by F. Hrangkhuma
It’s dangerous if we identify the gospel with indigenous religion and make few conceptual changes.
Less than a century after the first pioneer missionaries arrived in India’s animistic northeastern Mizoram territory in 1894, nearly the entire Mizoram population is now Christian. The Mizo Christian presence has steadily grown from 45 individuals in 1901 to better than 92 percent of the total population in 1987. Mizo Christianity, however, has not only grown quantitatively; it has grown qualitatively as well. How can we explain this phenomenal growth and maturity? I believe the indigenous Mizo customs and culture, complete with "redemptive analogies," explain much. Before we examine these factors, however, let us look at the church in Mizoram today.
MATURITY OF THE CHURCHES IN MIZORAM
1. Structural maturity. The simplest measure of a church’s structural maturity is how self-sufficient it is in organization, finances, and leadership. Can it exist, and grow, without any outside human help? Is the structure "foreign" to its members, or not? In Mizoram, the churches have reformulated their organizations’ structures to best suit the needs of the Mizo-without the help of foreign missionaries.
2. Maturity in expression. The term "expression" describes the expressive side of the church, such as its architecture, worship, and hymns. A mature church expresses its faith in ways that fulfill not only the spiritual but also the aesthetic aspirations of the people. Although it is true that Westerners brought Christianity (and some of their Western practices) to the Mizo, it is also true that Christianity in Mizoram has its own unique expressions, which are different than those of Euro-Americans. The Mizo have organized their churches and expressions according to what they think will be most suitable and effective in their cultural setting.
3. Theological maturity. If by this we mean an in-depth knowledge of modem theological trends, then Mizo Christians have a long way to go. A lack of theological publications in the Mizo language limits their systematic theology, and in general Mizo Christians still need to gain a more con-systematic knowledge off the theology of the Bible and learn how to systematically present the divine message. There has not been a significant effort to contextualize theology in the territory, either. It may be that theologically trained ministers are too busy to publish standard theology. Or it could be that most do not see the need to deliberately contextualize theology.
This, however, does not mean that Mizo Christians are theologically naive. Their knowledge of the general content of the Bible is good. The Mizo enjoy discussion, and profound theological speculation is not unusuai. Through a series of outpourings of the Holy Spirit, local preaching and songs grown in Mizoram.
4. Ministry maturity. Communicating the gospel to non-Christians is one of the most significant tools in measuring a church’s maturity. From the beginning, Mizo Christians have shown coerce for evangelizing other peoples (although as long as the churches were under the tutelage of missionaries, systematic missionary outreach originated, directed, and supported by the Mizo themselves was not possible). This desire is a clear sign that they do not regard Christianity as a Western import, bat as a religion that is universal in scope.
The Mizo churches were largely responsible for the spread of the gospel among their kin tribes ie Tripura, Manipur, Burma, and Bangladesh. Since 1938, they have supported evangelists first to the Riang and later to the Chakraa who migrated to Mizoram. As the migration has increased, so has the Mizo commitment to education and evangelism among them.
In 1986 the Presbyterian Church of Mizoram employed 505 workers both inside and outside of Mizoram for evangelism and church planting-which far exceeded the number of pastoral workers in the territory. Missions spending was almost half the church’s budget. Also in 1986 the Baptist Church of Mizoram had 172 paid workers for evangelism and church planting both in and out of the territory. The missions budget was 50 percent of the church’s budget. The Independent Church of Maraland is no less involved in missionary ministry. Further, Mizo Christians raise all this money for missions inside Mizoram, neither seeking nor receiving outside help.
THE ROLES OF CULTURE AND CUSTOMS
A thorough understanding of the culture is a prerequisite for effective cross-cultural ministry, and one of the most important factors in communicating the gospel is using the receptor’s frame of reference. Don Richardson’s "concept fulfillment" theory (1981) can help us examine a culture’s communication – if we discern the particular redemptive analogies in each culture. What Mizo concepts awaited fulfillment in Christ and contributed to the wide acceptance of Christianity? For convenience’s sake, I will discuss religious and social redemptive analogies, although in animistic cultures this is often a superficial distinction. We also need to keep in mind that the openness and homogeneity of Mizo culture and society have definitely contributed to the rapid growth of Christianity in Mizoram.
1. Religious redemptive analogies. Missionaries used the Mizo belief in Pathian, a good god who is creator, protector, and the one who blesses, as a redemptive analogy. The belief in Pathian (best translated as "God") needed only a few modifications to explain the Christian God. This transition was not difficult, and we have no evidence of serious misinterpretation or confusion.
Mizo belief in two places for the dead – Pial ral for those who had done good deeds in life, and the dreary mithhi khua (dead people’s village) for the rest – needed only some modification. It was not hard to convince the average Mizo about hell and heaven, nor that one needed to believe in Jesus during life-to go to the latter. In fact, believing in Christ was much easier than hosting several series of free feasts for the whole village, or giving feasts for various species of wild animals every time one was killed in a chase. With Christ the passport to heaven (still today called Pial ral in poetry and hymns), now everyone had a chance to go there.
Although C. L. Hminga, in his 1987 study of the growth of churches in Mizoram, indicated that the fear of hell was not a significant cause of conversion (but was instead a projection from present theological understanding), several of my sources have told me that fear of hell was the major factor in their conversions. For instance, my father, who converted sometime before 1920, said he did so mostly due to his fear of going to hell, as did most of the others who converted then. Thus, aided by their traditional belief in mithhi khua, by the second decade of Christianity in Mizoram, most Mizo had accepted the doctrine of hell without question.
The traditional Mizo fear of evil spirits had brought about both spiritual and economic bondage. Missionaries, therefore, consciously presented Jesus as the vanquisher of evil spirits. My mother, who became a Christian in about 1910, stated that she and many of her friends converted after accepting that Jesus was stronger than the spirits. Because of this, it was no longer necessary to offer the customary costly sacrifices to demons, which several writers agree was a major economic factor in the rapid growth of Christianity. (In an early letter, Edwin Rowlands, a pioneer missionary to the Mizo, stated that the Mizo sacrificial system itself made the people’s belief in the "one perfect sacrifice" easy.)
It is difficult to determine how much another religious redemptive analogy, the lost book tradition, affected Mizo acceptance of the Bible. The tradition simply states that that the Mizo once possessed a leatherbound book that, due to their carelessness, was either devoured by a dog or lost. The tradition gives no indication the book will ever be found, and it does not appear that this story had any significant influence in the Mizo conversion to Christianity.
These religious redemptive analogies, used by missionaries and Mizo evangelists and pastors to explain Christianity’s meaning, helped communicate the gospel to the Mizo. While Christianity certainly brought about discontinuity and change to the Mizo culture, there was much continuity as well. Now we will examine three social analogies that help us understand why the Mizo were so responsive.
2. Social redemptive analogies. One of the three major factors of growth is the Mizo ideal of social ethics tlawmngaihna, which cannot be translated using a single English word. It means self-sacrifice for the good of the community; a tlawmngai person is industrious, courteous, hospitable, and always ready to help others. So we see that Christianity’s strict social demands were not altogether new, and missionaries consciously upheld the Mizo ideal, establishing the Young Lushai Association in 1935 to promote the practice of tlawmngaihna.
A second factor, traditional Mizo proverbs, and their ngai e (similar to do’s) and ngai love (similar to don’ts) have significant parallels with biblical proverbs and instructions. (Examples: "the greatest enemy of man is himself," "to distribute is to be whole, to refuse is to die," "cursing always falls back to the one who curses," "steep is the path of goodness and level is the path of wickedness," "the value of a polite, good, and gentle work is as much as the price of a bison.") These and other proverbs emphasizing respect for parents and eiders, humility, goodness to one’s neighbors, the value of harmonious life together, and the danger of violating society’s norms likely helped the Mizo understand Christian instructions. The Mizo still keep these proverbs and the ngai e and ngai love of the elders in their educational books.
The third social element was the tradition of using blood to make peace and covenants. A chicken was killed to seal the marriage covenant, while bison or other animals died to seal the oath making peace between villages. Only human blood, however, could bring about peace between two parties when a human being had been killed. One of my most valuable informants, a Mr. Chalbuanga, emphatically stated that this emphasis on blood enabled the Mizo to readily understand why Christ’s shed blood brings peace with God.
As Don Richardson summarized in 1981:
(W)hen conversion is accompanied by concept fulfillment, the individuals redeemed become aware of the spiritual meaning dormant within their own culture. Conversion does not deny their cultural background, leaving them disoriented. Rather they experience heightened insight into both the Scriptures and their own human setting, and are thus better prepared to share Christ meaningfully with other members of their own societies.
Advantages abound, but the danger exists of identifying the gospel with the indigenous religion with but a few conceptual changes, leading to a Christo-pagan church. Therefore, extreme care should be the norm when we use concept fulfillment and redemptive analogies to communicate Christian concepts.
1. God accepts each culture. Kraft suggests that the cultural structuring of human behavior, or at least the human capacity for producing culture, is a loving God’s provision for human well-being. Paul said to the Athenians: "From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live" (Acts 17:26). Each culture provides its members with a map or guide by which to live together in society. However, due to inherent human imperfections and deviations, each culture contains shortcomings and sinful concepts and practices. A culture’s "faults" should be judged, however, not from one’s own culture but from the biblical perspective. Each needs scriptural diagnosis and surgery.
2. God provides each nation with some form of witness. Using the redemptive analogy of the "unknown God," Paul said to the Athenians, "God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out and find him, though he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27). I believe no people exists without at least one redemptive analogy, because God put "eternity in their hearts" (Eccles. 3:11). No culture is so corrupted as to have no concepts that can find fulfillment in Christ.
3. One of the first tasks of cross-cultural missionaries is to find redemptive analogies in the culture and customs of those to whom they are witnessing. Their first task is to be students, not only learning the language but seeking to understand how people live, think, and believe.
4. To understand the culture of the nationals, missionaries must immerse themselves in it as much as possible. Only missionary incarnation will achieve this.
The more redemptive analogies there are in a culture, the more chances there are of communicating the gospel effectively and planting responsible, indigenous churches, which in turn usually have a better chance of overall maturity.
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