Too far or not far enough

Too far or not far enough: reaching out to Muslim people

Thoughtful approaches to Muslims and people of other non-Christian faiths.

Gorden R. Doss is associate professor in the department of world mission, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

The attacks of 9/111 brought many new issues to center stage. This is true not only for American-Arab but also for Christian-Muslim relations. Many Christians are now trying to reconcile contradictions in their understanding of Islam and to define an appropriate stance toward Muslims. One church leader opined that, after 9/11, Muslims went beyond the reach of salvation, while another labeled Islam a wholly demonic religion.2

One problem with these responses is that the Great Commission includes "all nations . . . even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:19, 20, NKJV). The understandable anger of Christians toward Islamic terrorism must never cause us to do or say things that work against God's stance toward Muslim people or His mission to everyone on earth, by all means including Muslims. Even the horrific images of airliners burying themselves in collapsing skyscrapers must be viewed through the eyes of God's divine mission in the whole earth and every person upon it.

For American Adventists, the politics and patriotism of the post-9/11 era must never dull the focus of our calling. After all, we are (or should be) Christians first and patriots second.

How should twenty-first-century Christians fulfill their role in God's continuing way of reaching out to the Muslim world? Answering this question is not easy, given the long history of trouble between Christians and Muslims, during which each has done unmentionable things to the other. For many reasons, over the centuries even the best efforts of Christian mission among Muslims have generally yielded poor results, when compared with efforts in behalf of other people groups.

Thus, many Christian groups, including our own, are experimenting with creative methodologies that are bearing fruit. However, these experiments are generating discussion and debate around two related questions: "How do Christians live 'in the world' without being 'of the world'?" John 17:14-16), and, "How do we go far enough without going too far in adapting to culture?" Put another way, the debate is about contextualization.

In the context

Contextualization3 seeks to do all that is humanly possible to lead people to become disciples of Jesus within their context. Contextualization assumes that Christianity is a global religion whose "skeleton" or "DNA" of core beliefs is "fleshed out" or "lived out" differently by people in various cultures. Just as Jesus was incarnated into Jewish culture (John 1:14), so His gospel and His church can be incarnated into any culture so that the church may be "a place to feel at home."

Christ's own human and divine nature is the model for the church, which Paul calls the "body of Christ" (1 Cor. 12:27). The church is a human institution that miraculously and mysteriously embodies Jesus Christ; in a sense, it's a symbol prefiguring the time when Jesus Himself will dwell with His people in glory (Rev. 21:3).

That any grouping of humans could be called the "body of Christ" is itself a miracle of divine grace. In cross-cultural mission, the church in one sinful human society seeks to reproduce itself in another sinful human society. Viewed in this way, the work of mission calls for the deepest humility and for ultimate dependence on the Spirit because no church represents Jesus Christ fully or perfectly.

There are different ways of applying the principles of Contextualization. One way is to deny that it is either good or necessary.

Noncontextualization assumes that "one-size-fits-all" and that "my-way-of-being-a-Christian" can be exported to any cultural context and set up like a prefabricated church-building. Typically, noncontextualization condemns all aspects of other religions and assumes that Christianity will make them disappear. Yet this noncontextualization overlooks the fact that Christianity always dwells within a particular culture with its own cultural specificities.

There are multicultural Christians but no culturally neutral Christians. Neither is there a "Christian culture" that exists as such apart from regular human cultures. Although Christians in every culture share important commonalities, they always retain specific cultural characteristics that give shape and texture to their faith and their religion.

Noncontextualization breeds several negative consequences:4 First, it places converts in a religious-cultural vacuum. In this vacuum they are associated with an alien culture and religion where they are set apart from their own people. 5 The resulting ostracism and social penalties vary, but they can be quite severe. The convert may be cast into confusion about her own cultural identity and may lose her witnessing potential entirely.

Second, some local customs that need to be modified or abandoned on the basis of Scripture are retained and driven underground, leaving the door open to syncretism.6 When this hap pens, Christians end up with a "split-level" religion, with Christianity and traditional religion coexisting in a way that produces "deep inner dissonance." 7 Split-level Christians have dual allegiances to Christ, and to the powers of their traditional religion.

Third, missionaries and local leaders become religious police who try to eradicate underground un-Christian customs.

Finally, the local converts who must live with this kind of noncontextualized Christianity are denied participation in a contextualization process.

Thus they tend to have neither full ownership of the call to communicate the faith, nor do they contribute their insider cultural knowledge to the evangelizing process.

In short, noncontextualization does not go far enough and the gospel never penetrates the world, because the church never really begins the journey.

In some ways noncontextualization is a fiction because contextualization of some kind always happens. Missionaries and converts in every location apply biblical truth to the local context in some way, knowingly or unknowingly. Perhaps noncontextualization could also be called "blind," or "haphazard," contextualization.

Uncritical contextualization

If noncontextualization anchors one end of a spectrum, uncritical contextualization anchors the other.

Uncritical contextualization takes the side of those who emphasize "being in the world" and "going far enough." In trying to make Christianity attractive enough to penetrate culture, this approach accepts too much of culture and sells out biblical truth. Uncritical contextualization gives culture "more authority than revelation."8

In church history, the change from the seventh-day Sabbath to first-day worship is a classic example of uncritical contextualization. In modern times uncritical contextualization has been initiated in an attempt to avoid the errors of noncontextualization seen in modern mission history.

One contemporary example of the uncritical approach is the approval of practicing homosexuality as a valid alternative lifestyle for Christians.

Uncritical contextualization happens in Europe, America, or anywhere when constant cultural change is not matched with constant Christian self-evaluation by the standard of Jesus Christ and Scripture.

Jacques Ellul says that Christianity has a "propensity to soak up culture like a sponge," so that it becomes "Christianism," instead of being the pure religion of Jesus Christ.9 Uncritical contextualization "goes too far" and the church becomes part "of the world" because it rushes the journey.

Ironically, both uncritical contextualization and noncontextualization produce the same result syncretism. The former fails to communicate the pure gospel because it sells out biblical truth in an exaggerated attempt to be relevant. The latter fails because it does not engage local culture and religion in the intentional dialogue with Scripture that unmasks individual and corporate sin.

Both styles of contextualization are cop-outs because they try to escape the tension that exists wherever the church is planted within human societies. Clearly, neither approach is an acceptable alternative for Adventist mission among Muslims or anywhere.

Critical contextualization

The Mennonite missiologist Paul G. Hiebert uses the term critical contextualization to describe what needs to happen in cross-cultural mission.10 Critical contextualization accepts the challenge of working within the inherent tension of being "in the world but not of the world" and of "going far enough but not too far."

The process of critical contextualization rests on several assumptions: First, that God is active in every age, individual, and society through the Holy Spirit and general revelation, drawing and guiding receptive people to Himself (Acts 17:22-31; Rom. 1:20).11 Thus, Christian mission has to engage non-Christian peoples seri ously instead of trying to make them "clean slates" (tabula rasa) by erasing their religions (as if that were possible).

Second, the gospel can be incarnated or translated into any culture.

Third, the missionary is a facilitator who guides converts in a search for a Christian way of living within their context. The missionary's outsider knowledge and experience links up with the convert's insider cultural knowledge to engage local culture.

As the congregation matures it assumes full responsibility for critical contextualization, so that fourth, as the Bible is applied to the local culture, customs will be retained, modified, or abandoned in a process that requires time, energy, and patience.

Finally, the process is continuous because culture is ever-changing and requires constant re-evaluation.12

Critical contextualization is difficult because it seeks to maintain biblical primacy while also respecting culture. Because all cultures are complex amalgams of good and evil, the boundary between being faithful or unfaithful to the Bible is often fuzzy and hard to identify.

Hiebert names three protections from heresy: the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and the global church, or the "hermeneutical community."13

Contextualization done the right way is the key to maintaining the purity of the gospel. When Christianity resides in any society for a prolonged period, the pure religion of Jesus Christ becomes encrusted with cultural artifacts or specificities that become identified with the gospel itself. 14

Carrying the gospel across cultural borders using the critical contextualization model forces longtime Christians to rediscover the "pearl of great price" within the layers of cultural encrustation.15 Only as Christians learn to differentiate between their own culture and their religion can they retain the purity of the gospel. Thus, the task of contextualizing the gospel among Muslims holds the potential that those who carry the gospel will rediscover it for themselves in a fresh and powerful way.16

The Muslim challenge

But again, what of the challenge of the Muslim world?

While critical contextualization is challenging everywhere, it is particularly challenging in Muslim contexts because Islam resists the development of new Christian congregations with varying degrees of intensity.17

Ideally, a growing local congregation functions freely as a locus for evangelization and contextualization, with the help of cross-cultural missionaries in the early stages. However, this ideal scenario often cannot develop in Muslim lands. Frequently the "extraction method" is used, sending converts to Europe or America and removing their witness at home. But Muslims must somehow be brought to Christ in a way that allows them to remain embedded in their native societies, where the Holy Spirit can work through them in miraculous ways to share the gospel.

The challenges of mission among Muslims suggest several things about methodology:

First, expectations and measures of success must be realistic for the con text. We are accustomed to quick and easy successes in evangelism; mission with Muslims, however, requires planning, patience, and discipline. Second, a methodology that allows for individual and congregational growth as steps in a process is needed. Third, reliance on the Bible and the Holy Spirit must receive extraordinary emphasis (Hiebert's first and second guards against heresy). Fourth, alternative or parallel organizational structures are needed for church over sight and guidance (Hiebert's third protection against heresy). Finally, unprecedented missionary education and specialization is required.

Implementing a holistic, successful methodology will require great creativity. The problem is that creative approaches make us feel uncomfortable because some parts of the Church Manual may not be followed as we seek to adapt to challenging cultural situations. Also, success stories usu ally cannot be published, and the Annual Statistical Report will not include some of the numbers. In short, creative methods seem radical because they take us outside of our well-established institutional box.

Is there biblical precedent for using "radical" methods in mission? We can easily forget what a radical departure the apostles made when they went from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and to the whole Gentile world.

Before Peter's missiology could to be turned upside-down, he had to see a symbolic vision commanding him to eat filthy beasts (Acts 10).

The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) made decisions that to us seem like simple common sense 2,000 years later, while at the time it strained apostolic adaptability almost to the breaking point. Since the time of Abraham, circumcision had been the visible symbol of covenant relation ship with Yahweh (Gen. 17:11). Yet, the apostles were open enough to the Holy Spirit to be shown that this ancient cultural-religious tradition, once commanded by God, did not have to be carried across the cultural border into the Gentile world.

Some Jewish Christians never did make this radical leap of faith with the Jerusalem Council and spent their lives opposing Paul and his colleagues.

Cross-cultural mission that uses the critical contextualization model often feels radical to established Christians. When Muslims accept Jesus Christ they inevitably follow Him in a way that differs from the way other groups of people follow Him.

Basic learning theory says that fresh knowledge always builds on prior knowledge. This means that a convert's theology retains Islamic influences, however biblical it may be. Christians in Muslim contexts need to retain some kind of relation ship with the mosque if they are to witness. Islamic styles of personal piety and corporate worship remain. 18 In fact, Western Christians, with our highly secular societies, can learn a lot from fellow Christians with an Islamic background.

Effective mission to the Muslim world requires that Seventh-day Adventists follow the precedent of the Jerusalem Council. The cultural religious divide we seek to cross is just as deep and wide as that faced by the apostles. Only the eternal, universal principles of the Bible will successfully cross the divide.

At the very heart of biblical truth stands Christ. Although the Koran's view of Jesus does not fully agree with the Bible, Muslims possess an openness to Jesus that is an open door to further learning.

We tend to see Muslims as shut doors, and many are — to Christianity as they perceive it. But from a God's-eye-view, Muslims may be more spiritually open to Jesus Christ than some secular citizens of Europe and America. What Muslims need is to see the real Jesus more clearly in the Bible, in the lives of individual Christians, and in the church.

The argument for openness to creative mission strategies among Muslims does not rest on any delusions of quick and easy success. The spiritual journey from being a Muslim to being a mature Christian is long and difficult; the corporate resistance is fierce.

The question challenges us: Will Seventh-day Adventists have the patience to walk by the side of Muslims from where they are to where God is leading them? If a new and sudden openness developed, would we be prepared with material resources, trained missionaries, and open hearts to reap the harvest?19

As we seek better ways to obey the Great Commission among Muslims, we must never "go too far" in contextualization so that the churches we plant are merely "of the world," of Islam, or of anything besides of Christ. However, the precedent of the Jerusalem Council suggests that the bigger concern is making certain that we "go far enough" so that the good news penetrates deeply "into the world" of the Muslim.

1 On September 11, 2001 (9/11) Muslim terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and used them for suicidal attacks in the eastern U.S.A.

2 Some post-9/11 Chnstran rhetoric about Islam suggests oneupmanship in insult making between pastors and imams. That Islamic belief and practice contradicts certain Christian principles is apparently a new discovery for some prominent Christians.

3 See "Contextualization" in A. Scott Moreau, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions (Grand Rapids. Baker Books, 2000).

4 Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1985), 184.

5 Japan is an example of a society in which Christianity con tinues to be seen as a foreign religion and thus does not realize significant growth

6 "Syncretism" is the "replacement or dilution of the essential truths of the gospel through the incorporation of non-Chnstian elements" (Moreau, 924).

7 Paul G. Hiebert, K Daniel Shaw, and Tite Tienou, Understanding Folk Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 20.

8 Moreau, 226.

9 Quoted in Pat Apel, Nine Great American Myths: Ways We Confuse the American Dream with the Christian Faith (Brentwood, Tn.. Wolgemuth and Hyatt, Publishers, 1991), 129.

10 Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, 186.

11 This is not to undervalue the role of special revelation but to acknowledge God's activity among non-Christian peoples.

12 For a full discussion of the process see Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, 186-190.

13 Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, 191.

14 This is not to suggest that cultural features of Christianity in a given society are all wrong The problem is that Christians tend to confuse secondary cultural elements with primary gospel principles.

15 Andrew F. Walls develops this concept and traces it through six eras of church history in The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1996).

16 Space does not permit a discussion of cultural specificities that pollute Western Christianity. See Pat Apel, Nine Great American Myths and Craig M. Gay, The Way of the (Modem) World: Or, Why It's Tempting to Live as if God Doesn't Exist (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998).

17 Some ancient Christian churches exist in Middle Eastern countries, but they are usually constrained by laws against evangelism and church planting.

18 Space does not permit a discussion of how culture shapes Christianity in every society.

19 Adventists need to remember and iearn lessons from our responses to the sudden opening of the former USSR.



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Gorden R. Doss is associate professor in the department of world mission, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

February 2005

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