by Elizabeth A. Tebbe
Why does the evangelical church and missions community find ministry so challenging at the end of the 20th century? In a word, the answer is postmodernism.
Why does the evangelical church and missions community find ministry so challenging at the end of the 20th century? In a word, the answer is postmodernism. The West has rejected the modernist belief in objective truth, knowable through reason. That rejection means trouble, because Christianity has adapted well to the grand vision of the Enlightenment, arguing a reasoned defense against other meta-narratives such as Islam, Marxism, and secularism. As long as Christians were numerically strong and held political and social power, we were seemingly able to make modernism work for us and contribute to the missionary expansion.
Now on the threshold of the third millennium, the church finds itself in quite a different position vis-a-vis our own culture. Our privileged position is gone, and we are within a generation of dying within our own societies. We are now the "alternative lifestyle."
"The church in North America at the end of the 20th century is in exile," stated Alan Roxburgh of Van-couver, B.C., at the 81st Annual General Meeting of the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association in Kansas City last year. The topic was "Missions in a Post-Modern World." Roxburgh, author of the InterVarsity Press book Reaching a New Generation, insisted that the answer lies not in somehow turning back the clock and trying to regain our position by accommodating ourselves to modernism.
For the people of Israel, Roxburgh said, exile to Babylon was an opportunity to see how thoroughly they had adapted themselves to the Canaanite peoples around them: "They recovered and reshaped their community as the people of God, not from the perspective of success, but from living on the margins." But in so doing, they discovered how great God really is, how much bigger he is than their own little worlds. The later Old Testament prophets had a vision of God as Creator not tied to their own cultural ways. For the North American church, this period of cultural "exile" is an opportunity to examine how tied our faith is to the formerly comfortable worlds of our own society.
THE EFFECT ON MISSIONS
Postmodernism, however, has broader missions implications. This world-view will also affect the nature of cross-cultural ministry. I’d like to use Dr. Roxburgh’s framework of exile vis-a-vis North American culture and take it a step further to extend it to the church worldwide and how we relate together as the Body of Christ and do ministry in his name.
Any lingering stereotype of missionaries from North America going out from a Christian culture dissolve when we are realistic about our postmodern condition. While large parts of society in both the United Kingdom and North America last century were untouched by the gospel, those in power still assumed that Christian mission was inextricably tied with the duties of empire. The East India Company may not have liked missionaries, but it saw them as necessary and grudgingly affirmed their position. While the modernist will argue why "all religions lead to ultimate truth," the postmodernist stares blankly at any claims to truth and shrugs, "Okay if it works for you."
The prevailing value is tolerance. To invite someone to change religion is seen as the height of intolerance and impertinence. To speak into our own culture irritates postmoderns, but going cross-culturally means flouting one of the principal mores of our society: "How can we all survive in a multicultural world if a group makes truth claims?" Our cultures are hostile not just to our message but also to our mission as soon as there is any hint we are doing more than humanitarian aid. As Christians, however, we live and proclaim a gospel of love, not tolerance-love that gave sacrificially for all peoples.
We must come to grips with our exile to effectively share the gospel in today’s world. Going out cross-culturally harboring any sense that we come from a "Christian culture" will expose us to hostility at home and cross-culturally. And if we fail to recognize the postmodern framework of our home culture, our message will be subtly influenced by the ideal of "tolerance" without even recognizing it.
MINISTRY FROM THE PERSECUTED CHURCHES
The church in the West has become increasingly conscious of its need for the input and ministry of Christians from other countries. It is no longer simply the "sending church." It receives nurture and prophetic ministry from Christians of all nations where the gospel has gone. However, an understanding of the Western church in exile emphasizes that seemingly weak churches amid persecution have more to teach us than we may have realized.
Dr. Roxburgh suggested that if the model for the suddenly sidelined church is the exile, then the church that has always been under persecution is best described as pilgrim. In contrast to the exiled psalmist lamenting by the rivers of Babylon, wondering how he can sing the songs of Zion in a strange land (Psalm 137), the pilgrim knows that he is a stranger in this world, on the way to a better city (Heb. 11:9,10). The exiled church and the pilgrim church have much in common. One of the disorienting features of exile is longing for the feeling of belonging and being in charge. There is a profound confusion in identity.
Those who daily experience persecution have a greater intrinsic understanding of Peter’s phrase about Christians being "strangers" in the world. What is sharing one’s faith like when it becomes a matter of life and death? How can Christians live with moral rather than political power? In these matters, our brothers and sisters from Asia and the Middle East are the experts, and we need to learn from them.
Postmodernism’s essence is a rejection of overarching systems of thought. Truth is seen as only a reflection of our need for power and not objective in itself. Systems of thought are raided for their various helpful values, but these values don’t need to fit together rationally. Anyone can hold two contradictory ideals as long as both are "nourishing." This life view ultimately leads to fragmented lives. One’s Christian faith can easily become one more fragment of input, neither fully accepted nor rejected.
Many of postmodernism’s roots are Hindu. For years the church in India has struggled with seeing Jesus as simply one of many gods or influences. As this world culture spreads, postmodernism will increasingly influence even cultures with a strong allegiance to a particular faith. Muslim speakers on the BBC, for example, use postmodern terminology to introduce Islam into the pantheon of choices for value seekers. In this situation, we must be careful not to introduce or in any way accommodate a fragmented gospel. Dr. Roxburgh stressed the importance of living as an alternative community, living unfragmented lives and allowing the Spirit of God to permeate every aspect of our lives. Within the context of postmodernism, it is more important than ever not to champion an individualistic message. "Jesus is Lord" was the touchstone of the New Testament church, a persecuted minority. Any watering down of the gospel to accommodate the broader cultures in the Greco-Roman world was anathema to the early church.
We well know that the gospel must be contextualized in every culture. But we cannot view this contextualization through the lens of our fragmented lives simply as some sort of interesting exercise or experiment. Precisely because Jesus is Lord, the church is called out from the world to be an expression of his Body in every culture. Contextualization is not a tool to further fragment us. It is to transform and renew the entire worldview of any given culture, including ours in the West.
Postmodernism presents new challenges to cultures and the church. The world is more hostile than ever to the message of the cross. The temptations toward accommodation and fragmentation are subtle, sometimes more so in cross-cultural ministry. Peter well expressed our identity as Christ’s Body in a hostile, pluralistic world: "But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light"(1 Peter 1:12).
Elizabeth Tebbe has been a missionary wife and mother for the last 23 years, living in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jordan and Cyprus. He has an M.A. in Cross-cultural communications from Wheaton College.
Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.