To An Unknown God: The Risk and Challenge of Mission

I often wonder if Paul of New Testament fame would be welcomed if he stepped into the church today.  He seems to be the kind of guy who could rock your boat.  Paul and Barnabas fell out (and were later reconciled).  Paul and the leadership (including Peter and James) in Jerusalem went head to head to argue about God’s plan for non-Jewish believers.   His colleague Peter even admits later that Paul’s writing to the church is hard to grasp (but that Paul is ok).  Paul was a good, Torah observant, Messianic Jew.  But he would push the boundaries.

In the Greek city of Athens, Paul was walking around seeing temples put up to various Greco-Roman gods when he comes across an empty altar dedicated to the “Unknown god”. Paul has the audacity to take that as his starting point when talking to the Greeks, saying that he knew the unknown God! What’s more he even uses the revelation of their Greek prophets and poets to bring the message home about Jesus.

Bringing home the message of Jesus… somehow Paul was comfortable in accepting and using other cultural cues to introduce people to Jesus. He became all things to all people. He was prepared to let go of many of the things that his own religious tradition held to be important because he was secure in his identity and the task he had to fulfil. (I imagine he was misunderstood by many of his peers.)

Some time ago I went to a workshop by Rev Kumeran Soobrayan on “Our Hindu Neighbour” in Johannesburg.  His basic argument is that a lot of what we are inherently comfortable with in our South African churches are things that we find culturally acceptable. Our way of doing (and the value we place on) the Eucharist / Holy Communion, the use or lack of liturgical colours, the use or lack of candles/icons, the use of music/chanting/silence – has largely emerged from our Western historical tradition.

These cultural cues can act as a barrier to non-Western cultures as they seek to understand the good news about Jesus.  He gave a few examples of people from a Hindu background.  Hindu women wear a dot on their forehead, red if you’re married, black if you’re single, nothing if you’re widowed. Early missionaries to India insisted that these dots be removed from converts because they also had a Hindu religious meaning.  So Christian women walked around as “widows”.  What’s more, insisting on the use of white for a wedding dress added to the confusing social signals. Brides traditionally wore red.  Widows wore white.  Widows for Christ!

It struck me that Kumeran is trying to bring home the message of Jesus in a way that Hindus will understand.  He holds onto the core of the Gospel while playing with the peripherals. It’s a fine line between the core and the periphery: too little core and you’re left with an empty gospel; an inflexible or irrelevant periphery and people of other cultures have a hard time finding a home with Jesus.

I am challenged to rethink things of the core and things of the periphery.  How does this play out in my own church? How are young people experiencing church culture?   Are they getting stuck on the periphery and never getting to the core of who Jesus is?  What other cultures don’t resonate with my church culture? How do we need to adapt?  How do we bring people Home?  No answers yet.