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to build around our faith and the gospel rituals, traditions, structures, models, and practices that can easily become outdated, especially if the surrounding context has changed.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.