Columnists > Soul Food

Strange foreign customs

The prayer and musings of a perplexed pastor

Issue: "There they go again," June 5, 1999

Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in perplexity, for he thinketh he hath not yet seen thy salvation, and if this be it, he thinketh he cannot adjust."

I wrote that "prayer" after a particularly difficult cross-cultural experience. It happened in a foreign country, but it was not the culture of that country which challenged me. It was the culture of late 20th-century American evangelicalism exported to that country that created a cultural barrier I could not cross. I had attended a dance during which I witnessed dancers jitterbugging to the lyrics of a song blaring over speakers: "Get up, get up, get up, get up, get up in Jesus' name!"

My perplexity rose from "cognitive dissonance"-the incompatibility between what I witnessed at the "evangelistic dance" and what I know were the mission methods of the greatest of all evangelists-the Apostle Paul. It is not that I oppose all dancing. Although I think that some forms of what passes for dancing today are unambiguously and intentionally erotic, I believe that folk and recreational dancing are innocent enough. But when I read in Acts how Paul evangelized and planted churches, I can't imagine his using-in, say, Thessalonica or Corinth-the first-century equivalent of country line dancing as a means to attract unbelievers and the context in which to make his preliminary presentation of the gospel. I am convinced that the Apostle who wrote, "in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God" (2 Corinthians 2:17), would have rejected such a method as trivializing or obscuring his message.

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When I returned home from my overseas experience, one of my church members handed me a brochure announcing the start of a new congregation belonging to one of the traditional "holiness" denominations. The brochure is filled with cute pictures of a little child. It promises those who come that they will "find people just like you," "hear positive practical messages," experience "upbeat contemporary music in a relaxed atmosphere," and, most important, "be loved" and "be accepted." Give the brochure's author credit. It is a textbook "church growth movement" approach to the unchurched.

But, if you believe Paul sets the church-planting pattern that we should follow (which I do), this brochure and the gospel jitterbug are almost totally disconnected from his pattern. What would Paul say about the people you might meet in one of the congregations he founded? "You may find a lot of people very unlike you because Christ has torn down the dividing barriers. You may find Jews and gentiles, slaves and freemen, men and women-all brought near to God and to one another by the cross."

What might the Apostle say about his message? "I never preached a positive, practical message in my life. I'm not interested in telling you how to be a better friend or to get more out of life. I preach the sin-caused human predicament. I preach the saving acts of God in Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension. I preach doctrines, especially justification by faith. My ethic is to declare the indicative (what you are by union with Christ) and then give the imperative (what you must be and do as a result)."

And what about music? "We sing the Old Testament psalms to which we added New Testament songs strong on doctrine. We sing from our hearts to praise God and to build each other up in the faith."

But what about love and acceptance? "I preach God's unconditional love and his total acceptance of all those who believe the gospel, but his rejection and condemnation of all who continue in rebellion. I teach Christians to love and accept each other in Christ, but not to the exclusion of mutual accountability."

It has frequently been observed that evangelicalism today is a mile wide and an inch deep. That kind of evangelicalism is not worth preserving into a new century or propagating in another culture. It cannot stand up under the pressure of "trouble or persecution because of the word" that may result when a country's economy collapses or its unity is destroyed by civil war. Nor can it stand up to "the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth" that are so characteristic of prosperous America. We need to re-dig the channel even at the cost, if necessary, of temporarily narrowing the river, so that the gospel message can flow freely using gospel methods. There is no other way to do that than by adopting Paul's practice: "We do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Corinthians 4:2).

William H. Smith
William H. Smith


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