Missions for the Third Millennium (2009-2010)

February 5, 2014 by  
Filed under Featured, Missions, News

This is a re-post of popular articles on Missiology from 2009-2010:

M3: Missions for the Third Millennium – A Public Position (2010)

8 Simple Rules for Doing Missions in the Spirit (2009)

Church of God Eastern Europe Missions: Leadership, Economics and Culture (2009)

Christ and Culture

August 10, 2013 by  
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Richard Niebuhr is one of the most influential modern reformed theologians. He is considered an authority on ethics and church in the Western culture and writes that the authenticity of the Christian faith is based on its realization in a counterpart world setting.

Christ and Culture presents an observation of the ways the church realizes its place in the surrounding world. The central idea of the book is that the church wrestles with both its Lord and with the cultural society with which it lives. In such context, the relevancy of the church’s message to the opposing party remains the central as well. Four models of how the Christian and contemporary realities can interact to seek the answer to how Christian life should be lived are discussed.

Niebuhr approaches culture in general, from a reformed point of view with a definite accent on the present (now) covenant and not so much with apprehension of the eschatological future of the church. His views are based on a mid-twentieth century church operating in a modern Western context. His discussion of the relationship of church and contemporary culture, however, give an opinion much beyond this time making this research valid today.
Niebuhr, believed that the life which Christ commanded from his followers contain values that are essential for the formation of culture and are much needed by the secular world. Christian faith, however, needs to be brought beyond self-separation in order to engage culture with the values of the Christian life. Faith then acts more as a social presence and action which become a transforming factor for society. In a typical reformed manner, the text proposes the church’s involvement in bringing the Kingdom on earth.

The author then uses the four models to examine the variations of the place in culture given to Christ and examines the different effects on society and the church. These models are: (1) Christ against, (2) Christ of, (3) Christ above and (4) Christ transforming culture. They form a literal gradation in the book and serves as the author’s supporting evidence. Christ against culture is a rather “postmodern” approach through which the church rejects modern culture. Such process is in parallel with the life of Christ who not only taught the values of faith but also lived them. Thus, as the church opposes the world, Christian values must become personal acts rather than theoretical descriptive qualifications.

Niebuhr explains that Christ’s rejection of culture was not a result of eschatological expectations, but a result of Him being the Son of God. The realization of Christ’s sonship, then is also the way through which the church should minister in the world. In other words, the church and the life of the Christian must demonstrate Christ’s sonship.
Niebuhr outlines several theological problems in the Christ against culture model as follows (1) reason and revelation, (2) nature and prevalence of sin, (3) relationship of law and grace and (4) the relationship of Jesus Christ to the Creator of nature and Governor of history.
Christ of culture is the second approach which Niebuhr observes. This is another historical overview which speaks much of the Enlightenment. The text discusses several of the thinkers of the day, who attempt to identify Christ with culture. This model shifts the focus from revelation and reason to Christ and culture, as shown in the discussion about Rischl.

The difficulty with cultural Christianity is that it has always been widely rejected. As far as discipleship is concerned, such approach is not more effective than Christian radicalism. The reason for this is that Gnostics and cultural Protestants which Niebuhr describes as lead representatives of this approach create a new mystical image of Christ. When paralleled with the actual Christian story, such images cannot bear the witness of true Christianity and are rejected by both the Scripture and Church.

Christ above culture is the next model which Niebuhr examines, treating medieval representations of a practical synthesis. This synthesis was full of tensions as both sides of the church were corrupt. Regardless of the damages, they both served as means for each other transformation, thus reforming each other. Such synthesis could not be a present day paradigm except if its prerequisites, protesting Christianity and religious institutions, are present in the context of a cultural church able to accommodate such relationship.

The final proposal is the one of the culture-transforming Christ. Unfortunately, this chapter is not as comprehensive as the rest of the observations, perhaps leaving some space for new research and answers. The author spends a great deal of time examining the conversion motif from the fourth Gospel as a model for this culture-transferring Christianity. He then relates it to the theology of Augustine and Maurice and their views of culture transformed by Christ.

In conclusion of this reflection, it must be pointed out that while precise in a great deal of historical facts, Niebuhr is not accurate in the description of the Mennonite Church (Christ Against Culture), perhaps he meant Amish. Also, the definition of culture seems to change through the presentation of different models. Finally, he approaches the relationship of culture and Christianity from a Calvinistic point of view, leaving very little expression of other paradigms outside reformed theology.

Mission Applications
The Fall of the Berlin Wall opened the door toward Eastern Europe and the Soviet republics. Since millions of Eastern Europeans coming out of the Communist Regime could relate to the Pentecostal faith, the numbers of saved and baptized with the Holy Spirit grew by the millions. The result was a multitude of revival fires from the Prague to Vladivostok which unavoidably began changing the local culture.

In the midst of the Pentecostal Eastern European revival, the underground and semi-underground Pentecostal churches coming out of the communist persecution quickly found themselves insufficient to accommodate the need of the new converts for a Pentecostal community. Having had minimal opportunities for education and training under Communism, the only hope was in the supernatural. I In such times, lack of spiritual dependency was replaced by human leadership, self-confidence and wrongful ambitions. Ministers, churches and whole denominations made mistakes which resulted in thousands of new converts being lost for the harvest. Adding clearly Western theological views, church practices and management models were only temporary patches. Like its context of origin, they lasted only enough for the problems to grow and come back in a hunt to destroy human lives. Intense opposition from the schismatic Eastern Orthodox Church, severe economical crises, the lack of political direction, rapidly changing governments and laws were only a few details present as we entered Postmodernity. All of a sudden theologies brought from he west made no sense in the Eastern European context and a sudden need for a new, contextualized Pentecostal paradigm for ministry emerged.

The main question which such paradigm must answer is how a post-persecuted and post-communist church ministers to a postmodern world. In Chrsit-cultural terms, this same question may sound like, “How does a church which has been rejected by Community culture for decades now overcome this rejection and minister to the post-Communist culture.” The answers are many, but the right one must emerge form the identity of the church through a realization that even before there ever was a post-Communist culture in Bulgaria, through rejection of the Communist culture, the church itself was operating within a post-Communist reality. Such paradigm is not strange to the Bible, as the Early Church rejected the Roman reality and operated, similar to a post-Roman reality. The problem with the Bulgarian Protestant church, however, is a very oxymoronic one. This comes from the fact that while outsiders would consider Bulgarian post-Communist culture as a postmodern one, in fact the present Bulgarian culture is pre-modern or at best modern. Since the relationship between postcommunist and postmodern culture is still a new issue, the correct paradigm within such culture must make a decision if the post-Communist culture is pre-modern, modern or postmodern. Such paradigm for ministry will act as a paradigm of cultural transformation.

Called & Empowered

July 10, 2013 by  
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calledCalled & Empowered is a collection of essays that addresses a number of critical post-modern issues. The main purpose of the book is to introduce and answer problematic questions related to church and culture. A great addition is the compilation of in-depth cultural studies and recent theological developments viewed in Christian context. What made the book interesting for me personally was the presence of a number of well-balanced critical perspectives which were presented from different viewpoints. Because they were combined with different cultural factors, they were helpful in understanding the Global Mission of Pentecostalism. The supportive evidence focused on the Kingdom, culture, social formation and unity.

On the Kingdom of God
During the latter part of the twentieth century, the doctrine of the Kingdom of God was of great concern for many theologians and missiologists. In my short educational experience, I have been introduced to a number of works on the subject, some of which were quite controversial. However, it has been interesting to read about the Kingdom strategy of Jesus, along with the development of the Kingdom theology in the context of third world praxis. It seems that in both cases, it is reasonable to accept the fact that since the Kingdom of God was a prime concern in the ministry of Jesus, as well as in the ministry of John the Baptist and the apostles, it should carry the same importance in our Christian life and activities. Unfortunately, this may not be the observed reality in Christianity today. However, traditionally and historically, Pentecostal Christians have always focused on the Kingdom of God. A very particular example in this case is the already-not-yet proposal, which is directly associated with Kingdom theology.

On Gospel and Culture
This particular division in Called and Empowered has a very important discussion on the urbanization of the Pentecostal mission. Historically, Pentecostal revivals do not begin in huge urban centers and do not focus or attract them. It seems that such revivals occur mainly among people who are neither highly educated, nor economically prosperous. Also they do not occupy a high rank in the social hierarchy. It is only after they have had a period of successful existence as aggressively growing religious organizations that the Pentecostal Churches and ministries start aiming at the great cultural, economical and political urban centers. Such progressive development is evident in the Bible. Undeniably, the first move of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 was among uneducated people such as fishermen and tax collectors. Similar concern was expressed by Gentiles present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Nevertheless, shortly thereafter the Gospel was preached before kings, politicians, governors and military leaders. Therefore, what Pentecostalism rediscovers today is not a new blending of culture and Gospel, but rather a reclamation of the continuity of historical inheritance.

On Pentecostal Response to Marxism
A very good point was made by Dr. Kuzmic in his exposition on Marxism in relation to the existence of Pentecostalism. It is always quite disturbing when a parallel between Marx’s socialism and Christianity is being made. In Eastern Europe however, this idea is not as neoteric as proposed by some Western writers. In the early twentieth century Nikolay Berdyaev, one of the most prominent socialist writers, introduced what is considered probably the first comparison between Christianity and Marxism. The similarities are many: common wealth, economical and social balance, peace, brotherhood, ect. Also, communism in many ways imitates Christianity. Good examples are the establishment of the social and economical infrastructure of cultural communes, work unions and agricultural cooperatives which have common assets. A similar example is the almost “religious” dedication required by the Communist Party.

What is missed, however, is the simple fact that Marxism, different from Christianity, lacks God. As Dr. Kuzmic points out, Marx hated all gods, including Christ. Therefore, there is no room for comparison. If Communism is Christianity without Christ, it then stands far away from the whole idea of the existence of Christianity. This was shown through the enormous failure of communism in Eastern Europe. Since Dr. Kuzmic has personally experienced all of the above, his exposition on Marxism in relation to Pentecostalism assesses the true danger of such a parallel.

On Ecumenism and Pentecostal Mission
The last evidence is drawn from the discussion on Ecumenical Mission offered in Called & Empowered and my long-term relationship with the World Council of Churches. The World Council of Churches is one of the numerous organizations which promote worldwide Christian unity through reconciliation, theological dialogue, sharing of resources and the vision of a community life rooted in a particular cultural context.

The vision of the World Council of Churches is based on the common Christian mission of introducing Christ and Christianity to the world. I am persuaded that the future of World Missions is for Christians uniting with a common purpose for our Christian mission. Undoubtedly, such process will take time and mutual efforts. I am reminded of this as I observe my home country, Bulgaria where Protestant Christians are divided against one another and unity is lacking. Unified missions will not only bring oneness and harmony back into the church, but it will formulate the ecclesiastical community after the image of the Early Church from the Book of Acts. The results from such a unified mission will not only be world changing, but self-changing as well.

Mission Applications
The following part of this overview will include a mission application response to the evidences listed above. As it focuses on the Eastern European context, it will further suggest mission applications in the present Protestant reality in the region, and more specifically among the Bulgarian Pentecostals. The above four evidence accents were chosen among others because they all pertain to today’s Bulgarian Protestant reality. The kingdom of God as both present reality and eschatological hope takes a bit different perspective in a society where forty five years of Communist regime has left a deep scar on people’s mentality. Healing for the emotional and social wounds has not been provided by rapidly changing governments and political models, crime has increased, severe economical crises have occupied and there remains a constant fear and lack of hope for the future. In such context, the Kingdom of God is much more than a present reality or a future hope. It is all that the Protestant church in Bulgaria really has.

Gospel and culture are an essential part of Bulgarian missions work. On the Balkan Peninsula where Bulgaria is located, there are more than 150 languages and dialects spoken. Adding the crossroads of three world religions, three continents and constant migration of people that has been going on for thousands of years, makes this Europe’s melting pot of cultures and ethnoses. Discovering a paradigm which will serve as a buffer between the ever-changing Balkan culture and the eternal Gospel will be the ever-present factor that determines the success of Protestantism on the Balkans.

In Eastern European cultural and social context, the mentioning of Communism indeed has a different meaning. The Pentecostal church in Bulgaria historically and ideologically has opposed Communism in every form, and thus Pentecostal Christianity in Bulgaria must differentiate from Communism in order to remain in its historical distinctives. In order to be successful in its mission and message, and at the same time remain within its original identity, the Bulgarian Protestant movement must continue to oppose Communism in all of its forms.

The final evidence of ecumenism must be understood in Eastern European settings not only as an ecumenical cooperation of different religious formations, but as a union between all existing Protestant groups. As costly as such idea may seem, it will strengthen Eastern European Protestantism. Historically, in Bulgaria an organization called Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance (United Evangelical Churches) has served such purpose by preserving the identity of the denominations members. Such unity of cooperation must continue in even more strategic and planned ways in order to provide Bulgarians with the proper social context for national Protestant reformation and revival.

Walter Brueggemann: Christianity & Culture

April 20, 2012 by  
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