by Charles Corwin
March 18, 1956 was a hot day in the hottest of Indian plains. Through the streets of Nagpur in central India, 2,000 members of the Jatav (Untouchable) caste followed their leader, B.R. Ambedkar in solemn procession.
March 18, 1956 was a hot day in the hottest of Indian plains. Through the streets of Nagpur in central India, 2,000 members of the Jatav (Untouchable) caste followed their leader, B.R. Ambedkar in solemn procession. They were staging a public conversion, a people-movement of national import. Ambedkar, an educated^ Untouchable and member of Parliament, had become the Jatav’s symbol of hope in the face of mounting resistance to their assimilation into Hindu society. For years Ambedkar had pressed for this assimilation by encouraging Untouchables to adopt Hindu upper caste culture. He had agitated for the opening of temples to all peoples regardless of caste. After independence in 1947 Ambedkar became chairman of the committee to draft India’s Constitution. This gave him excellent leverage for uplifting the downtrodden millions of India. The Constitution did enunciate the principle of equality. On this basis Ambedkar secured compensation for past wrongs in the form of special privileges for the Untouchables, such as educational scholarships and reserved seats in legislatures.
However, by 1956 such measures had become disappointingly ineffective. Time had come for dramatic action. "When all such measures failed, he decided to reject all claims to Hinduism by converting to another religion…late in his life this resolve crystallized into a firm decision to stage a public conversion." To which religion would the Untouchables go? What religious group in India showed greatest promise for championing social equality, for uplifting the benighted, depressed classes of India? Would it be the Christian Church? Ambedkar thought otherwise:
Many members of my own caste have become Christians and most of them do not commend Christianity to the remainder of us. Some have gone to boarding schools and have enjoyed high privilege. We think of them as finished products of your missionary effort and what sort of people are they? Selfish and self-centered. They don’t care a snap of their finger what becomes of their former caste associates so long as they and their families, or they and the little group who have become Christians, get ahead. Indeed, their chief concern with reference to their old caste associates is to hide the fact that they were ever in the community. I don’t want to add to the number of such Christians.
Ambedkar turned to an indigenous protest against social stratification-Buddhism:
Ambedkar took with him 2,000 members of the Jatav (Untouchable) caste in a solemn ceremony pledging allegiance to the Buddha whose path of salvation was open to all without caste distinctions. This symbolic act opened a kind of sluice gate into a new and attractive faith whose origins were completely Indian. In an incredibly short time a mass movement into Buddhism attracted 3.5 million former Untouchables into the new fold.
With such auspicious beginnings, one would have projected unabated growth in Buddhist folds right through the sixties. Such was not the case. "The 1971 Census reports that the Buddhists of India had a growth rate in 1951-61 of 2267.01 percent but this shrank to only 17.20 percent in 1961-71, a figure below the growth rate of the total population. " R.A. Shermerhorn, who has studied the dynamics of minority groups vis-a-vis dominant ones, both in the United States (These Our People: Minorities in American Culture, 1949) and India (Ethnic Plurality in India, 1978), suggests one reason for the slowdown: "Local chapters of Buddhist societies are reported to have internal vitality, but there seems to be little urgency or demand for further proselytization." The Untouchables, having found the perfect, classless group turned inward, for Buddhist ideology is essentially antisocial. But in so doing they exacerbated the very condition they abhored: social distance. A principle emerges here that will be the thesis of this article: cultural uniformity leads to solidarity and enclosure; cultural diversity leads to mobility and dynamic exchange.
Before the missionary recruit departs for Asia, he will have been taught the strategic importance of minimizing cultural barriers for people wishing to hear the gospel. Before people can group together there must be a degree of homogeneity-common language, common beliefs, common goals, common values. Cultural diversity tends to fragment a group, making mobilization of resources difficult. Hence, evangelism following along homogeneous ethnic lines would appear strategically sound. But what of Scriptural admonitions on social equality, such as "no difference", "all one", "no middle wall of partition"? David Wasdell comments:
The homogeneous unit principle is being used…at the expense of gospel coherence, in that the communities so selected deny the good news of reconciliation, perpetuating in the splits between congregations the very splits within society to which the gospel speaks … I would postulate that the homogeneous unit principle is a form of ecclesiastical apartheid which if promulgated further and acted upon colludes with the fragmentation and splitting of humanity at a time of global stress.
What attitude should the missionary adopt? Is there not a mid-position that integrates a social fact-likes attract-with biblical universality?
In the field of missiology, the church growth thesis has provided advances in at least three areas. It demonstrated exegetically and existentially that the fundamental unit of Western democracy-the individual-is not the basic unit of the Kingdom. The church is a plurality of persons who must authenticate internal faith in external community. They must demonstrate love for God by love for each other. Hence the shift in emphasis from individual conversion and growth to church growth. A second breakthrough came with the emphasis that Christian churches form easier and grow faster when ethnic distinctives are affirmed by the fellowship, not ignored. The third breakthrough came with the use of analytical tools for helping missionaries and pastors understand, evaluate and plan for effective ministry.
But insights on the nature of human personality and ethnicity from other disciplines may indicate that emphasis upon homogeneity within the church may create more problems than it solves. Let me give some reasons why. First, when we categorize people under fixed boundaries, such as ABC Christian (American-born Chinese Christian), we keep alive the illusion that human personality is a steady-state entity with an external locus of control. The very grouping of people conveys the notion that we can predict and even effect group behavior. But the reality-clusters of human personalities infused with the life of the risen Christ, living in communion with him and each other-resists enclosure. Human personality, made in the image of God, is irreducible. We assert the grandeur of this image by taking flight from any man-conceived homogeneity. We affirm our dignity by refusing to relinquish our freedom and be treated as objects. Missions thinkers and strategists can honor this freedom by accepting the limitations psychology has put upon itself: using open-ended adjectives that describe orientations and comparisons, such as "exclusive", "protective", and "defensive"; avoiding nouns that connote a nonsentient steady-state, such as "stew pot", "pie", "ethclass". Such terminology endangers the communion it was designed to foster, for when we treat people as objects, no communion is possible.
Secondly, not only does human personality resist enclosure, but ethnicity itself has inherent limitations. In response to an inner drive for meaning, the autonomous self creates culture. As people identify with cultural creations-art, literature, music-they become an ethne, a people with shared values and meanings. The danger comes when people absolutize cultural form by giving it unconditioned meaning. It becomes man’s attempt to "find in his own existence the fulfillment of its meaning."
Culture can be a vehicle for discovering unconditional meaning behind it; it provides an occasion for an encounter with God. Beautiful music, elevating literature, Gothic cathedrals can transport us beyond themselves, if we refuse to grant them absolute value; otherwise we fall into idolatry. Familiarity with cultural forms diminishes their effectiveness. "When we properly describe or evaluate religiously any temporal reality, whether it be a human person, a human institution, a religious doctrine or symbol, a cultural creation, we must see that it is partial, it is subject to criticism, it can lose its powerfulness, it is conditioned."
Hence cultural diversity recognizes the partiality of any one culture; it provides many ways and forms for discovering the eternal beyond the temporal. In practical terms, this means that a Spanish choir, dressed in Spanish attire, singing Spanish hymns in an Anglo congregation can be a powerful vehicle for communicating the diversity of God and his boundless love for all creatures. A Japanese youth group singing Christian folk songs even without translation, a Mizo choir dressed in tribal robes, a Korean choir in traditional Korean dress reverberates in Western sanctuaries the multicultural avenues to God.
Will not cultural diversity, however, be achieved at the expense of cohesivenes and mission goals? To understand how cultural diversity generates dynamic Christianity, let us run through some of Schermerhorn’s key definitions:
Ethnic Group: "a collectivity existing within a larger society, having real or fictional common ancestry, memories of a shared historical past, and a cultural focus on one or more symbolic elements defined as the epitome of their peoplehood."
Within the church context such an ethnic group could be that group of people considered subordinate by the original fellowship and seeking admission to it. The original group may be actually smaller in number than the subordinate group, but the former is defacto the dominant group. This brings us another definition.
Dominant group: "the collectivity within a society that has preeminent authority to function both as guardian and sustainer of the controlling value system and as prime allocator of rewards in the society."
For our purposes this would be the ruling consensus of the original fellowship. We define these juxtaposed groups so as to discover what mode of interaction will promote the spiritual growth of both with minimum conflict and maximum harmony. This lends us to Shermerhorn’s definition and expansion of a third key term:
Integration: "a process whereby units of elements of a society are brought into an active and coordinated compliance with the ongoing activities and objectives of the dominant group in that society. An index to the presence of this process is the agreement between dominant and subordinate groups on collective goals for the subordinates, for instance, assimilation or pluralism.
Schermerhorn’s models of secular integration may help us clarify the dynamics of church integration. With minor modification we see four alternatives:
It is clear that churches following models (1) and (2) are achieving harmonious integration, while those following (3) and (4) are not. Balancing the need for harmonious integration is the church’s mandate to extend its borders to all peoples while increasing the capabilities of its members for meeting a wider range of possible demands. This I call "dynamic Christianity."
Assimilation and cultural pluralism, when accepted by both subordinate groups and dominant ones, should lead to harmony in the church. But either complete assimilation or complete cultural pluralism (isolation) deprives the church of each member’s unique contribution to the whole body. Varying combinations of assimilation and cultural pluralism demonstrate a muscular Christianity.
For example, the dominant group could encourage assimilation in worship and instruction components of church life (language permitting) balanced by cultural pluralism in fellowship and outreach components. This model is followed by the Spanish congregation of the Church of the Open Door in Los Angeles. The Spanish subordinate group assimilates with the larger dominant group in occasional worship services, the sacraments, special Bible conferences, and support of the dominant group’s world mission program. But it follows the lines of cultural pluralism in regular worship services, fellowship and outreach to other Hispanics. I taught some of the Spanish leaders how to lead home Bible studies; some of them support me as their missionary to Japan.
What do I mean by "dynamic Christianity?" Is it any improvement over "church growth?" Denials and articles to correct misunderstandings notwithstanding, the term "church growth" connotes numbers, success, quantity. "If men define situations as real," says W.I. Thomas, "they are real in their consequences." If the consequences of that term lead to graphs, preoccupation with numbers, success measured by the "many," failure by the "few," then numerical growth is the message being communicated.
Any group will grow numerically if its leadership enables the members to adapt to a changing environment, achieve personal and corporate goals, confirm beliefs and values, feel part of the whole. This is the essence of the "structural-functional" model for small groups as outlined by Theodore Mills in his The Sociology of Small Groups. He suggests that all small groups (and the church fits his definition) should shift to the "cybernetic growth model."
For dynamic Christianity that model has greatest potential. The group following it does not strive for an "increase in membership but an increase of capabilities (of individual members) for meeting a wider range of possible demands." Within the church such demands include (a) openness to diverse cultural forms; (b) willingness to make innovative changes in liturgy when existing ones no longer facilitate meaningful worship; (c) mission action that penetrates unfamiliar cultures in ever-widening circles; (d) loyalty between subparts fellowshipping along different ethnic lines; (e) capacity to transmit to newcomers the original vision and doctrinal distinctives of the founding group. Putting it another way,
groups oriented toward survival attempt to maintain their boundaries while obtaining gratification, while growing groups penetrate and extend their boundaries. Growing groups are increasingly confident both in admitting strangers and in spawning new groups…from the viewpoint of the cybernetic-growth model…small groups are a source of experience, learning and capabilities rather than just recipients.
This is where cultural diversity balanced by sensitive assimilation can play a vital role in member development. A monocultural approach to Scripture leads to a truncated understanding of God’s full revelation. Minority groups from all walks of life, sharing from their rich cultural traditions, can unveil dimensions of God’s truth hidden from eyes of the dominant group. Also, the cultural diversity-assimilationist balance can serve as model for developing societies throttled by social stratification. By affirming cultural diversity cum assimilation the church refuses to perpetuate those splits in society of which Wasdell warned earlier.
Lastly, the term "dynamic Christianity" focuses attention on the church serving society, not society the church. The elan for quantitative church growth in today’s world is unquestionably sustained by the dominant groups. For them church membership is important from the standpoint of (a) generating feelings of responsibility for the life of the church; (b) a leverage for discipline; and (c) selection of leadership. However, if actions of target populations outside the church reveal minimal commitment to member-nonmember distinctions, such efforts at membership recruitment may be misguided. Most people today come to the church not as an organizational institution but as an environment for belief-affirmation and value-clarification. Robert Bellah discusses the relation of modern man to the church:
The assumption is most Protestant denominations is that the church member can be considered responsible for himself . . . (there is) the increasing acceptance of the notion that each individual must work out his own ultimate solutions and that the most the church can do is provide him a favorable environment for doing so …
In essence, Bellah is saying that church members are being neither developed by the structures of the church nor deterred by her strictures. Dynamic Christianity shifts emphasis away from the need of the dominant group to perpetuate itself to the needs of modern man to improve himself.
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