April 3, 2020

Riffs: Are We Accelerating or Inhibiting Movements to Christ?

logo.gifBob Goodmann writes an article in Missions Frontiers Magazine you need to read. If you are a missional thinker/pastor, a person concerned with evangelism and the growth of the church, or a person making up your mind about this emerging church business, read this article.

Goodmann is asking “Are We Accelerating or Inhibiting Movements To Christ?” With excellent graphics (it’s a pdf piece. sorry.) Goodmann looks at several areas where movements that become indegenous succeed, take root in their cultures and move through natural connections to significant growth. He makes it plain that this won’t make many western Christians comfortable, and it shakes up our ideas of how church growth happens. Brought home as well as Goodmann brings it, there is a lot here to scare traditional church types into locking the doors and burying themselves under “How to be a good church” books.

I’m linking the article, and then I’m putting the first few BHT discussion posts in the extended entry. I may update that as we go along.

Read: Are We Accelerating or Inhibiting Movements To Christ?

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By BHT Fellow JS Bangs: Michael, that article was provocative, all right. Provoked me to strongly disagree in several places.

If that culture is strongly intertwined with religion, then believers are free to follow Jesus while remaining “inside” their ethno-religious identity. (E.g. “I’m a Muslim who follows Jesus”, rather than “I’ve converted to Christianity in order to follow Jesus”.)

I remember us discussing this before, and I came out against it then, too. The problem is that if “Muslim” means anything more than “Arab”, then it refers to people with specific religious beliefs and practices. You might convince me that a Christian–excuse me, I mean “Jesus follower”–can worship at a mosque using Islamic prayers, so long as Allah is understood to mean “Yahweh”. But no Jesus-follower can say “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet.” No Jesus-follower can believe the words attributed to Jesus from the Koran denying the Virgin Birth and Christ’s divinity. So “Muslim who follows Jesus” either means “Christian who still dresses traditionally and speaks Arabic” (in which case I doubt anyone is fooled) or “Muslim with slightly higher opinion of Jesus than before” (in which case the missionary might be fooled, but I doubt that God is).

Fellowships develop Biblically-based practices for baptism and the Lord’s Supper that fit their local context and culture.

Erm, what if the local context is “no baptism at all”? What if local custom demands that people get roaringly drunk at public meals, including the Lord’s Supper?

Other Christians give the “insider” believers freedom to develop their own contextualized Biblical doctrines, without passing judgment.

This is the best of all. What if they decide that Jesus wasn’t co-eternal with the Father? What if they decide that the Trinity is bunk? What if they decide that Judas is the hero of the Gospel? Seriously, this could go to all sorts of strange places, and seems to rely a lot on magic-bookism (“Just give ’em the Bible and Christianity pops right out!”). I’m probably being “judgemental”, and trying to impose my cultural traditions on them.

Basically, I think his analysis of Scripture is wrong. Paul did not hesitate to impose observances and regulations on his congregations that isolate them from the surrounding culture. Jesus said he came to split families apart. The bottom line: The Gospel is not culturally neutral. Or maybe I’m just not “missional” enough.

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By BHT Fellow Graham: JS: I concur with your concerns about the Mission Frontiers article. I respect that organization, and I am sympathetic toward missional and emerging thinking. BTW, Michael, Mission Frontiers may not be an “emerging publication”, but IMO this article represents the essence of much of emerging and missional thinking. That article is pretty much a direct “overseas” application of the concepts offered by Neil Cole in his book Organic Church. I have the same reaction to this article that I had to his book – Yikes! There is much to admire, but one can’t help but wonder about the long term prognosis of his adventure.

Without going into a detailed analysis, here is the one thought that struck me while reading the article. When Mr. Goodmann speaks about the need for new believers to remain attached to their community, family, culture, even their religion, I can’t help but think about all the martyrs who have died because of their “foreign identity”. Their bold, loving acknowledgement of faith in Christ (which included coming out from among them and being separate, and putting on their new self) in the face of the resistance and threats of their families and communities often led them to torture and death, a fate which the church for 2000 years has considered the greatest single act of which man is capable. Does this call to melt into our culture as an “insider” not oppose the spirit of these martyrs who have shone brightly for us throughout the ages – this great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us?

But that leads me to my second concern with this article (as well as with Neil Cole’s Organic Christianity). Mr. Goodmann seems to be suggesting that new believers develop their own identity, with the Bible as their only authority and with the Holy Spirit as their only guide. Again, yikes! This sounds to me like Charismatic Chaos on acid! You think things got messy in the 70’s and 80’s? Just wait until this “independent” Revolution takes off, and rather than having a pope in every church, we have a pope in every house! God help us.

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Michael’s Response: I have a coworker- Paul- who is in his second year teaching with us after 12+ years as a missionary in an African nation, working under IMB. He was a tireless church planter and specialized in developing indigenous worship music. His son will graduate from OBI this year, and then I expect them to move on to a major seminary. He turned down an offer from one this year. BTW, with us, he’s teaching algebra and piano. “Be flexible missionary!”

Paul and I have discussed the issues in the article being discussed many, many times. Recent conflicts between the IMB and missionaries, and ironically, the IMB and trustees representing a faction of the conservative cabal that has controlled the SBC leadership for the past two decades, have revealed that these issues are alive and well in our own missionary work.

Goodmann is not advocating the adoption of heresy or the rejection of the Bible. (Though he is obviously saying there is the risk of heresies. See Christian history or your local church for details.) This isn’t a how-to article. It’s an analysis of strategy in the creation of “faith movements” or “church planting movements.” As an summary of analysis, it is not an attempt to answer all the difficult questions that are raised in the contexts being described. And let’s be serious: there are as many problems in one column as another.

For example, Goodmann is suggesting that movements that become indigenous pay the price for local leadership and local, indigenous methodology, as opposed to external control and methodology from a seminary somewhere. Clearly, this is happening in emerging church movements. (Heck, it’s happening in American Calvinism!) Messy? Of course. But is someone in here- other than the advocates of hierarchy + detailed local control by outsiders- going to say this isn’t the way to go?

What exactly is going on in the Corinthian correspondence? Paul seems to have left the locals in charge and they are doing it their way. Is Paul attempting to deal with the problems? Yes. Is he giving up the principle of local leadership and all its potential problems? No. Goodmann nowhere says that the apostolic level of leadership should be thrown away, but look at this passage in critical chapter:

Acts 15:19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

The determination to not “make it difficult” for Gentiles to come to faith in their own cultures was accompanied by an imposition of Jewish food laws, which, I believe, Paul never required.

We are also talking here about whether we actually believe that the embodiment of the gospel in our own culture and history is “essential.” This makes me want to laugh. My friend Paul has made it very clear to me that if we believe that the church movements that are exploding in Africa, the South and Asia are following the templates of western, European and American evangelicalism, we’re deluded. It’s messy. It’s spontaneous. It makes up its own rules. It’s fitted for survival and multiplication. The focus on “right doctrine” and “right order” rides pretty loose in the saddle in a brand new house church in a village in Nigeria. News flash: debates about leadership, polygamy, women teaching, the qualifications of leaders, the articulation of the faith, the presence and use of the Bible, education, and of course, relation to culture aren’t turning out Dixie Heights Baptist Church or Generic Community Church. They are turning out another movement.

Finally, Goodmann may not say this, but it needs to be said. This isn’t some missions slide show. This is the ball game. This is the church in the global south. This is the explosion of the church that we aren’t seeing in America. If anyone reading this Goodmann piece thinks that western mission boards, denominations and schools are “running” this thing, I’m not laughing at you; I’m laughing near you. Westerners can have their conferences, show slides, take mission trips and support the nice white family living overseas. Meanwhile, the global tide of church growth continues in India, South America, Africa and Asia. Following its own course.

Goodmann is suggesting how we might adjust our thinking to be helpful. Agencies, denominations and seminaries aren’t irrelevant. Yet. There’s still influence to be used and opportunities to be availed. But it’s time for western Christians to get a clue of what the World Christian movement is and looks like. Goodmann has opened a window. You can shake your head and send them all the books on how to you want. The Spirit seems to be on another course. If we want to denounce it all as a sea of heresy because they aren’t using our template, graduating from our schools, getting our approval/permission or acknowledging that we’re doing it right, fine. But maybe we should reread Goodmann and hear what he’s saying: this is happening. We aren’t voting on it. Now…what do we do with it?

I vote we learn from it, and let it loose here.

Greg: Your martyrs argument is quite important, but let’s remember a couple of things. There are a lot of reasons people have died for the faith, and a perception of cultural/religious betrayal has always been one. That doesn’t mean that everything done in the name of “separation” from a culture is good. I see students abandoning their culture and language for American culture every day. I assure you that there is a lot going on. Some internationals adopt Christianity as a quick way to be western/American, right down to the suit and the KJV. It’s a ploy for acceptance, not a following of Christ. So we need to be clear on what is truly following Christ, and what isn’t.

Secondly, there have been many martyrs who died over things like which version of the Prayer Book to use. Martyrdom can be noble and an imitation of Christ. Or it can be unnecessary and an expression of human pride and deception. In my reading of Christian history, I see a lot of blood spilt that westerners like to call “martyrdom.” I’m not quite sold on that title. Some of it was war. Some stupidity. Some pointless. And some, as you say, like Christ. But let’s be cautious when we say a person must “come out” of their culture to the point of risking death. Are we doing that in America?

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JS Responds: Michael, let me try to respond less crankily, in a way that won’t make you afraid to respond :). Also, note that I never once used the word “emergent” or “emerging” in my post–I’m not fighting that battle.

We all agree that there are elements of practice that are necessary and unnecessary for orthodox Christianity. Language, for example, is something that no one suggests be imposed as a part of missions. My problem with this article is that the author seems to draw his circle of necessary things exceedingly small: he limits it to the text of Scripture and the existence of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I, however, believe that there are significant, non-negotiable elements of Christian orthodoxy that are not immediately obvious in Scripture (e.g. the Trinity), and significant elements of orthopraxy that aren’t obvious in Scripture (e.g. no eucharist for the unbaptized). It’s not clear what the author thinks of these things, but he certainly gives the impression that we have to allow for difference in the name of “enculturation.”

That being said, I completely agree with some of his points, especially about local leadership. I’m not saying that the natives need to be baby-sat by benevolent Westerners for the first few generations. It’s all for the good if native missions movements don’t reproduce the disaster of American evangelicalism. I also know that he’s describing existing Jesus movements as much as prescribing future strategies.

My point is that native Jesus movements don’t get a pass for heresy because they’re “enculturated”. Let us not forget that a significant chunk of the original Jesus movement turned into Gnosticism, then Marcionism, then Montanism, then Arianism, etc. etc., and that we spend most of our time here discussing various heresies and stupidities in our local Jesus movements. There’s no reason to treat indigenous church movements any differently.

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Michael’s response: JS: I have my snark setting on “low.” 🙂

The discussion of what is an essential has been going on on this blog for 5 years and within Christianity for 2000, so I doubt if Goodmann’s article makes any major leaps forward in advocating it. Also, since I can assume the “free church” position as opposed to the RCC or the OC is also in mind, I am assuming that Goodmann has a different view of this issue than those churches who have hierarchical controls on matters right down to whether you can kneel after receiving the Eucharist. 🙂

The possibility of heresy and departure from “good order,” Biblical norms, etc is high in all movements of church growth. This is one reason Calvinism has a problem with emerging movements in general. If someone hasn’t arrived with the London Confession in hand, then it’s just a swamp of heresy out there, so we have to have a controlling structure. The church starting in the living room or the coffee shop is already a problem, especially if they are studying and implementing theology AS THEY GO, as opposed to having it preordered from the mother church or the home office.

I think Goodmann is simply describing what we are faced with when, instead of starting one church every 5 years of so like the average presbytery, we have hundreds even thousands of cells, families and gatherings proliferating, growing, evolving.

I find most western American Christians can’t even comprehend this kind of movement. They continue to think in terms of churches, with trained ministry, set confessions, etc. BEGINNINGS and GROWTH are messy, informal, unstructured processes. Goodmann is laying out the issues of how we view such movements, and how we accelerate or inhibit them. CLEARLY, many I could name on the blogosphere and in evangelicalism would do all they could to INHIBIT such movements, believing that was “discernment ministry” or something.

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JS responds: The possibility of heresy and departure from “good order”, Biblical norms, etc is high in all movements of church growth.

Yep. This is probably why pretty much all of Paul’s letters are about good order, apostolic doctrine, etc.

BEGINNINGS and GROWTH are messy, informal, unstructured processes.

True. The early history of the Church is also messy, informal, and (somewhat) unstructured, and if native movements want to recapitulate the first several centuries of the Church, then that’s cool. However, we should recognize that this means that a lot of them will turn out to be heretical, and that you’ll probably never get rid of the heresy unless you have an emperor that suddenly starts taking a personal interest in things. It took the early church 500 years to get to where it could write the Definition of Chalcedon, and if you’re going to wait another 500 years for the proto-churches in the Global South to get to the same place, well, I suppose that’s okay. But why not just translate Chalcedon into Urdu and be done with it? I consider the Orthodox mission in Alaska a good example of missions work that was both enculturated and native-led after the first generation, without compromising [o/O]rthodoxy.

I fear that Goodmann’s approach is making the means justify the ends. IOWs, all of this messy, informal, cellular, cultural-insider, making-theology-as-you-go-along growth is so inherently good that it doesn’t really matter what kinds of churches result. I strongly disagree.

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Micael responds:But why not just translate Chalcedon into Urdu and be done with it?

That’s the question, isn’t it? Who gets to tell that new “church” that our western doctrinal traditional is on file with Yahweh and he wants all the new churches to sign on. No need to do any theology for themselves. We did it, now they just get it from us. Yes, massah. 🙂

I am sure that many non-western theologians would find the sentence excerpted above to have some cultural baggage of its own.

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JS responds: “We” wrote the Definition of Chalcedon? ‘Coz I thought it was written by old men from Asia Minor who spoke Greek. It is not a product of American or West European culture, even if some of us are a little more used to it. Anyway, I will bite that bullet: Insofar as our theological traditions are true, they are true universally. We may translate the creed or other traditional theological documents into other languages and use formulations intelligible in those cultures, but we cannot change their content. If native church movements are building their theology from the ground up and coming to different conclusions, then they are wrong.

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Michael responds: From the standpoint of non-western churches, yeah, “we” did it.

Agreed, at least from the assumption that we are reading the Bible correctly. But you said “translate it and give it to them.” Pretty paternal. I assume that the recognition of the authority of theological traditions is a free action, and every church has the perfect right to do their own theology from the ground up, and other churches can respond as they choose.

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Alex responds: Here’s a question I think needs to be answered in the current discussion: what are the implications for the existence of a catholic Church, if all and sundry have to start from scratch? Why can’t some sort of continuity be imposed (yes, a nasty word, but give it a charitable reading)?

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Michael responds: I will ignore the observation that the most RC/EO leaning amongst us have the most indigestion. 🙂

Alex: As I said, I assume some “Free Church” tradition in Goodmann’s work. The RCC isn’t into movements that start from “outside.” On the other hand, there are millions of Christians in countries like the former USSR that are developing almost totally outside of any Western awareness. The Indian and African explosions are not going to have anything imposed on them. We can be servant, but they aren’t looking to the US or the west for “church.” God is at work there. It IS the first century in many ways for many Christians. The global Christian movement renders a lot of discussion that goes on in the west totally mute. They can’t read it. They don’t have it. They won’t have it. Their forms, leaders and articulation are their own. When we show up and say “we’re the new movement police. Papers please,” it’s a laugh line.

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Greg responds: Michael: I am part of a family. This family to which I belong is not Western or Modern. It is 2000 years old (actually, in a very real sense it is 4000 years old). We have many beliefs and practices which were given to us by Christ, who is our chief cornerstone. These were given first to the Apostles – the Fathers of our family – and in the early years of our family were clarified and articulated by the next generation of Fathers through the ancient creeds.

When I hear a modern, western man advocate independence for new believers, and avoidance of a foreign identity, I fear that he is advocating independence from our family and our unique identity, whether or not he intends to do so. When I read the scriptures, it seems to me that one of the things about which our Father is very passionate is that we maintain our unique identity (isn’t that what all the bloodshed in the OT was about?), which is demonstrated by our new way of life (culture, relationships, traditions) and our uncompromising allegiance & obedience to Jesus Christ our Lord. Many of our family members have died throughout the past 2000 years (and are dying today!) rather than compromise this unique identity. Some of us have their pictures on our walls and tell their stories to our children in order to keep the flame of our unique identity burning brightly.

I don’t pretend to have an answer for the issues of spiritual authority that we face regarding belief and practice, but I can’t help but feel that a move toward independence and away from foreign identity is a move in the wrong direction.

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JS responds:Pretty paternal.

They aren’t called the Church Fathers for nothing :).

I assume that the recognition of the authority of theological traditions is a free action, and every church has the perfect right to do their own theology from the ground up, and other churches can respond as they choose.

I could turn the tables and observe that by telling them this you are imposing a peculiarly Western, radical Protestant ecclesiology on them. And I guess that’s the crux of the matter: if you accept a Free Church ecclesiology, then this missional stance comes naturally. If you don’t, then it’s a non-starter.

Comments

  1. Conversion of the savages was traditionally part of the colonialist program, and I suppose continues in this new more sophisticated era of globalization and cultural imperialism. And it may not be a bad thing overall. For all I know, the spread of Christianity might make the world a better place– to the extent that being more like us in the West equals the world being a better place. Whether strife and an increase in sectarian hatred might increase by missionary efforts, whether it might undermine traditional social structures to the detriment of social stability, whether the whole effort is worth the candle, doesn’t seem to be under consideration at all.

    And the reason why is not far to seek, though not explicitly acknowledged, in the kinder, gentler religious colonialist’s strategy: Western Christianity is concerned with individuals and saving individual souls, bringing individuals to Jesus, while the traditional cultures are focused on communal integrity. The stealth missionary plan involves selling the former while trying to pose no discernable threat to the latter. There is no concern for cultural integrity per se, just a realization that the goal of Christianization might be best achieved by rocking the boat as little as possible in the beginning.

    Such is the confidence in the superiority of our institutions and customs over those of other people that I don’t doubt that efforts to evangelize the heathen nations with progress hand in glove with efforts to populate them with McDonald’s, Pizza Huts, and finally Weight Watchers franchises. Whether this represents a net gain for the locals is certainly an open question, though.

    Next time I’m on the Northern Cheyenne reservation I’ll be sure to inquire.

  2. I wonder how many respondents to this article have actually been outside the US? How many have seen what’s going on in the indigenous movements in Africa and Asia? I haven’t either, but I’m willing to concede that the Spirit knows what He’s doing much better than I or a mission board or anybody else does.

    Why are we so afraid? Why can’t we trust God to work His will as He sees fit? Who are we to say that what’s going on outside Western Christendom isn’t the Spirit’s correction to our own heresies?

  3. Berean Girl says

    Notarev: Do we really just trust that God is working his will if this method seems to be “successful?” There should be much more brought to the table in analyzing this approach. Maybe some of us are also concerned with Satan’s role in all this; after all Jesus himself warned us about false teachers multiplying in the end times (not that it’s possible to say with any certainty that we are in the end times). We are told in Scripture to be aware of and discern Satan’s schemes and tricks. No one seems to have brought up the specific danger of syncretism in this approach. I see it as a real possibility if this type of evangelism/discipleship is encouraged. I couldn’t tell if this was being presented as a strictly undercover operation (in other words; lie at the mosque to save your live) or if the idea of a muslim who follows Jesus too wasn’t just tolerated but actually encouraged. Compromise is a slippery slope and this seems to have great potential to be a wide open door into it.

  4. Ummm, yes. Let’s not forget there is plenty of syncretism and false teaching right here in the good ol US of A. If compromise is a slippery slope on one side, then rigid adherence to “our way” is the slippery slope on the other. I’m not conviced by slippery slope arguments in either direction.
    Maybe we should look to the plank in our own eye before looking for specks in our brothers’!