Syncretism and Contextualization

I was reading this morning about the topic of syncretism in the book, God the Real Superpower, by J. Nelson Jennings. Jennings asserts that syncretism “is best understood as a distortion of a healthy contextualization process” (186). He goes on to explain

Syncretism then becomes the loss of universal, transcendent and normative traits of the Christian faith, due to a culture’s ‘pull’ towards autonomy…. There is a protection of the status quo against all critique, no matter what normative standards of justice and mercy might attempt to speak into the situation. Finally, what is genuinely local and flexible is reified into something allegedly universal and normative—which becomes problematic when other local situations are encountered” (186-87).

The challenge for American evangelicals and churches today is for them to realize that “syncretism is an ongoing threat against which Christians in all context must be on guard” (187), and to also realize that Christians typically “want to ease the discomfort and threat of Jesus’ ongoing reforming mission in the midst of our ever-changing contexts” (187). We must realize there lies a tendency among Christians to build around our faith and the gospel rituals, traditions, structures, models, and practices that can easily become outdated, especially if the surrounding context has changed. Therefore, Jennings is right when he states, “Freezing what has become settled is safe. Our subconscious assumptions can seek to preserve our own control, rights, and privileges. When that happens, abuse, comfort, and intergenerational conflicts will arise and squelch life and vitality” (187).

What Jennings argues in his section on syncretism and syncretism prohibiting healthy contextualization of the gospel in local contexts, is what I was attempting to express in a section of my sermon this past week. Preaching on Matthew 28:18-20, I approached the fact that part of Jesus’ commission to disciple nations involves proper contextualization. Jesus was not asking his disciples to go and make disciples into good Jewish believers, but to make them into good indigenous native believers of their local context. Below is an excerpt from Sunday’s message.

At the core, making disciples of all nations requires us to understand the context and culture God has placed us and begin to find ways where we can communicate, teach, and demonstrate to the greater culture the gospel of the kingdom of God in a meaningful way.

Our call is not to make disciples into good 1960, 70, 80, 90, or 2000 church people—but devoted followers of the kingdom of Jesus. This is where those of us who have been believers for 10, 15, 20, 30, 50 years need to realize that what the contextualized gospel looked like then, and what models of the church looked like then, are not necessarily what the contextualized gospel and contextualized models of church look like today. In other words, we must understand the message of the gospel never changes, but how it is communicated and how it is embodied to particular people groups and cultures does change.

Many churches and believers will find this difficult to hear and accept, for they have built up an idol in their lives that church is about them, their preferences, their desires, and their styles, rather about those that God has placed us here to reach. 

If you study your New Testament, this is exactly what much of the fuss was about, the Jews were saying:

“let us just make Gentile people into good Jewish believers. It is easier for us, because we know all about our Jewish culture and practices. Therefore, if we just tell them to become followers of Jesus and be integrated into the Jewish practices of the church we do not have to change. We will ask them to be circumcised and observe all the feasts and festivals that we have. We will teach them our style of music. It will be great. And in teaching them about Jesus and all these programs, ministries and customs that we have, we will let them know that their spiritual Christian maturity will be based upon Jesus plus all these observances and practices. In other words they will be great Mo-Jesusites (Moses and Jesus followers).”

Paul came back and said, “NO.” It is not about them becoming devoted followers of a Jewish Jesus, but of Jesus. It is not Moses+Jesus, but only Jesus. Jesus has died and rose from the dead so that his gospel would go out and make disciples of nations; and that each nation would embody the gospel in their heart language and custom.”   

As the church seeks to contextualize the gospel, and bring and express the gospel in the heart language of the culture, they need to realize that contextualization historically has not been received well, especially in contexts where the residues of past church engagements exists. Jennings argues that one of the main flaws of church history lies “in not accounting for how the gospel continues to work in a particular and ever-changing culture” (185). For example when John Wycliffe and Martin Luther began to translate Scripture into the heart language of the people they were trying to reach, they were met with fierce opposition by the Catholic church. Furthermore, when Luther or Calvin where attempting to deconstruct the syncretistic practices of the Catholic church that they believed were unbiblical and not required by Scripture, they were also met with fierce oppositions.

Today, the challenge is understanding the normative and universal truths of the gospel and packaging and delivering them in a way that is in the heart language of the culture, including its structures, models, methods, and practices. This is a tall order for the church in North America, in both established churches and church plants; but it is an essential task nonetheless, especially if the church is to continue participating in the mission of God in bringing redemption and restoration (in both word and deed) among the kingdom of darkness.

Review of Transformational Church by Thom Rainer and Ed Stetzer

Introduction

Change is inevitable. Throughout the history of civilization people have engaged and endured change. Even in recent years and decades, the amount of change in society is mind-boggling. From technology to supermarkets and diets to fashion, change is unavoidable. In a fluid society and culture, businesses, organizations, and institutions must embrace change if they desire continued success and longevity. In other words, they need to constantly evolve contextually, in order to reach people. If not, they may find their business, organization, or institution becoming irrelevant to the greater community, which will eventually lead to their demise and extinction. The stark reality is this is true for churches as well.

            While the church embraces the truth of sanctification, which is basically embracing the notion that individuals must change and be conformed into the image of Christ, they have failed to apply the same truth to the corporate church body. Rather than embracing the reality of change and continuing to contextualize the unchanging truth of the gospel and God’s word to an ever-changing society and culture, many churches tend to relish in past paradigms, styles, traditions, and mentalities. Thom Rainer and Ed Stetzer accentuate in their joint book, Transformational Church, that many leaders and churches alternatively choose not to change, but rather choose maintaining the status quo, keeping the flashing lights going, and refraining from rocking the boat (Transformational Churches, 3).  

Another area in the church that remains untouched by many is measuring ecclesiastical vitality. For many, vitality is measured through the three B’s: bodies, buildings, and budgets. The more people, the bigger the building, and the larger the budget equates to ecclesiastical success. Biblically speaking, this is not always true. The reason being is that these things do not always translate into transformation. Transformation happens when the gospel penetrates a heart. In essence, the heart of the gospel is transformation. This leads Rainer and Stetzer to advocate another form of measurement in the church. They advocate a change in scorecard, from building, budgets, and bodies– to advancing the kingdom of God into the world, in a way that produces transformation in people, churches, and communities (31). In essence, the scorecard that is needed, according to these men, is one that measures how well the church makes disciples.

The goal for Rainer and Stetzer in Transformational Church is to provide a new scorecard for churches, in order for churches to understand what really matters for church vitality (the mission of God and making disciples)– so that churches could change perception, mentality, and (possibly) paradigms, as well as its ecclesiastical metrics. Through an enormous, robust, and intense research period, involving thousands of churches from multiple denominations, Rainer and Stetzer (along with their team), compiled the data to provide the new scorecard, which they refer to as, Transformational Loop. This brief interaction paper will engage the new scorecard, Transformational Loop, by highlighting its major points of contributions as well as interacting with a point of ambiguous research.

 

“Discern” Narrative– Having a Missionary Mentality

The Transformational Loop consists of three categories (Discern, Embrace, Engage), containing seven elements; one element (Missionary Mentality) in the Discern category, three elements (Vibrant Leadership, Relational Intentionality, and Prayerful Dependence) in the Embrace category, and three elements (Worship, Community, and Mission) in the Engage category. A transformational church begins the way they should end, committed to the community and context where they exist. Churches that are first committed to a people and a context will be able to contextualize a clear strategy, as well as the specific tasks it will perform. Also, it is important, according to Rainer and Stetzer, for a shift in mindset to occur. Rather than seeing that people have stories, Transformational Churches will see that people are stories. It is important for churches to know the story of the people and context to which God has called (48).

            Rainer and Stetzer touch the surface of a very important issue in today’s culture, but more importantly in God’s word, that issue being stories and narrative. People, religions, ideologies, and philosophies are built upon and around narrative. Michael Emlet, in his book CrossTalk, argues that understanding both the story of God and the story of people is necessary to help others embrace the transformation the Bible envisions for God’s people (CrossTalk, 7). Therefore, a missionary mentality embraces the story/narrative of God, or the mission of God, and seeks to bring the gospel to the people, both around them and around the world. Having the narrative of God as the driving force of churches, churches are more inclined to concentrate on people not preferences, nations not (just) community, and mission not (just) missions. Narrative prevents churches from compartmentalizing (reducing them to programs and ministry in the church) discipleship and missions, because they understand everything it does should be towards developing disciples and reaching people.

 

“Embrace” Narrative– through Leadership, Community, and Prayer

Beginning with a missionary mentality that is driven by the mission of God (narrative), transformational churches are led by leaders who have embraced and are passionate about this narrative. For the leader, “The mission of God is a priority rather than just one thing among many things” (75). One of the goals of transformational leaders is to empower their people to embrace and involve themselves in the mission of God. Rather than holding on to personal power or building their ecclesiastical kingdom, transformational leaders relinquish ministry and focus on advancing the kingdom of God.

            Transformational churches not only have transformational leaders committed to the mission of God, but also have people who have embraced relational intentionality. Rainer and Stetzer make a very astute point in regards to “friendly” churches vs. churches where friendships are made. Transformational churches “know that people are not just looking for a “friendly church,” they’re hungry for friends” (100). Rather than being cordial and nice, Transformational Churches intentionally focus on creating environments where relationships can be birthed and cultivated, places where people can do life together. This supports other research expressing that people who have friends in a church are more likely to remain in that church than those who have relatively few to no friends (Beyond the First Visit, 25). Also, these relational environments do not treat people as projects or pawns to advance a pastor or church’s image, but are part of the bigger narrative, the mission of God, and seeks to experience changed lives and more people being on mission. 

            Another element within the Embrace category is Prayerful Dependence. Rainer and Stetzer rightly suggest that Prayerful Dependence may very well be the most important element in the Transformational Loop (122). For transformational churches, prayer undergirds everything they do. A statement worth highlighting is, “If our motivation is numerical growth, then we have no real reason to pray” (131). What a pithy comment, full of truth. This reminds the reader and churches once again that the ultimate goal is not an increase in numbers, but noticeable transformation in people, churches, and communities. Prayer remains tantamount for transformation to occur. “Where people pray, God works. Where God works, transformation happens” (144).

 

“Engage” Narrative– through Worship, Community, and Mission  

Concluding the Transformational Loop is Engage. Worship, community, and mission are the three elements within the Engage category. Having discerned and embraced God’s mission (narrative), churches can then engage the narrative through worship, community, and mission.[*] Worship is perhaps the most important action of the human experience, for it encompasses the whole of life rather than compartmentalizing it to something that Christians do (149). However, Rainer and Stetzer compartmentalize (not in a negative way) worship by addressing the corporate worship gathering in churches. Their goal is to show how transformational churches actively embraced Jesus through worship rather than preferences.

            They provide excellent insight for corporate worship gatherings that would behoove many people and churches to read. Worship, according to Rainer and Stetzer, transforms the worshipper, by clearly presenting Jesus and focuses on him as the central object of worship, not the preferences of “how” to worship (156-64). Also, for churches implementing multiple worship styles, they caution, “If you are driven by the desire to make people happy so they will not leave your church, then multiple services, multiple styles will not work…. Multiple styles can cause resentment and greater division, catering to religious consumerism can force a local church further down a disastrous road” (167). This again gives credence to the driving force behind churches being the narrative of God– because churches desirous of transformation die to their preferences.

            The last two elements covered in the Transformational Loop, based upon the robust research, are community and mission. Trying to avoid somewhat of a redundancy from the element of relational intentionality, Rainer and Stetzer cover the importance of the small groups within the life of transformational churches. Their premise is that life change happens best among friends (176); therefore, developing smaller communities within churches is vital. As churches grow larger, they must also grow smaller.

Small groups are not the only element of TCs; they are also engaged in mission. Transformational churches transition from being solely a “come and see” church, to [also] a “go and tell” church. TCs do not relegate ministry and mission to the acreage upon which the building rests, but are constantly searching for ways to engage the community with the goods news of Christ. Transformational churches, understanding the cultural milieu, realize they can no longer rely on attractional methods and programs to be their proxy evangelist, but must be willing to blaze new trails and bridges to the community, in order to see transformation take place.      

 

Two Questions

At the beginning of the book, Rainer and Stetzer relay the difficulty of research that seeks to quantify the qualitative. Therefore, the question raised by this writer is very minute compared to the overall solid research and biblical truth expressed throughout this work. The only question concerning the research numbers is raised on page 203 when Rainer and Stetzer describe Transformational churches have a significantly higher percentage of believers who see their church engaged in a deeper mission. They go on to write that only 33 percent of the people surveyed agreed that, “Our church intentionally provides service opportunities for our people to be engaged with the unchurched in our local city or community.” While it is certainly understandable that non-transformational churches would have much lower numbers to this question– is 33 percent a percentage worth celebrating? This particular research statistic should be a concern. Even churches, considered to be a TC, producing high volumes of “disciples,” have only 33 percent of their people expressing that their church provides them service opportunities to engage the unchurched and the community.

The second question raised, also falls under the “Mission” element. Stetzer described the Bubbafest, an outreach event sponsored by Crossville United Methodist Church, as a safe environment created for gospel conversations. In all the research, and all the interviews, is this the best example they can give for mission engagement? The issue is that many churches (even non-transformational ones) read this example and conclude, “We do this.” The church over recent years and decades has done a good job holding events: block parties, fall festivals, Easter egg hunts, wild-game dinners, and deer expos. But, the successful events have not translated into sustained longevity and community transformation. Many times these events become “drive-by windows” seeking to hand out rapid evangelistic decisions. The question is not whether people are saved, they are; the issue is the sustainability, transformation, and long-term impact of such missional events.

Nevertheless, what has been presented to the church in Transformational Church contains a wealth of insight, brought about by thorough research, solid biblical principles, and experts in the field. They effectively present a new scorecard that potentially can lead church to be more focused on transformation. Particularly, the Transformational Loop becomes a simple tool containing principles and directions to accomplish such a change. To help with this change, the authors and their teams developed a church assessment and training tool. To find out more about this assessment tool go to http://www.lifeway.com/Product/transformational-church-assessment-tool-500-999-P005320999. May many churches today have “cathartic” moments leading to the rebuilding of the North America church, so that transformation would be tangibly seen in people, churches, and communities.


[*] While the authors have not specifically articulated applying narrative to the Transformation Loop the way this paper has, this paper has taken the liberty to do so because of the rich focus on making disciples and seeing transformation in the lives of people, churches, and communities.