by Richard G. Lewis
Ways for people of different world views to grasp gospel basics.
One of our most difficult tasks is to make sure that our listeners really understand our message. For example, from their world view, how do they picture Jesus whom we call the Son of God? Is the gospel really good news, or is it a set of confusing stories irrelevant to their needs, either felt or real? In this article, I want to illustrate this basic missionary task from the standpoint of our work in the bush areas of northwestern Kenya among the semi-nomadic Pokot tribe.
One day we traveled to a group of Pokot who lived several miles off the main road. After hiking in the bush for nearly an hour, we stopped to rest under some trees at a dry riverbed. As we talked, sipped water, and ate bananas, three Pokot men came by and sat with us.
My colleague struck up a conversation with them and began to tell them about Jesus. Their stoic expressions never changed while he told them that Jesus came to die on the cross to take away their sins.
"I’m not sure they understand what ‘sin’ is," I interrupted. "Most Pokot I have talked with in this area have no concept of what it means to be a sinner."
So I asked our visitors what they considered to be improper conduct. What were bad things for people to do? They listed adultery, killing a neighbor, and stealing the possessions of another Pokot. Their list of transgressions was very short. The Pokot of this area are notorious drinkers of homemade beer, but hard drinking was not on their list, even though it would have been on ours.
I then asked if they had ever committed any of these mistakes. (There is a word for "sin" in the Pokot language, but if these men had never been in a church they would not be familiar with that word.) They answered, "No." Then, did they consider themselves sinners or bad people? The logical conclusion was, No, they were not.
We were telling these men about a Savior who takes away sin, but they had no concept of sin, nor did they understand the need for a Savior. Basically, we were giving answers to questions they were not asking. We were solving nonexistent problems in their frame of reference.
We were giving them a message that had no relevance to them (perhaps the main problem in cross-cultural communication), so we began to develop a strategy that might be more effective among the Pokot than our standard Western approach of "God’s simple plan of salvation." First, we began to ask questions. What was their concept of God? How does he speak to man, if at all? What do they believe about death? Does man have a soul and does man continue to live after death? It was only after we learned their questions that we had an idea about how the Pokot understood spiritual matters. Once we learned the right questions, then we could give the answers.
Second, we began to work from their understanding of the cosmos and tried to integrate that perception into our gospel presentation. That is difficult for many missionaries. Most of our communication begins from an ethical and moral perspective designed to eradicate sin from our audience through the preaching of the cross. The problem with that approach, as we discovered with the Pokot, is that their perception of God is not based on ethics. Their first question was, "If indeed there is a God, where is he and how is he working in our lives?"
David Barrett points out that for most Africans who are a part of independent churches, if Christ is relevant, it is because of his power to deliver them from demons, not from sin. Alan Tippett adds: "The animists have come from a world power encounter and presumably they, therefore, need a God who speaks and demonstrates power. The preaching of a purely ethical gospel is hardly likely to inspire such a people; but a life transformed by a God of power will lead to a new ethic."
Another communication strategy, whether working with animists, Muslims, or Hindus, is to use the receptors’ religion or belief as a vehicle to help them to understand the gospel. Although this is potentially controversial. we must look at similarities and parallel beliefs in other religions in relation to biblical truths; from those similarities we can then draw the receptor into a meaningful dialogue.
Many missionaries begin communication from their belief system and go directly for conversion, hoping to break down the false assumptions of the receptor in the process.
However, this method is seldom effective because the receptors’ world view is not taken into consideration. Current mission strategy, advocated by many missiologists, is to look at the beliefs of the receptor and incorporate as much as possible into the gospel message. Supporting the use of African religion and tradition as a means of helping people to understand the Christian message, Joseph Healey writes:
One of the greatest challenges of mission today is to incarnate the gospel in local cultures. God is communicating himself to people in Africa today (as he did in the past and will continue in the future) through African culture and traditions. African Christianity develops through the encounter between Christianity and African traditional religions and cultures.
Notice, Healey does not suggest we seek a confrontation between Christianity and African religions, which too many times is our approach, but rather an encounter between the two which will reveal world view perceptions and possible avenues for dialogue.
To illustrate, I refer to a sacrifice ceremony I observed among the Pokot. Through the vision of an old prophetess among their clan, they killed a bull to remove a curse from a couple who were unable to bear children. Through this atowowo, or sacrifice, they believe peace was made between the clan and Tororot (God). I was there only as an outsider because I had not gone through the rite of passage allowing me to sit in the inner circle of the elders. But through the providence of God I was invited to enter the circle briefly to greet and address the elders. Seizing the opportunity, I congratulated the clan for wanting peace with God. I did not condemn them for making sacrifice to a "pagan god." Rather, I told them that even my grandfathers performed a similar ceremony many years ago. My strategy was to identify with their world view, not talk about mine. I then talked to them about the greatest sacrifice that provides peace between Tororot and man.
I am convinced most of them did not understand my story of God’s Son dying to provide peace for mankind, but by using their conception of sacrifice as a vehicle for my message, I gained a point of reference from which we could continue a dialogue. Had I ignored their world view, they would have rejected my message outright. Perhaps Everett Rogers would call this approach "selected exposure." Generally, individuals tend to expose themselves to those ideas that accord with their interests, needs, or existing attitude. We consciously or unconsciously avoid messages that conflict with our predispositions. This tendency is called selected exposure.
Symbols can also be used to communicate the gospel. At the atowowo the bull, blood, meat and sacrificial fire are all points of reference from which the missionary can draw to make his message relevant to the Pokot. Symbols, like myths, are codes used in communicating meaning.
The analysis of myth, according to Levi-Strauss, should proceed much like the analysis of language: the elements of myth, like those of language, have no meaning in themselves, but acquire meaning only when they are combined in a structure. Myths contain a kind of coded message, and the job of the analyst is to decipher the code and reveal the message. The missionary’s task is to discern what symbols he or she can use and then to make those symbols meaningful for the listeners.
There is, of course, the danger of syncretism if the messenger leans too much toward accommodating the beliefs of receptors. Without a distinction between the gospel and the receptors’ beliefs, the uniqueness of our message is lost and the gospel becomes merely pagan-Christianity.
Nigerian Tokunboh Adeyemo warns that embracing too much of the African traditions can lead to denial of essential Christian doctrines.
Some have gone overboard in presenting (African traditional religion) as a viable option to both Christianity and Islam while others claim that it has a lot in common with Judeo-Christian religion. The former camp, reasoning from the universality of God to the validity of the general revelation and the commonalty of grace, concludes that the traditional religion is as authentic and redemptive as Christianity. Unfortunately such essential doctrines as the radical nature of sin, human depravity, limitation of general revelation, the holiness and righteousness of God, and the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation and atonement are either avoided or watered down.
While we would agree with Michael Kirwen that African religion can be a "building block in the development of Christian communities", at some point the parallel lines in which the gospel and African religions relate must separate. If the gospel of Christ is not unique in character, then there is little need to even present our message of his salvation.
There are several examples in Scripture of the importance of incorporating parallel beliefs and then making a distinction between them and the uniqueness of the Christian message. The apostle Paul made a clear distinction between the message he preached and the receptors’ world view and cultural practices. At Lystra, the lame man’s conversion brought a positive response to Paul and Barnabas. However, Paul did not build on the peoples’ faith in the Greek gods, but stated clearly, "(we) preach the gospel to you in order that you should turn from those vain things to a living God" (Acts 14:15). At some point, then, the messenger should identify the difference between the god of tradition and the one true God of creation and salvation.
In Athens, Paul spoke to the philosophers at their level, even quoting from one of their poets (Acts 17:28). The apostle worked from a communication base to which the Athenians could relate, but Paul clearly presented the uniqueness of Christ when speaking of the Lord’s bodily resurrection (17:31).
Communication strategy among resistant people should not set as its goal the immediate conversion of the receptors, although obviously that is our ultimate goal. To press for immediate conversion without first taking into consideration world view very likely will hinder our witness. Sherwood Lingenfelter has noted that God could bring about a person’s salvation apart from culture if he wished, but for the convert to function in society, culture must play a part in the decision making process.
Too often we want to be like Elijah at ML Carmel, challenging the false gods to do battle with the one, true, living God whom we preach. Unfortunately, not many of us are in contact with God like Elijah was. Standing before the Pokot elders I didn’t feel I was ready to call down fire from heaven. Neither did I feel it was appropriate then to take an ax and clear the groves of Baal (2 Kings 18:4). No doubt there are times when acts of confrontation against evil are necessary, but not nearly as often as we would imagine. Missionaries who desire quick results often become overbalanced in "power encounter" activities. It is the missionary’s responsibility to become aware of the receptors’ cultural perceptions and build on them, not to seek dramatic acts that will confound the people. For the most part, that is like trying to "get rich quick," reflecting our desire in the West to get immediate results without developing a sound evangelism strategy.
Having realized that the Pokot did not understand sin, we began to tell them about "the living God who is the creator of all the earth." Tippett states, "The doctrine of God as Creator is vital in every place where people worship idols or fetishes or celestial bodies, where they elevate created objects and worship them instead of the Creator. There are some powerful passages in Scripture for the guidance of the missionary at this point: Ps. 115:2-9; 135:13-18; Isa. 44:9-24; 45:20-22; Rom. 1:25."
Through the working of the Holy Spirit, in time the Pokot will see their sin, need for a Savior, and the salvation available through faith in Christ. Then the uniqueness of the gospel will become evident to them. Our responsibility is to make the message of Christ as clear and as relevant as possible. By using their belief system as a vehicle to bring them to faith in Christ, we believe that goal will be accomplished.
EMQ, Vol. 27, No. 1, 32-37. Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.