by Joshua Iyadurai
The gospel is not a product; it is a person—Jesus. What does this mean to workers from the West trying to share the gospel with those from Muslim backgrounds?
Recently, I traveled from Minneapolis to Los Angeles on my way back from a conference dealing with IMs (Insider Movements). The hostess offered me a choice of snacks: cookies or peanuts. I chose peanuts that were packaged in an attractive, red wrapper and stated, “Lightly Salted Peanuts.” The other side contained the following details of ingredients and nutrition facts:
This triggered my thoughts back to India, where peanuts are sold not only in attractive packets, but also on roadsides wrapped in newspapers. In some places, the peanuts are fried in front of us and served in a piece of paper.
Peanuts sold in the USA and in India have the same nutritional values, but how they are sold and consumed is different. In the USA, buyers need to know everything about the product before buying. Companies must provide all the details before it comes to retail. But in India, the information about the product is not required when sold on the roadside, in buses, or on trains. The similarity is that in both places people eat peanuts while traveling!
But the consumer culture is different in these two countries. In the USA, although many people might not look at the ingredients and nutrition facts, the producer is careful to provide all the information for legal reasons. In India, most people are not bothered about the details of peanuts. Some might be comfortable buying from any shop on the roadside, some might buy from a grocery store, some prefer to buy only from supermarkets. It depends upon their taste and family practices.
The essence of consuming peanuts lies with the nutrition and the pleasure one derives by eating them. How it is wrapped is immaterial for people in India, but it is important for people in North America.
Similarly, the essence of the gospel lies in its effects on the person and the community who receives the gospel. How the gospel is wrapped is a matter of choice in a cultural context. I see IMs as indigenous expressions which do not require all the paraphernalia attached with Western Christianity.
Western Consumer Mission Paradigm
When someone from the USA visits India and sees how peanuts are sold and consumed, there are two types of responses. One is to join the locals and enjoy the fun. The other is to be disgusted and complain. It is legitimate for a visitor to say, “It is unclean, unhygienic, and unhealthy; the wrapper does not contain any information about the content, etc.” But people in India are accustomed to these practices. It is not a matter of what is right or wrong. Instead, we must ask, “What is suitable for an individual? What is suitable in a culture?”
When the gospel is presented in the Muslim world, converts appropriate it in a way suitable in their context. They adopt a particular way of following Jesus and have experienced Jesus personally, which has enabled them to see their lives and world differently. The essence of the gospel is the personal experience of Jesus and the effect of the gospel is the transformation of individuals and communities.
To some extent, Western mission efforts are conditioned by Western consumer culture, which would like to market the gospel in the same way products are sold. The gospel can come with a brand: Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Pentecostal, etc. Each brand has its own emphasis on a certain aspect of the gospel, similar to the ingredients in a product. Baptists are concerned about what kind of baptism those in IMs are given. Episcopalians may ask, “Did they take baptism?” Methodists might be keen to know whether those in IMs follow holiness tradition. Pentecostals might be interested in knowing whether they speak in tongues. Others might ask, “Are they Trinitarian? Do they see Jesus as the Son of God? What do they call God?”
These factors are important for converts in following Jesus; however, the Western consumer mission paradigm would like to see everything made clear on the wrapper when it is presented. This paradigm likes to offload our systematic theology in the name of gospel presentation.
This paradigm perceives the gospel as a product to be sold in the religious market. Hence, labels, brand names, sales techniques, etc. take center stage. But the gospel is not a product; it is a person—Jesus. When we introduce one person to another, we do not read out his or her resume or hand over a bio; instead, we share the person’s name and a few other things about him or her. We expect the two individuals to interact, and in the process they come to know each other.
Converts in IMs are introduced to Jesus and begin a journey of knowing him. But the Western consumer mission paradigm would like to see the converts describe everything about Jesus instantly. This is similar to asking me to state clearly and accurately everything recorded on the peanut wrapper. I was interested in eating the peanuts, not memorizing the nutrients. It is also irrelevant to ask converts about the nuances of theological terms. The mission is not about presenting theological terms, categories, and terminologies accurately, but introducing the person of Jesus.
Western Modern Paradigm of Mission
The West is greatly conditioned by the European Enlightenment paradigm of reality. Although we claim to live in a postmodern world, I find many evangelicals holding the fort for modernity. Some exalt reason and consider any emotional experience related to Christianity an anathema.
Reason vs. Experience
Modernity projected that reason was supreme and knowledge was possible only through reason. By this it shut the door on revelation and experiential knowledge. However, there are other ways of knowing truth through emotion and intuition. The world is historical, relational, and personal. It does not exist independently “out there” to be explored by an individual objectively. The individual is not independent of the knowable, there is no autonomy of the knower. Knowledge is historically and culturally conditioned. Knowledge is a product of culture. This is very much in line with the biblical understanding of “knowing”; it is more of an experiential knowledge than an objective discovery.
The Western modern paradigm of mission is concerned with presenting the gospel rationally, which would appeal to the intellect. This paradigm is more concerned about how we accurately, logically, and convincingly argue the gospel. But the gospel is not a set of abstract concepts; it is not systematic theology. The gospel is the person Jesus Christ. Knowledge of God is primarily derived from the personal experience of Jesus and revelation in scripture. Therefore, the mission is to invite people to experience Jesus Christ.
Jesus invited people to follow him—not to simply adopt his teachings, but to walk with him. It was an invitation to experience him. When Andrew and another disciple were curious to know about Jesus, Jesus invited them to “come and see.” Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus was again an invitation to experience the new birth which cannot be rationally understood. The mistake of Nicodemus was that he was trying to rationalize what Jesus was talking about.
Mission is not about building a great enterprise of Christianity; it is about inviting people to experience Jesus. Experiential knowledge of Jesus is the starting point which includes a rational dimension. Experiential knowledge is a life-long process. Converts began their journey of faith when they accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. It’s a long road on which the Spirit of God, not the missionary, is the constant companion.
Fixed Identity vs. Multiple Identities
Modernism elevated the self to the ideal and talked of the autonomous self as capable of being good and as an independent and sovereign entity. Individualism was the product of modernism and the individual was elevated above the community. It held the view that individuals were capable of discovering the truth objectively, by their own efforts, through rational investigation.
The Western modern mission paradigm is being carried away by individualism in some aspects and is focused on reaching individuals with a rational gospel. Great emphasis is laid on individuals making a rational choice of accepting the gospel. This paradigm presents the gospel as valid beliefs while portraying the beliefs and practices of Islam as irrational. The outcome of this emphasis is discontinuity; it burns bridges with communities, cultural practices, and social identities.
In line with postmodernism, indigenous communities regard self as a creation of cultural, social, political, and historical realities. The self has no existence without these realities. The self itself is plural, it is relational, and one changes according to the situation or the external realities.
If individuals are products of a community, then when they receive the gospel, we need to be sensitive to their roots in the community. The focus of mission is to be the community rather than uprooting the individual. Therefore, the emphasis should not be on discontinuity, but on the spiritual identity of the individual. Converts from other religions prefer to keep their social/religious identity as Hindus or Muslims while they are excited about their spiritual identity as followers of Jesus.
Let me share an example. Janaki was the wife of a business man and was not allowed to attend church or any other Christian activities for nearly thirty years. Externally, she fulfilled all the Hindu religious requirements as a wife, while internally she followed Jesus. Eventually, the whole family received the gospel and she felt vindicated in her stand of retaining the social/religious identity as a Hindu for such a long period. This is true of many other converts from Hinduism and Islam in India.
When we look at how Jesus went about doing the mission of God, it is clear that he did not want the Samaritan woman to become a follower of Judaism in order to follow him; he did not expect the centurion to become a follower of Judaism to heal his servant. Jesus did not expect the Canaanite woman to become a follower of Judaism to heal her daughter; rather, he exalted her as a model of faith to the Jews. In the Book of Acts, Cornelius was not asked to become a follower of Judaism, but Peter was asked to have a paradigm shift with regard his understanding of purity and pollution.
Mission in and to Islamic Societies
Mission in and to Islamic societies needs a paradigm shift in order to let the people define their spiritual identity based upon their experience of Jesus within their own communities. It is the mission of God in which God is at work above what we could imagine. Instead of holding on to the enlightenment paradigm of mission, the Church needs to move hand in hand with God, who is active in communities.
Identity is an issue in this context. Some might ask how converts could call themselves Muslims and Christians since it is a deception. Here again, modernity sees reality in categories, for example, the First World, Second World, and Third World. In line with this, the Western modern paradigm of mission would like to fix people into categories. We understand from social scientists that identity, whether personal or social, is not fixed. Personal identity changes in different life situations and social identity changes in different social contexts.
Better integration of multiple identities leads to well being and smooth sailing in social functions. Integrated identities draw elements even from conflicting social groups to present a multifaceted self to negotiate conflicting contexts. If this is how individuals determine social behaviors based upon their multiple identities in different social contexts, then we find converts do the same in their social contexts.
Social psychologists claim that people creatively adapt traditional identities to new situations. This is true in the case of converts in India. Although the boundaries between Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam are clearly marked, converts redraw the boundaries so that they can cross them by creating multiple identities. Converts articulate that they continue the religious practices of Hinduism/Islam for social reasons, not for spiritual purposes. They offer new meanings to the same practices they have been following.
When the boundaries are loosely marked, it is easier to move from one identity to another. Maintaining uniformity and cohesiveness is very important for membership in a social group. When the family invites them to go to temple or mosque, the converts go with them and activate the identity of Hindus or Muslims. However, they try to maintain their new identity as followers of Jesus by injecting new meaning into the practice—they go there and pray to Jesus.
Converts adopt another strategy to redraw the boundaries of religions by differentiating between religious and spiritual identity. They see their conversion experience as a religious experience of Jesus and Christianity as the institutional form of religion. In this way, they deploy their religious identity as Hindus or Muslims while claiming to have a spiritual identity as the followers of Jesus by virtue of their personal experience of Jesus.
The converts’ management of multiple identities is not a deception, but a display of humanness. We all manage our multiple identities according to different contexts. Even Jesus managed his multiple identities. Being the Son of God, did he ever declare that he was the Son of God? Rather, we find that he intentionally hid his identity. In a hostile social context, his aim was to embrace the cross at the right time, rather than exposing his identity and being stoned to death prematurely.
If those in IMs are accused of deception, then in the same scale, Jesus is to be accused of deception. The Western modern mission paradigm likes to see everything in fixed categories. For modernity, reality is either/ or; for indigenous paradigms, reality is a spectrum.
In the end, the contentious issue here is not theological, but instead is a conflict of paradigms between Western modern/consumer paradigms and indigenous cultural paradigms. May we let the indigenous societies enjoy the peanuts in the way they relish them.
Joshua Iyadurai, PhD, is director of the Mylapore Institute for Indigenous Studies in Chennai and is guest faculty at the University of Madras in Chennai. He is also on faculty at the Center for Advanced Theological Studies, SHIATS, in Allahabad, India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 134-135. Copyright © 2013 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.