“In the World but not of the World: Personal Reflections on Christianity’s Global Challenge”

A few weeks have passed since the week spent in Grayson for class. As I reflect on our discussions, teaching, and field trip I find myself asking, now what? The global landscape of Christianity is shifting from the global west to the global south. This has drastic implications on this white 22-year old, midwestern guy, with a bachelor’s degree, and a young family. Moving forward, how does this shift affect how I follow Jesus and what does it mean for what I teach others? In order to accurately answer these questions, first, we must discuss two principles that are in tension: the indigenization and the pilgrim principles. Second we must discuss the personal implications of these global shifts in light of my current worldview and learned information for the class.

The pilgrim principle, as described in Andrew Wall’s article Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture, is best determined by the idea ‘the gospel never changes.’ The gospel, the incarnation of God becoming man sacrificing himself to restore a relationship between God and man, meanwhile ushering in a new kingdom, freedom from sin and death. This manifests itself in distinctly different ways from the culture. The overflow of this good news into our present realities is the distinct aspects that make us Christian or followers of Jesus from what our culture deems acceptable or even normal. Certain practices of bread, wine, and water will always be present in the outcome. These rituals described as the Lord’s Supper and baptism are Jewish elements given new meanings by Christ himself. There also must always be the proclamation of God’s Word, whether from one person to another, a small gathered few, or a large crowd. Sharing the gospel is the only way the news of Christ can be passed from one person to another. Lastly, there must be communication with God, whether through His written Word, prayer, or His Spirit—revelation.

The indigenizing principle, as described in Andrew Wall’s article, is best determined by the idea that the gospel looks different from culture to culture in how it looks. To be more specific, when you follow Jesus you view the gospel through your own cultural lens and how you demonstrate it from place to place changes. In one era it may mean singing hymns or singing contemporary music in another. For some, it means the use of icons or spiritual disciplines, while others means no images or a charismatic walk in the Spirit. If we return to the few examples above, it may mean celebrating the Lord’s Supper every week or once a month or even year. The gathering together of believers may take place in groups of thousands or cell groups of 8-12. In America we choose to worship inside a building, rather in Kenya worship may take place under the largest shade tree. These differences are simple examples and can get much more complex. The idea behind this principle is that context determines the “wrapping” of the gospel. 

In the beginning of his article, Wall’s uses a space visitor to travel through time to communicate this idea. The visitor sees many different people all gathering for similar purposes. In fact, sometimes it becomes easy to see differences from place to place, in fact, I think we have gotten quite good at that in America. We identify denominations by their differences, rather than their similarities.

Both of these principles matter to world Christianity. Globally the gospel is expressed differently from culture to culture, but nevertheless it is the gospel. In each continent and eat region and each people group we should expect similarities and differences. Historically this has been the case. These two principles have been held in tension. But, there almost always been an over correction. The Jew/Gentile debate in Acts. The reformation to the corrupt Catholic church, and then the Catholic response to that. The great division between East and West over icons. The spirituality of the African church and the rugged structure of American traditionalism. The more I study these two principles (pilgrim and indigenizing) the more my heart echoes Jesus’ prayer in John 17 for unity.

As these two principles tug and pull back and forth they manifest themselves in two areas: our lifestyle as a follower of Christ and what we do as we gather as the church. Currently, I reside in Lexington, Ky where blue-blooded basketball and churches are the norm. I am a Student Minister at a small church. A husband to a wife and a father to a 10-week old boy. I grew up in central Ohio as an oldest child with a middle class family, not rooting for The Ohio State Buckeyes, rather for the Michigan Wolverines. I played many sports growing up. I still am very competitive to this day. My ministry philosophy has constantly revolved around relationships. I believe very passionately that this generation of students can change the world. Small groups, worship, and serving are biblical principles to help people’s walk with God and help grow and maintain a healthy church. Even within that introduction you can sense my worldview and personal perspective. Stereotypes about oldest children, athletes, ministers come to mind. From this context above I view what I have learned and read. To be honest it has taken some of what I already thought and given words to it, but also added immensely to it. If I am not careful this perspective can affect what I view as essential to the gospel core, therefore adding to what I think how a person should behave, believe, and worship. The abuse of my perspective through the pilgrim principle can turn into judgement and condemnation. At the same time, I cannot simply eliminate my perspective and context because that is what also brings personality, uniqueness, and worldview when it comes to following Jesus and gathering as the church. The abuse of the indigenizing principle can turn into tolerance and syncretism.

In Student ministry, more specifically ‘working’ in a church, these two principles are constantly in tension. I think it is always demonstrated in the phrase culturally relevant. My perspective is that the gospel is always relevant. We clearly don’t need to appeal to culture. Do we even need to use culture? When to too much culture actually a hinderance to the gospel in this case? When I speak of culture in our context I specifically mean the movies, tv, music, and learning environment that my students are exposed to that aren’t explicitly ‘Christian’. When using culture in my context there are usually two outcomes: the desired, students get the biblical concept; and the undesired, student take away the worldly concept instead. Sometimes it can be said that they do a little too much and it blurs between cultural relevance and scripture. Speaking of relevance, one Christian magazine ‘Relevant’ makes it a point to blur those lines and mix culture and faith. They make it easier to stay up on the latest trend and fad, that a Student Minister feels pressure to stay up on.

Because teenagers are so drawn to the world and rebellion too much pilgrim drives them, while too much indigenization leaves no distinction between what they see in the world and the gospel. The draw of the world for teenagers is not distinctly American but the draw of the American teenager to the world is distinct. Freedom and American exceptionalism draw out selfishness and competition which are antithetical to the gospel. These national and even global tensions affect the church down to the local level.

In order to bring these pilgrim and indigenization principles to bear in student ministry. We must help them encounter experiences that break them of this American exceptionalism and their small view of the world. Students in Lexington live in a Christian bubble. Getting them outside the bubble is challenging. Stereotypes and overprotective parents are major hinderances to this.

But, what is the purpose of getting the students outside this bubble? To be frank, it helps them understand that God is bigger and more sovereign that the little god of our contexts. It deepens their understanding of the gospel at a young age. It moves students from a position of pride to a posture of humility. Because I believe students can radically change the world today through kingdom work, they must be prepared to understand how Christians can all worship the same Christ without sharing the exact same beliefs and having the exact same responses to the gospel and not pass judgment as one being wrong or even uncool. My hope and goal is that they can feel the tension and identify the tension, maybe without even knowing the correct terms. To sum up 1 Peter, you are holy so act holy. Also, to cite Paul, become all things to all people so as to win some for the sake of Christ.  My teaching, my programming, and my own life must model someone who is actively becoming more aware, gaining experiences, and communicating with God in order to be holy and become all things to all people.

After class, one idea certainly hit home, indigenization and pilgrim action only matter if the goal is making disciples who are seeking to make disciples. I must personally live these out in my context for the sake of those who do not know Jesus. Knowledge of this global shift and tension are useless because you cannot do anything with learned knowledge until it is turned into action. Taking action in the world is useless if there is a false sense of reality. Awareness is essential. We must be aware of our context to give people an opportunity to know Jesus. My context revolves around the lives of young men and women who are learning to become adults. The tension that exists does not matter and has no value if the goal is not to glorify God by giving people an opportunity to truly experience life with Christ in this world with people who are seeking to live this out.

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