Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Presbyterians Affirm Contextualized Witness

An open letter to Presbyterian leaders
participating in the September 28th, 2004
interfaith meeting of Presbyterian and Jewish leaders in New York City

To: Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase, Stated Clerk Cliff Kirkpatrick, Rev. Jay Rock and Friends
Presbyterians stand for many bold missional commitments, but now is the time to affirm openly one commitment that permeates our theology: Presbyterians are called to make unapologetic contextualized witness among all peoples to our Lord Jesus Christ and his salvation.
We are called to joyously proclaim peace with God through Jesus Christ to persons of other faiths in a spirit of respect, openness, and honesty in a culturally indigenous fashion. Good and biblical mission is done in no other way, whether it is along Mexico's border, on Central Asia's steppes or among new immigrant groups in the U.S.

On September 28, 2004, some of our highest Presbyterian elected leaders will meet in New York with national leaders of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements and the National Council of Synagogues to discuss, as the PCUSA Interfaith Relations Web site puts it, "the issues causing misunderstanding and tension between us." Scheduled to attend are PCUSA Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase, Stated Clerk Cliff Kirkpatrick, and others.

Israeli divestment decisions arising from the 216th General Assembly will come up at the September 28th summit, undoubtedly, for discussion. This letter will not attempt to speak to that issue.

Another major issue that may come up is the Assembly's refusal to rule out further funding for contextualized witness among those of Jewish background.

Large numbers of Jewish adherants have taken umbrage at Presbyterian mission that has been contextualized for witness among Jews. If we respect them, some say, we should not try to bring them to faith in Jesus Christ. But we believe it is no good gift of ours to deny Jews (as well as all the world's peoples) the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that speaks to their cultural and religious background.

Two major mission policy papers approved by General Assembly delve directly into the matter of the appropriateness for contextualized witness. They call Presbyterians as followers of Christ to witness and evangelize worldwide in culturally relevant and contextualized ways so that indigenous churches can be formed.

The two policies are "Turn to the Living God" (1991) and the very recent "Gathering for God's Future" (2004).
Any discussion with Jewish leaders about Presbyterian mission efforts is incomplete and would be dishonest without references to our commitment to contextualized mission.
Long ago Presbyterians left behind mission approaches that seek to plant Western forms of the Church -- mini-replicas of American Christianity complete with podiums, platforms and pews. Instead, we advocate mission that forms culturally indigenous churches from the ground up, complete with indigenous leadership, styles and customs -- a church fully at home in its mother culture.

For further elaboration on this, review Harold Kurtz's excellent piece, "The Word of God in the Mother Tongue, the Life of Faith in the Mother Culture."

This, in fact, is the missionary's task: To discern cultural forms and appropriate what can be appropriated in order to bring the life of the church into the mother culture.

These commitments to indigenization, contextualization and de-Westernization stand in strong contrast to a theologically inappropriate concept of "church" that somehow must be highly stylized and classically Western in order to be considered an "authentic church."

Some Jewish commentators seem to believe that Christians are out of line unless our worship and witness is culturally relevant only to those who are already Christian -- that is, irrelevant to the very ones Christians would hope to reach with the gospel! Attempts to create indigenous forms of Christianity are called "disguises."

Incredibly, these commentators would have us believe that cultural imperialism is the only appropriate way for Christians to express our faith! Or that American cultural Christianity is the only biblical form of the faith.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), on the other hand, has well-crafted statements about witness and contextualization in at least two major mission policy papers.

"Gathering for God's Future" includes these statements:
  • "Our renewed call from God is to face the challenges of witnessing and evangelizing worldwide."
  • "We are challenged to respond to particular needs and opportunities in worldwide mission: [Including] Where there is a need to share the gospel for the first time. There are still people and cultures that have not yet heard the gospel of redemption and new life in Jesus Christ. We are called to offer the hope we find in Christ, to assist new disciples as they grow in faith and form a church led by their own leadership which is culturally relevant and independent of control by the sending mission church.
  • "Mission in the 1990s, the PC(USA)'s previous mission vision statement, affirmed 'No amount of external funds or personnel can substitute for the effective witness of indigenous churches and believing communities in each nation to their own people's context'" (emphasis added).
  • "[In] Witness: We are first of all aware of God as the witness of our lives and history. God expects much from us. We are expected to be witnesses to the truth of God known in Jesus Christ. We are expected to be witnesses everywhere and in every aspect of our lives."
"Turn to the Living God" has even more to say:
  • "'Evangelism in Jesus Christ's Way' identifies a number of characteristics of the method and style that Jesus proclaimed and lived the good news. He lived with the people among whom he evangelized." [ED: Emphasis added. Note that this represents incarnational witness and cultural adaptation.]
  • "'The Wholeness of Evangelism,' may be summarized by the phrase, 'the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world.' From the individual Christian and local congregation, through the presbyteries and synods, to the General Assembly and beyond, the whole Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) remains committed to joining with God's people everywhere in sharing the good news of God's love and salvation among people of many cultures and religions who live in a great variety of contexts (emphasis added). The church has a special concern to share the good news among those peoples who are still without the gospel, who have no culturally indigenous church, for 'God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may no perish but may have eternal life' (John 3:16)."
  • "As God sent Jesus to announce the promised kingdom and to urge everyone to repent and believe the good news, so the church is sent into the world to continue Christ's work. As the body of Christ, the church is charged not only to make the deeds of Christ visible, but also to make the word of Christ audible. We are thus called to develop an evangelistic attitude that beckons us across boundaries and sends us in faith from one culture to another (emphasis added), from our own history to that of others with the glad news of God's salvation.
  • "People of Many Cultures: Over five billion persons inhabit the earth. People in this world normally identify themselves as members of particular groups: cultures, languages, ethnic groups, nationalities, vocations, classes, or religions, to name a few. These 'people groups' number tens of thousands and are in constant flux as societies and world conditions change. Some of the larger people groups and many smaller subcultures still have no indigenous church, one that expresses their unique culture (emphasis added). While they may be found in isolated parts of the world, unevangelized people groups are increasingly likely to be found in the teeming cities of the world.
"Turn to the Living God" continues with these selected affirmations:
  • "'Mission and Evangelism: An Ecumenical Affirmation,' calls for the establishment of congregations in every human community and culture: This task of sowing the seed needs to be continued until there is, in every human community, a cell of the kingdom, a church confessing Jesus Christ and in his name serving people (emphasis added). ('Mission and Evangelism,' an ecumenical document of the World Council of Churches, paragraph 25)"
  • "The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is committed to this task. In fulfilling this calling we will be sensitive toward the cultures of people groups among whom we engage in mission (emphasis added). At the same time we will work cooperatively with other churches and Christian groups seeking to relate to particular people groups."
  • "People of Many Religions: With other Christians we are called to make joyous witness to persons of other faiths in a spirit of respect, openness, and honesty. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affirms with ecumenical partners that the proclamation of the gospel includes an invitation to recognize and accept in personal decision the saving lordship of Christ. Christians owe the message of God's salvation in Jesus Christ to every person and every people (emphasis added). ("Mission and Evangelism," and ecumenical document of the World Council of Churches, paragraphs 10, 41)"
  • "For those of other faiths and ideologies, the good news is that in Jesus of Nazareth, God has revealed the fullness of divine love (emphasis added) and extends through the church an invitation for all to share in the banquet of God's reign."
    The overriding biblical call upon Christians -- as clearly reflected in official Presbyterian missiological policy documents -- is to joyfully and respectfully bear witness among all peoples, among those in all faith traditions, of the saving grace found in the Universal Lord Jesus Christ.

    The stance is clear: Presbyterians affirm contextualized witness.
    Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase and Stated Clerk Cliff Kirkpatrick, faithful representation of Presbyterian theology and policy means you will lift up these convictions at your meeting with Jewish leaders on September 28th in New York.

    -- Dave Hackett

    Links listed: