DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Theology and Western Contextualism

Written by: on May 11, 2017

A few years ago I was invited to speak at a pastor’s conference in Rwanda.  Hundreds of pastors attended from the Congo, Tanzania, Uganda and of course Rwanda.  I had prepared a topic that was theological.  I spoke on the role of the Holy Spirit in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.  After all, most of the pastors that would be ministered to were uneducated, and I felt that they probably had a hunger to learn about the word of God.  Having ministered in various parts of the world, I also try my best not to contextualize my teaching according to a Western context.

I was the last speaker that day, and I was shocked by what preceded me. All three pastors before me spoke on how to grow a church, and all of them did it according to a Western context.  One pastor talked about the importance of follow up and how the pastors need to get their people to fill out cards, so cookies can be taken to their parishioners.  Another pastor told those in the room that they should offer a coffee cup to first time guests.  I was shocked and embarrassed.  At the end of the session, we offered opportunities for questions.  To the panel’s surprise, not one question was about how to grow a church.  Every question pertained to doctrine, theology and the word of God and how to feed their congregations.  For the most part, all the questions were directed at me.

When we got back in the van to head to our hotel, every pastor on the trip griped and complained at how ignorant these pastors were.  They did not understand why none of these pastors cared about church growth.  The missionary stated, “I am going to tell them that the next conference I put on will be only abut church growth.  If they are interested in that, then I am going to tell them to stay at home.”  My response was quite different, “Instead of focusing on church growth, maybe we need to see what they need, and meet that need.”  Sadly, I was shot down by the whole group.

SUMMARY

In Thomas Oden’s terrific work entitled How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, he discusses how long before Europe and the West, the Gospel was formed in the great continent in Africa.  In his view, “The Christians to the south of the Mediterranean were teaching the Christians to the north.  Africans were informing and instructing and educating the very best of Syriac, Cappadocian, and Greco-Roman teachers.”[1] In other words, our doctrinal foundations are spawned by the West, but by Africa. He goes onto explain how this was the case and how we can recover the orthodoxy that so richly flowed from the continent.

ANALYSIS

Often times, the West believes that because of our education, wealth and structures that our way to do church is simply the only way to do church. As I read Oden, I could not help but think that we have been overwrought with Western context in foreign fields. How often do Western missionaries come into the land to become the great white hope?  While the West does have a lot to offer, there have been quite a few missteps as well.  While there is not time for a long discussion on this topic, the West brought about institutional religion where the sacred and secular were separated (Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come).  This is a battle that is still being fought today, and often times we bring this context into the mission field and it is often times a tragedy.

Over the last year and a half, I have been able to shape our church’s mission’s strategy.  Primarily, we partner with mission endeavors that places a high priority in training nationals to reach their people within their context.  I believe this is the strategy to reach every tribe and every nation.  Oden’s work just reaffirms that position, and as a pastor, I must firmly cling to the word and the gospel and not get distracted by the method.  After all, within the next twenty years, there will be more Christians in Asia and the Global south than there are in Europe and America, so we need to pass on a faith that will be sound and not methodology.

[1] Oden, 28

About the Author

mm

Jason Kennedy

I am a pastor of a thriving church in Grapevine, Texas. With two little girls (5,8), and a wife that is a medical doctor (family practice), life is non-stop.

14 responses to “Theology and Western Contextualism”

  1. mm Phil Goldsberry says:

    Jason:
    Your story is heart-breaking. Oden seems to reverse the truth on a Westernized myth that the rest of the world follows suit with us.

    What do you think it will take for that group of pastor’s to go back to their African Christianity roots? Did you see any evidence of Oden’s work while you were there?

    Phil

    • Jason Kennedy says:

      Phil,

      Interesting questions. I think some of our (AG) missional strategies are working. At the core, the conference I was at did not work. Many of the churches that I spoke at in Africa were distinctly African.
      However, the more we there are organizations (like I was briefly a part of) the more danger of overly contextualizing. We (pastors and missionary organizations) keep the main thing (doctrine and theology) at the center of ministry on the field. How that gets played out within the local context is up to the local context.

  2. mm Marc Andresen says:

    Jason,

    Given what Oden writes, and your experience, what do you see as the most valuable lessons we can learn from the African pastors? When you are with them, in what areas do you feel like you’re the one going to school?

    • Jason Kennedy says:

      Marc,

      Great questions. I think the most valuable lessons that can be learned is their hunger for doctrine (at least in this context). These guys truly have a desire for two things: an understanding of God’s word and the power God within their services.

      The lessons that I learn really has to do with passion. The deep connection spiritually they have in worship is awe-inspiring. I truly think they do not see a separation between the sacred and the secular in life. Faith is an active part of their life everywhere….it is not institutionalized.
      Thanks,

      • mm Marc Andresen says:

        Jason, my 4 trips to Uganda and 2 trips to Liberia lead me to agree with you 100%. My faith is always built and deepened in Africa.

  3. mm Garfield Harvey says:

    Jason,
    Great post. Your story reminded me of the learning curve of my ministry. When I lived in Jamaica, we looked to America for all our answers regarding church growth because there were only two bible colleges. However, as more Bible colleges were established, people became less intrigued about numerical growth. After my immigration to the United States, the natives started rejecting me and the information I had to offer because they felt the American context devalued what they had to offer. As you suggested, we need to shift from our Westernized mindset and become intentional for theological inclusion. Oden does a fabulous job of convicting and challenging our theological perspective in how we perceive and appreciate the significance of African theology.

    Garfield

  4. Great stories Jason. Do you see AG in the U.S. as open to learning from your African brothers and sisters? What would that look like?

    • Jason Kennedy says:

      I think so….especially those on the mission field because they see what the indigenous population offers. I think quite a few of our missionaries use some of the locals to help their ministry. There are broad thoughts we could learn from the Africans….ie…community, spirituality, passion…etc…but just like us trying to overly contextualize in their culture, they would probably do the same.
      Jason

  5. Claire Appiah says:

    Jason,
    What a pathetic group of pastors you had to deal with at the Rwandan conference. Those pastors are way off their Christian moorings. They don’t get it. If they would fulfill their God ordained moral obligations as church leaders, and feed the people the spiritual food they are craving, the churches would be overflowing. I am glad you stood your ground despite the vociferous opposition. We must follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and not be concerned about going along to get along, or be focused on church growth rather than the gospel message.

    • Jason Kennedy says:

      Thanks Claire. This is why I stepped off the board. I take Jesus’ charge to Peter (Feed my sheep) very seriously in every context. Jason

  6. mm Rose Anding says:

    Thanks Jason for sharing your experience in your blog. It was interesting how all the leaders responded at the conference. The question that came to mind. Are Pastors and members responsible for growth of the body of Christ?

    Jesus used an analogy from farming to explain the manner in which the kingdom of God grows (Mark 4:26-29). Once the farmer plants the seed, it grows by itself. Although fruit comes through the miracle created within the seed, the farmer has to work hard to prepare the ground for productivity.

    So, it is with church growth. The apostle Paul explained that he had planted churches, Apollos had watered, but it was God who gave the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6). So how do Christians plant and water so God’s kingdom can grow?
    It great to share with you. Thanks Rose Maria

    • Jason Kennedy says:

      Rose, you are absolutely right. Often times we mistake church methodology for actual “spiritual food.” I think the planting and watering for church growth is to feed God’s people and let him bring the increase.
      Jason

  7. Jason,

    That has been my experience as I have traveled and been apart of foreign missions. To often Americans bring their agenda to the table instead of the gospel to the table. The reoccurrence and the “success” of the ministry that I have been apart of in Ireland is because of asking the same question you asked, what can we do to serve you? How can we serve others? What can we learn from others? I do believe the AG has some great missionaries that understand this concept but there are many pastors who have their own agenda when they go to “do” ministry. How can this conversation be had in the US? Thanks for your insight.

    Kevin

    • Jason Kennedy says:

      Kev,
      First, I think people have well-intentioned hearts. I think these guys in their own way had good intentions. I think the disconnect is when you have guys that are uneducated. We place too much value on size and growth in the US. So, many guys think that that is the only marker for success. It is a lack of training on our part in the US. I think we have to address in the AG the lack of education we have in our pulpits. It starts here first.
      Jason

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *