Contextualization is now a house hold word among theologians and pastors. We agree that Christian mission succeeds where there is proper understanding and acceptance of the culture of the target people. We also agree that if cultural customs do not go against God's eternal principles, they should be considered as acceptable in the lives of Christ's followers in order to identify with the people with whom we work. We also seem to recognize that the world wide Adventist Church should not become a worldwide Adventist subculture or ghetto, closed to itself, isolated from local customs.
How does Adventist Contextualization work in Arab countries? During my visits to predominantly Muslim countries, in which small Adventist communities exist, I have made some subjective but honest observations on how our missionaries and local believers relate to the cultures in which they live. I have noticed that Adventist communities existing in Muslim countries have real problems identifying themselves with local cultures. They do not distinguish between Muslim customs and religious practices, and they are afraid of the overwhelming Muslim culture. Instead of appreciating it, they hide themselves behind a Westernized lifestyle.
The promotion of Western culture and lifestyle in nationalistic Muslim countries is a serious burden for the few Christians living there. Adventists who tend to emphasize their American roots are not any different. They are considered a foreign element in the midst of an anti-American Muslim environment. So they do not feel comfortable, and are one of the first to emigrate.
This shows that adequate Contextualization has not taken place in the church's work in Muslim cultures.
Arab-Adventist worship style
For example, consider the Western influence on Arab-Adventist worship. Throughout the world Adventists have a more or less uniform worship style. This applies to Arab churches as well. Adventists outside of America tend to be more conservative than American Adventists. They conform to traditional patterns as though they want to prove their loyalty to the "big brother." Any changes are considered unorthodox, if they do not come from headquarters.
So Sabbath worship consists of the same components as almost everywhere else. They study the same Sabbath school lessons, sing the same Western songs in translation, and use organs and pianos. They build churches according to Western architecture: inside, pews face bastion-like pulpits. They wear suits and ties. Very few, if any, wear the common national dress. I have not seen pastors behind the pulpits in typical Arab clothes.
None of these may be wrong in them selves. But a varied culture calls for different approaches if our message is to be contextualized.
What are the remedies?
To begin with, Christianity is not Western. Since its roots are Semitic, how appropriate it is for Christianity to return to territories where the Semitic culture is predominant and distinctly retained. The American roots of the Adventist Church, however proud one may be of them, need neither exposure nor emphasis in cultures that are not American. We do not preach the history or geography of where the church originated, but Christ and His gospel. The church needs to address the needs of people within the context of their culture. We must accept people with their acceptable customs, lifestyles, patterns of thinking, and needs, and we must preach the gospel of Christ in this context. We must show them real love, not self-interested love. Such an approach will result in proper differentiation between appropriate and improper practices, acceptable and unacceptable customs.
As to worship style we first have to realize that we cannot treat the effects but the causes. The causes lie, it seems to me, in the syndrome that the church is not a reformable structure. Such a mentality assumes that keeping worldwide unity means keeping worldwide uniformity. At times we give the impression that the Adventist Church values uniformity and denominational exclusiveness over the essentials of the gospel and its mission. That attitude has nothing to do with Christ's teachings. If the gospel mission is to succeed, such positions need radical reformation.
A reformation of that magnitude will lead to transforming changes in Arab churches and in other cultures as well. These changes will include:
1. Local color will be brought into worship style, perhaps even to such an extent that the traditional Western worship style will totally disappear.
2. Sabbath School lessons will deal with local problems. This may mean an end or modification of uniform world wide Sabbath school lessons. Yes, we treat these lessons as a means of keeping the church's oneness, and we look suspiciously at those who use their own materials. What would be wrong if Sabbath school lessons were prepared at division or country levels so that they could address the issues with which that church is struggling? One might argue that Sabbath School teachers should accommodate the lessons to the needs of the class members. But that's easier said than done, for in many places appropriate study of assigned lessons is treated as a sign of loyalty to the church. If world wide uniformity of Sabbath school lessons is needed to keep the family together, perhaps they can be limited to a broader outline and scriptural themes, with local administrative units having freedom to work on them in the context of their respective cultures, values, concerns, and struggles.
3. Music and musical instruments will be appropriate to local traditions. Arabs and other nations of Islamic tradition have their own way of singing, totally different from that of the West. Their instruments are definitely not big pianos and organs, but rather strings and drums. They are still used in their social and religious activities. To consider them as inappropriate is to show contempt to a culture cherished by millions.
4. Church architecture will undergo change. Muslims have a long tradition of sacral architecture. There is nothing wrong in the mosque's development and its function to embrace the believers. Synagogues and churches of the past have had similar patterns. The house of prayer, its inner and outer apparel, should always be derived from the lo cal people's understanding of sacrum. I am sure western Asia Adventists would feel comfortable in churches with no pews, kneeling on a corporate carpet. Shoes could be left in the vestibule. After all, standing barefoot in God's presence has been an ancient Semitic idea since the days of Moses and Joshua (Ex. 3:5; Joshua 5:15).
5. Personal dress and adornment may need reexamination. Arab society considers jewelry an integral part of a woman's apparel. Modesty is not seen in terms of wearing or not wearing jewelry. Appropriate dress need not mean Western dress. Our books, Picture Rolls, and slides seem to portray suit and tie as appropriate at tire for greeting our returning Lord. Such art gives a wrong picture of our message to the people to whom we witness.
The provocative question in the title is not intended to force the church to accept any customs; rather it is to challenge our attitude and mentality. We must look at the issues with a wider perspective. We were not called to destroy people's national and cultural identity or to super impose the Western Adventist logic and lifestyle.
Different trends ought to be allowed in the church at different levels. Unity is a necessity; uniformity is not.