding perspectives on culture.  One outspoken person degraded Peace Corp volunteers, pitying them for “being brainwashed to accept the cultural mores of a native group, not seeking to change them but only to respect their culture.” A woman added that as “Christians our role is to change people from the inside out,” presumably leading towards cultural transformation. 

As a missionary having served for six years in two central African countries, I would say that the perspective of the Peace Corp volunteer and that of the missionary are helpful but incomplete.  There is definitely the need to respect culture.  Our ethnocentrism can demand that cultural variances from our own are inherently wrong and need to be uprooted and replaced.  Swathes of missionaries over the last 150 years have regrettably equated the gospel with their own culture, thus judging negatively other cultures outright (Hiebert; 1985).  That is a real problem.  Indeed, each culture has values that need to be honored, preserved, and celebrated.  For instance, in Rwanda, the notion of “Impfura” implies self-sacrifice for the sake of others; it implies character.  This person will go hungry and not steal.  He will look after your children when you die.  She will be patient when things aren’t going well.  In Congo and across Africa greater emphasis is placed upon people, community and relationships.  Concern for family and friends often outweighs concern for self.  Community and communal life are central.  An African modus operandi for life could be summed up as, “I am because we are” (Kapolyo; 2005); this corporate nature protects individuals from the vicissitudes of life.  Our Peace Corp sisters and brothers do well to respect culture and lift up traits such as these.  How tragic that many time-honored African cultural values are now being trodden upon by modernism, individualism, and consumer mentalities imported from the West.              

Yet to accept all components of culture carte blanche is na├»ve at best and destructive at worst. Culture can be a palace, but it can also be a prison.  Tribalism, in African cultures, can become a destructive form of worship.  Joe Kapolyo writes, “So strong is the feeling [of tribal identity] that, if need be, one is prepared to malign, maim and perhaps kill in order to defend such an identity.”  The Rwanda Genocide epitomizes the dangers of ethnic and tribal allegiances.  In our experience in Congo, tribalism also divides the church.  True Christian fellowship across tribal lines can be elusive and at times seemingly impossible.  It is one of the most discouraging components of our work.  The sin of tribalism is one of the major weaknesses in the African church today.  Spiritism and the fear of “spirit beings” or the “living dead” also binds the peoples of Africa.  These spirit beings are wrongly believed to be intermediaries between people and God.  Even leading church members consult diviners regarding issues of sorcery and witchcraft.  The missionary spokeswoman at our table is right; we need to be changed from the inside out by God’s Spirit so that there can be the possibility of needed change in the broader culture where change is indeed demanded.   

But how is this done?  Unfortunately it isn’t simple.  It requires a critical interaction with culture.  In the words of missiologist Paul Hiebert, we need “critical contextualization” (Hiebert; 1985).  Beliefs and customs should not be accepted or rejected without examination.  An individual or church must learn to approach all aspects of life from a biblical perspective.  Customs of the past must be examined in the light of biblical understandings and truth.  For instance, if one understands the power of Jesus and that He is the one intermediary between people and God, there is no need to fear diviners and witchdoctors and spirit beings.  Jesus has become our peace (Romans 5: 1).  Moreover, if we truly take the words of the Apostle Paul to heart, that Christ has broken down the walls of hostility between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2), we can equally surmise that God has also broken down walls between the Bajila Kasanga and other tribes of the Bena Lulua of the Kasai of Congo.  Jesus has indeed become our peace, and His peace brings together all clans, tribes, peoples and tongues.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German who lived under the oppressive shadow of the Third Reich, knew the importance of following Christ with every ounce of one’s being and every part of one’s life.  He and other brave souls rejected elements of their culture because of it’s brutal oppression and desire to annihilate Jews and other groups.  They resisted the idolatry and barbarism of their time, emphasizing that Christ must be brought into every square inch of the world and culture.  Our faith must be free of mere religiosity.  One’s faith must be shining and robust and must engage critically with culture (Metaxas; 2010).  Indeed, let us who wear the name “Christ follower” and “Christian” critically interact with culture –whether in the US, Africa, or elsewhere.  Every culture is a palace and a prison.  May we keep the good, reject the bad, and invite Christ to transform us and our culture for His glory.  Hallelujah - Amen!          


Kapolyo, Joe M. 2005. The Human Condition. Edited by D. Smith, Christian Perspectives through African Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Hiebert, Paul G. 1985.  Anthropological Insights for Missionaries.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Metaxas, Eric.  2010.  Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, A Righteous Gentile vs The Third     Reich.  Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014


We just finished the week-long BereanSafari conference. Safari means “journey” in Swahili, and the Bereans were a group of people around the time of Christ who searched the Scriptures for understanding and also to verify teachings they heard (Acts 17:11). So, literally BereanSafari seeks to be a “journey of discovery” in the Scriptures using the method of Manuscript Bible Study. A diverse group of people spanning a variety of vocations, aged 20 to 70, from several African countries as well as Europe and the U.S. converged for a week of concentrated study. Since we studied the first half of Mark two years ago at this conference, we got to do the second half of Mark this year. Six days, approximately 40 hours in study sessions, just to do half of the book of Mark? You have to experience it to realize how fast the time can go when learning together! So, I want to share the experience of just one page of Mark to give you a taste.


First, we start with about 30 minutes of personal study – looking for themes, repeated words, questions that come out, and also looking up unfamiliar words in a Bible dictionary, places in an atlas, or looking for Old Testament connections in a concordance. On page 23 of the manuscript, we are in Mark 9. I highlight the three references to “in my name” or “name of Christ”. I note the actions and consequences involved in the “giving a cup of cold water” and also the “causing one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.” Then I underline in orange “enter life”, “enter the Kingdom of God”, and “reward”, since they appear to all point to the same result. I put a question mark by “their worm does not die”— What in the world does that mean? I tried looking up “worm” in the Bible dictionary, but that is not one of the entries.

DSC_0294Page 23 of my manuscript of Mark

We move into small group discussion. Our group has the lowest average age (about 30) in the room. There are three members aside from myself – all young Kenyan adults, working as a teacher, investment advisor, and Christian rap singer. Mercy notes that Jesus’ teaching in line 1 (“anyone who would be first must be last and servant of all”) is a “new” and countercultural teaching for his hearers. Peter notes that even though John changed the subject, Jesus comes back to children and their value. Chacha (the rap singer) helps us imagine how painful and debilitating it would be to have your hand or foot chopped off – did Jesus mean that literally? Regardless, we agree that Jesus is emphasizing the seriousness of sin, and his call to deny ourselves in our pursuit of Him.


My small group discussion – from left, Me, Chacha, Peter, and Mercy

Now, we move into large group discussion. Our facilitator, Cyd, walks us through the text, asking questions and hearing from each group about what they found in the text. With her prodding, we realize that the person casting out demons in the name of Christ (who the disciples wanted to rebuke) was acting like the child that Jesus was just holding up as an example. He saw, he heard, and he imitated in simple faith – and apparently it was working! Farther down the page, when Jesus says “if your hand causes you to sin…” Cyd asks “what causes us to sin?”. We remember back on page 17, when Jesus describes sin coming from what is inside us – the cleanness of the heart, not the body. The “cutting off” of a limb, though, is essentially what repentance looks like in our hearts. Manuscript Bible study involves a lot of making connections – trying to see the text as a whole, as it was written, rather than just looking at a couple of verses. Another group that had a concordance contributes that Isaiah 66:24 is the source of the phrase “their worm does not die”, in a prophecy about judgment. A few other Old Testament references also help to flesh out the picture, including Malachi 3:1-4 about God “refining with fire” and Numbers 18:19 about the “covenant of salt” (Did you know there was a covenant of salt??).

The session where we looked at this particular page of Mark took about 2 hours. I came away with a heightened sense of God’s call to humility and faith, as well as the gravity and abhorrence of sin in God’s eyes. Nothing life changing, per-se, on this page, but as we soak in these words over the course of six days and slowly make our way through Mark we gain a much deeper appreciation and understanding of Jesus’ life and mission as Mark portrays it – to bring life – including eternal life, restored life to the hurting or marginalized, and the salvation found through losing our lives for His sake. We are so grateful for this week of soaking in the Words of Life, and left invigorated, inspired, and refreshed, hoping that we can introduce Manuscript Bible Study someday in Congo!


The “Mark 2” study group, including our facilitator, Cyd (far left)

Friday, August 8, 2014



A week ago we travelled down to Tshikaji for the 45th General Assembly of the Congolese Presbyterian Church (CPC).  After giving greetings and listening to a few reports, we joined the General Secretary and other church leaders for lunch.  These church leaders were in their element; they changed into casual clothing and enjoyed food, camaraderie, and a relaxing hour. 

In the midst of smiles and seeing old faces, we noticed a large group of sixty persons sitting under a tree outside and adjacent to the large assembly hall.  They were not smiling.  Sitting twenty yards away was an armed police officer.  He and two others were on guard.  Kristi and I scanned the crowd under the tree.  We saw no one whom we recognized.  Perplexed, we asked ourselves, “Who are these people?”  In my heart I knew, but at the same time I didn’t want to know.  The following day a friend told me the truth I was afraid to hear – “The ones seated outside under the tree are those contesting decisions made by the church.”  They are in exile, I thought to myself.  On the other side of the Atlantic ocean, Paul Detterman, an evangelical leader in the Presbyterian (USA) Church, recently writes that staying in a denomination that has made decisions with which he and others struggle to agree forces him to reflect.  He, unlike many other evangelicals, has chosen to remain.  He describes his call as one of “exile.” 

The reality is this – no one likes exile.  Who wants to feel left out?  Who wants to be marginalized, ostracized and vilified?  We all want to belong.  Conformity is a safe place, or so it would seem.  Yet, reflecting on these matters, I suppose that there are important lessons to be learned in exile.  There is the lesson of humility.  There is the lesson of patience.  There is the lesson of trusting God while pining away in the prairie of loneliness.  There is the lesson of holding on to our beliefs, but also being open to God doing new things. 

King David was a man of sorrows.  For half his life he was on the run – living in caves and wallowing in wastelands.  Yet out of the wilderness we hear the heart of a man after God’s own heart – a man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief and knew rejection.  Yet faith and hope anchored his soul.  Thus, this soulful saint was able to write such things as “The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; he is their refuge in the time of trouble” (Psalm 37: 39).  At least half of the Psalms are credited to this man who knew the painful realities of exile.  Jesus, the author of Hebrews tells us, suffered outside the city gate where he bore abuse (Hebrews 13: 12, 13).  He died outside of the holy city of Jerusalem.  Jesus died in exile.

For those of us acquainted with rejection and marginalization, the good news is this – “God lives with us in exile.”  David was not forsaken; nor was Jesus.  Our sisters and brothers who sat under a tree are not forsaken.  God sees our pain and knows our sorrows.  Conformity is a safe place, or so it would seem.  The reality is this – the only safe place is the refuge of our Heavenly Father.  In exile we experience this truth.     

Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood.  Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured.  For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
(Hebrews 13: 12 – 14)