Gospel & Culture blog
My work as a translation consultant brought me to a rural village in Vanuatu. The Anglican congregation meets under a structure of bamboo and thatch, with barbed wire strung along the posts to keep pigs and cows out. The priest wears a robe, stole and cross necklace. It is evident that his faith is sincere and that he’s connecting with God. As he lifts up the silver chalice and recites the liturgy, it occurs to me: This pacific island congregation is symbolically linked with Anglican congregations around the world by observing the mass the same way it is done all over the world; but are the people in this simple village church aware of the centuries of debate about the nature of the elements in the Eucharist? They identify with the name ‘Anglican’ but are they partakers of the long-standing tension between Roman Catholicism and the Protestantism? When they sing ‘And Can it Be’ in pidgin English, are they nostalgic about with massive pipe organs in places like Westminster Abbey; and what else do they know of Charles Wesley’s legacy? Is Christianity, for them, a legacy of two thousand years’ of pondering paradoxes like predestination and freewill, or salvation by works or faith? What is the value, for them, of Luther’s 95 theses? Of five point Calvinism? Or of the Wesleyan quadrilateral?
The village catechist, Norm, had spent the last four years walking twenty miles, (and crossing four language boundaries along the way) to receive training at a biblically-grounded theological institute. After ordination, he returned to reach his village for Christ. When Norm puts on the stole, he is mindful of apostolic succession down through the centuries. When he holds up the silver chalice, he thinks of the church of God universal. As he labors at producing a vernacular Bible translation, he identifies himself with Wycliffe, Tyndale and Luther. However, his new congregation is largely unfamiliar with this legacy. Their experience of Christianity is their cousin or uncle Norman, holding a clear plastic cup of wine, and reciting portions of “God’s Talk” in their own language. To them, and many in remote village churches, Christianity is about the here and now, not a world religion with a two-thousand-year legacy.
Has the Christian identity of such villagers been short-changed or watered down because of this? Should missionaries endeavor to transmit some of the rich legacy of Christendom along with the gospel, if that is even possible? Many missiologists would argue that we’re called to make disciples, not to transmit a cultural legacy, no matter how rich it may be. In fact, it is precisely because of their isolation that these rural villages and islands have a unique opportunity for contextual theology. True, they are not inheriting the rich past of Christendom, but neither are they inheriting the schismatic or more sordid parts of Christian history. Their corporate memory of the church has neither cathedrals nor crusades; neither Cartesian philosophy nor colonial domination; neither creeds nor Christological controversies. Their church is not set in the context of 1300 years of tensions between Islam and Christianity nor in the more recent debate over church and state. Instead, the church is embodied by people like Norm, by the book he’s translating, by the songs he has taught them, and by the God to whom he is trying to win their allegiance.
Despite (justified) criticisms that nineteenth and early twentieth century missionaries were not contextual enough in their missiology, many communities took this gospel, as foreign as it was, and interpreted it as uniquely their own. They went around naming their rivers the Jordan and their lakes Galilee; villages were called Nazareth and Samaria; high points must have been where the ark landed; certain stone formations were identified with the stone Moses struck in the desert, or where David fought Goliath. This makes evangelicals leery because of historical inaccuracy; but it’s also a sign that the villagers see the Bible as God’s message for their own time and place- not something from 10,000 miles and two millennia away.
There may be something lost, if members of the small Anglican congregation see Norm more as “cousin” or “brother” than as “apostolic successor” or “ordained priest.” Are they missing out on something because they have not worked out a theology of the Eucharist? I think they’ll work out these things in their own time. For now, their “clean slate” acceptance of Norm’s church plant is evident of the miracle of indigenous church growth. In Norm and his bamboo-and-thatch church we see a picture of a self-multiplying, self-funding, and self-governing church.
But what most concerns me about indigenous churches that have not had their own Reformation is that they may lack the mind-boggling paradigm shift that salvation is a free gift. It seems that the notion that you must earn salvation is "common sense" all over the world, and it takes churches centuries sometimes (in the West, it took 1500 years) to learn the lesson that it is impossible to please God with good works. Salvation is free. That's why we all need a Reformation.
Norman’s village has a way to go before it’s a strong church community. There were only four men and two women in the service the day I visited. There is only one elder in the church. They are only beginning to understand what it means to be a disciple. And they have their own controversies to solve and theological problems to sort out. Their church may not have inherited America’s bitter disagreements about traditional or contemporary music; but they are trying to decide on such issues as whether elders can drink kava, or whether Christians can use the services of a clairvoyant.
We can be sure that the solutions they come up with will be a relevant Christianity for them. As they join in globalization, they may not share the past two millennia of Christendom with us, but their future will involve going beyond their islands, joining in complicated global debates, and benefiting from the worldwide Church of Christ.
About the only thing people know Saint Patrick anymore is that he drove off all the snakes from the island. That was an easy feat for him, because there weren't any to begin with. I can relate to this, because I lived on another green island where there were no snakes-- it would be kind of hard for the snakes to make it across the channel from Europe. But Patrick's accomplishments were actually far more significant than that (and maybe even harder to believe).
Saint Patrick's life played out like an action film, and in fact, his life story was told in a major motion picture by Fox family films; and you can watch for free on youtube. Patrick was born around the year 389 in Britain. Patrick reports in his Confessions that as a teenager, he was capture by Celts and sold into slavery to an Irish farmer. Later, he was sent on a ship to France to take up work feeding dogs. He given his freedom there and returned to Britain. Back in Britain, Patrick had a call in his dreams to return to Ireland and proclaim the gospel, much like the Apostle Paul experienced the Macedonians calling him to come to their land (Acts 16:6-10).
Once in Ireland, Patrick began focusing on reaching tribal leaders first. This became a long-standing missiological strategy of focusing on elites (though other missionaries deliberately focused on the masses). Patrick's mission strategy was incarnational, attending to issues of justice. He freed numerous slaves. He planted around 200 churches, and baptized between 100,000 and 200,000 people. Many of these folks remained animistic after conversion. So in a twist of irony, the Celts who dragged Patrick to Ireland as a slave were actually forging the way for the conversion of the island. As Joseph later told his brothers, who sold him into slavery in Egypt, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" (Gen 50:20, NIV).
—Some of these Celts became monks (then separate from Roman Catholicism). These monks went out as missionaries over the next few centuries to Britain, whose churches had been destroyed by Saxons after the Roman Empire disintegrated. Eventually they turned the island of Iona into a missionary sending base. So Celtic Christianity became a hub of literacy, Christian thought, and education. Patrick's missiology was not a "mission station" mentality; it was a strategy of raising up leaders from the start, who would multiply church growth.
Did Patrick really use the three leaf shamrock to illustrate the Trinity? Does that sort of analogy lead to heresy? Or are shamrocks a "redemptive analogy" that God place specially in Ireland to reflect his Triune nature? I don't know- but the legend of Patrick's shamrock illustration does bring to light how missionaries have been contextualizing the gospel for centuries.
For the best scholarly treatment of St Patrick, I would direct you to Ed Smither's paper on Patrick: Bishop, Missionary, Monk, or All of the above?
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor