Thursday, March 17, 2005

Bridge or Barrier to God?

Is it possible that the church is sometimes an obstacle to world evangelism?

The church (small “c” referring to the local body of believers) is both a bridge and a barrier throughout the world. I’ve seen it in every country in which I’ve had the privilege of working. The primary purpose of the church is equipping believers for ministry and for their spiritual growth (Ephesians 4:12); yet in many places, it has taken on the role of gatekeeper into the Kingdom. Becoming a follower of Christ seems no longer to be a matter of faith but a matter of taking on the identity of the Christian culture as defined by the local assembly making the rules. Let me explain:

Several years ago in Kenya, some new believers asked me if it was okay for them to use the drum in their worship. The early missionaries, as well as many churches in that area, believed that it was inappropriate since the tribe used the drum in their festivals. Witch doctors also used it. I always thought the indigenous form of singing was much more appropriate than singing the Swahili translation of “How Firm a Foundation,” so I told them using a drum was a non-issue.

Almost every new believer wanted to ask me questions about behavioral issues for Christians—issues with questions such as: was it okay to baptize a man who had ten wives; could they continue to drink blood as a part of their diet; should they cover their naked bodies? While all of these subjects are interesting and perhaps worthy of discussion, I have always wondered about the message we were sending to those without Christ? If behavior was what the lost world focused on in terms of becoming a Christian, was our message of faith hindered by our stance on works? As they relate to salvation, do these issues even matter?

Today the trend in the North American church is to support nationals; however, I contend that, because of the Christian culture among nationals, they are more often than not an obstacle to the lost. Can a Sikh believer still wear his turban after salvation? Can a Hindu woman continue to wear a “bindi” (dot on her forehead)? Can a Buddhist still revere his ancestors? Many national churches forbid such behavior—not because they understand the cultural practices, but because they are bound by the culture of a faith that dictates particulars which they believe are biblical principles.

In the West we have fought the cultural behavior war for years. Can a Christian go to movies (doesn’t seem to be a much of an issue these days), have a beer, or get a tattoo? In ancient times, it was the issue of eating pork or being circumcised. In some churches in Russia, a woman cannot come into the assembly without a head covering; and in Viet Nam, one must wear a white shirt if he is going to speak to the congregation. Some Indian Christians greet everyone with “Praise the Lord,” while some won’t shake the hand of a non-believer lest they be defiled.

I have a friend who is 25 years my junior and who became a Christian through the witness of his friends at a university. He had resisted the church and would never darken its door to hear the gospel. Soon after his conversion, his friends gathered in a park, smoked cigars, and lifted their glasses of bourbon in celebration of one who became a follower of Christ. He’s now a missionary, and, yes, he still drinks bourbon. While he is careful not to offend the brethren, his witness among those who are not yet followers is strong.

My generation has a difficult time with such a story, but post-modern Christians don’t seem to blur the lines between the issues of salvation and perceived proper behavior. As a friend of sinners, I wonder if Jesus lifted a glass of wine; He certainly was accused of associating with those who did (Lk. 7:33,34).

In the country where I live, which has a Christian population of less than two percent and in five years is projected to be less, it’s important that we train nationals to think beyond the culture of their faith. It’s true that every believer is to be a new creature in Christ, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that being a believer mandates giving up one’s cultural heritage. Training nationals goes beyond just exegeting the Scriptures; it also means exegeting the context. Until the church understands that, they will continue to be more of a barrier than a bridge to the Good News of Christ.