Towards a Christ-transforming culture: A missiological model
Among the issues that appear to cause conflicts in certain churches are missiological issues related to culture and the worldview of indigenous church members. This article explores a missiological model that can be employed in ministry in order to minimize conflict with the prevailing culture and worldview of the local church members. Ultimately, I believe this model can lead to transformation in the lives of church members, with regard to worldviews and cultural practices, rather than causing disintegration and displacement.
Culture: Its diversity and missiological perspective
Culture is an integrating system of beliefs, feelings, and values together with its associated symbols, patterns of behavior, and products shared by a group of people.1 Anthropologists and sociologists agree with James Clifford’s statement that culture “is a deeply compromised idea I cannot yet do without.”2 Also, David Livermore asserted that defining culture is like defining air. People live in it and culture lives in people. It cannot be seen but it is there all the same. Human beings are social creatures; thus culture covers the whole range of human civilization and to be a cultural being is quite simply to be human.4 Charles H. Kraft affirms that, “A culture may be likened to a river, with a surface level and a deep level. The surface is visible. Most of the river, however, lies beneath the surface and is largely invisible. . . . So it is with culture. . . . In the depths are the assumptions we call worldview, in terms of which the surface level behavior is governed.”5
Therefore, due to a diversity of cultural contexts, God’s truth may be expressed differently from one culture to another.6 Perhaps this is why Kelvin Onongha asserts that cultural and environmental factors have the ability to hinder spiritual development in the life of a convert.7
In John 1:1, 14 and Philippians 2:5–8, God entered into human history and culture to reveal Himself to humankind.8 Theologians call this the humbling of God: taking on human form in order to transform humanity. As far as cultural adaptability is concerned, John Stott says, “God’s self-disclosure in the Bible was given to the hearer’s own culture.”9 Thus, even though human nature is the same, cultures are in many ways unique and distinctive.10 Consequently, biblical interpretation must take into consideration the culture of the people if the gospel is to be transformative in diversities of cultural groups. John Mbiti affirms that “the gospel was revealed to the world in the context and language of culture, and not in an empty vacuum. This revelation took place in a specific cultural place, Palestine, among a specific people, the Jews, at a specific movement, two thousand years ago. Since then the gospel has been proclaimed, propagated and accepted within the cultural milieu of the peoples of the world.”11
God is revealed through the Scriptures, and the gospel message could not be shared outside a given culture.12 While cultural considerations are necessary, the church’s belief and practice must be guided by the Holy Spirit and defined by the Holy Scriptures.13 Thus, careful exegetical literature, immersed in diverse cultural contexts, will assist pastors and church leaders in understanding the importance of missional hermeneutics.
Why worldviews are important
Worldviews determine our values. They sort out what is essential and what is not, what is of highest value from what is less, and thus they shape how members conduct themselves in the world.14 Hiebert further suggests that “our own understandings of Scripture are deeply shaped by our own worldviews.”15 Charles Kraft observes that our worldview helps us select assumptions that fit our culture and reject those that do not. Worldviews equally help us to interpret the assumptions we adopt so that they fit our overall cultural pattern.16 That is why scriptural interpretation is distorted.
The apostle Peter was shocked to be told, “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:52, KJV). It suggested, at the very least, that critical transformation, even for a believer, still lay ahead. This took on a cultural imperative when, as a result of a vision, Peter articulated and embraced a central tenet of Christianity: “‘God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean’ ” (Acts 10:28, NIV). Onongha maintains that only when elements of worldview are transformed, will a convert see his or her blind spots.17
In order to communicate the gospel in a diversity of cultures and worldviews, there is need of applying the missiological concept of contextualization. Contextualization attempts to communicate the gospel in words and deeds that make sense to people within their local cultural context. The aim is to present Christianity in a way that meets people’s deepest needs and penetrates their worldview. This allows them to follow Christ, while remaining within their own culture.18
Darrel Whiteman notes , “Contextualization is not something we pursue motivated by an agenda of pragmatic efficiency. Rather, it must be followed because of our faithfulness to God, who sent God’s son as a servant to die so that we all may live.”19 Therefore, Whiteman takes the incarnational ministry of Jesus as the chief mandate for contextualization. However, the Scriptures make it clear in many places that God values cultural diversity, while calling the people and communities to be transformed into the moral and mental likeness of His Son.
John Mark Terry and J. D. Payne add that contextualization comprises understanding the people well enough to communicate effectively with them the good news about Jesus Christ.20 Although the Bible as a whole does not endorse any particular culture, or even dictate a full set of customs (as Islam traditionally has), the biblical worldview does inculcate particular values, and Jesus offers the power of the Holy Spirit to actualize those values in the lives of His disciples.21
These biblical values should be taken into account by church members before they engage themselves in controversial disputes with the church leaders. These values should also be embraced by church leaders, displaying postures of humility and servanthood and avoiding dictatorial attitudes or disciplinary procedures that may only fuel the rise of offshoot groups. Therefore, contextualization will assist in developing a missiological transformation model that can assist leaders in handling issues of conflict and positively influence God’s people both in spirit and truth, in accordance with His universal mission.
To successfully contextualize theology within a given culture today, worldviews from the Word of God, as well as the contemporary culture, must be understood by the theologian.22 Biblical authors wrote from within their own cultures, using local languages and thought patterns. Between Genesis and Revelation, a vast range of cultural variation is exhibited, true believers serving God faithfully in different cultural ways.23 However, the danger to be avoided in trying to contextualize the culture or worldview for the sake of the gospel lies in compromising biblical truth. When this takes place, contextualization has become syncretism.24
Conversion and worldview “transformation”
There is a close relationship between conversion and transformation in a Christian perspective, as they are synonymous.25 The word conversion is derived from the Latin word convertere, meaning “ ‘to revolve, turn around’ or ‘head in a different direction.’”26 Conversion is a “perceptible change in one’s religious identity, a conscious self-transformation, which is often discussed and proclaimed for all to see.”27 In the New Testament the words used for “conversion” interchangeably are: epistrophe, epistrepho, metanoeo and metamelomai.28 The word used for “conversion” in Hebrew is shuv; meaning “turning,” or “returning.” It was usually used for a group experience entailing returning to God and His covenants.29 I respectfully suggest that conversion is insufficient for our purposes.
I believe the word transformation to be more comprehensive, inclusive, and altogether more wholistic than the word conversion. This wholistic understanding hails from the fact that, “God’s transformation of all things—the heavens and the earth, humans and all creatures—is at the heart of biblical theology.”30 Since conversion must be seen as a lifetime, complex experience that should be striven for as was done by the apostle Paul, it must not be confused with salvation that can be traced to a date.31 Onongha observes, “A person may profess to be Christian without necessarily demonstrating evidence of life-transformation. Evidence of this can be found all through Christian history, especially during the Crusades, when the vilest crimes were done in God’s name.”32
Hence, it is argued that conversion to a religion may demonstrate a more virtuous pattern of behavior, but it is also doubted whether true transformation is attained.33 Consequently, missiologists prefer the term worldview transformation to the word conversion, since it refers to a deeper level of change required in the life of a believer. This is why Kraft cautions, “When we speak of the conversion of a worldview, we are not talking of a complete conversion. A complete exchange of one worldview for another is as far as we know totally impossible. We are, rather, looking at partial conversion in terms of the number of assumptions (subparadigms, paradigms, subthemes, etc.) that are changed, though speaking of significant conversions in terms of the importance of the changes and the significance of the people’s new commitment.”34
Our worldview and culture context, then, strongly affect our interpretations of Scripture.35 The Jews grappled with this challenge throughout the Scriptures; so do we.36 It is evident that such a “worldview transformation” will not be accomplished in the flick of a moment; rather, it will be a complex, lifelong experience, informed by what I have chosen to call the “Christ cultural transformation” model. This model involves changes at all levels of people’s cultures and worldviews. Such a transformation requires a purposeful alignment with a single, revealed worldview that biblical authors call “the truth.”
In this theocentric (God-centered) worldview, kingdom values prevail. We now see through new lenses. Policies and practices are assessed by the degree to which they embrace diversity. Diversity is a prerequisite for unity; otherwise it becomes uniformity. This unity, required for mission, must be coupled with servanthood and humility and accompanied by mutual submission and equality. Only when this converting, transformational power is unleashed, will the call to strengthen the brethren, love the saints, and win the world for Christ be fulfilled.
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1 Paul G. Hiebert, “Cultural Differences and the Communication of the Gospel,” in Arthur F. Glasser, et al., eds., Crucial Dimensions in World Evangelization (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1976). Viewed May 18, 2015, from http://www.worldevangelicals. org/resources /rfiles/res3_417_link_1341870903.pdf.
2 James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: TwentiethCentury Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 10.
3 David A Livermore, Cultural Intelligence: Improving Your CQ to Engage Our Multicultural World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 80.
4 Richard J. Gehman, African Traditional Religion in Biblical Perspective (Wheaton, IL: Oasis International Ltd., 2011), 36.
5 Charles H. Kraft, “Culture, Worldview and Contextualization,” in Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., Perspectives on the World Christian Movement (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013), 400.
6 Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Bakers books, 1994), 47.
7 Kelvin Okey Onongha, “Towards a Missiological Model for Worldview Transformation Among Adherents to African Traditional Religion in Yorubaland” (doctoral dissertation, Andrews University, 2014), 109, http:// digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent .cgi?article=1118&context=dissertations.
8 Samuel Ngewa, Mark Shaw, and Tite Tienou, eds., Issues in African Christian Theology (Nairobi, Kenya: East African Educational Publishers, 1998), 111.
9 John R. W. Stott, Basic Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,1974), 4, 35.
10 Gehman, African Traditional Religion, 137.
11 John Mbiti, “Christianity and African Culture,” The Journal of Theology for Southern Africa (September 1977), 184.
12 Ngewa, Shaw, and Tienou, Issues in African Christian Theology, 111.
13 John Mark Terry and J. D. Payne, Developing a Strategy for Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Cultural Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 139.
14 Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 54.
15 Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 267.
16 Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979), 56.
17 Onongha, “Towards a Missiological Model,” 109.
18 Darrell L. Whiteman, “Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 11 (January 1997): 2.
20 Terry and Payne, Developing a Strategy, 148.
21 Whiteman, “Contextualization,” 4–7.
22 Ngewa, Shaw, and Tienou, Issues in African Christian Theology, 20.
23 Gorden R. Doss, “Faithful Contextualization: Crossing Boundaries of Culture With the Eternal Gospel,” Ministry, December 2015, 7.
24 “Religious syncretism often takes place when foreign beliefs are introduced to an indigenous belief system and the teachings are blended. The new, heterogeneous religion then takes a shape of its own. This has been seen most clearly in Roman Catholic missionary history. . . . Natives were allowed to substitute praying to saints instead of gods of water, earth and air, and replaced their former idols with new images of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, the animistic religion the natives had formerly practiced was never fully replaced—it was adapted into Catholic teachings, and this new belief system was allowed to flourish.” https://www.gotquestions.org/syncretism -religious.html
25 Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 67.
26 Frank K. Flinn, “Conversion: Up From Evangelicalism or the Pentecostal and Charismatic Experience,” in Religious Conversion: Contemporary Practices and Controversies, ed. Christopher Lamb and M. Darroll Bryant (London: Cassell, 1999), 51.
27 Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi and Michael Argyle, The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience (London: Routledge, 1997), 114.
28 Richard V. Peace, Conversion in the New Testament: Paul and the Twelve (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1999), 346.
29 Charles H. Kraft, “Conversion in Group Settings,” in Handbook of Religious Conversion, ed. H. Newton Malony and Samuel Southard (Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1992), 263.
30 Frederick J. Gaiser, “A Biblical Theology of Conversion,” in Handbook of Religious Conversion, ed. H. Newton Malony and Samuel Southard (Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1992), 94.
31 Gordon T. Smith, Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 3.
32 Onongha, “Towards a Missiological Model,” 64.
33 William Sims Bainbridge, “The Sociology of Conversion,” in Handbook of Religious Conversion, ed. H. Newton Malony and Samuel Southard (Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1992), 188, 189.
34 Charles H. Kraft, Worldview for Christian Witness (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2008), 448 (emphasis supplied). For an extensive presentation of such a paradigm, see Onongha, “ Towards a Missiological Model, 60–108.
35 Nancy Vyhmeister, ed., Women in Ministry: Biblical and Historical Perspectives (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1998), 422.
36 Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews, 332.