the time of the birth of the church cultural trends have influenced
the nature and direction of the Christian community around the world.
Members of the Body of Christ live and operate within specific (but
multiple) cultural milieux.
means that expressions of the Christian message, the shape of the
church, even many of its operational values, vary from one culture to
another. What often results is a melange of Biblical teaching,
wrapped in conventions and changed to suit individuals, with elements
rusted on that have nothing to do with the Gospel, and can help or
hinder proclamation and acceptance of the Message.
Christian message (John 3:16; 12:32, Matthew 29:19) was meant for all
of humanity, but it was born in a single culture, Judaism. While
Jesus related impartially to all who came in contact with Him, He was
perceived by many as a messenger to Jewish culture, the expected
Messiah, or Christ (see God’s promise to Abraham about the
universality of His saving mission, cf Galatians 3:14).
Apostle Paul, while anchoring his culture in Judaism (2 Corinthians
11:22; Philippians 3:4-6) was born in Tarsus, in modern Turkey (Acts
22:3). He was a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-39; 22:24-30), who managed
to bridge Jewish and Hellenistic (Greek) cultures and contextualise
led to divisions among the first Christian leaders (refer Galatians
2:11-16). It seems Peter was not as comfortable about crossing the
message at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34) showed that he was
comfortable with preaching to non-Jews, even citing an Athenian poet.
cultures define us more than we realise. We need to be aware of what
cultural changes that impact us mean in practice and know how to
bridge divides effectively and communicate Christ cross-culturally.
anthropological terms, there are many definitions of culture. In
essence, culture is the way we are, how we live, what we share with
other people, what makes “our” group/s distinct. (Many
of us belong to sub-cultures.)
of the nature of government and how society should function
nature of family/kinship and other relationships
systems and segmentation
of the stages of life
what is unique about your ethnic/social culture.
“Culture” of Contemporary Christianity
church has a “culture”. However, is it “culturally
Describe a typical Sunday
church service (from an outsider’s perspective).
idea of organised "church" turns many people off the
Christian message because they (naturally)
focus on external forms, ie what they see.
The challenge to Christian leaders and congregations alike is to be
"in touch" with the world at large and positioned to share
the message of eternal life from the perspective of those who have
"experienced" Jesus Christ in their lives. Christian
"ministry" (or "service") must reflect this
“World View” in a Theological Context
culture has meanings against which everything else is assessed and
view” is just that: peoples’ perceptions, or views, of
the world, their “outlook” as to what is “real”.
These perceptions involve systems of belief, values and behaviours,
and impact how men and women interpret the world and interact with
it. We can talk about an “Islamic world view” a “Marxist
world view”, or an Australian Aboriginal world view.
people cross from one world view to another, in a way that
re-positions their thinking, we call this a “paradigm shift”.
Turning from one life direction to another as a result of this
compass change is called “conversion”.
difference between a scientific approach to world view and the Gospel
is that Biblical paradigm shifts only occur in the human heart as a
result of revelation Consider the implications of 1 Corinthians
Chapter 2. Or the man healed by Jesus in John 9 “Once I was
blind, but now I see”. Saving faith is not subjective; it
requires divine intervention (cf Jesus’ conversation with
Nicodemus about being “born again” in John 3).
need to understand the world view of those we meet, their “drivers”;
otherwise we will never be able to build a bridge between us and
them. This involves adapting the message, but not its truth. For
teaching the early disciples about “fishing” for people
speaking to the Samaritan woman about water and places of worship
quoting the Old Testament to Jewish audiences
quoting pagan writers to the Athenians
describing adoption to the Romans
describing Roman military outfits to the Ephesian church
writer of Hebrews describing the Old Testament law, the priesthood
and the offerings to struggling Jewish Christians
Church Has Historically Undergone Continuous Cultural Change
versus Gentile Culture in the New Testament
Jesus’ day, there was not a unified, monolithic “Jewish
culture”. Josephus talks about three
main schools of Judaism: the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes
(each of which had theological distinctives). From other sources we
know of as many as 20 additional variations. Jesus encountered
ethnic Jews, Samaritans, Hellenic Jews and non-Jews, Roman
administrators and soldiers, Arabs. On the Day of Pentecost:
were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under
heaven. Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia,
Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt
and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and
converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:5, 9-11)
earliest Christians had different cultures. Look at the book of
Acts, which is our earliest internal record of the history of the
of Jesus Christ were not called Christians until quite a bit down the
road, in the context of the Hellenistic city of Antioch. (And that
was pejorative.) In other words, it was not until a decade or so
after the birth of the church that they were given the sobriquet
“Christian". Until then, the
name that was used was a descriptive term: “the people of the
Way” or “the Nazarenes.”
Paul’s letters and the book of Acts an assumption is made that
the audience is predominantly made up of Gentiles, some of whom
started out as participants in Jewish culture. For example, when
Paul visited Philippi, he went out on the Sabbath (the traditional
day of rest and worship) to a place where people would be gathering
for prayer (the small number of Jewish men in Philippi meant there
was not a synagogue in the city).
Philippians were meeting on the Jewish holy day; praying to the
Jewish God, reading the Jewish Scriptures; and yet many of them were
Gentiles (consider also the story of the Gentile Cornelius in Acts
10). These followers of Paul followed the rhythms of Jewish life;
they were sometimes referred to as “God-fearers”. They
were familiar with the Jewish calendar and were clearly deriving some
sort of meaning out of observing these days. No wonder some
observers took the Christian movement to be a sub-group of Judaism.
of the greatest challenges facing Paul and others in leadership in
the New Testament church was “Judaisers”, who insisted
Gentile converts to Christianity accept Moses and become Jews
ritually (including submitting to the rite of circumcision) as part
of their conversion to Jesus Christ. Paul’s letter to the
Galatian church was prompted by his indignation over this
of the Gentile church today still use models from Judaism/Jerusalem
2:44-46 is often quoted as the norm for Christian relationships, but
these patterns (eg shared living) were generally not adopted by
non-Jewish Christians. The latter were Christians in their own
have inherited the notion that God dwells in particular buildings,
and sanctify those buildings. We use terms such as “the House
of God”, or “the presence of God”, in inaccurate
worn by priests is redolent of the Old Testament priesthood.
notion that priests stand between people and God, to intercede, is
widespread but is not Biblical teaching.
between professional clergy and the rest of the Body of Christ is not
Biblical. It ends up excluding most Christians from service.
is important not to become too legalistic about applying one cultural
more to another.
history is full of cultural clashes and changes, not all of them
pretty (consider the Crusades, or the Inquisitions in Europe).
of the major splits in the Christian movement have resulted from
rejection of the legalistic application of old cultures not supported
by the Gospel.
are some absolutes. In Acts 15 these centred on matters of morality
and worship. In recent church history they have included differences
such as plural marriages in indigenous settings, such as Papua New
Cultural Changes in the New Millennium
look at the major cultural trends that are influencing the culture of
the world-wide Body of Christ in the new millennium.
population trend data
historical and predicted populations (in millions
Dr. Todd Johnson, Director
of the Center
for the Study of Global Christianity
at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
World Pulse -
average Christian family in 1907 can be represented by a European
family with few children (although many European families were quite
large at the time). Children went to Sunday School. Today, the
average Christian family is much more likely to be African or Latin
American, with more children.
emerging from Bible colleges in the West today are facing age gaps of
sometimes 50 years with their congregants or colleagues, becoming
mired in disempowering governance procedures, and not having their
ideas taken seriously. In addition, fewer young people choose to
enter the ministry as a profession (although there appears to be a
spike in entrants to the Roman Catholic priesthood in 2009)
—presenting another challenge to the church. Young people
easily drift away from church.
is the way we live. The Christian message is not meant to be
confined to buildings, creeds, programs or denominations. The Gospel
is relevant to every generation. Jesus is above culture; He
transcends it. Instead of changing Him into our likeness, He
transforms us into His own image, by the Holy Spirit He has given us.
in the way, but Christ came into human culture and sends us out into
the world to share His eternal message and love, within and beyond
our own cultural contexts.
Christians are now found in thirty-nine thousand denominations. These
range in size from millions of members to less than one hundred
members and are listed for each of the world’s 238 countries in
By 2025, there will likely be fifty-five thousand denominations.
The vast majority of these denominations will be Protestant and
Independent, forming the core of global evangelicalism.
church in the West is declining in a secular environment. In
developing countries it is growing. Engagement with indigenous
issues is patchy and sometimes comes across as tokenistic.
to Rev Dr Roland Croucher, Director, John Mark Ministries, five key
trends have significantly impacted the Western church: individualism,
privatism, pluralism, relativism, anti-institutionalism.
tease them out a little.
– people less engaged with one another (also evident in
politics and public affairs, civic clubs and community
organizations, work-related organizations, social clubs – a
generational issue; while new religious organizations have emerged
in recent years, they have been less connected to the wider
community than older denominations). The privatized, "feel-good"
religion of recent church history is not only inadequate for the
modern age, but a corruption of the church’s faith. The
faithful church is a culture that embodies the communal stories of
Jesus, forming the character of individuals who are part of a
– there are many ways to God; through immigration and an
expanded interest in diverse traditions, Australia has experienced
an influx and expansion of religious traditions, a religiously
diverse nation. Hindu and Buddhist temples, Sikh gurdwaras, and
Muslim mosques sit alongside Christian churches and Jewish
Moynagh (a British Anglican) says the church must realise it now
operates in a different 'It Must Fit Me' world. Summaries of his
We are moving from an off-the-peg to a tailor-made world.
Post-modern values include the rejection of hierarchy, suspicion of
institutions and strong emphasis on personal choice: so a different
approach is needed - one that is more sensitive to the differences
between people. No longer does tradition, 'the way we do things
around here', guide people's behaviour and outlook. We must reach
out to people on their terms/turf, rather than expecting them to come
to us on ours.
Today, people want a challenging, fulfilling, interesting job: when
work was drudgery people sought fulfilment somewhere else. The
notion of 'parish' is based on geographical neighbourhood, but people
now get together in common-interest groups (e.g. on the Internet).
'Church on Sundays' is being supplemented by
'Looking good' in a consumer culture boosts self-esteem more than the
unconditional love of an invisible God. The growing groups of
divorced, singles, people who cohabit feel alienated from churches.
Today's songs are less 'theologically objective', more about
individual themes; preaching is more life-related, less declamatory.
Church planting is an effective strategy - provided the plants are
designed for their target-audience, rather than clones of the sending
church. 'Seeker services' (à la Willow Creek) attempt to be
culturally relevant: but people are suspicious of organisations
trying to sell them things.
Today we can't avoid global issues: more power in fewer hands; the
growing gap between rich and poor; people feeling they're simply
pawns in a world where bottom-line economics rules (and today we
would add: global nervousness about the dangers of terrorism).
Alpha Courses are successful partly because they're organised by
local churches to fit their particular circumstances. Also people
eat together (parties are one of the icons of our age), and the
emphasis is on building community (rather than its simply being a
sales pitch). There's now a 'Y' course for those not ready for Alpha
- people who don't know the difference between an epistle and an
Young people live in an MTV world where images foster intuitive
rather than rational modes of thought, impressions rather than logic,
thinking in parallel rather than in sequence, pictures rather than
Why is London's Kensington Temple church so popular? Partly because
they get in touch with people new to London ('Would you like some
Filippino food and meet other people from home...?').
Prayer-visitation ministries are working in some British churches. A
letter is sent to all the people in a street, with an offer for a
couple from the church to come and pray, unless they say they would
prefer not. One church in Rochester aims to visit every home in its
area over three years. Moderns apparently don't mind
no-strings-attached prayer! And city-wide prayer networks are
People have abandoned church, but not groups (there are half a
million 'support' groups in the U.S.).
Why does Vineyard-type worship attract so many? (It's 'laid-back').
Mentoring/coaching is big these days: after-school clubs to help kids
with their homework; courses on parenting, computer skills, stress
is this all compromising our biblical faith? Not at all: the
apostles' strategy was to go to people and form the church around
them. We must encourage radical criticism of the “it-must-fit-me”
and Morality Trends
and morality issues have come to affect the church, often as much as
the non-Christian community, including in the areas of:
level of marriage collapse and divorce, including among Christians
of homosexuality in the church, including the ministry
relativism (ie “anything goes, as long as it feels OK”)
radical types of feminism
role of women in the church beyond reproduction and care taking has
become more widespread, but not without major division about how to
interpret the Scriptures on the matter.
of our cultural trends are far from God’s will for married life
Scientific and Ethical Trends
current issues do not have ready answers in Biblical text. Take, for
modification of food
family planning and assisted reproductive technology
transplant technology, including animal to human
the arms race
(the suggestion that the physical sciences are the only way to
understand the world) and positivism (the belief that the
scientific method replaces faith) have closed people's minds to the
power and perception of the spiritual realm.
the philosophical and cultural successor of modernism, has undermined
the absolute certainty of science and other belief structures. It
seeks to discredit religious faith as “truth”.
bulk of resources in Christian hands is located in the West. This is
reflected in much of the current quantum of prosperity teaching that
largely ignores the economic plight of most people in the world. The
2009 Global Economic Crisis has had major impacts on finances
available to the church, including missions giving.
has coined the word McChurch. McDonalds is well known for mass
producing fast, bland food in a generic way, often attracting
children because of give-aways (gimmicks) amid a plethora of
colourful advertising. Customers landing in any city in the world
where McDonalds has outlets can generally predict what the menu will
look like, what the food and coffee will taste like, the physical
lay-out and the broad price range.
are many temptations in the West for churches to adopt the McDonalds
franchise approach. Why have individuality when the shape and
content of the burger can be prescribed and all people need to do is
smile and purchase a fast food approach to faith (spiritual Happy
Meals). Instant gratification; just don’t hang around
expecting depth or maturity.
Western church today is positioned in a society where practices that
are inimical to the Gospel are entrenched in law. These include:
recognition of de facto marriages
recognition of homosexuality – and the impact this has on
churches, eg employment laws
support (and funding) for abortion and euthanasia
by same-sex couples, undermining the role of the family
decisions against churches proclaiming the Gospel in a pluralistic
society (eg anti-vilification laws)
of (and hostility towards) Christians values in education
of Christian counselling through privacy and disclosure rules
positions on death penalty
of human rights
on preaching the Gospel
are increasingly being involved in social justice issues (however
this often gets caught up in “right” versus “left”
sections of the church promote “theonomy. This
term describes views that see God revealed in the Bible
as the sole source of human ethics.
Christian Reconstructionism claims to reflect the Protestant view of
as espoused by many Reformers and Puritans.
was a Calvinist
widely credited as the father of Christian
and an inspiration for the Christian
writings have exerted considerable influence on the Christian
conversion of Constantine in 312 marked a radical change in the
State’s perception of Christianity. In 313 he issued the
"Edict of Milan," which commanded official toleration of
Christianity and other religions. He ordered that Sunday be granted
the same legal rights as pagan feasts and that feasts in memory of
Christian martyrs be recognized. Constantine's program was one of
toleration and he continued to support both Christianity and
314, the cross appeared on Constantine's coins, but so did the
figures of Sol
He raised his children as Christians and employed Christian clergy as
advisors, but retained the title pontifex
the chief priest of the state cult, until his death. In 380 Emperor
Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the empire.
To what extent should the church be involved in politics today?
with Collocated Belief Systems
has led to secular governments having to deal with substantial
religious differences. Sometimes such differences lead to clashes.
While official policies about social harmonisation and security in
the West are often articulated on relevant government websites,
community experiences, views and practice are not as easily
distilled, leading to disconnects in available information and
analysis. The impact of policies and community programs around
inter-faith dialogue (and related cross-cultural understanding) is
not fully understood.
views change. Commerce has impacted cultural diversity enormously.
“on message” in the face on ongoing change
Internet and beyond (eg in terms of mission, Christian education,
pastoral care, and fellowship)
dilemmas inherent in new technologies
rising popularity of spirituality
theological rethinking (while remaining true to the context of
and Christian communities need to remain dynamic, relevant and
will build my church” (Matthew
16:18). 6.7 billion people (on current count) to be reached with
the Gospel. On one level, culture can be a barrier OR a vehicle to
the message. The Holy Spirit is able to break through and reach
people in every culture, to bring reconciliation with God and
salvation to the human race. Let’s work with Him, to bring
Jesus’ vision one step closer.
the Good News Cross-Culturally
Pastor Allan Davis
who are sharing the Gospel today must keep sending it to new
addresses. The recipients are constantly changing their location and
no one is forwarding the mail.
It is important that
Christians understand how culture works if they are to successfully
present the Gospel in a pluralistic society. This article explores
the issue in some depth. The reader is encouraged to consider
carefully how the elements are inter-woven, in order to communicate
Christ cross-culturally (and keep up with changes in culture in order
to remain relevant and appealing).
film, “The Gods Must Be Crazy”
(written and directed by South African Jamie
was a hit movie
in the 1980s.
It told the story of a Kalahari Bushman named Xixo, whose tribe had
no prior contact with the outside world. One day the pilot of a
small plane passing overhead discarded a Coca Cola bottle, which
landed near Xixo’s family. At first the bottle, perceived as a
gift from the gods, was gratefully received and put to innovative
uses in daily village life. Eventually, competition over control and
ownership (a new concept in the community) of the bottle caused
division and Xixo decided that the only remedy was to take the
“thing” to the edge of the world and return it to the
gods. (The elders concluded the gods must have been crazy to bestow
this gift on the clan in the first place.)
his journey Xixo met members of Western civilization for the first
time. One was a scientist, another a teacher, and others still
members of a militant group fleeing after an aborted coup attempt in
a neighbouring country. As the story unfolded and the characters
collided in unusual circumstances, the film presented a fascinating
and funny interpretation of differences in cultures. Xixo
eventually reached an escarpment where the countryside below was
obscured by a solid layer of low-lying clouds. He believed this was
the edge of the world and threw the bottle over the side before
returning home to his relieved family.
first saw “The Gods Must Be Crazy” on a British Airways
flight from London to New York. It was the only time I ever observed
rows of suited British businessmen laughing uproariously at an
in-flight movie. The film has a powerful sub-plot and continues to
have appeal to audiences around the world. It was recently
re-released in DVD format and had high sales. One reason for its
popularity is that it demonstrates graphically how cultural
assumptions and misunderstandings between people can lead to major
differences, with consequences that can be either amusing or
disastrous for those involved.
who desire to be relevant and touch the world for Christ need to
understand the role of culture in informing what people believe, how
they build and live out their existence and how they relate to one
is the way we think, structure society, understand the world around
us, interpret events, establish relationships, determine mores (norms
for behaviour), provide and use shelter and act (eg dance, eat,
dress, marry, work). Culture is not isolated. it is shared with
other people. Culture unifies individuals through common
experiences. People generally learn culture by growing up in a
society, through language, watching and imitating others. This is
known as “enculturation”.
society has a culture, reflected in its art, literature, music,
beliefs, customs, institutions, inventions, language, technology, and
values. “Popular” culture includes arts and
entertainment expressed via such media as television, radio, sound
recordings, advertising, sports, hobbies, fads, and fashions.
Culture is also demonstrated symbiologically, by the use of religious
symbols, national emblems, war stories, slogans and flags.
(as a policy of government) recognizes that distinct cultures can be
collocated. It encourages diversity where this is the case.
Multiculturalism works best in a society with different ethnic groups
and a political system that promotes freedom of expression and
awareness of differences. Ethnic groups bring variety and richness
by introducing exogenous (external) ideas and customs. However,
ethnic groups that keep their values and traditions can also threaten
national unity. Many people feel confused and uneasy when they deal
with people of “other” cultures.
is an attitude that one's culture is central, that it is the best.
It contributes to nationalistic militarism (remember the stories of
“ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the early 1990s). The
opposite view is “cultural relativism”, which contends
that no culture should be judged by the standards of others. This
approach can be carried to extremes, such as promoting universal
morality (or amorality) and rules that allow infanticide, genocide,
cannibalism and torture.
can be local or national. Australian culture has been influenced by:
the original inhabitants (as reflected in many place names); the
settlement experience (convicts and free settlers); shared
ancestries; common experiences in war and sport; national values
(egalitarianism, “fairness”, mateship); religious values
(particularly our “Judeo-Christian heritage”); and
and religious expression
has been a supreme source of inspiration in the arts. Some of the
most beautiful buildings in the world are houses of worship. A lot
of the greatest music is religious. Religious stories have provided
countless subjects for paintings, sculptures, literature, dance, and
films. The Christian music industry is an under-reported
multi-billion dollar sector in every major Western economy.
people follow specific religions because of heritage, tribe, or
family. Judaism and Christianity have been major influences in the
formation of Western culture. The cultures of Asia have been shaped
by Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Shintoism, and Daoism. Most
extant religions have been influenced by older ones.
commemorate historical events. The Jewish Passover ritual recalls
the meal the Israelites ate before their departure from slavery in
Egypt. Christian celebrations of Communion (an echo of the Passover)
are related to the last meal that Jesus shared with His disciples
before His death. Hindu rituals reflect ancient stories. Rituals
mark important life events, such as ceremonies making sacred events
out of birth, marriage and death. Rites of passage (from one stage
of life to another, such as puberty) serve to transition young people
into the religion and society. In Judaism, circumcision is performed
on baby boys. Some Christians “baptize” babies soon
after birth; others baptize only teenagers or adults. Traditional
Aboriginal circumcision signalled passage to manhood.
cultures are “closed”, not allowing outsiders into the
group, even through marriage, and ostracizing those who change their
religious affiliation – unless the whole group does so. (The
notion of “people movements”, entire groups coming to
Christ, has existed since the days of the early church).
people fear cultural change
is never static. It is dynamic and constantly changing. Some people
fear and oppose change. One effect of change can be the substitution
of a culture for another (such as using the vernacular instead of
Latin in Roman Catholic liturgy); loss of culture (eg young Catholics
not using the rosary, or young Muslims not praying 5 times a day),
incremental culture (additions to traditional forms) through
television, food franchises and the Internet and fusion of new
cultures on what already exists, and consequent loss of value
systems, through the atrophying of language or oral traditions. Let
me give an example. Roman Catholic churches in Australia were
recently reproved for using gluten-free bread in masses (introduced
to serve people with gluten intolerance), because the change was
considered by the Vatican to be inconsistent with long-held protocols
about trans-substantiation. The changes had nothing to do with
Biblical truths, but those who feared change moved against it with
need to understand the nature of culture if we are to appreciate the
nuances of religious systems and how to reach people with the Gospel.
This includes the historical role of the caste system in Hinduism;
the influence of the “land” in defining Judaism; Islam as
a total culture for those within its fold; the role of “the
Dreaming” in Aboriginal identity and self-determination; the
influence of Irish Catholicism in the Australian Labor Party and the
impact of our economic and business priorities on editorial value in
the print and electronic media.
far are we prepared to tolerate pluralism? People I meet tell me
they are tolerant but would object to a mosque with a 20 metre
minaret being built in their street. Others have issues working with
Sikhs' wearing turbans in government departments; being surrounded by
people speaking another language; being served by Muslim women
wearing the hijab, and dealing with people of other faiths who
take work breaks for prayer. Celebration of multiculturalism and
positive discrimination in favour of non-Christian traditions, at a
government level has had the effect of making evangelicalism appear
grossly intolerant. It is now considered offensive to criticize
other faiths, while the radio and print media have reduced scorn of
Christianity to an art form.
is not Western
once sat on a flight between Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) and Dubai (United
Arab Emirates) discussing Christianity and Islam with a Muslim
cleric. He spoke about Christians and the excess of Western culture
in the same breath, as though they were the same thing. He was
surprised when I told him Anglo-Saxon Christians are a minority group
in the world-wide Christian movement and that people he observed to
be living immoral lives in the West were not true believers. I said
it not to assuage his concerns, but because it is true.
is not quintessentially Western. It is a faith system that had its
genesis in Judaism and oriental values, language and values.
Moreover, in a sense, it is not human, because it is predicated on
divine revelation. But the moment we act as though “our”
culture is the right one to be a vehicle for saving faith and genuine
worship we alienate the rest of the world. The same thing happens
when churches take sides in political debates and alienate half the
population on matters that are not even central to the Gospel (God
does not vote Labor, Liberal, Democrat, Republican, or even Christian
is nothing efficacious about Western culture. As Christians we
cannot be captive to the human environment that produced us. After
all, we are born “from above” (John 3:3-8). God is our
heavenly Father and His desire is to make us like His Son. The Holy
Spirit in us, transforming our minds, hearts and attitudes makes us
more and more like Jesus, not our cultural icons.
receptivity and responsiveness
Biblical Christianity, culture is broken down. There can be no
distinction between Jews and Greeks (Galatians 3:26-28), Americans
and Sudanese, Germans and Chinese. We belong to the family of God.
The Bible describes a multiplicity of languages, tribes, kinships and
forms of worship serving Jesus Christ in His Kingdom. These
differences speak to the diversity of the Christian community,
differences that make us one, not opponents or exclusive sects. If
we cannot embrace a Christian from another culture because they look,
act, smell, dress and sing differently, we are not acting in the
spirit of Christ.
can a Biblical Christian operate in a pluralistic world? The answer
is simple. The same way the early church worked it out. The
geo-political environment that obtained in the first century was
characterised by pantheons of gods, hostile political systems and
innumerable vested interests. Our world is not very different. In
every generation, the Holy Spirit enables the people of God to
transcend cultural differences and proclaim that Christ died for all
people, so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have
Problem of Syncretism - Being Just Like Everyone Else
Pastor Allan Davis
In an attempt to remain
relevant and attractive in a changing world, many Christians are apt
to reflect the patterns and modalities of society at large. Playing
“follow-the-leader” this way may be a logical soft
option, but only conforming to the image of Christ will empower us to
impact our generation. Christians must be contemporary as, indeed,
Jesus was, but he was not “just like everyone else”. The
life of God, multiplied exponentially by the Spirit living within
gave him (and will give us) the burst of power we need to make a
The mass over, the
priest’s words were echoing around the niches and chapels built
into the sides of San Francisco Cathedral in La Paz as the Aymara
family next to me stood up and prepared to leave. Pulling his
“chullo” down over his ears, to keep the cold off his
head, Don Juan (not his real name) told me he was going home. I
asked what the mass meant to him. He told me he had been coming to
the church every week since he was a boy. Did he believe in prayer,
I asked. He told me that he did, but that he didn’t understand
some of the things that happened in the service. He was mainly
concerned about keeping his family going. Religion was helpful, but
he confided that it did not always meet his needs. When prayer
failed the shaman in his village would say incantations over him,
maybe sacrifice a chicken, so that the spirits would heed the sight
of blood and give him the favour he needed. I asked him how he
managed to balance two competing faiths. He told me they were one
and the same, in his opinion. “They are all about God.”
In his mind, shamanism and Christianity functioned as one paradigm.
He saw no conflict, because that is how he had been brought up. He
told me the spirit world of his village predated the arrival of the
Spaniards and their gilt images five hundred years previously. It
had kept his ancestors together and given them hope and power in
times of need.
What exactly is
option of mixing faith systems and observing them as one is called
“syncretism”. It is a framework, a process by which
elements of a single set of world views are harmonized and
assimilated into another, resulting in a change in the nature of both
of them and the emergence of a new system, a revised set of beliefs
and rules. It is a union of theologies.
The synthesized form is a new product, although separate segments
retain some identifiable components, such as a high altar, or a
witchdoctor’s tools of trade. I have seen syncretism at work
in some African churches, where animism and other traditional
religions have been wedded to the Christian message. I have observed
it in Andean villages in Peru, where indigenous religions are often
mapped to Christianity, giving local deities new Christian
identities, so that prayers are said in old ways to new names, such
as the Virgin Mary or the Apostle Peter. When our Prime Minister
recently attended a Christian church service to celebrate the opening
of a new parliament, nodding his assent to the creed recited, and
then went to help officiate at a Hindu ceremony, he was being
syncretistic. Biblical Christianity and this type of accommodation
simply do not mix (2 Corinthians 6:15-16).
is usually associated with attempts by belief systems to be relevant,
less confrontational, controversial and culturally alienated by
mixing and matching with local ones. It removes absolutes and works
on the assumption that any belief can be adopted, melded, re-shaped,
discarded, denied or repudiated, depending on whether it suits the
new operating environment. Syncretism involves representation of a
limited and distorted part of the underlying message, so that it fits
the values and traditions of outsiders, or is rendered acceptable to
them. And it is all around us.
I have been to India a
number of times. Hinduism is syncretistic. I recently read a
fictionalised account of an Indian boy who met a Christian missionary
who explained the Gospel and led him to accept Jesus Christ as his
Saviour. The boy then went home and thanked Krishna for helping him
find Jesus as his new god. In spite of its claim to be universally
monotheistic, Islam is also practiced alongside traditional faiths in
many countries. In Indonesia, millions of Muslims tolerate
traditional Javanese folk religion, parallel to the mosque.
In the West, syncretism
is widespread. In essence, it means “living like everyone
else”, adopting their world views and mixing them with faith,
so that the new soup is palatable to everyone and no one is offended
by “fundamentalist” beliefs. It involves downplaying key
elements of the Gospel that are considered “old fashioned”
or “not cool”, so as to be more acceptable, less
eccentric. Young people growing up in church have a fear - almost a
phobia – about distinctiveness, of being rejected because they
are different. They don’t want to be associated with the image
of the small, traditional, suburban church with a hall, a manse and
an aging membership. The church of the future must employ culturally
sensitive evangelism, without being seduced to conform. Otherwise,
the natural process of syncretism will increasingly lead to the
acceptance and validation of extra-Biblical offshoots such as
Christian feminism, Christian gay groups, atheistic evolution in
Christian schools, removing Christ from Christmas celebrations and a
host of similar developments in respectable ecclesial circles.
So, what’s wrong
Syncretism demands that
worship of God be shared with competing deities. This occurred
constantly in the Old Testament, as the values of the Canaanites,
Babylonians, Assyrians and others permeated ancient Israel. On one
occasion, the Prophet Elijah challenged the nation to stop dithering
between two opinions and decide whether Jehovah or Baal was the deity
worth following (1 Kings 18:21). That should have been a no-brainer,
but Baal and other gods of the Canaanites had great influence. I
have visited ancient Canaanite settlements in Lebanon and seen the
influence of the deities that sought to displace Jehovah in the life
of his people.
history is filled with the struggle against syncretism from
political, social, religious and economic sources. In New Testament
times, Greek, Roman and so-called “mystery religions”
sought to undermine the Christian community through
syncretism. In subsequent centuries (particularly after Christianity
became the official religion of the state following the conversion of
Constantine in 312 AD) it was easier to undermine Christian faith by
mandating “toleration” rather than persecuting
Christians, which only led to martyrs.
One crisis that faced the
early church was acceptance of non-Jewish Christian converts. Many
Jewish believers acted as though their faith was an extension of
their national history and identity. When God began to save Gentiles
many of them were horrified. Only a major conference in Jerusalem,
under the leadership of wise men of God, was able to deal with the
issue (Acts 15, Galatians 2). Now we know the people of God are not
identified by ethnicity, gender or social status, but their
relationship to God and to one another through Christ (Galatians
exist on all sides today, as secular humanism strives to be the
common ground for solving problems. Pluralism is proclaimed as the
ground for melting all religions into a porridge of new religious
ideas. The values of this world view strive for a place in the
church's response to both the demands for conformity and the cries
for liberation confronting it.
people argue (or act on the basis that) that the best way to reach
people is to live in their space and be like them. This involves
“contextualising” the Gospel. I once listened in horror
as a visiting speaker in a church I attended told the congregation it
was OK to break the law if imprisonment could be used by God to reach
non-Christian prisoners. Where do we draw the line? When God is
just like everyone else, the whole reason for being a Christian is up
of the Christian gospel occurs when basic elements of the Bible are
replaced by religious elements from other faiths.
It often results from a quest to make the Gospel acceptable, less
alien, or embodied in a different cultural context. In many
societies, including in the West, standing up for the absolutes of
Christian revelation is a criminal offence. It is safer to look for
common ground and inter-faith dialogue than run the risk of being
labelled a “crank”.
The Bible teaches that
truth comes by revelation, through the agency of the Holy Spirit.
There are times when elements of traditional religion foreshadow
aspects of the Gospel and can be a way of opening up communities to
evangelism. This was the case in Athens (read Acts Chapter 17) and
many Asian societies where missionaries eventually made inroads when
they learned enough about local religions to show the people that
Christ was the One they were looking for and encouraged them to
abandon half-truths for the real thing.
Syncretism, on the other
hand, involves adding other beliefs to Christian doctrine, with the
intention of supplementing the salvation
provided by Jesus - as if it were somehow incomplete. Syncretism
springs from lack of faith in Christ's saving power. At issue are
not methods of praying, clothing worn, songs that are sung, styles,
forms and expressions that are used (let’s celebrate Jesus with
the best music available), languages that are spoken, or even objects
used in worship, but the heart. Syncretism is a tool of Satan to
water down revelation and separate God from his people by the
accretion of symbols, liturgies, art forms and theologies that do not
“offend”. It involves a loss of moral and spiritual
Squeezed, but into
Six billion people simply
do not squeeze into fixed moulds. They are influenced by a host of
cultural realties that include gender, education, ethnic space,
occupation, family mores, taboos and semiotic frameworks. The global
cultural economy is a complex network, a sophisticated
multi-dimensional jigsaw. Culture is not unified.
It is ideological,
political and economic. If we are to be relevant Christians in a
global village we have to recognize local dynamics, histories,
subcultures, prejudices and imagined communities and try not to
compartmentalize people or insist on a single “fix” on
human dynamics that cannot be constrained by a single “snapshot”.
Our message must be addressed to population fluidity,
disjunctiveness and rapid global transformation. As Christians,
being relevant in the modern world involves learning how to be
simple, uncomplicated and transparent as we relate to the Eternal and
His creation. It means being open to people but sticking to Truth.
That is a hard juggle. If the balls fall, the message is compromised
and people look elsewhere.
First Commandment requires that we love God with all our heart, mind,
soul and strength (Matthew 22:37-38). Jesus
is the only one through whom we can be saved (Acts 4:12). He said,
"I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one can come to the
Father except through me" (John 14:6). These are categorical
statements. The Bible says that the “natural mind” of
the non-Christian cannot understand the things of the Spirit, but
rejects them. They are “foolish” to him (1 Corinthians
1:18-25). When we strive to be like others, and reify their values
in our lives, as our guiding principles and aspirations, we are not
consciously bowing to false idols or making them our “gods”,
but yielding in more subtle ways.
Our efforts not to be
squeezed into everyone else’s mould (Romans 12:1-2) must not be
confused with religious pride and self-effort, making us so out of
step that our walk is disqualified and people are turned off by our
lives. (People should be drawn to the message because of our lives,
not driven away from it.) My father used to tell the story of a man
who went to a passing-out parade to watch his son’s graduating
class. As he sat in the stands, he looked hard to make out his son.
Finally he saw him. “Look”, he cried out, “There
is my son. He is the only one marching in time”. No doubt his
listeners realized the poor man’s son was the only one marching
out of step. Instead of surveying the whole, he focused on one small
aspect and missed the obvious.
God is building a
contemporary church, one that overflows with his abounding life,
presence and purpose, in step with the Holy Spirit. He has come to
show us how to live, and how to make the reality of Christ a
compelling force in our generation, tearing down false images, rather
than the other way around. Sections of the modern church are working
hard to reinvent techniques of praise and worship, to make it more
“real”, more tangible, but fully birthed of God. This is
great news. Lamentably, some traditional elements of the Body of
Christ respond with criticism, rather than rejoicing.
to the simplicity of Christ
an effort not to be like the world around us, it is important that we
not become so different as to turn them off. Let me give an example.
I once took a flight from Perth to Melbourne, surrounded by several
dozen men and women who belonged to an exclusive Christian
denomination and were on their way to a conference. The women wore
scarves on their heads. The men were well-dressed and spoke
conservative English (not unlike the vernacular used in the version
of the Bible authorised by King James in 1611). One of their number,
a middle-aged farmer who sat beside me told me the group refused to
have formal contact with other Christian denominations, because they
considered them a’’ “too worldly”.
The longer we talked the
more convinced I became that the focus of this group was not holiness
but exclusivity. What was important, in their world view, was not
the Body of Christ but externalities such as dress styles, forms of
music and social intercourse. Their response to syncretism was to
cut themselves off. In so doing, they lived as though they were the
only ones left in God’s Family. Jesus lived among us and we
were attracted to him because the presence of the Spirit in Him
created and celebrated overflowing life, not because he established
an exclusive society. It is important that we not tie ourselves to
legalistic bandwagons that focus on stereotypes about form, rather
than substance. We are not different for the sake of being
different, but as a consequence of a new inner life, living by new
values, appetites and priorities. The normative family of God is
above culture, nation, language or familial ties.
The Apostle Paul
encouraged Christians in the first church at Corinth not to lose
sight of their pure and simple devotion to Christ, not to add
anything to it, but hold firm to the simplicity of the Christian
message (2 Corinthians 11:3). We can add nothing to what Jesus has
already done for us, but need to know what we believe and be
committed to it, holding to the absolutes of Biblical revelation,
living by our faith. God doesn’t have to be so different as to
People of influence
How can we be people of
influence, relevant, dynamic, attractive, persuasive and still be
able to proclaim the message, with integrity to the truth. How do we
avoid syncretism in our church, family and personal lives?
None of us is free from
the innate desire to be accepted by others and to be like the world
around us. The human heart reaches out to gods in all forms.
Dealing effectively with the temptation to compromise on many levels
is an essential part of Christian growth and maturity. We cannot
long mask the subtle attachments we feel to “our” world,
and the hunger to be part of what is going on.
God calls us to be
different, to escape the downward drag and be re-made in the image of
His Son. The Bible says that true liberty comes from the Lordship of
the Holy Spirit, as He makes us less like others and more like Jesus
(2 Corinthians 3:17-18). Only He can give us power to be different.
Regardless of culture or personal background, believers don’t
have to live by the standards and patterns of everyone else, because
they are “born of God” and their Biblical praxis is
predicated on the person and presence of His Son. Let’s allow
Him to bring this about in a transforming way.
in China: Christianity's Rapid Rise
rise of Christianity is reshaping the officially atheist nation, its
politics and the way many Chinese view the world. The Tribune's Evan
Osnos reports from Beijing and the countryside.
Rev. Jin Mingri peered
out from the pulpit and delivered an unusual appeal: "Please
leave," the 39-year-old pastor commanded his followers, who were
packed, standing-room-only on a Sunday afternoon, into a converted
office space in China's capital. "We don't have enough seats for
the others who want to come, so, please, only stay for one service a
A choir in hot-pink robes
stood to his left, beside a guitarist and a drum set bristling with
cymbals. Children in a playroom beside the sanctuary punctuated the
service with squeals and tantrums. It was a busy day at a church
that, on paper, does not exist.
repressed, marginalized and, in many cases, illegal in China for more
than half a century — is sweeping the country, overflowing
churches and posing a sensitive challenge to the officially atheist
By some estimates
Christian churches, most of them underground, now have roughly 70
million members, as many as the party itself. A growing number of
those Christians are in fact party members.
thriving in part because it offers a moral framework to citizens
adrift in an age of Wild West capitalism that has not only exacted a
heavy toll in corruption and pollution but also harmed the global
image of products "Made in China."
Some Chinese Christians
argue that their faith is an unexpected boon for the Communist Party,
because it shores up the economic foundation that is central to
sustaining party rule.
development, morality and ethics in China are degenerating quickly,"
prayer leader Zhang Wei told the crowd at Jin's church as worshipers
bowed their heads. "Holy Father, please save the Chinese
At the same time,
Christianity is driving citizens to be more politically assertive,
emboldening them to push for greater freedoms and testing the party's
willingness to adapt. For decades, most of China's Christians
worshiped in underground churches—known as "house
churches"—that avoided attention for fear of arrest on
various charges such as "disturbing public order."
But in a sign of
Christianity's growing prominence, in scores of interviews for a
joint project of the Tribune and PBS' FRONTLINE/World, clerical
leaders and worshipers from coastal boomtowns to inland villages
publicly detailed their religious lives for the first time.
They repeat a seemingly
shared belief that the time has come to proclaim their place in
Chinese society as the world focuses on China and its hosting of the
2008 Olympics, set to begin in August.
"We have nothing to
hide," said Jin, a former Communist Party member who broke away
from the state church last year to found his Zion Church.
Jin embodies a historic
change: After centuries of foreign efforts to implant Christianity in
China, today's Christian ascension is led not by missionaries but by
evangelical citizens at home. Where Christianity once was confined
largely to poor villages, it is now spreading into urban power
centers with often tacit approval from the regime.
It reaches into the most
influential corners of Chinese life: Intellectuals disillusioned by
the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square are placing their loyalty in
faith, not politics; tycoons fed up with corruption are seeking an
ethical code; and Communist Party members are daring to argue that
their faith does not put them at odds with the government.
The boundaries of what is
legal and what is not are constantly shifting. A new church or Sunday
school, for instance, might be permissible one day and taboo the
next, because local officials have broad latitude to interpret laws
on religious gatherings.
though, the government is permitting churches to be more open and
active than ever before, signaling a new tolerance of faith in public
life. President Hu
even held an unprecedented Politburo "study session" on
religion last year, in which he told China's 25 most powerful leaders
that "the knowledge and strength of religious people must be
mustered to build a prosperous society."
This rise, driven by
evangelical Protestants, reflects a wider spiritual awakening in
China. As communism fades into today's free-market reality, many
Chinese describe a "crisis of faith" and seek solace
everywhere from mystical Taoist sects to Bahai temples and Christian
Today the government
counts 21 million Catholics and Protestants—a 50 percent
increase in less than 10 years—though the underground
population is far larger. The World Christian Database's estimate of
70 million Christians amounts to a 5 percent share of the population,
second only to Buddhism.
At a time when
Christianity in Western Europe is dwindling, China's believers are
redrawing the world's religious map with a growing community already
exceeding all the Christians in Italy. And increasing Christian clout
in China has the potential to alter relations with the United States
and other nations.
But much about the future
of faith in China is uncertain, shaped most vividly in bold new
evangelical churches such as Zion, where a soft-spoken preacher and
his fervent flock do not yet know just how far the Communist Party is
prepared to let them grow.
HANNA ROSIN (Author of “God’s Harvard: A Christian
College on a Mission to Save America.”)
GOD IS BACK
How the Global Revival
of Faith Is Changing the World
By John Micklethwait and
405 pp. The Penguin
Not all that long ago,
the great minds of Europe predicted a future with little or no
religion. Science would make us highly sceptical of miracles.
Psychiatry would direct all of our awe and wonder inward. Changing
roles for women would weaken the patriarchal structure that props up
clerics. Whatever script for modernity one followed, it had God
playing a bit role.
we all know, it didn’t happen that way. Modernity arrived and
improvised new starring roles for God. The Americans led the way by
becoming both “the
quintessentially modern country” and a very devout one, John
Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge write in their new book, “God
Is Back,” and most of the world has followed that model. In
rich countries and poorer ones, democratic and undemocratic,
primarily Islamic and primarily Christian — everywhere,
basically, except Europe — devotion to God has remained
“The very things
that were supposed to destroy religion — democracy and markets,
technology and reason — are combining to make it stronger,”
write Micklethwait, editor in chief of The Economist, and Wooldridge,
the magazine’s Washington bureau chief, who together have
written previous books about globalization and American conservatism,
two similarly sweeping topics.
anyone who lives outside Europe, the Harvard
campus or Manhattan (all faith-free zones singled out by the
authors), this conclusion is not exactly startling. In most of the
United States, for example, God is always back in one form or
another. And various religion-stoked conflicts in the Middle East and
Africa make the modern era sometimes feel like a replay of the
Crusades. But the book’s strength is in dissecting exactly how
God managed to morph and evolve and become indispensable to the world
at a time when he should have faded away.
and Wooldridge do not display the usual horror at overt religiosity
that we heard in abundance from British and other European writers
during the Bush years. Starting with the cheerful ad-speak of the
title, they are instead astute social observers in the Tocquevillean
mode, reporting from a distance in a tone just short of admiring.
When it comes to American religion, they marvel mostly at its
astounding success at replicating itself all over the world.
While fundamentalists of
all kinds get most of the attention, the authors zero in on another
phenomenon: the growth and global spread of the American megachurch.
With no state-sanctioned religion, American churches began to operate
like multinational corporations; pastors became “pastorpreneurs,”
endlessly branding and expanding, treating the flock like customers
and seeding franchises all over the world. The surge of religion was
“driven by the same forces driving the success of market
capitalism: competition and choice.”
market that niche religious leaders stepped into was the hole opened
up by modernity, and their product was something the authors call
“soulcraft.” Instead of raging against modern life, they
sold themselves as easing the way for the harried middle class.
Church became a place to form social bonds, get dates, meet fellow
moms isolated in suburbia, lose weight. Christian America spawned a
parallel world of popular culture, with books and movies telling
people how to live meaningful lives. The most popular, like Rick
“Purpose-Driven Life,” perfectly mirrored the can-do
ethos of American success culture.
the while, religion began shedding its association with
anti-intellectualism, and became the province of the upwardly mobile
middle class. Evangelicals began graduating from college in record
numbers, and Christian philanthropists began building an
“intellectual infrastructure,” including programs and
endowed chairs in the Ivy
A new class of thinkers emerged representing what some have called
“the opening of the evangelical mind,” and a solid
religious left began to take shape, symbolized most powerfully by
Obama beat Hillary
for many reasons, but one was his ability to “out-God”
her, they write.
of Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s analysis of domestic
evangelical culture is familiar. The most original parts of the book
come when they follow the trail overseas, where homegrown Rick
Warrens are popping up in unlikely places. The book opens with a
scene from what sounds like a typical Wednesday night Bible study in,
say, Colorado Springs — a doctor, an academic, a couple of
entrepreneurs, a young hipster in a Che T-shirt, sitting around
someone’s living room and chatting about the
this is taking place in Shanghai, one of many places where the
casual, personalized, distinctly American style of worship is
thriving. They do the same thing a group of American evangelicals
would do: debate homosexuality and Darwin, vow to spread the Word,
and check their BlackBerrys before going home.
authors track the explosion of Pentecostalism — with its
perfect mix of “raw emotion and self-improvement” —
to Brazil and South Korea. The American style even has converts in
the Muslim world. Indonesia’s Abdullah Gymnastiar, who has been
criticized as “the Britney
of Islam,” favors wireless mikes, a chatty sermon style and
casual dress. (Aa Gym, as he’s known, is making a comeback
after being brought low by a sex scandal in 2006.) Amr Khaled,
“Egypt’s answer to Billy
is ushering his followers into the televangelist age. His TV show
features testimonials from sports stars and actresses, and he peddles
cassettes and sweatshirts on his Web site.
Much like their American
models, this new generation of religious leaders is an interesting
mix of modern style and traditional message. The trick they try to
pull off is making concessions to modernity without diluting their
message, but in the Muslim world, especially, it’s not clear
how much influence they have.
In many Muslim regions,
democracy and the markets are leading to an explosion of religion in
the opposite way, as fundamentalists react against sexual promiscuity
and other excesses they see in modern life in general and
American-style capitalism in particular. The Muslim world,
Micklethwait and Wooldridge acknowledge, has been much slower to
engage with modernity and has remained mostly hostile to it. There is
no Koran equivalent of the various Bible magazines that tailor their
message to teenagers or hip-hop fans in America. There has never been
a Muslim equivalent of the Enlightenment.
The result is a modern
era that seems to be replaying the religious wars of the 17th century
in a slightly altered form. Radical Islam dominates Iran, Saudi
Arabia and Pakistan, casting itself as an enemy of the
Judeo-Christian West. Nigeria is split along religious lines.
Despite the dark side,
the authors ultimately conclude that “God is back, for better.”
By this they mean that religion is now a matter of choice for most
people, and not a forced or inherited identity. But if that choice
can lead you to either buy a sweatshirt or blow up a building, the
conclusion itself seems a little forced. The reality is that God is
back, for better or worse.