Last Spring, I had the daunting task of preparing lessons for a week of camp for 20 Lakota Sioux teens. Most of these young people had been to our camp once or twice. I had visited their communities, schools, and some of their homes. Most were un-churched. Most were angry. Most were familiar with drug and alcohol use (and abuse). Many had already dropped out of school. Some, like Tyshell (15 year old girl) were not shy about asking you buy them chewing tobacco. And many had contemplated suicide. So, where was I to begin to with these teens?
Obviously, teaching them theological concepts like sanctification and justification, or deeper truths like the atonement or human depravity would not be a good place to start. So, how does one begin to share eternal and life-giving truths of Scripture with a group so steeped in despair and brokenness? Here was my dilemma: “to decide how the eschatological values of Christian existence can meaningfully inform the common life of wider, non-Christian society.” In other words, how could I translate complicated theological concepts into teenage Lakota culture. Thankfully, Bevans provides a way forward: “But as revelation has come to be conceived in terms of a personal self-offer of God’s very self to men and women, an offer of friendship and loving relationship, the question must inevitably be asked whether such an offer could be made in any way except in terms that men and women could understand.” What Bevan suggests is to provide–not biblical concepts per se—but rather a glimpse of different story, a story of God’s graceful offer of friendship, given in a language and form they would understand, as Jesus did for his audience through parable.
With much prayer and days of seeking to imagine life through eyes of these kids, I created a weeklong program that I simply called, “What if…” This was an attempt to reframe their ideas about themselves and about God by using specific Bible stories to create a space where they might begin to dialogue with and open to the message and person of Jesus. For instance, we asked: “What if God really did created the universe?” “What if God did create you, and you aren’t just a random mistake?” “What if God really is like the father in the Prodigal Son story?” “What if God really did come to earth?” Each one of these “What ifs” allowed serious discussion of their views on important and personal issues (God, existence, self, love, forgiveness), but it also suggested ways to reframe their thinking, to cause them to think differently not only about God but especially about themselves, their lives, and a possible hopeful future. This process was described by Hartley as “not about coming to a fixed conclusion; it is rather more about opening texts to new possibilities in dialogue with new situations.” The result of this process was stunning, as our discussion that week challenged many dangerous and destructive presumptions that these young people had about themselves, about God and about Christianity. They learned not so much facts, but they learned about someone who could relate to and speak into their lives and situation.
This approach follows Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi, which states: “what matters is to evangelize human culture and cultures…always taking the person as one’s starting-point and always coming back to the relationships of people among themselves and with God.” For many, the process of staring with “the person” on the surface seems somewhat sacrilegious or unbiblical, even heretical, especially coming from a tradition that (at least in the systemic theology) starts all discussions with God first…if not the Bible. Such an approach could be disconcerting, because there are dangers. “There is no doubt that when a theologian takes context seriously, he or she can fall into the danger of taking these realities more seriously than the Judaeo-Christian tradition as expressed in scripture and church tradition.” But, there is another danger, which has (in my mind) been a greater detriment to the spread of the gospel and that “is a theology that speaks to no one, that has no power because it has no real audience.”  The process of contextual theology is a bottom-up approach, which “often takes ‘the world’s agenda’, or parts of it, as its own agenda, and seeks to offer distinctive and constructive insights from the treasury of faith…” The key of this approach is a deeply sensitive and personal understanding of the needs and concerns of people that provides the questions and application for Scripture and tradition. This then prevents evangelism being about imposing answers and solutions to non-existent concerns.
From a missionary perspective, this doesn’t seem so outlandish. In most mission work there is no other route possible than to come to terms with the culture and situation of the very people that you are seeking to reach. To not do so brings to mind images of medieval knights in full armor pontificating to naked Pacific islanders the merits of transubstantiation, when these natives have no concept of either bread or wine to begin with. The imposing on others “eternal truths” ultimately misses the mark on two accounts. First, it misses what the gospel is all about. Newbigin suggests: ”revelation, the heart of which is the gospel, is not essentially the ‘disclosure of eternal truths’ but the ‘total fact of Christ.” Knowing it is a “who” we are sharing (and not what), along with “whom” we are sharing (real people living real lives) are both essential for transmitting the gospel. Second, by seeing Scripture through their eyes, new and convicting insights emerge from familiar Bible stories that will constantly shake-up one’s thinking and theology.
For much of my ministry – be it to college students, or to Lakota children, or Romanian orphans—I have constantly sought ways to help people know Jesus right where they are at. Listening to and intimately participating in their lives, provided an awareness of their “agenda” in which the message of the gospel had to resonate. Is this not simply the way cultivate good soil to plant the seed? If the message isn’t speaking to the very real hurts and despair, the doubts and dreams of real people right where they were at, then my evangelism becomes a program and an imposition, not a genuine act of incarnational compassion.
Christopher D. Marshall, “Parables as Paradigms for Public Theology,” in The Bible, Justice, and Public Theology, editor David J. Neville (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014), 32.
Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013), 14.
Helen-Ann Hartley, “’Beyond Reasonable Doubt’? An Exploration of the Hermenutics of Engagement for Justice,” in The Bible, Justice, and Public Theology, editor David J. Neville (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014), 100.
 Bevans, 15.
 Ibid., 24.
 Stephen Garner, “Public Theology Through Popular Culture,” in The Bible, Justice, and Public Theology, editor David J. Neville (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014), 176.